Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
I thought I'd do something a little
different this morning, and read an entire book of scripture in
worship! How often does that happen, right? Don't worry, it's a
short one. Because it's so short, Philemon is sometimes hard to
find. So I'm going to give you a little clue, a little Bible
lesson here on how to find it -- because if you know how the New
Testament is arranged, you will have no difficulty finding it.
So, here's the trick: (I'm assuming everyone knows that the New
Testament is in the last 1/3 of the Bible :). If you go to that
part, to the back of your Bible where the new Testament is, the
first 4 are the gospels, right? George, Paul, Ringo, and John
:). No, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Then the Acts of the
Apostles. Then comes the Epistles, all the letters. The good
folk who organized the scriptures for us were so thoughtful, as
to put all of the letters of Paul together -- 13 letters
attributed to Paul (although me may not have written all of
Now, Paul being the most important and most prolific of the
letter-writers, is first. But the question is: how are they
organized, those 13 letters? It's not alphabetical, you know
that. It's not chronological. It's not geographical. So what's
the organizing principle? Size, length. The longest letter is
first -- Romans is first, that's the longest of them. And guess
which one is shortest? Philemon, so it's the last of the 13. So
see, once you know that, if you get into the letters of Paul,
you just keep going until you find Philemon. And if you get to
Hebrews, that's written anonymously, you've gone to far. And
then come the rest of the Epistles, James and John and Peter and
the rest, and Revelation.
So that's your little clue on how to find Philemon, you have no
excuse, besides, we printed the page number in your bulletin :).
So you can follow along with me then as I read Paul's letter to
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker,
2to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 When I remember youc
[and there's a little footnote, and we don't read all the footnotes because it would take forever, but this one is important, remember I talk about that from time to time. There's a little tiny letter there, and if you look down at the bottom of your page, what do you find there? "You" is singular from verse 4 through verse 21. Now, we in English-speaking countries don't think of that a whole lot, because it comes so naturally, but if you remember your grammar, there's a singular 'you' and a plural 'you', and if you speak a foreign language it's probably more familiar to you, because most foreign languages use different words. In English, we only have one word. It's important, because in the first 4 verses, he's addressing the entire church (meeting in Philemon's home), and now he's addressing just Philemon] in my prayers, I always thank my God 5because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. 6I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. 7I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet 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. [You're meant to feel Paul's pain here :)] 10I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11Formerly he was useless to you, [who would say that about a person? This is a play-on-words, 'Onesimus' means "useful". It was a common name given to slaves, who were useful around the house. So he says of this Onesimus, formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me] but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you [that's a bit of a euphemism -- Onesimus has run away] for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, 16no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. [Do you think Philemon is going to put any charges on Paul's account? I think not :)] 20Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
22 One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
[I can just see Philemon shaking in his boots -- he's coming here?! Can you imagine if Paul arrives and Philemon has not set Onesimus free?]
23 Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you [and now the 'you' is plural again, speaking to the whole church -- everyone is looking at Philemon, to see how he's going to respond to this], 24and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow-workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
In verses 4 to
21, you is singular
So there you have it, an entire book of
So here's the problem: Onesimus, a
runaway slave, has sought out Paul as the friend of his master,
Philemon. And Paul now sends him back with this letter of
That's not exactly a situation very many of us have been in :)
So how do we relate to this text?
I have been emphasizing, and I do so once again, the importance
of updating the text to bring it into our world, to make it
relevant to our time, rather than for us to try and enter into
that world, the ancient world, which is a very foreign place, a
strange place. That we only understand in part, at best.
So, to update the text means that we understand the gospel not
as God's final word for all times, but as God's beginning word.
The foundational word upon which our faith is built. Much as the
Declaration of Independence serves as the foundational document
for our country. And of course the most famous phrase from that
document, so important to the whole mythology of who we are as a
people and a nation: "We hold these truths to be self-evident:
that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with
certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and
the pursuit of happiness". Hey, you passed your American History
Now, when the constitution was written a few years later, how
did it define that equality? Slaves were 3/5ths of a person. Not
exactly a shining illustration of equality, is it? Voting rights
-- read your constitution, it's a helpful thing -- if you look
in there to see who has the right to vote, guess what: it's not
in the constitution! Voting rights were determined by states.
