Sunday, September 8, 2019 “A Change in Status” Philemon 1:1-25

The message for Sunday, September 8, 2019, “A Change in Status” by Pastor Erik Goehner heard during the 8:00, 9:30 and 11:00AM Worship service.


A Change in Status                                  Philemon 1:1-25

I’m going to do something today that I have never done before during a sermon.  I am going to walk us through an entire book of the Bible.  Now, before you start to groan or before you start to panic that worship might go on much longer than usual, let me assure you that we will still keep things close to an hour.  The reason we can do this is because the book we are looking at is one of the shortest books in the Bible.  It is only twenty-five verses long.  It is the book of Philemon.  In fact, it is not really a book at all.  It is actually a letter written by Paul to one of the leaders in the early church.   Let’s take a look.

We see right away that Paul says he is a prisoner of Christ.  Later on in the letter he will talk about being imprisoned for the Gospel and at the end of the letter he will mention his fellow prisoners.  It seems clear then, that Paul is writing his letter from prison.  He is reaching out to Philemon, a leader who is hosting a church group in his home.  Paul seems to have a special connection to Philemon as someone he has mentored in the faith and nurtured in the role of leadership and hospitality at this house church.

Then Paul does what he often does at the beginning of a letter.  He greets those who will read or hear his letter and gives thanks to God for their ministry.  The difference in this letter, however, is that he is not addressing a whole community.  Instead, he is directly addressing this particular leader named Philemon.  He affirms the gifts that Philemon has and the good he has done.  He tells him, “I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you my brother.”

Paul is reminding Philemon of the impact he has had and what a difference it has made.  He is lifting up Philemon as someone who has done good and had integrity in his faith. Paul is reminding this leader he has mentored of his identity in Christ because Paul wants to ask something challenging of him.  In verse eight, Paul says he is going to make an appeal to Philemon on the basis of love.  Paul is making this special appeal on the behalf of a man named Onesimus who has become like a spiritual son to Paul.  Again in verse fourteen Paul talks about how he hopes Philemon will make a voluntary decision to a do a good deed in regard to this man—that it wouldn’t be something he would feel forced to do but would want to do, to live out the faith that Paul has taught him.

So who is this Onesimus?  Why is Paul making this appeal on his behalf? What is this good deed he wants Philemon to do in regard to this man? Why has Paul spent over half of his letter building up to this point where he is going ask something special of Philemon—something that it seems might be difficult for him to do?

We finally get the answer in verse fifteen and sixteen when Paul says, “Perhaps this is the reason he (Onesimus) was separated from you for awhile, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, [as] a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you.”   This is at the heart then of why Paul wrote this letter.  Onesimus is Philemon’s slave.  He either left or was sent by Philemon to serve Paul while Paul was in prison and Paul seems to have appreciated Onesimus so much he has come to develop a friendship with Onesimus  so that Paul no longer sees  him as a servant, but as a brother in Christ.  Paul is hoping that as he sends back Onesimus to his master that Philemon will have this same change of heart.

This isn’t a new idea for Paul.  In his letter to the Galatian church he writes that there is neither male or female, Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free because all are one in Christ.  In Jesus, Paul sees a radical new community being established where the normal social status and divisions of hierarchy don’t exist anymore.  He envisions a new community where people may be different, but they are all equal in the eyes of God.  If people are made one in this way through Christ, then they are also to be challenged to see one another in this same way.  Paul makes this personal in his letter to Philemon.  He is challenging Philemon to see Onesimus not as a slave, but as one who has been set free, not as a servant, but as a friend, not as a possession to be owned, but as a brother to be respected and loved.

Can you imagine what it must have felt like for Onesimus to have Paul advocate for him?  Can you imagine what it must have felt like for Onesimus to have his status changed in the eyes of Paul and for Paul to make this appeal to his owner to change his status as well?  It is hard for us who have grown up in freedom to realize just what a radical and powerful change this would have been for Onesimus, but perhaps we can imagine it in some small way.

