September 1, 2019
Did you see the pictures last week? Women wearing white dresses and head wraps against brown skin and dark hair, wading into the waves off the Virginia shore. One by one they scooped up water into gourds and poured it over the heads of their sisters – the water poured almost like a baptism.
These were not the waters of baptism, of course, not the waters with which God says, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” These were the bitter waters of bondage – the waters that carried the first African slaves to the shores of this fledgling colony 400 years ago this August.
Through this ritual, I watched these women release four centuries of resentment into the salty Atlantic, seeking a seemingly impossible peace with the cruel legacy of slavery and its lingering echoes in the present. It left me pondering the Church and our own complicity with human bondage.
In December of 1861, the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America (which would later become the PCUS) convened in Augusta, Georgia.
The Rev. James Thornwell read an open letter saying, “we are neither the friends nor the foes of slavery… the policy of its existence or non-existence is a question which exclusively belongs to the state.”
When faced with the most significant spiritual and moral issue of the day, the Southern Presbyterian Church said, “no comment.”
Of course, Rev. Thornwell would later speak his views more plainly: “[Slavery] has been a link in the wondrous chain of Providence, through which many sons and daughters have been made heirs of the heavenly inheritance.” In other words, it wasn’t sinning to enslave men and women but rather a means to save them from the sin of their Christ-less lives.
Obviously, this offends our modern sensibilities. And yet at the time, people like Rev. Thornwell would say these things with a Bible in hand, so sure that this opinion rested firmly on a foundation of Scripture. Our reading today was one of the go-to texts.
I wish that the Bible was more forthright in its condemnation of Slavery. But here in Paul’s letter to Philemon, we learn of the moment when Paul sent a runaway slave named Onesimus back to his master, Philemon. It makes you wonder if such a letter could possibly offer anything of value. But, as is often the case with Scripture, nothing is as it seems at first glance.
As a piece of persuasive writing, I will say that this is a rather humorous letter – Paul lays it on thick with Philemon. So, though our topic be weighty, there is still humor to be found. In other words, permission to laugh.
And as for Paul, he may have been a great man of his time, but he was still a man of his time.” He was limited by the horizons of the historical moment. But trusting that “faith lived in another time can still inform faith in our time,” hear these words from Philemon.
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, 2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.
6 I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.
7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.
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 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. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.
20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.
21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
Friends – this is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.
As a general rule, one would say that among your new co-pastors, Meg is by far the more orderly of the two. I submit our desks as Exhibit A. Hers is the model of order – everything well-filed and put away at the end of the day. Mine has a very special file system …of piles…that only I know how to navigate.
She is more prone to what I call “cleaning frenzies” – think the opposite of the Tazmanian Devil – and I am perfectly content with some modest level of disorder. My favorite thing to do is go through behind her while she’s on a tear and leave drawers and cabinets ajar – it drives her CRAZY!
We’re fairly consistent in these roles…except when it comes to the dishwasher. Particularly the silverware compartments. I for one support a system in which all of the forks go in this compartment – and the spoons in this one – and the knives in this one. But no, not Meg. She just grabs silverware by the handful and throws it in wherever.
For someone who enjoys order so much in Every Single sphere of life, I am dumbfounded by this. It strikes me as a gross inconsistency in our household.
There is an inconsistency in Philemon’s house. Something is out of joint.
Philemon’s house is the meeting place of the church – the place where these early Christians would go to ground themselves in the Gospel…the Gospel that promises sight to the blind and proclaims release to the captives. But Philemon’s house is also a place of enslavement.
Philemon is a pillar of the Church you might say. And at the same time, he’s a slave owner.
Now that wasn’t unusual in his time. Scholars estimate that at least 30% of all people within the Greco-Roman world were slaves. Unlike in America, slavery was not constructed along racial lines, but the effect was similar – some people were seen as less human than others.
Look no further than the name of the slave in question. Onesimus means “useful” or “profitable.” It was a common name for a slave in that culture, but already it hints that a human being has been reduced to a functional value.
Paul, however, understood that the Gospel bids us beyond such a crass, utilitarian view of a human being. The Gospel radically re-orients our relationships. The Gospel invites us to see one another as family, regardless of color, class or caste.
“My brother,” Paul says of Philemon. Later he refers to Onesimus as “My child…whose father I have become.” Paul drops hints like these throughout the letter before not-so-gently suggesting that Philemon receive Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a beloved brother.
This may have been one of the go-to texts in support of slavery in America, but with all due respect to the Presbyterian theologians of 1861, I fear there is something inconsistent in their interpretation. Paul may be sending a slave back – but that is not the same thing as condoning slavery. He sends him back to be a brother, not a slave.
Now before we congratulate ourselves too much for having a more “woke” understanding of Scripture – let’s understand that this text challenges us every bit as much as it must have challenged Philemon, because there is still a persistent inconsistency in our household too.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam made national headlines last Spring when a photograph surfaced of him wearing black face at a college party. In the immediate aftermath, a diverse group of clergy gathered to discuss the lingering legacy of racism in our country.