And how did states determine who could vote? White, male,
property-owners. So, you take out the women, you take out the
slaves, you take out all non-property owners, you've got less
than 20% that are "equal". Some evidently more equal than
And it always makes me wonder when people today clamor for a
return to the original intent of our founding fathers, a return
to the constitution, what is it that they're saying? That we
want to go back to that time?
The simple fact is, it has taken us over 200 years to work out
that principle of equality, first penned by Thomas Jefferson,
and we're still working it out. It still hasn't been fully
agreed-upon in every instance. We're constantly revising our
laws in order to fit our understanding for how these founding
principles should be applied today. That's what Judge Walker
said in that case in California with Proposition 8. So we're
still trying to figure it out.
So, too, with scripture. And especially
this text. For if we do not update it to our present, it serves
little purpose for us today. We could just say this is a
private, personal matter between Philemon and Onesimus and Paul,
move along, there's nothing to see here. We don't need to worry
too much about it.
And even though this is the most personal letter that we have,
note that it is not written solely to Philemon but to the entire
church in his house. And further, the fact that it was preserved
and obtained scripture status suggests that it has more than
just historical value, it has meaning for us now, even 150 years
after slavery was put to an end in this country.
So here's the essence of Paul's argument: love should lead us to
do the right thing voluntarily. And in Philemon's case, that
means setting Onesimus free. That's what love does -- it acts in
the best interest of the other party. It's not how YOU define
that interest, may not even be how that other person defines
that interest, but for Paul it's how God defines it.
Even though we say we cannot know the mind of God, as Paul says
to the Philippians, we can have the mind of Christ. That is, we
can see things from 'above' so to speak, from that spiritual
perspective in which all are equal. And as I said a couple of
weeks ago, once you accept that spiritual equality, then social
equality is inevitable. It may take 20 years, it may take 200
years, it may even take 2,000 years, but it is inevitable.
Thus, for Paul, it is unthinkable that a Christian master could
own a Christian slave, because they're equal in Christ. And that
necessarily means that they're equal in the body of Christ.
They're equal, as he says, in the spirit of the Lord, and
they're equal in the flesh, in society, in the world.
Now, we can excuse Paul for not going further, of taking the
next logical step and applying that principle of equality in
Christ not just to this one slave of Philemon (did he after all,
have other slaves?), but also to all slaves to all Christians.
And once you do that, it's a very short step to all slavery
Now, such was unthinkable in the 1st century. But how do we
excuse 1,800 years of Christian slave owners, after Paul tells
Philemon to do the right thing in love and set Onesimus free?
The principle that Paul uses, I think is a good one: voluntary
action, based on love, is always preferable to involuntary
action based on coercion. Parents know this, right? You tell
your child to clean their room, maybe they will, maybe they
won't. You have to try all kinds of tricks and coercion, it's
not until they really want to do something that they do it.
John Dominic Crossan says in his book on
Paul, on this particular passage, 'What is done by external
demand, a legal command, is not enough. Never will be enough,
and never could be enough. Even if obeyed rather than resisted,
decrees mandating conscience, come from the outside inward,
rather than from the inside outward. Even with obedience,
performance is always reluctant, inadequate, and belated".
But when motivation comes from within, then we do the right
thing -- not because we are told to, or obligated, but because
that's our own desire. And that which we do out of desire and
free will, rather than out of obedience and obligation, will
always be done more fully, quickly, and gladly.
So love leads us to do the right thing naturally. But what do we
do when it's not enough?
Paul says he has the authority to command Philemon to do the
right thing, but he doesn't use it because he wants Philemon to
be led by his own love, not by Paul's command. And we often
think of God in similar terms -- one who has the authority to
order things in a certain way, but who chooses not to use that
power so that we might have freedom.
Now, that's not my understanding of God, and I think indeed that
that understanding of God leads to some very harmful things. But
that's another topic for another time.
Note that Paul does not say to Philemon, 'God has given you the
freedom to choose what to do with Onesimus'. Rather, Paul says
God has given you, in Christ, the love to see Onesimus no longer
as your slave, but now as your brother.
Though Paul wants Philemon to do this freely, love only gives
him one choice. And it's clear when you read the letter --
Philemon has no choice here. If he has that love, he will set
Liam Neeson, and James Nesbitt, two Irish actors, play the part
of opposing sides in the troubles of Northern Ireland, in a new
movie "5 Minutes of Heaven". In the movie, Neeson's character,
as a younger man, kills a man in front of his 10 year-old little
brother, who turns out to be Nesbitt's character.