Think for moment about a time in your life when you  had a change in status that may have given you more authority, more respect or more acceptance in the eyes of others.  Perhaps you went from the role of student to in some aspect becoming more of a teacher.  Perhaps you went from being an employee to being a boss or more of a manager. Perhaps you got a promotion, were recognized for volunteer work, or won an award.  Perhaps it was as simple as being welcomed into a new group of some kind that you had decided to join around a hobby or common interest.    What did it feel like to have that change in status?  What did it feel like to have that change in authority or respect or to have those new friendships and connections?

A time in my life when I experienced a change of status was when I got my first job out of college.  I had worked summer jobs for five years, but in each case I was clearly an employee who was told what to do and when.  The Fall after I graduated, however, I was hired at a school as a special education aide and a junior high boys basketball coach.  Although I was still an employee, I was given the freedom to develop a program for the student I worked with and sometimes I even  had authority over the whole class when the teacher had to leave early.   The other teachers saw me as a part of their team and gave me opportunities to work with other students.  I was especially given new authority in my role as coach.  I had the freedom to decide which players would be on the team, when we would have practice, how I would develop my players, who would go into the game and when they would go in.

It was one of the first times in my life that I also felt as if I was treated like an adult by other adults.  Because of the role of coach that I had been given, the parents respected my position and trusted me with their kids.  This in turn encouraged me to step up and take responsibility.  I did not take that trust lightly and came to be an advocate for my players.  When things happened in a game, I would talk to the referees on their behalf.  When I learned the uniforms they had were old and shabby, I went to the Superintendent and was given the budget to purchase new ones.

When we are given a new level of respect, authority, trust or freedom within our families, friends, work or community, it feels good.  It feels like people see us in a new way, like we have been given a new status that expands our sense of self-confidence and self-worth.  Multiply that feeling times ten and that is probably close to how Onesimus might have been feeling at the prospect of being set free from slavery.

So what happens to Onesimus?  Is he set free?  What does Philemon do?  Paul appeals to him again in verse seventeen saying if Philemon considers Paul his partner he will welcome Onesimus just as he would welcome Paul.  The letter ends with Paul telling Philemon that he hopes to come visit him. That’s it.  We don’t know what Philemon’s response was.  We don’t know what he decided.

While this can feel like we are left hanging, maybe that is the point.  For as we are left wondering what Philemon did, we might ask ourselves what would we have done?  And even more importantly, what will we do?  Will we continue to perpetuate unjust social hierarchies where some people are seen as less than others or will we welcome people into a new way of seeing the world where all are seen as brothers and sisters?

When we come to faith, we hear Jesus say to us, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.”   Through our baptism we have experienced a radical change in status and a new identity as a friend of God.  We have been given new freedom from guilt and sin and a new authority with the power to forgive the sins of others.  But with this new freedom and authority also comes a call to new responsibility especially for those of us who may have more resources or a greater voice in our community.  What will we do with our status?  How we will advocate for others? How will we welcome people like we would welcome Jesus?  How will we seek to elevate those who feel less than equal so that they too might know what it is like to be a brother or sister in Christ?

One way we can do this is to use our gift of citizenship to raise our voices to work for change in our nation for those who may not feel like they have a voice.  We are blessed in a representative democracy with the ability to appeal to our elected officials in order to influence them in the direction of taking care of the least of these in our midst—the poor, the hungry, the sick—so that they might feel a change in their status and be elevated to be included in the health of the community.

Bread for the World is an organization that we work with at Holy Trinity to help us raise our voices for those who are hungry.  It is a non-partisan organization that works for bi-partisan support for those in need.   Bread for the World in partnership with other groups have made a difference. Over the past several decades, the world—with a strong commitment from the United States—has made great progress toward ending hunger by promoting global nutrition programs. Hunger and poverty rates have been cut nearly in half during the past 30 years.  But 11% of the world’s population still remains hungry or malnourished.

You have an opportunity today to lift up your voice and advocate for others to keep this good work going. You can do this by writing a brief letter to help promote the on-going support of global nutrition programs.  This is an invitation for one way to help change the status of those in need.  There may be lots of other ways you could advocate for others as well. The point is that once we realize the change of status we have been given through Jesus Christ, we also experience a change of heart and a change of heart leads to a change in action.  Amen.

-Pastor Erik Goehner