A New Identity

Sunday, September 8
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
A New Identity

Weekly Prayer
Source of life and blessing, of garden, orchard, field, root us in obedience to you and nourish us by your ever-flowing Spirit, that, perceiving only the good we might do, our lives may be fruitful, our labor productive, and our service useful, in communion with Jesus, our brother. Amen.

Focus Scripture
Philemon 1-21

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love – and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

All Readings For This Sunday
Jeremiah 18:1-11 with Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 or
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 with Psalm 1 and
Philemon 1-21 and
Luke 14:25-33

Focus Questions

1. What challenges around privilege lie in this text for us, personally and communally?

2. How deeply embedded are our assumptions and sense of place, in our daily lives and in the global context?

3. How does a radical change in relationship that eliminates privilege and advantage feel to those involved, on both sides?

4. What discomfort lies between-the-lines for us as Christians shining the light of the gospel on our culture and on our lives?

5. How do we lovingly and sensitively call one another to faithfulness, as Paul exhorted his beloved friend Philemon?

Reflection by Kate Huey

As usual, the biblical scholars disagree about this passage from Scripture, a letter from Paul to a wealthy church leader named Philemon about the return of his runaway slave, Onesimus. At the very least, Paul’s message sheds light on the tension that occurs when we shine the light of the gospel on our culture and, intentionally or not, expose its injustices. Even if Paul is not asking Philemon to free Onesimus, we can read between the lines and sense the discomfort that arises when we relate to one another as “brothers and sisters” in Christ, but somehow, at the same time, accommodate gross inequities in social position. Maybe it’s uncomfortable, but surely it’s a good and appropriate kind of discomfort, the kind of discomfort that unsettles and eventually dislodges injustice from its entrenched places of power and privilege.

One can see that the gospel has the power to cause all sorts of problems between friends and family, colleagues and neighbors, and even between church members, if we really take it to heart. Perhaps Paul anticipated trouble when he was writing this letter, because most scholars seem to agree that it’s masterfully written to avoid offense; instead, Paul encourages and even gently cajoles a church leader to do the right thing. From our 21st-century vantage point, we might be tempted to think that these first-century Christians were simply less enlightened about such things than we are. After all, slavery was common in those days, an ordinary and accepted part of life. We might assume that they never even thought about it.

Rooted in resistance

However, in Paul’s Jewish roots are the beginnings of resistance to this great evil. His own people had once been slaves, so it was not permissible in his faith to have Jewish slaves for life, and there were legal provisions for their release. Ironically, life was so harsh in the Greco-Roman world that being a slave was often the only alternative to starving to death, and there was at least the hope of being free one day. Robert A. J. Gagnon’s historical perspective on slavery in that time, however, does not shy away from reading a prophetic message in Paul’s words. Gagnon sees in this missive a call to Philemon to free Onesimus because it’s the right thing to do, not just for his own spiritual welfare but for that of his church community as well. Writing to the church (or as we might say in this day of email, “cc-ing” the church), Paul makes this a question for the whole community, not just a personal matter between two friends, with Onesimus waiting for a verdict.  

It seems obvious that, to Paul, this is a life-and-death matter. (If it weren’t such a serious subject, the reader might be tempted to laugh when Paul “innocently” says, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self”!) In fact, Paul even suggests that what his friend does to the slave, he does to Paul himself (v.17). He also offers to pay any costs Philemon may incur. We’re reminded of those great people, those great saints, who have stood in for slaves, captives, and condemned people: saints like Maximilian Kolbe, who took the place of a man condemned to death in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Paul may not have become a slave, but he wanted Philemon to look at Onesimus, and to see Paul. Could it be that Paul is calling his readers (including us today) to see every human being through the lens of the gospel message of freedom and dignity, to shine the light of the gospel on every situation and then to listen for how God is still speaking about every cultural practice and in every moral question? 

What is Paul really trying to say? 

On the other hand (remember, scholars don’t agree on what is happening here), Lisa Davison argues persuasively that Paul is not at all requesting that Philemon set Onesimus free but instead is asking that Philemon send the slave back to him. Philemon, after all, owes Paul, who hopes that his friend will give up his slave willingly, but that he will do it whether he wants to or not. So Paul lays “a guilt trip” on Philemon, Davison says, and “plays the ‘age card’ and the ‘suffering servant card'” to get his slave back. Like many others, Davison recognizes our contemporary discomfort at Paul’s lack of judgment on the practice of slavery itself, but reminds us that Paul was a product of his times, living in a world in which slavery was not only “common,” but “almost a necessary evil.” 

