Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Faces of Our Faith: Philemon

Faces of Our Faith: Philemon
Reign of Christ (November 25, 2018)
Philemon 1:1-25 (CEB)

Today we come to the end of the Faces of Our Faith series. If you’re joining us for the first time, what this series has done has taken us on a tour of some of the often-overlooked characters in the Bible. The series was brought to us by the creative folks at A Sanctified Art, Lisle Gwynn Garrity’s group, who crafted the images on the front of the bulletins and on the blocks surrounding the pulpit, and wrote the journal that many of you have been using these last 15 weeks. We owe special thanks to the Sanctuary Arts Team; you all have truly brought these faces and these stories to life!

We’ve reconnected with these Biblical figures (or met them for the first time): Adam and Eve, Puah and Shiphrah, the Daughters of Zelophehad, Deborah the Prophet, Queen Vashti, Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego, Jonah, Anna, Judas Iscariot, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, the Ethiopian Eunuch, Lydia, Eutychus, and today, Philemon. Let us listen to a part of his story as it comes to us through the letter written to him by the Apostle Paul:

From Paul, who is a prisoner for the cause of Christ Jesus, and our brother Timothy.

To Philemon our dearly loved coworker, Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church that meets in your house.

May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

Philemon, I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers because I’ve heard of your love and faithfulness, which you have both for the Lord Jesus and for all God’s people. I pray that your partnership in the faith might become effective by an understanding of all that is good among us in Christ. I have great joy and encouragement because of your love, since the hearts of God’s people are refreshed by your actions, my brother.

Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to command you to do the right thing, I would rather appeal to you through love. I, Paul—an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus— appeal to you for my child Onesimus. I became his father in the faith during my time in prison. He was useless to you before, but now he is useful to both of us. I’m sending him back to you, which is like sending you my own heart. I considered keeping him with me so that he might serve me in your place during my time in prison because of the gospel. However, I didn’t want to do anything without your consent so that your act of kindness would occur willingly and not under pressure. Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus 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—that is, as a dearly loved brother. He is especially a dearly loved brother to me. How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually in the Lord!

So, if you really consider me a partner, welcome Onesimus as if you were welcoming me. If he has harmed you in any way or owes you money, charge it to my account. I, Paul, will pay it back to you (I’m writing this with my own hand). Of course, I won’t mention that you owe me your life.

Yes, brother, I want this favor from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. I’m writing to you, confident of your obedience and knowing that you will do more than what I ask. Also, one more thing—prepare a guest room for me. I hope that I will be released from prison to be with you because of your prayers.

Epaphras, who is in prison with me for the cause of Christ Jesus, greets you, as well as my coworkers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Many of the figures in this Faces of Our Faith series have been heroes or heroines. But in reading this letter Paul wrote to Philemon from our point in time, our culture, and our stated values and commitments, neither Paul nor Philemon come across as heroes: Philemon because he was a slave owner, and Paul because, as we might wish he had done, he didn’t command Philemon to release Onesimus at once or unequivocally condemn the practice of slavery. And because that’s what our first reaction to this letter might be, it’s tempting to stop there.

In my experience, progressive folks—be they people of faith or not—sometimes make a hard stop when they encounter passages like this from the Bible. And they often do so from a justified stance against a particular evil, like sexism, racism, homophobia or, in this case, slavery. Bringing our sense of justice or morality to a reading of a text is a good thing to do. It’s a good thing to not let a text, especially a sacred text, “off the hook” when it appears to condone something we now know to be wrong or harmful. It’s also easy in an age in which the Bible is decreasingly reverred by non-fundamentalists or evangelical Christians to simply dismiss it when we come across something we perceive to be offensive in it. That’s an understandable posture to take and a straightforward solution to the old problem of what to do when we encounter something in a religion that conflicts with our worldview: just keep on moving.

Think of what Thomas Jefferson did with the New Testament. I wonder how he interpreted the Letter to Philemon, by the way… What Jefferson did was take out his exacto knife (I’m sure they had those in at the end of the 18th Century) and cut out all the parts dealing with miracles or supernatural events. Problem solved, right?

No. If we simply discard the parts we don’t like, that cuts off all other possibilities and we’ve reached a dead end. We’ve also seen what happens when the Bible is left totally in the hands of those who use it to bludgeon people. We’ve seen what happens with authoritarian regimes and dissenting minorities. We’ve seen what happens in fundamentalist families with LGBTQ folks. We’ve seen what’s happened in all segments of society when the Bible is used to subjugate women. With Thanksgiving still on the mind, we can easily trace what role the church and theology in the hands of the powerful played in the treatment of Native American communities. My point is that, placed in the wrong hands, the Bible can be used to severely oppress.

