St. Paul’s – Proper 18 – 9/4/22
So whose fault was it? Both of them were angry. Both felt they were the injured party. Both could probably list complaints against the other, going back several years. An impartial observer might have said it takes two to tango, that it was six of one and half a dozen of the other.But one of them was in a position of power, with the law and universal tradition behind him. And the other was in a position of weakness, with no rights, no voice, no chance of appeal.
And in between them stands a man who loves them both and who is trying to do the impossible, to square the circle, to bring about reconciliation and a new start. The issue of slavery is back on the agenda in this letter with many questions still surrounding it and it being prevalent in so many ways.
During the Civil War and even today, people say that the Bible mandates slavery. Not countenances slavery, but mandates it. And here in this morning’s reading from St Paul we have one of the central passages on the subject in the whole of the Bible. Paul’s little letter to Philemon is the shortest of his letters that we possess, and we heard almost all of it just now. It is his attempt to stand between a master and a slave – an aggrieved master and a runaway slave – and to accomplish something most people wouldn’t have imagined possible, namely, reconciliation. Not just a sour shrug of the shoulders and an agreement not to press charges; a full reconciliation, a welcome back into the family. And since the question of reconciliation is one of the major issues of our time – whether on the grand scale, between blacks and whites, Jews and Arabs, third world and first world, Democrats and Republicans, or on the smaller scale, between estranged husbands and wives, children and parents, colleagues and friends – we do well to ponder how Paul goes about the task, and to reflect in particular on its significance for the underlying issue of radical inequality in our own world.
Let’s clear one thing out of the way for a start. People today often posture rather grandly and criticize Paul for not condemning slavery outright. Here, they say, he had a chance to declare that the whole system was rotten and should be abolished. And they sometimes use the fact that he didn’t do that as an excuse to say that they won’t trust him on other moral issues either.
But this ignores the reality of the situation. In Paul’s world, slaves did almost all the work that today is done by electricity, gas, and the internal combustion engine. To try to abolish the system overnight would be as realistic as declaring that we should give up all modern technology and go back to being hunter-gatherers. Nor would the slaves have benefited if slave-owners – most free people except the very poor owned at least one or two slaves – had suddenly given them their freedom and turned them out of the house. There would have been huge unemployment and homelessness. Of course the system was open to abuse, and was regularly and horribly abused. But stopping it overnight wasn’t the way of wisdom.
Think about it for a moment. A hundred years from now people may look back at our generation and shake their heads in sorrow that we continued to pollute the planet and its atmosphere, that we continued to keep two-thirds of the world in huge unpayable debt to the other one-third. We know these things are wrong. And yet we can’t suddenly stop driving cars and flying airplanes; and, alas, we haven’t yet found the way to cancel the debts.
Here is the problem Paul faced. He was in prison, probably in Ephesus on the coast of modern Turkey. A hundred miles or so inland was the small town of Colosse, where one of the leaders in the newly founded church was a man who had himself been converted through Paul’s preaching in Ephesus. His name was Philemon, and he and his wife Apphia, and their son Arehippus, were hosts to the Christians who met for worship and teaching in their house.
Philemon, like most other householders, had slaves. One of these slaves was called Onesimus, which means ‘Useful’ – though apparently he had been anything but that. Reading between the lines, he’d probably been surly and grouchy. And one day he’d run away, most likely helping himself to money or other valuables as he did so. Most runaways did that; the punishment for running away was death, so you might as well be crucified for theft as well. And Onesimus had gone off to the big city, to Ephesus.
There, however, he had met Paul, who was in prison awaiting trial for preaching a subversive message that was cutting into the social, religious and economic fabric of the place. And Onesimus had heard for himself the message about Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Lord of the world, Jesus the crucified and risen one; and Onesimus had found his heart warmed, his mind enlightened, and his life changed from inside by the good news. And he had become like a son to Paul, a son born to him in prison.
Paul now faces an exquisite dilemma. He is not only harboring a runaway slave, compounding his own supposed crimes. He is party to a wrong done against one of his own converts, the leader of a new church. We have no idea, of course, what sort of a master Philemon had been before his conversion. We don’t know how much Onesimus had to put up with. And we in our generation, of course, tend to see the moral dilemma the other way round. The ancient world would assume the guilt of the slave; we assume the guilt of the master. Most of our great moral dilemmas are like that. The Israelis firmly believe that most Arabs want to be rid of them completely. The Palestinians firmly believe that most Israelis want to seize even the small bits of their land that remain. The big banks firmly believe that the third world is in debt because of its own incompetence and corruption. Sub-Saharan Africa and the rest firmly believe that it is in debt because of policies made in the West and imposed by economic and political force. And so on. What are we to do? What was Paul to do?
