THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
13th Sunday after Pentecost
Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
Luke 14: 25-33
Philemon 1: 1-21
In recent years, a new phrase has entered our culture’s shared language about what it means to know and to do the right thing in life:
This phrase is “The right side of history”
If you stand with us you will be on the ‘right side of history’
If you oppose what we stand for, you are on ‘the wrongs side of history’
Truly, there is a positive impulse behind this slogan.
Those who use it obviously believe in a ‘positive teleology’ – a belief that as history moves forward, things get better. To them, history is not just the same old problems, in different times, but an ever-unfolding progress that we are invited to either participate in or not.
However positive this may be, there is a big (and often dangerous) assumption involved in this “right side/wrong side” language. Namely, that it assumes we can know the future:
That we can know what future people will believe and what they will believe about us.
Though positive in its view of progress, this movement seems to be more motivated by anxiety than by an earnest desire to know and do what is right; there’s an anxious threat involved for every participant:
If I don’t stand on the right side of this issue…
If I don’t vote for this candidate, or…
If I don’t march for this cause, or…
If I don’t work to solve this issue of my own time…
People in the future are going to look back and say “he/she was on the wrong side of history”
I will be lumped in with all the other “wrong side of history” folks: Nazis, and slave owners, racists and misogynists, cut throat capitalists and inept communists, I’ll be no better than they are.
The reason I bring this “right side/wrong side” language up is two-fold:
- Having just read Paul and Timothy’s letter to Philemon, in which they urge a wealthy man to take back the slave (Onesimus) who has just taken his master’s property and run away, I am keenly aware that much of this letter falls on the “wrong side of history”
- The second reason is that as a Minister of God’s word, it is my responsibility to share this letter with you as the God Inspired Scripture that it is, because, as I pray you will see, The Book of Philemon is not only about slavery, it is a book that calls us to bring Christ’s love into every relationship we have, even those marked by the sin of the world.
Sadly, the Book of Philemon is one of those Scriptures that is too often cast aside by modern churches. Dealing with subject matter that is not pleasant to modern worshippers, many churches decide it is easier to just skip over it than to deal with God’s Word, even when that word is challenging.
If we ever needed evidence that sin lives also in the church, we must look no further than this. As Christians, we claim to be centred in God, in Christ’s Love, and in the community of Christian fellowship. But no matter how many times Christ tells us to “fear not,” we often find ourselves making decisions based on the same anxiety as those who fear being on “the wrong side of history.”
Proceeding in our task this morning will take some courage. Courage that has been given us by Christ, who shows us that God brings about His Justice through flawed people in a flawed world.
Let us begin with just the simple facts of the Book of Philemon: who, where, when, who, what, and why
Where? Paul is undergoing his first term of imprisonment at Rome. We do not know exactly where Philemon lived but likely somewhere in modern day Italy or Greece, where “household” slavery was common practice. (a word on household slavery)
When? Approximately 61 AD
Who – At verse 1-2 we are told: Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house…
Who? The Apostles Paul and Timothy to Philemon and his house
What – After a preamble, Paul gets to the meat of the letter at verses 10-18:
10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful[f] both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but 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. 18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.
What? Paul, being imprisoned for preaching the Gospel, has been visited by Onesimus (Philemon’s runaway slave) who (we are safe to assume) has come to Paul believing that Paul would take him as his own slave rather than send him back to his former master. Being that Onesimus was a slave and did not have access to any more money than he was given by Philemon, Biblical scholars believe that Onesimus must have stolen some money from his master in order to make the journey to find Paul. Paul alludes to this when he offers to personally reimburse Philemon for anything Onesimus now owes him.
Why? This is THE question isn’t it?
Why did Paul write to Philemon on behalf of himself and Timothy?
Indeed, why is it that Paul (THE eminent 1st Century Christian) took time to write a letter (that is – on the surface – about returning a slave to his owner), a letter that is still part of our Biblical canon two thousand years later.
Let’s ask the man himself…
At verse 8 and 9 Paul says to Philemon:
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—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus.
“I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty”
In other words: Philemon, you say you are now a Christian, be a Christian! Either give Onesimus over into my care or take him back (but do not punish him)!
Philemon, you are rich in our time, you are important in our time, you are an owner of slaves, you have a great household, you can do what you like with your property, but if you are really a Christian you will not do as the world would do!
“do your Christian duty!”
“Yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love” (that is, Christian love)
“I, Paul, do this as an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus”
I, Paul, am nothing but an imprisoned old man; I have no household, I have no slaves, I have no wealth, no earthly power, I have only the Gospel of Christ with which to appeal to you; the Gospel that says that we shall have the love of Christ in our hearts in everything we do, if you won’t do your Christian duty, will you at least take enough pity on me to do what is right for the sake of the love of Christ?
Friends, I began this morning by inviting us to read the Book of Philemon as Christians. Not as an historical letter that condones the practice of slavery but as a timeless word of Scripture that calls us to always have the love of Christ within us as we deal in our sin-stained world.