Take Philemon. I’d bet that no other passage in the New Testament has been used more oppressively than this letter because it was used as a proof text for justifying slavery in the United States. As an example, observing that Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, a congressman from South Carolina writing in 1823 maintained that:

‘all the sophistry in the world cannot get rid of this decisive example. Christianity robs no man of his rights, and Onesimus was the property of his master, under the laws of his country, which must be obeyed, it not contrary to the laws of God. He went so far as to claim that this Epistle really sanctified the fugitive slave law because ‘slaves should not be taken or detained from their master, without their master’s consent. [1]

Can you imagine if people of faith in the 19th Century stopped there with that interpretation? Can you imagine if abolitionists had abandoned Scriptural arguments in support of their cause?

Let’s take another look at the letter. The devil is in the details, as we say. The letter was not only addressed to Philemon, but to the other members of his household. The expectation would have been that Paul, as was the case with his letters to other churches, expected it to be read aloud in the assembly. Paul greets the group then switches to singular person address to Philemon when he commands him to welcome Onesimus back into his home. Welcome him, not retake him. Welcome him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave—that is, as a dearly loved brother.” The words Paul uses to describe Onesimus (whose name means “useful one,” as in purely for the sake of utility) are personal and familial. He calls him “my child” and “my brother” just as he called the others in Philemon’s household “dearly loved coworker” and “sister” and “fellow soldier.” Paul calls Onesimus “my heart”; it doesn’t get any more personal than that! The Apostle exerts all his pastoral authority to command Philemon, his “partner” to welcome Onesimus as a “dearly beloved brother.” Do you catch all of that egalitarian, mutual language?

There’s a debate among scholars about whether or not Onesimus was a runaway slave. I think some of that was influenced by early American readings of the letter. But I think, if we pay close attention to the details, we can surmise that Onesimus wasn’t a runaway, but sent by Philemon to take care of Paul while he was in prison. During Paul’s time in prison, his relationship with Onesimus was transformed by the gospel, and he expects the same will be true with Philemon.

Our interactions with Scripture ought to be like that story in Genesis in which Jacob wrestles with God and walks away with a broken hip: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” [2] We have to wrestle with these text and these stories. We have to dig in there, get down in the mud sometimes, stay in the struggle, and trust that God intends us to find blessings within them.. This is not to say that all opinions are valid and that we just “cherry pick” the Bible to find things to support them.

We struggle to find interpretations that bless, heal, and transform because that’s who we fundamentally trust God to be, know God to be, in Jesus Christ: a God of life, liberation, and love.

In an interview with Krista Tippett, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South African spoke about “discovering that the Bible could be such dynamite.” Tutu said,

“I subsequently used to say if these white people had intended keeping us under they shouldn’t have given us the Bible… when you discover that apartheid sought to mislead people into believing that what gave value to human beings was a biological irrelevance, really, skin color or ethnicity, and you saw how the scriptures say it is because we are created in the image of God, that each one of us is a God-carrier. No matter what our physical circumstances may be, no matter how awful, no matter how deprived you could be, it doesn’t take away from you this intrinsic worth.

Amen to that!

I’ll close with a story about the first Catholic priest of African descent in the United States:

Augustus Tolton, who is now being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church, was born enslaved in Missouri in April 1854. His parents, Peter and Martha Tolton, had him baptized Catholic, the faith of the family that owned them.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Peter Tolton ran away to join the Union Army. Months later, Martha Tolton also fled with her three children, Augustus, Charles and Anne — a bid for freedom that nearly ended in capture. The Toltons were chased through the woods by Confederate slave catchers… The Confederate soldiers continued to shoot at the boat, as Augustus’s mother rowed across the muddy Mississippi River.

“Bullets whizzed by our heads. We crouched down in bottom of boat,” the actor playing Augustus [in a play about his life] says. “That is when our Mama showed us what she was made of. Mother courageously rowed that boat. With each stroke, she prayed, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.”

“Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee…” Mrs. Tolton made those words her own.

You see, any sacred text, any community, any tradition can be used to bind us or to set us free. The question is: do we trust God enough to encounter in these things a gospel of freedom, the freedom God wants for all her children, all of our sisters, brothers, and siblings? For as Paul also wrote in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” and “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

May it be so.

[1] Larry R. Morrison, “The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830,” The Journal of Religious Thought (1980), Vol. 37 Issue 2, p. 16.  

[2] See Genesis 32:22-32.

Featured image: “My Very Heart,” by Sarah Are with A Sanctified Art, LLC. Used with permission.