Delivered at Ames UCC on August 18, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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THAT DARN PAUL
You know how I always want to fight with Paul because his exclusivist and at times super sexist theology makes me nuts and flies in the face of Jesus’ own Way?
Well, this letter is a big exception.
As I sat with the whole of Paul’s letter to Philemon, which does not usually appear in preaching schedules even in part, I realized that what we have here is master class in discipleship as relationship.
Let’s start with the basic content of the letter.
Paul is in prison, which happened a few times: two years in Ceseara, and then two multi-years stints in Rome, all as a result of his religious fervor. From prison, Paul writes to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and their house church. He begins with greetings and prayers and thanksgiving for the way Philemon and friends have refreshed Paul’s heart. Then Paul asks Philemon to somehow change the nature of his relationship with a person named Onesimus.
Onesimus is a slave of Philemon’s who, for reasons we don’t know, has been with Paul in prison. Did he run away from Philemon to Paul, seeking help? Or did Philemon send Onesimus to Paul for Paul’s care, as is recorded with another slave in the letter to the Philippians?
Also unclear is what exactly Paul wants to change.
Scholars suggest it could be for Philemon to take Onesimus back with forgiveness for whatever may have transpired (Paul refers to debts) or maybe Paul wants Philemon to keep Onesimus with Paul long-term or maybe Paul wants Philemon to set Onesimus free and receive him as an equal in the house church.
We just don’t know for sure, which is why this letter has been so useful for both anti- and pro-slavery forces over the years.
Paul goes on to ask that Philemon and the church be ready to receive Paul as a guest. And, finally, Paul offers greetings from other disciples.
So that’s the content. Now let’s look at the form, because there lies Paul’s true gift.
First, though Paul’s big ask is of Philemon, he addresses the letter to the whole of the congregation. This could, of course, look like shaming. Calling someone out in front of others can be very unkind. Or, it could indicate that there are community-wide stakes in our personal choices and community-wide support. Though Philemon has the power in the relationship with Onesimus, that relationship does not exist in isolation, but within a web of connections. The body of Christ includes all bodies.
Second, Paul writes
though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love
Paul has substantial moral authority within this ecclesia. He is their evangelist, he is their teacher, he is the one who invited them to wade in the waters with the Christ. So this could have been a very short note saying, “Phil, let O go. Thanks, P.” Instead, Paul details how Onesimus has become part of the flock, has become a true sibling. Then Paul asks Philemon to make the choice as an act of faith, rather than obedience,
in order that (his) good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.
Paul is preserving Philemon’s personal agency while inviting him to be a person of greater integrity at the same time.
Third, and final, there is the issue of Philemon’s and Onesimus’ names. Philemon can mean “good one” or “loving” or “he who shows kindness.” Onesimus’ name can mean “handy” or “useful” or “beneficial.” Now, I haven’t found any academic arguments or research on this, and have no reason to believe these were not their actual names, but it feels like there is something to Paul writing a letter to Kind One asking him to understand his relationship with Handy differently.
If a mentor of mine wrote, “Dear Good Heart, I write on behalf of Valuable,” I might listen more closely, for my mentor would be calling on and teaching me about my inherent decency and the inherent worth of the other.
So Paul, who does not pull any punches in his work to spread his understanding of the gospel, throughout this letter uses a gentle hand to encourage a fellow disciple to grow in his faith through his relationship with another.
And isn’t that the call to us all?
DISCIPLESHIP IS RELATIONSHIP
Pr. Hannah once said to me, and I have her permission to share this, that it would be so much easier to go to a much larger church. You can walk in, get your Jesus jolt, and walk out without having to know anyone or be known by anyone. There is no obligation in anonymity, no risk.
But, she continued, she is here because being known and knowing is part of the point.
Being in real relationship with fellow seekers over Sundays and years, is what makes for a faith that transforms.
It isn’t easy, of course. If we don’t have to know each other we don’t risk falling in love with each other or becoming implicated in each other’s living and dying. Losing Pauletti and Charlie within a month of each other has been painful.
But then who will give us “much joy and encouragement” when we are imprisoned, literally or by disease or by antipathy? And whose hearts, or in the Biblical Greek, splachna—which literally means guts, the ancient site of all emotions—whose splachna will we lose the opportunity to refresh when they are likewise bound?
From Adam and Eve to Abram and Sarai; from Ruth and Naomi to Mary and Joseph; from Martha and Mary to Jesus and Judas; from Paul and Philemon and Onesimus, we are taught that discipleship, devotion to God requires relationship.
We live in a vast world where we are encouraged, even pressured, to constantly wear masks of success and even perfection, where rhetorical and actual violence are the primary means of dialogue. In the midst of that we can forget that the damage we do to each other, and to ourselves, is damage to the whole.
But God continues to open spaces where we can be ourselves just as we are, ourselves as we are still becoming, in nurturance and accountability. It will mean wrestling with frustrating theologies and having uncomfortable public conversations, but it will certainly also include tender care and camaraderie, guides for the way and a fellowship that renders meaningless all human barriers.
Paul’s final gift to us is his letter’s conclusion:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
This is described by scholars as “a blessing on the recipient’s inmost being.”[i]
May you feel your inmost being blessed for having come here together today.
[i] Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors. The Jewish Annotated New Testament (2nd Edition). (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Page 459.