Monday, 2 September 2013

When tact leads to confusion : a sermon on the Letter to Philemon

My sermon today has the title “When tact leads to confusion”.  As Paul writes at an early point in his letter to Philemon,

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Amen.

One of our lessons today is the entire letter to Philemon.  This letter is one of a handful of letters bearing Paul’s name for which New Testament scholars have very little doubt that Paul actually wrote them.  New Testament scholars argue over whether or not Paul wrote some the letters bearing his name, the letters to Timothy and Titus for example.  But then there are other letters for which there is no real argument among scholars, such as Romans, Galatians, and the two letters to the Corinthians.  This group of letters includes this very short letter to Philemon.

Paul begins by praising Philemon’s faith and the way he expressed God’s love to others in very practical ways.  He wrote:

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God  because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.  I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.  I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

After beginning on this positive note, Paul gets to the point of his letter.  Paul wrote to Philemon on behalf of Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus.  Evidently Onesimus had encountered Paul and the two had become friends. 

This brings up the whole question of slavery.  The early Christian movement developed in a Jewish context.  Jesus was Jewish, as were his disciples, as was Paul. 

For Jews, slavery was evil, … full stop, … with no ifs, ands, or buts.  There was nothing good that a Jew could ever say about slavery.  The Jewish faith really began when the people were freed from slavery in Egypt, and (as a result) the Living God was always seen (first-and-foremost) as the God who frees slaves.  The first generation of Christians was made up mostly of Jews, who continued this Jewish attitude of complete opposition to slavery.

However, largely through the efforts of Paul, the Christian faith was spreading among gentiles in the Graeco-Roman world, among people who accepted slavery as a fact of life.  So, this letter reflected a culture clash that was going on within the Christian community at this time.  While this letter was sent from one Christian to another, it was sent between Christians of different world views and radically different attitudes toward slavery.
  • Paul, who wrote the letter, was a Jew who hated slavery.
  • Philemon, who received the letter, was a gentile who accepted slavery as a fact of life, and who even was a slave-owner.
Onesimus, the runaway slave, was to be the messenger bearing Paul’s letter.  In this letter, Paul tactfully requested Philemon to free Onesimus.  Examples of this tactful approach included statements like these:

… 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 …

… I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. …

… you might have him back forever,  no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother …

… Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. …

Paul even used a bit of humour to get Philemon on side.  Onesimus was a Greek name that meant “useful” or “beneficial”.  To make his point, Paul made a few puns on Onesimus’s name: 

“… Formerly he was useless to you [as a slave, that is], but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me [as a free person, that is].…” [Now, Onesimus by name can also be Onesimus by nature!]

and, a few paragraphs later

“… Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord!…” [I’ll send you this Onesimus (or “benefit”) and you, by freeing him, can send me another benefit (or another ‘Onesimus’, if you will).]

Using this sort of humour, an intellectual word-play of the sort that one educated person would use with another educated person, Paul was obviously trying to get Philemon on side, so that he would grant Onesimus his freedom.

One problem here is that tact is not a quality that we associate all that often with Paul.  Typically, when Paul was involved in an argument with anyone, he would get pretty robust – and, at times, pretty personal - in the argument.

Paul’s uncharacteristic tact in writing to Philemon provided problems for later generations.  The fact that Paul didn’t simply direct Philemon to free Onesimus has been used by some people to make the rather bizarre point that the Christian faith tolerated slavery.
  • When Christians in the nineteenth century (both in Britain and in the United States) were organising active opposition to slavery, some people who favoured slavery used Paul’s tactful language to Philemon to give some biblical support to their pro-slavery position.
  • Today, many aggressive public critics of Christianity refer to Paul’s matter-of-fact references to slavery as something that discredits all Christians today, as if William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King never existed.
Paul’s tactful language to Philemon has provided a great deal of confusion.

But the whole point that underscores this letter is that Christ creates a new human community, a new human community in which former slaves and former masters can sit at the same table as friends and equals.  In a later century, Martin Luther King referred to this new reality as “The Beloved Community”.  We participate in this Beloved Community whenever we share in Holy Communion. 

I believe that Paul realised that, if he obtained Onesimus’s freedom by bullying Philemon into freeing him, this would have been a flat denial of the Beloved Community created by Christ.  So Paul chose a more difficult way, a way that ran the risk of serious misunderstanding in later centuries.

Paul wrote tactfully to Philemon, seeking to obtain Onesimus’s freedom in a way that respected the dignity both of Onesimus and of Philemon.

And we really know nothing about Philemon’s response to Paul’s request, whether or not he freed Onesimus.  A few decades later, the Christians of Ephesus had a bishop named Onesimus, but we have no idea whether that Onesimus was the same as this one.

Nevertheless, Paul’s brief letter here challenges us to promote the new human community created by Christ, the Beloved Community we celebrate whenever we share this sacrament.

And, as Paul concludes his letter:

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”  Amen.

No comments:

Post a comment

Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.