The Gospel According to Phil

Sermon preached September 8, 2013

Texts: Philemon 1-22

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It is an old bit of humor in sitcoms, persons showing their vacation pictures to barely interested friends, inflicting their vacation pictures on others. The technology has changed over the years – slides, home movies, videos. Now you can just show others on your phone, and typically that is much briefer.
The New Testament letter of Paul to Philemon seems a bit like we are peering in on someone’s home videos, eavesdropping on some personal conversation. “One thing more – prepare a guest room for me.” I bet you won’t see any signs at football games this weekend with that Scripture verse cited or quoted. Because it seems so specific, and because it is such a brief letter, it is probably Paul’s most neglected writing in the New Testament. Can this letter still speak to us? I suppose I could say “no” and let us all go home really early. But that would not be honest. I think the letter of Philemon can speak to us, and speak powerfully. I think there is a Gospel According to Phil.
To let this letter speak requires some work. We need to know both the story in the letter and the social and historical context which helps us understand the story better.
The basic story line is this: Onesimus is a slave whom Paul has met in prison. Onesimus has run away from his master, Philemon, and, probably stolen something when he left. Philemon is a person of some standing, wealthy enough to have a slave or slaves. He is also a prominent Christian, one who has come to faith because of the work of Paul and one whose house probably serves as the site of a house church. In their encounter, Onesimus, under the teaching of Paul, becomes a Christian. Paul is writing to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, urging Philemon to take Onesimus back, and to see him as not simply a slave but also as a brother in Christ. Paul also offers to make restitution for anything that Onesimus has stolen.
Perhaps another reason this book has become so neglected is that the topic of immediate concern has become so foreign to us – slavery. How can we even think of someone as a prominent Christian and a slaveholder? Unfortunately, it wasn’t that long ago that slavery was an enormous debate in the Christian community, and this letter may have been used to make the case that Christians could, in fact, keep slaves. Thankfully, we have moved beyond that argument.
Some understanding, though, of slavery in the time of this letter is important to help us understand the letter better and see how it might speak to us today. The Roman Empire was a highly stratified society. At the top of the ladder in an area would have been Roman officials appointed to administer the area politically, militarily or financially. Then you would have had the local privileged class – privileged by heredity or money – the small landowners, the shop owners, the crafts people. Next would have been the freedmen and freedwomen, former slaves who had been released or who had purchased their freedom. At the bottom of the social pyramid were the slaves – an immense number of them who provided a crucial economic benefit to the Empire. One might become a slave in a number of ways: a prisoner taken in war, kidnapping, through debt, children born into slavery. There were different kinds of slaves. The most burdensome form of slavery was to be slave labor – manual labor, construction, rowing ships. Household slaves, on the other hand, might have lived more like household servants in the homes of wealthy persons (butlers, nannies). Some slaves were well-educated and might serve as administrators or household tutors. This may have given them the opportunity to earn money and hence, eventually, purchase their freedom. We don’t know the specific situation of Onesimus.
History lessons may be right behind home videos in exciting people’s energy! Sorry about that, but it is necessary work if this book is to speak to us.
Knowing all this, we can still be disappointed that Paul does not more forcefully tell Philemon that slavery is incompatible with Christian faith. Instead, Paul asks that Philemon receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” Yes, the language is ambiguous, but Paul does not seem to be challenging the institution of slavery, at least not in this letter. In the other writings of Paul, we find principles which Christians used to finally say that slavery was not compatible with Christianity. Owing people and being Christian do not fit together. Holding sway over people, while they remain unfree, does not fit with being a follower of Jesus.
Though he does not challenge slavery, Paul is digging deep into Philemon’s daily life, and here this letter can speak to us. One clear message of this letter is that Christian faith, to be a follower of Jesus, to live in God’s Spirit, is something that has an impact and touches all of life, not just the special or extraordinary. The heart of Christian spirituality is not mountaintop experiences of rapture, though they may come. The heart of Christian spirituality is not only comfort when we are hurting or in despair, though this matters a lot. The heart of Christian spirituality is how we live our lives day in and day out. In Jesus, all of life is brought into the light of love. That’s the Gospel According to Phil.
We frequently hear the phrase “spiritual but not religious.” People say they are spiritual but not religious. Part of this is a legitimate criticism of the church, telling us that people see too great a distance between Sunday morning language and Monday to Saturday living. We need to take that seriously. I love how Paul sets up part of his argument to Philemon. “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” We share our faith effectively when what we say has something to do with what we do. We can’t just talk about love, we need to love.
At the same time as I take seriously the critique offered in the phrase “spiritual but not religious,” I would pose a return challenge. Does that stance sometimes amount to seeing spirituality as so private that it is reduced to inner feelings and the inner life alone, without trying to make spirituality something that has an impact on all of life? Is this distinction a means of avoiding the messiness of an actual community of people working on their spiritual journeys together?
Christian spirituality, following Jesus, life in the Spirit is meant to reach into every facet of our lives. To be sure, an important part of Christian spirituality involves practices, “spiritual practices” – prayer, meditation, contemplation, worship, scripture reading, service, giving. These remain important, but for Christians, spiritual practices are always in the service of making all life different. We don’t just pray then go about our merry way, we pray in order to be made different. We pray so that we might become more like the one to whom we pray. We pray for a better world and work to make the world better. Christian spirituality, following Jesus, life in the Spirit is bringing the whole of our lives into the light of love – our everyday, ordinary, quotidian lives – – – to use the phrase from Romans 12:1 in The Message: our sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking around lives. No part of our lives is exempt from the light of love, and that is both amazing, and a little disconcerting. Let me briefly plunge a little deeper, get a little more specific.
One of the issues in Philemon is an economic issue. Philemon’s economic situation involved having Onesimus in his household. Following Jesus, life in the Spirit, asks us some hard economic questions. What does love require in a country where 17.6 million households have trouble feeding their family members, where 46 million of our fellow citizens do not know where there next meal is coming from (Thurday’s newspaper)?
Following Jesus, life in the Spirit, asks us some difficult questions about the world political situation. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” We are on the verge of bombing Syria. If the evidence is true, the Syrian government heinously and criminally used chemical weapons against its own citizens. Does peacemaking mean never engaging in war, no matter how much others may be suffering? But will dropping bombs help secure a more just resolution of issues and create conditions for more peacefulness in the world, or will anti-Americanism simply be more inflamed? The answers are not easy. Love requires that we think deeply, but following Jesus does not seem to leave us the option of not thinking about this at all, or of thinking that war and peace have nothing to do with life in the Spirit.
Christian spirituality, following Jesus, life in the Spirit asks us to consider in every area of our lives – what does love require? What will genuinely witness to God’s love in Jesus? Christian spirituality, following Jesus, life in the Spirit is not just about doing the right thing, though it is about that, it is about becoming different kind of people. Paul finally wants for Philemon that he will act lovingly from his heart.
As strange as this letter is, and as problematic as it can be, it speaks to us. It speaks to me. How do I live as a follower of Jesus as a husband, a father, a friend, a pastor, a citizen, an inhabitant of planet earth? What does love require? There are even more themes that we will leave untouched – the power of persuasion, the importance of second chances – there is a lot there for us parents and friends.
The Gospel According to Phil is about a love that seeks to transform the whole of our lives. It can be a demanding love, but first it is an accepting and forgiving love, a love that refreshes hearts. “Grace to you and peace.” Always, grace and peace for the journey. Amen.