WORSHIP August 28 2022 11:00 Traditional Worship Service
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Let’s set the stage here folks. Paul is writing to Philemon (Ful-ee-men), but not only to Philemon. Paul is writing to the Christ-following community that meets together in his house. These folks host Christ-followers regularly. Imagine it a little like this. It is their house of worship and prayer. Yet, in this house of worship and prayer – there are slaves. Whether enslaved by debt or by other reasons, they exist in this household. Maybe they are even serving the community as they come in to gather and eat, breaking bread. But these slaves aren’t allowed at the table. At least not that we know of. And even if they were, they are still slaves. They are less than. They are non-human. Objects to be used to serve the haves. These have-nots are powerless.
What I love about the beginning of this letter is how Paul fluffs Philemon and this house-church community up. He pats them on the back. “Oh, I give so much thanks for everything you do, for your faith!” He encourages them, tells them he gives thanks for all their love. I wonder if this is part of what he has to do so that he can bend their ear a little easier. Everyone likes to be patted on the back a little before they’re about to be told they’ve done something wrong.
So, what have they done wrong? Onesimus was a slave in this house. We do not know what role he played, what jobs he had. What we do know is that he has run away. If a slave ran away, you were supposed to send them back. It was a crime not to. And this is where things get tricky in our story.
We would think that Paul would refrain. We would think that Paul wouldn’t be sending Onesimus back, that he would suffer the consequences for not having done so. We would think Paul would be better than that, that he would be a part of disrupting this broken system of slavery. I really struggled with this because Paul, in sending Onesimus back, is asking the abused – Onesimus – to be reconciled with his abuser – Philemon. That makes me feel all kinds of icky and gross.
Yet at the same time, we have to acknowledge that Paul isn’t just sending Onesimus back to the same situation he ran away from. Paul is using his power and influence to call upon Philemon and this house to no longer see and abuse Onesimus as a slave, but instead, to see him, treat him, love him, as a sibling in Christ. Paul is calling upon them to see Onesimus as beloved. Not a subordinate. Paul is calling for reconciliation. He is calling for a change in this broken system, to abolish the practice of slavery, and for Philemon to widen the table – to make room, to change the status quo in his household, in his community.
Balancing all this hand in hand: while I’m not 100% on board with Paul’s process, I am on board with justice and reconciliation. I am on board with changing the status quo and widening the table. I am on board with asking the question, “What power do I have in a situation to do some good, and how can I go about doing that in a way that listens, and takes the concerns of my neighbor into highest account.”
“I am sending him, who is my very heart, back to you.” That’s what Paul says. Onesimus is his very heart – a sibling in Christ. Not a slave. Not less than. Paul even calls himself a parent to Onesimus. He sees him, lovingly, as his child. And when that is the truth, your heart aches for that human being. You would do anything for them.
These chains of injustice must be broken. This community in Christ cannot exist in its fullest form if there are chains around the necks of our neighbors.
If we are naive enough to believe that those chains no longer exist in our society today, that they are a thing of the past, we need to reassess. We need to read the news. We need to listen to the stories of our neighbors about the chains of human trafficking, the chains of debt slavery – the most common form of modern day slavery. And I know these are a little hard to understand or envision if you’ve never personally come in contact with them, but if we look around, we see varying forms of chains everywhere. They come in the form of telling someone that they just need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. They come in the form of when we look at someone in need and make negative assumptions about who they are.
Paul says, “I am sending you my heart.” When we look around, do we see one another as our own heart? Because to be a Christian, to be a Christ-follower isn’t about self-gratification. It is not about this idea that if we believe hard enough, pray long enough, that God will give us everything we want, which is a pretty individualistic view of Christianity considering Jesus calls us to live in community and share everything in common.
And we can hold all the Bible studies, all the worship, all the prayer time we want. All of that is good and helpful and beautiful. But if our neighbors are in chains, then something is missing in our community. We cannot be a Christian community, Christ-followers, in the fullest sense, if we are not seeking justice; if we are not constantly developing and growing in love.
Now, Paul, he says to Philemon later in the letter – “I trust that you’re going to do all this.” Paul’s like, “I’m not sending Onesimus back to you for you to throw him into the same situation he was in. I’m trusting that the way you live, the way you love is going to change.” Paul follows that up with, “Oh, by the way, make up a room for me, because I’m planning to come visit.” Now this just cracks me up. Paul’s not just trusting that it’s going to happen. He’s going to show up and expect it. Paul is going to hold this community accountable. Not for the sake of judgment, but for the sake of love. He wants to see this community breaking the systems of oppression, living out the love of Jesus.
Last week, I asked you to think about who you need to run to. This week, the question isn’t too dissimilar. Just as Onesimus is Paul’s own heart, I wonder, who is your own heart? How can we widen our table? Where can we use our power to help break the chains of injustice and begin making shifts in the ways we live and move and be in the world for the sake of love?