No matter which scholars are correct (and we of course will never know exactly what was in the heart of Paul about this question, but can only read between the lines), a lively and important conversation can be prompted in the church after reading this little letter from one good Christian to another, almost two thousand years ago. For example, as John Dominic Crossan points out, this was not a cultural-political-legal question about slavery in the ancient world of Rome, but a spiritual one for followers of Jesus who embraced the teaching of Paul in Galatians 3:28, the baptismal formula that baptism abolishes all those old distinctions: “Could the Christian master Philemon own the Christian slave Onesimus?” (Crossan’s book, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, provides particularly helpful background on this text, as does his book with Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom).

What about our world today?

We might consider then what practices, customs, and traditions would fall before the power of the gospel, no matter how comfortable we are with them because they are, after all, part of the culture in which we live. Slowly (much too slowly, for sure) and inexorably, it became clear to Christians, for example, that the gospel made owning another human being an offense before God, no matter how skillfully “good Christians,” church-going Christians, relied on biblical references that seemed to accept slavery.

Whenever I lead a tour of our national offices here in Cleveland, one of the highlights is always time spent in the Amistad Chapel. This beautiful worship space is named after the chapter in the life of our church when our Congregationalist forebears stood up for the captives of the slave ship, La Amistad, after those captives were able to rebel and make their way up north, to Connecticut. One day, the tour groups included pastors from our local churches as well as visitors from the World Council of Churches. As we stood around the table shaped like a captain’s wheel, two pastors in the first group shared how deeply moved they were when they visited Ghana and the historic sites there, where captives were shipped off to America in slavery, and now they stood in a place that remembered not only the ordeal of those captives but also the bold and courageous witness on their behalf by those whose efforts often cost them the comfort and friendship even of their own church families. The second tour group included visitors from the Netherlands, South Africa, Latin America, and Germany who were attending a conference on racism and the churches. Their questions were probing, and we had a thoughtful – and painful – discussion about the role of the churches in justifying and reinforcing the practice of slavery in the United States two hundred years ago. Today, our churches are speaking out in condemning the practice of human trafficking, and our voices can be raised – like Paul’s – on behalf of those held in bondage even in this “enlightened” age.

In the same way, the spirit of the gospel has much to say about the dignity of women, for example, no matter how many references in the Bible may appear to support women’s subjugation or exclusion from church leadership, including ordination. The change in women’s status, also late in coming and not fully “here” yet, is supported by the gospel, and yet many religious institutions are catching up (or not) with secular society in recognizing it as a good thing. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that the church should be the headlights, not the tail lights, in such matters, but too often this is not the way things happen. It seems that the church itself needs to constantly examine its own practices (and conscience) in light of the gospel, just as much as we shine that light on our culture.

Evoking gut feelings, not just sentiments, on an issue

The language Paul uses evokes “gut feelings,” not just intellectual arguments, and not just sentimental attachment to this one particular person; Gagnon says that “heart” could be better translated as “guts.” And the question Paul raises is one of deep significance. This is going to cost Philemon, it will exact a price, not just in monetary terms but in his sense of place and in his relationship with this person, who will hold a new place in his life (“no longer as a slave butÖa beloved brother,” verse 16). Is such a change even possible?

There is another lesson here, about the responsibility to call one another to faithfulness, to be true to who we are as followers of Jesus. In a sense, that’s what Paul is saying to Philemon: to remember who he is as a follower of Jesus. If we remember who we are as followers of Jesus, won’t that have an effect on our choices and the way we live? If holding a slave and not showing mercy is unworthy of a Christian, what things do we do today, perhaps without thinking, that keep us from living up to who we are, even if our cultural mores find them acceptable, as many people found slavery acceptable in Paul’s day? Does the thought of calling another Christian to faithfulness make us uncomfortable? Would it seem rude or inappropriate, or even judgmental? We can only wonder, for example, about our descendants looking back on the way we treated and used up the gifts of God’s creation or the ways we have waged war upon one another: will they shake their heads in bewilderment at our lack of faithfulness to who we are as people of faith, as followers of Jesus?

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/september-8-2013.html.

For further reflection

Moliere, 17th century
“It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.”

“What should move us to action is human dignity: the inalienable dignity of the oppressed, but also the dignity of each of us. We lose dignity if we tolerate the intolerable.”

Herbert Hoover, 20th century
“Freedom is the open window through which pours the sunlight of the human spirit and human dignity.”

Oscar Arias Sanchez, 20th century
“The more freedom we enjoy, the greater the responsibility we bear, toward others as well as ourselves.”

Condoleezza Rice, 21st century
“In a few weeks, I’m going to release our annual Department of State Report on Human Trafficking and that report probes even the darkest places, calling to account any country, friend or foe, that is not doing enough to combat human trafficking. Though many complain, the power of shame has stirred many to action and sparked unprecedented reforms.  Defeating human trafficking is a great moral calling and we will never subjugate it to the narrow demands of the day.”

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