Eventually, Neeson is caught and sent to
prison for 12 years, and then he is set free as part of those
Good Friday accords that put an end to the violence in Northern
Years later, a T.V. producer wants to do a documentary on the
Irish version of truth and reconciliation, and thinks it'd be a
great idea to bring these two together, for the first time, and
create this warm-fuzzy experience of reconciliation and catch it
all on camera.
Neeson tells the producer, repeatedly, that this has to be
voluntary, that the brother of his victim cannot be forced into
this. He has to want it, or it's not going to work. And the
producer says "yes, right, we understand, trust us, we know what
we're doing". Meanwhile, the brother of the victim, cajoled into
doing this, is struggling with his own turmoil, with what he
calls his '5 minutes of heaven', his desire to get revenge. He
even brings a knife to the meeting, because he intends to kill
Well, he can't go through with it. The show falls apart, the two
never meet. At least not yet. And they continue their own
tormented lives, each in their own way. Until finally in a
private meeting, they do connect, and it's not pretty.
It's a powerful movie, and it illustrates that love cannot be
coerced. Reconciliation cannot be forced. You have to want it.
Paul's principle of voluntary action and love is surely correct,
it is the better way. But what happens when it is not enough?
This nation, founded supposedly as a Christian nation, as so
many often like to remind us (and proudly claim) had to fight a
horrendous war, killing thousands and thousands of people, to
bring an end to slavery. Because 'good Christian slave owners'
refused to follow Paul's advice.
And even after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, it took
another 100 years before the Voting Rights Act would give the
descendents of those slaves equal access to the ballot. Why?
Because states were still determining who had the right to vote.
After the Declaration of Independence was signed, declaring that
all 'men' were created equal, it took nearly another 150 years
before women were given that same equality.
Now, you can call those acts of love if
you want, but the point is for very large segments of our
society, they were not done voluntarily out of love for those
who benefitted. And when that is the case, as it is with every
social movement that has expanded the circle of equality against
the protests of those who prefer the status-quo of an earlier
age, we call it "justice".
Crossan and Marcus Borg, in their book on Paul, note the
connection between love and justice. "Love is the heart of
justice", they write, "and justice is the social form of love".
I love that definition -- justice is the social form of love.
This, then, is the updating of the text that I am proposing,
that I believe is essential for the witness of God's love to
remain the powerful force of change that brought freedom not
just to Onesimus, but to so many more.
When love is not enough, when otherwise good people cannot
voluntarily embrace the winds of change for greater equality,
then love calls us to work for justice. Love is what transforms
lives, justice is what transforms the world, and we, as
Christians, are called to do both.
Love calls us to feed 50, 60, 80 people maybe 100 who will show
up next Sunday for our Sunday breakfast. Whoever is hungry is
welcome to eat here. But justice calls us to ask 'Why are so
many people hungry?' What is the systemic change that needs to
happen to put an end to that hunger?
Love calls us to open our building on those freezing nights,
that no one will again freeze to death on the streets of Eugene
because they had no place to sleep. But justice calls us to work
for an end to homelessness so that no person has to sleep on the
street on any night of the year.
Love calls us to open our pocketbooks to contribute to
organizations like Week of Compassion, working to respond to the
crisis in Pakistan, with some 20 million people who have been
dislocated due to flooding. But justice calls us to change the
funding priorities of our governments, and especially our own,
that spends more on military defense than Russia, China, Great
Britain, and France (the next 4 biggest military spenders),
Love calls us to befriend the stranger and welcome the alien in
our midst. Justice calls us to work for immigration reform that
will treat those aliens with dignity for their humanity and
respect for the hard work they do in this country.
Micah summed it up well, some 700 years before Paul wrote his
letter, when he said "Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly
with your God".
Only Micah didn't say 'this is a voluntary choice, pick 1, 2 or
3'. Micah said "This is what the Lord requires of us".
And I think, if you read Paul carefully, you will find that Paul
says, and love says, the very same thing.
Our Church | Services
Music Programs |
a Group | Interfaith
Ministry | Sermons
| Pastor's Page
Questions or comments about this web site? Contact