A New Identity (Aug 30 – Sept. 5)

Sunday, September 5
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 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?

by Kate Huey

As usual, the biblical scholars disagree about this passage from Scripture, a letter from Paul to a church leader named Philemon about the return of his runaway slave, Onesimus. If “the letter is not an appeal for Philemon to set Onesimus free, but rather to accept him back as a slave, albeit one who is now a Christian brother,” as Carl R. Holladay claims, at the very least it 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 Holladay is right and Paul is not asking Philemon to free Onesimus, we can read between the lines and experience the discomfort that arises when we relate to one another as “brothers and sisters” in Christ, but somehow have to accommodate inequities in social position. Maybe it’s uncomfortable, but surely it’s a good and appropriate kind of discomfort. 

One can see that the gospel has the power to cause all sorts of problems between friends, colleagues, and 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 in order not to offend but to encourage and even gently to cajole a church leader to do what was right. From our 21st century vantage point, we might be tempted to think that these first-century Christians were somehow less enlightened about such things than we are. After all, slavery was common in those days, an ordinary and accepted part of life. They probably didn’t think about it, we might say. 

Not a private affair between individuals

However, in Paul’s Jewish roots are the beginnings of resistance to this evil. His own people were slaves once, so it was not permitted 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 provides excellent historical perspective on slavery in that time that nevertheless does not shy away from reading a prophetic message in Paul’s words. Unlike Holladay, Gagnon sees in Paul’s message a call to Philemon to free Onesimus, “to ‘do the right thing’ voluntarily as a spur to the growth of his own faith and as an example to his house church.” 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 private affair between him and Philemon, 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 says, “Oh, by the way, I’m not going to mention that you owe me your very life”!) 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. One is reminded of those great people, those great saints, who have stood in for slaves, captives, and condemned people, 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. 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. Today, for example, our churches are speaking out to condemn 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.

What about our world today?

We might consider then what practices, customs, and traditions in our own time 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, as familiar and perhaps unnoticed as the air which we breath. Slowly (much too slowly, for sure) and inexorably, the gospel’s power made it clear to Christians, for example, that owning another human being was an offense before God, no matter how skillfully “good Christians,” church-going Christians, as recently as one hundred and fifty years ago, relied on biblical references that seemed to accept slavery. Today,

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 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 itself, and yet many religious institutions are in the awkward position of needing to catch up with secular society in recognizing that change 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 practices in light of the gospel, just as we are so eager to shine that light on the world “beyond” the walls of our churches, and the cultures that thrive there.

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 but…a beloved brother,” verse 16). Is such a change even possible?

There is another lesson here, about the task of calling one another to faithfulness. We’re familiar with the line from the movie, “The Lion King,” in which the ghost of Mufasa says to Simba, “Remember who you are!” and in a sense that’s what Paul is saying to Philemon. If we remember who we are as followers of Jesus, won’t that have an effect on our choices and on the way we live our lives? If holding a slave and not showing mercy are–obviously–unworthy of a Christian, what things do we do in our lives that keep us from living up to who we are?

A preaching version of this commentary can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel

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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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality Initiative, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.