The answer Paul gives is to stand in between Philemon and Onesimus with arms outstretched to embrace them both; and to take the dangerous position of becoming, in himself, the means of reconciliation.
He appeals to everything that binds Philemon to him. They are dear friends; they are partners in the gospel, and that (we must remember) in a world where there were probably only one or two hundred Christians at most in the whole of western Turkey. In particular, Philemon owes Paul his very life, having heard the gospel from him in the first place.
And Paul also appeals to everything that binds Onesimus to him. Onesimus is his child in the faith, his dear son. He has begun to live up to his name; he is truly ‘useful’, so useful in fact that Paul would like to keep him with him, but knows that until he goes back to Philemon there is a breach in Christian fellowship which could be disastrous. When Paul sends him he is sending his own very heart.
Do you see what Paul has done? He has refused to take sides. He will not accuse Philemon of being such a bad master that the slave risked his life to get away. He will not accuse Onesimus of being such a no-hoper that he had become a runaway and a thief. He stands in between them, with his arms and his love around them both.
And as a result – and this is the crucial thing – he bears the cost of reconciliation in himself. If you consider me as your partner, he says to Philemon, welcome him as you would welcome me. Partner is a business term; Philemon and Paul were in the gospel business together, and shared as it were the common purse of grace and love. So, he says, if he’s wronged you in any way, charge it to my account. I’ll pay you back – not to mention the fact that you already owe me your own very life. Indeed, he says, you, Philemon, actually owe me a favor or two, and now I’m calling it in: make my day, refresh my heart in Christ.
And now we see what’s going on. If this was the only document we had from early Christianity, we would already know something vital about the heart of the Christian message. Paul, standing between master and slave, is taking the pain and the guilt of their damaged relationship into himself. Charge it to my account, he says. And he knows that when that happens it will be absorbed, dealt with.
Where did Paul learn that? What pattern are we observing?
Obviously, the pattern which shaped Paul’s whole life and thought: the pattern of the crucified Jesus Christ, who stands between God and the world, with an arm round each, taking into his own body the pain and the hurt, the guilt and the shame, and accomplishing the reconciliation that we celebrate at this and every Eucharist. Paul, as the apostle of Jesus Christ, is bringing Jesus Christ to Philemon and Onesimus; one might even say, and I think Paul himself would say, that he is being Jesus Christ to Philemon and Onesimus. In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ he is making Christ’s reconciliation effective in this particular case.
He is asking for Philemon to take Onesimus back. And we can be pretty sure Philemon agreed. But there is more. I know, he says, that you will do even more than I say. What more could there be? Well, clearly – though Paul can hardly say this outright – he was hoping that Philemon would give Onesimus his freedom.
It will, of course, be costly. It will be difficult, painful, embarrassing and humiliating for Onesimus to go back, and for Philemon to accept him. But with Paul’s letter in his hand Onesimus has the key to reconciliation.
And, I suggest, with the New Testament in our hands, containing the same gospel of the crucified Jesus Christ, we have the key to the reconciliation that our world longs for.We have seen it accomplished, albeit partially, in one striking instance in our own generation, as Bishop Desmond Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, holding on to both sides and bearing their pain in his own heart, soul and even body as his cancer took hold in the unbearable stress of that work. We desperately need reconcilers in every area of the world today: in industry and commerce, in families and schools, between races and religions and in a thousand other ways. We don’t need people who will yell slogans from this side or that. We don’t need people who furiously demand what they call their rights, knowing that a similar furious demand is coming back in the other direction. We need people, we need organizations, we need churches, who will devote and dedicate themselves to being instruments of peace, agents of reconciliation.
Individuals can often do a great deal, more than we usually suppose. But whole churches, in prayer and thought and action, can achieve more than you would ever imagine.
This is a call, then, for Christians and churches to be for the world what Paul was with Philemon and Onesimus. The church is not simply a self-help aid to private spiritual improvement. Of course, we need to be deeply grounded in our own faith, in the love of God in the depths of our own hearts and lives; we need to be taught and informed in the faith, if any of this is to come about. Without that, we become mere slogan-mongers, joining the shrill ranks of the left or the right. We need reconcilers: people through whose risky and costly witness debts can be forgiven, old scores buried instead of settled, ancient hurts healed instead of festering. The major difference between Christianity and every other worldview that ever there was is exactly this: that the gospel of Jesus Christ can and does accomplish reconciliation. That is why we come to this table, to be ourselves reconciled afresh to God and to one another, and to be empowered as agents of that reconciliation. Woe to the church that often it has done the opposite. Thanks be to God that the gospel is still the one power which can heal the world.
And so today, we gather again. Family. Philemon. Onesimus. Paul. You. Me. This Church.
For each of us, there IS a place at the table. Welcome. AMEN+