As we know, sin is like mold, seeping and creeping in everywhere, especially where we do not want it.
The pages of Philemon itself are stained with this mold.
This book has been used through history to justify slavery practices. It has been used—effectively—to convince people that God is fine with slavery, that we are free to go on buying and selling and abusing human beings for profit, and indeed, it was effective for a very long time in this task.
But notice what Paul makes clear to Philemon that each of those slavery apologists seems to have missed: The Love of Christ.
Paul appeals to Philemon, at first, on the basis of his duty as a Christian and as a householder, but he says immediately afterward “I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.”
I, Paul, appeal to you on the basis of Christ’s love.
I, Paul, love you Philemon.
You, Philemon, love me Paul.
Let us both love our brother Onesimus, who though he has wronged you (according to the standards of the day), is now a brother in Christ and must be treated with the same measure of love.
Friends, though I am calling for a generous and graceful reading of this letter, I want to be perfectly clear in one thing:
Paul does NOT directly call for Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom.
Paul is NOT an abolitionist.
Paul was not John Newton or Abraham Lincoln, he was Paul
Paul who called for both slave-owner and slave to live first as Christians.
The world can say that Paul was NOT justified in his action to send Onesimus back.
We can judge Paul with our 21st Century minds and say, “It doesn’t matter what the rules of the day were, you should have done more to free Onesimus from captivity”
And we are perfectly free to do that.
We are perfectly free to judge Paul as being simply “on the wrong side of history.”
But, if we are confident in judging Paul on the basis of our modern culture, will we also stand with Paul and the Gospel, when they stand against the injustice of the world?
We may not stand with the Paul of Philemon, but do we stand with the Paul of Romans? The one who said:
“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” ?
Do we stand with Paul, who though sinful, though imperfect, attempted to serve Christ with love in the face of a world that considers such love nonsense.
Do we stand with Paul in considering ourselves “set apart” for the Gospel of God?
My friends, I am not saying that following Christ and his Apostle Paul is all-or-nothing. I am not saying that in order to trust the Paul of Romans, we must also trust the Paul of Philemon.
I am not saying that being a Christian means you’re either 100% with Paul or not at all.
What I am doing is asking a question:
Do we, like Paul, have the courage to attempt to live our lives in service to the Gospel, knowing that we will not always get it right but that we are loved nonetheless?
Do we have the courage to try to follow the Gospel?
Do we have the courage to try to serve Christ?
Do we have the courage to walk in the Gospel and the world and discern as best we can on the basis of Christ’s love (and nothing else)?
Do we have the courage to ask the salvation Christ has given us, as imperfect as we are?
Paul was imperfect. Paul may have been JUST PLAIN WRONG in the case of Philemon, but even if we hate his conclusion, we would do well to emulate his method: and that is to put the love of Christ first and foremost in every relationship with one another and the world.
Of course, we are free not to. We are free to live in this world and to take bits and pieces of Scripture as “good advice” and to discard the rest as we see fit.
We are free to believe the ways of this world when it tells us that human beings have the power to know the future and to know which is the “right side” of history and which is the “wrong side”.
We can choose anxiety over love.
We are free to live our lives completely ignorant of God and His goodness if we want; God has given us that freedom.
But then where will we be?
In this morning’s other uncomfortable reading we heard from Jesus himself as he told the crowds what it would take to be his disciple:
Luke 14: 26-27
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple…”
Jesus is clear in these words and the ones that follow: don’t leave the tower half built, don’t leave the battle half won; if you want to be my disciple, then follow me.
Jesus knows we are flawed.
Jesus knows we are imperfect.
Jesus knows that we cannot see the future.
His task is not to equip us with future vision, but to equip us with love and faith.
In His great love for each of you, He did not offer you the chance to be blameless and perfect in-front of history, He offered you eternal salvation and life everlasting, if we will only walk in his ways and obey his commandments.
If we want to know what this looks like in practice, we have the example before us in Paul’s letter:
Placing Christ above himself, seeking Christ and Christ’s love first, carrying this love into even the most sinful relationships, Paul carried the cross of Christ.
Paul’s efforts may not be good enough, based on our modern values, but they do show us the task (as well as the cost) of discipleship.
Paul was released from prison one year after penning his letter to Philemon and sending Onesimus back to his earthly master.
Four years after that, Paul found himself back in prison.
And a year after that, Paul was executed; martyred for the sake of the Gospel.
Throughout his life, as a businessman, as persecutor of the church, as one who was saved by Christ and made to see, as one who built churches and wrote letters, Paul did not live a blameless nor a sinless life. Whether he will be remembered on the “right side” or the “wrong side” of history will depend on a history that is always unfolding. It is difficult to say one thing about such a complicated figure.
However, at least one thing is true of Paul: he was a Christian who lived and died so that we might know what that means.