Philemon is actually part of today’s lectionary. I have never preached on it before, and I’m thinking that maybe you have never heard it preached ON before. Which is sad, actually. It is rich in contextual information about the first century, rich in specifics about it’s author, Paul, and I hope by the end of this sermon you will agree with me, that it is also rich in details about what makes Christianity a faith tradition to be cherished, preserved and lived out by those of us who call ourselves Christians.
Now, maybe, when you scanned the bulletin this morning, you noticed the citation for the book we would be discussing, again, Philemon, and you thought either Tom or I had made a type-o—because the scripture reading cited, Philemon 1-21, doesn’t show a chapter—you know chapter 2 (colon) and then 1 hyphen, 21, or whatever. There is no chapter citation, because Philemon doesn’t have any—chapters that is. It is THAT short. Less than one page in your pew Bibles. It is, in fact one of the shortest books in the Bible (only 2nd and 3rd John are shorter) and it is the shortest of Paul’s letters to have been preserved in scripture.
Now, some of the letters attributed to Paul which we have in scripture, were written by someone else or several someone elses, followers of Paul; not so, though, the letter to Philemon. It is authentically Paul. We can go further than that. Paul sometimes dictated letters to a scribe, a common practice in first century Rome. We know because he says so right in the text, that he did NOT use a scribe when he wrote to Philemon. He says, “l, am writing this with my own hand.” (Philemon 19). Why is that? Paul might have written this letter with his own hand because he composes it from prison or under house arrest, and in prison or under house arrest, maybe no scribes were available to him; he might have written it himself, because he was in a hurry—no time to round up a scribe; or it might be because this letter was meant to be so very personal—from his heart—and he didn’t want a third party to get between him and the text and between him and Philemon, again, the person to whom this letter is addressed. My vote is for option three. It’s a very personal letter.
However it came to pass, though, the Apostle Paul sat down on a bench or a chair, at a table or desk, pen in hand, an ink well at the ready, and a sheet of papyrus before him and he scratched out some words. Which means, that in what I am about to read, you are hearing words written by the Apostle Paul himself. This is as authentic as it gets, folks.
With all that in mind, listen now for the Word of God: READ
There are two things I want to draw out in our study today. The first is Paul’s flowery, flattering, florid writing style. As someone has said of this letter, Paul wrote with
“a quill dipped in the inkwell of grace,” although maybe the inkwell of sweet honey would be more like it. If Paul’s letter were a piece of fabric, it would be all lace, wouldn’t it—and pink lace at that. If it were an e-mail, it would be decorated with lots of emoji’s—hearts and flowers, and smiley faces. Maybe you think Paul is over the top. Too much goodwill can be read as disingenuous; too much flattery can seem insincere. I actually thought so at a first reading of our text this week. But the commentators I turned to, suggest that Paul’s sweet talk is heartfelt. Remember, he is the one who wrote, “Let love be genuine—that’s from another letter—Romans.” Paul understands the importance of sincerity. We need to take this letter at face value then. Paul is extremely appreciative of Philemon’s friendship and his dedication to spreading the word of Christ.
It is true, though, that Paul’s language is a little foreign to us. So for instance, Paul refers to Philemon as his brother “whom he loves.” And he also refers to Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, as his brother, and also as his son, again “whom he loves.’ We don’t talk like that here in this church. That’s not a criticism, exactly. It’s just who we are, which is Presbyterian—frozen chosens. Paul write like a good Baptist. And here I should just say that one of the things I SO appreciate about Chestnut Grove Baptist Church, with whom we will be worshiping in just a few weeks, is its use of brother/sister terminology. So for instance, Judy is Sister Brown, and Cathy is Sister Reele. And I guess I am sister Einstein, which sounds like a weird blend of Baptist and Jewish—Sister Einstein.
I said there were two things, though, that I want to draw out in our discussion of today’s text. The first is that Paul was almost over the top in his love for others. The other has to do with the purpose of Paul’s letter. Onesimus is a slave and Philemon is his master. In Roman times, slaves were often captives of war—others were forced into slavery to pay off a debt. Although it is not absolutely clear, it may be that Onesimus is a run away slave. What IS clear, though, is that Onesimus, the slave, and Philemon, his master, have had a falling out. Paul feels compelled to try to patch things up between them. He reminds Philemon of their mutual affection and of their brotherhood in Christ. He declares that Onesimus is also a Christian—so that he too is part of this brotherhood. He suggests to Philemon that if that isn’t enough, he should mend things with Onesimus because Paul asks him to, and Philemon owes Paul. Who brought him into the faith after all? So Paul is a Christian version of the Godfather. You know that line from Don Corelone: “Some Day I will call upon you to do a service for me.” Today is that day, says Paul.
