Scripture – Philemon 1:1-21 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 4, 2016
If you or your children or grandchildren have not returned to school already, they will this week. Within a few weeks from now, the glow, the excitement, the anticipation of seeing old friends and meeting new teachers and embarking on fresh academic pursuits will be sobered by the first round of quizzes, tests and examinations. I invite you this morning to remember the difference between short answer, multiple-choice or fill-in-the blank kinds of tests and the dreaded format of essay questions. One lends itself better to preparation by memorization; the other makes you have to think. Although there are those among us who welcome the dreaded essay, thinking that if they cannot address the question in a knowledgeable, forthright manner, they can write vaguely enough to convince the reviewer to read between the lines and assume that the student must indeed know something. After all, partial credit is better than no credit at all.
It was no different in seminary. When it came to short-answer tests in the Bible courses, Philemon was an easy one: shortest letter in the Bible, shortest of all the books for that matter, written by Paul to Philemon about Onesimus, the runaway slave, encouraging Philemon to take Onesimus back, no longer as a slave, but as a beloved Christian brother. Easy breezy. The trick was remembering which one was Philemon and which one was Onesimus.
To do this letter from Paul justice, however, to truly glean from it a message for us today, we need to study it and attempt to interpret it by reading between its lines and maybe hope it won’t be on the test. I’m afraid, however, as baptized Christians, it does appear on our life’s test as disciples of Jesus Christ.
We need to read between the lines of Paul’s letter to Philemon because there are various unknowns, many uncertainties and several possibilities. Although the structure of the letter is termed as “neatly exact,” containing all the parts we look for in a letter from Paul – the salutation, followed by the thanksgiving, then the epistolary body and closed with greetings from others and a blessing or benediction – there is a lot we are not “exactly” sure of. Paul is writing from prison – some say in Rome; others think Ephesus. We don’t know when the letter was written – some say 56 CE, others say 62. We don’t know how Onesimus got there, so scholars have narrowed it down to two possibilities: he ran away on his own from his master, perhaps after causing him some financial loss OR he was sent by his owner Philemon to serve Paul in prison, as another church apparently did for Paul on another occasion as documented in a different letter.
And what exactly is Paul asking for? There are three possibilities:
(1)Paul wants Philemon to send Onesimus back to Paul to continue to serve him in prison [remember he writes in verse 13 “I wanted to keep him with me” but I want to ask you first];
(2) Paul wants Philemon to take Onesimus back into his former household and forgive whatever he might have done [we don’t know that either]; or
(3) Paul wants Philemon to take Onesimus back and free him from being a slave.
Whatever it is that Paul wants exactly, I think we can all agree that there is some very public cajoling going on here. One commentator terms it “arm-twisting”. Paul addresses the letter to the whole church in Philemon’s house. It’s like he takes out an ad in the Times and writes “an open letter to Philemon” – except not nearly as expensive. And Paul writes it not only from himself, but from his protégé Timothy as well; and as he closes the letter he sends greetings from all their mutual co-workers for Christ, intimating that they’re aware of the content of this letter, too. It appears he’s bringing all kinds of pressure to bear, including reminding Philemon that Paul is the one who saved his life, converting him to Jesus in the first place. “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.” Yeah, but you just did.
OK, so if we were faced with an essay question to summarize the contents of Paul’s letter to Philemon, we could go through the verses and cite all the places where we are faced with unknowns and uncertainties and various possible interpretations of the intent of the letter. But we’re not faced with that essay question. We’re faced with the bigger question of what we take with us today as a message from God contained in this letter.
Paul has been criticized from a variety of perspectives about this letter, including his manipulative tactics; but, foremost, he has been criticized for his not specifically condemning the practice of slavery, which some of our forebears in the 18th and 19th centuries pulled out and used to justify the unjust, inhumane institution by pointing to this letter and other references in the Bible to defend it.
But we know better now, right? The test for us, my friends, is to examine ourselves to see if we as mutual members of the body of Christ can truly see our fellow Christians as siblings, as Paul writes to Philemon, as beloved brothers and sisters.
Philemon and Onesimus are now brothers in Christ. No longer master and slave, Paul says. No longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female as he wrote in his letter to the Galatians. No longer liberal or conservative, pro one political party or the other, Brexit or EU, wall or amnesty, no longer who goes to which bathroom, no longer the long, long list which divides our country, our world, our sometimes own families. No longer viewing the other as less than; no longer our remaining slaves to our own high and mighty opinions at the expense of seeing our opponents in whatever realm, as worthy of the love of God, as our sisters and brothers. Paul writes: both in the flesh and in the Lord. We pray the words “on earth as it is in heaven”. Not just a nice religious or philosophical concept, or limited to the after-life, but a way of being, a way of life, right here and now.
As 21st-century Philemons, we get the message – hard to live out, but we know we should. But can we take this a step further and see ourselves as 21st-century Pauls? Writing on behalf of those who need our help, who need us to advocate for their liberation? Publicly calling each other to task? Being courageous enough – remember the first Christians landed in prison pretty often – being courageous enough to write the open letters calling upon the rest of us to think more expansively and inclusively and globally, calling upon the rest of us, in the face of cultural pressure, in the face of unjust laws where they exist, to do the right thing …to do the right thing by our brothers and sisters here and elsewhere.
This 2,000 year old letter from Paul, give or take a decade, continues to speak to us today. When we encounter the test on it, we can easily fill in the blanks about to whom and about whom it was written; and we can do a decent job on the essay question requiring our analysis and maybe even our opinions; but, my friends, the bonus question is whether or not we can live it out. The good news is that I think God will allow us to take it pass/fail; and the better news is that our faith in the good news of the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ tells us we can take it over again and over again until we get it right. But maybe, given that it’s a brand new school year, we should just try our best to ace it the first time. Amen.