Rev. Kenneth Nixon from the First Baptist Church of Manassas, Virginia spoke: “My son is turning five,” he said, “and soon I’m going to have to strip away his innocence. I need to start preparing him for how to act in certain spaces because he has brown skin.”
He told a story about when he was a teenager – waiting for his father to pick him up in front of a Seven Eleven. As his father pulled into the parking lot, a police car pulled up to speak to him. He could remember the look of panic on his father’s face as he sped up to get there before the police could engage him, knowing that his son may very well give some smart-mouth response, as teenagers often do.
Rev. Nixon said “I was a grown man before I realized that my father wasn’t rushing over because he thought I had done something wrong. He was scared for my life…that the wrong words or wrong gesture might bring a premature end to my life.”
He later added “As a black man, it doesn’t matter how cold it is outside when I walk into a place of business, I always take my hands out of my pockets before entering. And though it will strip away his innocence, these are the kinds of things I will soon teach my five-year-old son.”
My daughters are five years old, but nowhere and I mean nowhere in my mind am I calculating their behavior versus their survival like that. Something is out of joint.
We are a nation pledged to liberty and justice for all, but we are also the nation of slavery and segregation, and we are the nation that still struggles with racism.
It’s a persistent inconsistency.
And truth be told, I’m not sure how to fix all of this, or if we can fix it. When the Ku Klux Klan marches just down the road in Hillsborough, I don’t even know what to say. It makes you wonder if we as a people will ever make progress.
But do you know what gives me hope? This letter – this letter that Paul slipped through prison bars to be carried across untold distances until it could find its way into the hands of a slave owner named Philemon. What gives me hope is that this letter even survived in the first place; that it was preserved; that it was deemed valuable enough to save.
How easy would it have been for Philemon to tear it up – to burn it to ash had it offended him or threatened his self-interest? These days we know all too well how easy it is to retreat into our echo chambers and shut out any opinions that do not harmonize with our own.
We don’t know precisely how Philemon responded.
We don’t know what happened to Onesimus.
But the fact that this letter was slipped through the bars of history and preserved in the pages of Scripture gives me hope:
Hope that Philemon was changed, perhaps converted all over again, and more deeply.
Hope that Onesimus was in fact received as a beloved brother, and not just as a useful servant.
Hope that the Gospel can still move us in the direction of justice.
Hope that God continues to claim us, an inconsistent, mixed up people, with an incredibly persistent love.
There’s an interesting phrase Paul uses in his opening lines to Philemon; it’s subtle, so subtle it may not have registered:
I always thank my God, because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.
That’s interesting. We often speak of having faith IN Christ Jesus. But Paul speaks of faith toward Christ Jesus. It’s dynamic, not fixed once and for all. We take a step. It may not be a giant leap. It may not close the distance all at once. But we can take a step.
I wonder what steps you have already taken? As your pastor – those are some stories I would love to hear.
I wonder what steps we might still take together? I hope we can dream about that.
It may be slow going – First one step, then another.
Those in Twelve Step programs already knows this.
One day at a time, one step toward the way and will of God.
And the good news is that we aren’t alone on the journey.
Look up, there are friends here who are walking and stumbling alongside you.
Faith is never a solo journey.
And look here, there is trail food.
Christ offering his very self to nourish us for the steps ahead.
Knowing the way is long, he gives us drink, the cup of salvation.
Knowing the way is hard, he promises us the bread that is life.
We live towards Christ, but Christ lives towards us – persistently, consistently towards us. Amen.
The service of worship is ending but our service to the world is just beginning.
We cannot do everything, but we can take a step.
So, let us step out with confidence, trusting that God will meet us and sustain us.
May the Lord bless us and keep us. May the Lord inspire us to be brave and grant us peace. Amen.
Paul was a great man of his time, but he was still a man of his time. Paul does something that many today would no doubt find oppressive. Nevertheless, faith lived in another time can still inform faith in our time.
Estimates place the slave population in the Greco Roman world at 30% of the total population. Fugitive slaves were legally bound to be returned. One who harbored a fugitive could be charged with theft. Contrast with Deut 23:15
“The overwhelming majority of slaves were prisoners of war… This slave-based economy provided honor and status to conquerors and ruling classes who, considered themselves due to the tribute and loyalty of slaves in exchange for preserving their lives and providing further protection. Therefore, in ancient times slavery was viewed as exclusively linked to revenue and not specifically to race.
Ancient writings also show that slaves were stereotyped as useless, lazy and even criminal. …Owners had exclusive rights over slaves, which meant that the owners who were responsible for protecting their slaves also had the legal right to inflict punishment and even death.”
Paul identifies himself not as an apostle or a servant, but as a “prisoner of Christ.” (v1, 9) The Lordship of Christ is something Paul cannot escape
This letter is less about slavery and more about how the gospel makes us family.
Philemon’s house was not only the meeting place of the congregation but also the place of Onesimus’ enslavement. So, there are aspects of the “house” that are inconsistent with the kinship defined by the gospel/church.