So that is the purpose of the letter, to mend a broken relationship but if that is all that it is about, I’m not sure it would be canon-worthy. Why would Christians decide to insert a personal letter from Paul into our holy scripture?
That’s what I want to explore, in the rest of our time here today-- not just the narrow purpose of this letter, restoring a relationship, but it’s broader purpose. And I want to do that by addressing why it is we read scripture anyway.
One reason we read scripture is to get advice, or comfort when we are in times of distress. I’ve done that, I am guessing we have all done that. You are alone in your bedroom, door closed. You are sitting on the edge of your bed. Maybe you are crying. Maybe the well has dried up. Someone close to you is in trouble; a love relationship has gone sour. Your child has messed up his or her life. We might say you are at wit’s end—which is a great descriptor, as in you don’t have even one wit left. Your brain has retired to some remote island in the Caribbean so you can’t think. You pick up the Bible from your bedside table and you let it fall open where it will—you are hoping it will be a kind of holy weather vane, pointing the way for you. As I said, I’ve done that. Probably you’ve done that. Saint Anthony did that. Who’s he?
Well, he is a saint, of course, although he wasn’t always a saint. Way back in the 200’s, when he was 18 years old, about your age, he was trying to decide what to do with his life. At wits’ end, he opened his Bible and he read these words from Jesus: “Go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Most of us, if we read that, would probably say. Ok. Can’t do that, let me pick another scripture reading. Not Anthony. He did exactly what scripture, what God advised him to do. He sold all his possessions, he became a monk, and he spent his life spreading the Christian faith.
Another Saint, Saint Augustine, who lived in the 300’s, was also at wits’ end way back before he achieved sainthood. One day, he was in a garden, weeping. As he wept, he noticed that some children were singing on the other side of the garden wall, They were singing, “Pick up and read! Pick up and read,” which you have to admit is a strange thing for children to be singing. He looked around him. There on the bench he was sitting on, was a Bible. He picked it up and it fell open to Romans 13. The verse he read was, “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Augústine had been living with his girlfriend—partying long into the night every night. He did not have a job. That scripture passage was God’s weather vane. He gave up the girlfriend, became a serious student of scripture, and eventually became a church patriarch and eventually a saint.
So, it happens. Sometimes we read just the right scripture, at just the right time, and it is life transforming.
There is a problem with the way we sometimes read scripture, though. Sometimes, we come to scripture, hoping it will give us the answers to the great moral issues of our day. We want it to lay out for us in black and white: “IS abortion a sin against God?” “Is it ok to spank your child?” “Is torture justified?“ “Is euthanasia contrary to the will of God?”
Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist. He has spent his academic career studying how we humans come to our moral judgments. He says that our moral judgments are often dictated by our own personal feelings. Dr. Haidt has written a lot of books, but if you are interested in reading one, I would recommend, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. In that book he compares our rational processes to an elephant with a rider. The elephant is our emotions. Think powerful, muscular, weighty. The rider is our higher thought processes. Think small, weak, scrawny. The rider, our rational mind, has very little control over our elephantine hates, loves, passions. When we read a Biblical text, often our passions take over. Our emotions and not our rational minds do the interpreting for us. So, say we are against euthanasia. We open our Bibles hoping to justify our stance, based on certain select scripture readings. That is proof texting.
All to say, that when I first read Philemon, which was in seminary, I thought to myself, “It is SO clear that Paul is against slavery. Here is a man WAY ahead of his time—A visionary. A prophet.” Maybe you thought so, too when I read the text out loud today.
Paul may be a a visionary and a prophet, however, it turns out that Paul is not in this letter, condemning the practice of slavery. That is my elephant and maybe your elephant getting in the way of our interpretation. In fact, back before the Civil War in this country, some slave holders actually used this letter to JUSTIFY their ownership of slaves! That was THEIR elephant getting in the way of their interpretation. On a close reading, it is clear that Paul neither condones or condemns the practice of slavery.
So, that said, is there a broader purpose in this letter, or is Paul just trying to settle a dispute between a master and his slave?
I actually don’t think there is a broader purpose, but I think there IS a more expansive message for us, if that makes sense.
I have studied scripture for a lot of years now. I have studied it up close with a magnifying glass as it were, gone back to the original Greek and Hebrew, studied word derivations, but I have also stepped back now and again, putting distance between a text, and between the Bible and me. And when I step back, what is striking are its expressions of love.
So we are back to emoji’s and pink lace again, only those emoji’s and that pink lace are coming not just from Paul to Philemon, but from God through Paul to Philemon, and also to us.
Philemon, like the whole of scripture is God’s love letter to humanity. A letter of love addressed to all Christians, Jew and Gentile,slave and free, male and female, and even Baptists and frozen chosen Presbyterians. Amen