Proper 18C: when your slave messes up big time

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Epistles / Lectionary / New Testament / Paul

It would probably be safe to say that the typical Christian in today’s world doesn’t read an entire book of the Bible in a day. And even safer to say this usually doesn’t happen before lunch

But, on this Sunday, that exactly what our congregations will be treated to – or just about anyway. Our epistle lesson is from the Paul’s Letter to Philemon – or should I say that It’s the entire epistle, save 4 verses.

If I may offer a word of advise: read the other four verses this Sunday. The authors of the lectionary allow for clergy to shorten or lengthen the readings as appropriate, and what the heck? It’s only four verses. It will take an extra 17 second to read.

Philemon isn’t the theological treatise that Romans or Galatians is. No weighty doctrines find their origin here. Honestly, most people don’t even know that it exists.

But, it gives a very human face to Paul and a few other early Christians. It also sheds light on a culture that is so very different from ours.

The Epistle to Philemon is a letter not written to an entire congregation or cluster of congregations – it’s a letter to one man: Philemon. And Paul is writing to him for one purpose: to get Philemon to forgive his slave, Onesimus – and maybe even grant him freedom to travel with Paul.

Onesimus was a slave. Onesimus was a Christian. Philemon was a Christian. Onesimus the Christian slave did something against his Philemon the Christian slave master’s wishes. And Onesimus ran away to Paul.

Paul is thus writing a very diplomatic letter to a Christian slave owner to try and get him to forgive his Christian slave. Paul, if nothing else, has great diplomatic skills. In fact, he’s pretty amazing at it. Notice how in the beginning of the letter he’s totally buttering up Philemon. Notice how he appeals to Philemon’s faith. Notice how Paul says to transfer Onesimus’ debt to Paul.

How could Philemon refuse?

At first glance, this is an obscure letter buried deep in the New Testament that is largely forgotten by the average Christian. And, at second glance it’s an obscure letter set in a context that is so totally and completely different than ours.

Unless your owning some slaves that your not owning up to.

But, if you dare to take a third glance at this passage what you’ll find is faith hitting the road in the lives of real people dealing with real difficult issues and relationships. It’s the story of three people (Paul, Onesimus and Philemon) struggling to live out their faith, and being challenged by it over and over again. It’s the story of Paul appealing on the basis of faith for Philemon to live differently. And, it’s the story of Onesimus who was maybe the most unlikely of Christian evangelists and apostles – but who seems to have a call to join the ministry of Paul as he proclaimed God’s love in Christ.

What could be better?

This is a good week not only to read an entire book of the Bible, but also a week to look at what faith looks like when it hits the road. What issues and relationships try your faith? If someone were to appeal to us on the basis of faith to change something in our lives, what would it be?

And, what would be the effect of that change?

For Onesimus, there may have been a big change.

There’s some evidence in the early Christian church that there was a “Bishop Onesimus.” This Bishop was so grateful for the witness and Christian love of St. Paul that he preserved many of his epistles that St. Paul had written to the churches during his ministry.

Without this “Bishop Onesimus” we may not have half of the books that make up the New Testament.

That’s what faith looks like when the rubber hits the road.


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