A sermon preached on September 4, 2016, based on the book of Philemon.
This letter from Paul to Philemon is so full of tenderness that we almost forget what is at stake. To hear Paul tell it, everybody he mentions is part of one big happy family - they are each other's brother, sister, child, father. It is almost enough to make us forget that what hangs in the balance is something fearful and life-changing for the young man Onesimus. He is going back as a slave to the master from whom he ran away. He cannot know what sort of welcome he will receive, and he must be afraid of what the future will hold. I mean, not to belabor the obvious, but if he had wanted to spend the rest of his life in Philemon's house, he *wouldn't have run away.* And now he goes back, with the full support of Paul - but also with the very real possibility that Philemon won't particularly care what Paul has to say about all this.
Certainly, Paul's letter leaves a little wiggle room. I mean, it's pretty clear what Paul expects, and some of that wiggle room feels like a masterful lesson in giving a guilt trip. "Oh, don't worry, Philemon if you do the right thing I'll pay you back for anything you've lost. Never mind what I've done for you. And never you mind that I'm in prison; did I mention that in my first parapraph, or the third, or the fifth? Well just in case you'd forgotten, I'm still in prison now as I sign off. Me and Epaphras, we're in prison. Oh, but when I get out, I'm gonna come for a visit." We don't have to read particularly closely between the lines here to see that Paul is making more than a gentle suggestion in this letter - he's going to followup in person and he's addressed this letter to the whole church, andso Philemon better have a really good PR team if he's going to ignore what Paul is clearly telling him - that he must set Onesimus free, and not only that, he must embrace him as a brother. If Philemon is going to to do anything else, he's going to need a good excuse.
Of course, if humanity has a superpower it is our talent for really good excuses. Give us some wiggle room, and we'll wax the floor, hire a band, and tapdance all around every possible reason for not doing what we ought to. "Give me a little time, Paul. then I'll do the right thing. I don't want to do anything too radical Paul, how bout if I just don't punish him, and we go from there. Oh Paul, I would set Onesimus free, you know that I want to, but what kind of precedent would it set for the other slaves." It might set the precedent that they should be free too.
I don't have to imagine this human capacity for making excuses because of course, we have it on the historical record in our own country. This congregation was founded many years after slavery was ended in the United States, but if you go to our lobby you'll see that when we were founded we weren't known as a United Methodist Church - we belonged, like most Methodist churches down here, to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. And I bet you don't have to think very hard to guess why the Methodist Episcopal Church, South broke off from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844. It was the same reason that the Southern Baptists came into existence a year later. Now, I am proud that our church has worked to repent and reunite and to heal the wounds we inflicted - I'm proud that over time we sought reconciliation with other Christians and rejoined ourselves as United Methodists. And I believe in this particular congregation's mission of uniting the diversity of our community the grace of Jesus Christ. But true repentance means giving account of what we are leaving behind and that means accounting for the fact that Christians, like any body else, can do a lot of wiggling with very little room. There was a time when a whole lot of Christians read the book of Philemon and used it as their excuse for diong the exact opposite of what Paul asked Philemon - there was a time when lots of Christians, people we now count among the saints in heaven - read this letter and their main take away was "see, there was slavery in the New Testament, and Paul didn't *exactly* say that it was wrong, every time, in every place. He only told Philemon to free this one person, Onesimus, so surely it's ok if we deny freedom to millions of other folks." Right?
When we look back on a shameful chapter like that, it might be tempting for us to say "Why couldn't Paul have been a little clearer?" 25 verses is pretty short, but maybe it could have been shorter. Maybe it could have gone "Philemon, slavery's wrong. Stop it right now and tell everyone else to stop it forever. Thx. bye." Even now, with the benefit of hindsight, we want to make excuses - oh if Paul had only been a little clearer. Or, maybe if he'd made it clear what would happen to Philemon if he didn't
Maybe the problem isn't in the words, and it's not in the enforcement. Maybe it's a problem of the heart. And maybe hearts are harder to change, even than behavior, but maybe a change of heart is our only hope.
The night before Jesus was crucified he was found in a garden by a group of soldiers. His disciples were so riled up that one of them took his sword grab and lifted it high and struck off the ear of one of those in the band that had come against. Jesus looked at his disciple Peter and said Peter "if I wanted to stop this; if I wanted to impose my will at the point of the sword I have 10,000 angels I could bring to bear on this little situation." God is not trying to win points or even to win control. God has all the glory God needs and all the control God needs. What God longs for is to win our hearts.
The prophet Jeremiah, when faced with the exile and the utter destruction of his homeland, gave a promise to the people of Israel that there would come a day when God's people will no longer do the word of God because it is written on a tablet of stone or on pieces of paper; there will come a time when the law of God is inscribed in their hearts. This is what God wants: not the obedience that comes out of fear or enforcement or simply because "what else would we do?' God's longing is for a heart that beats in time with God's very own. This is why Paul is trying every possible way he can to say "This is what I long for you, Philemon but I want it to be willing. I want you not only to free Onesimus, I want you to realize he is your brother. I want to change it all - not just your household, not just your behavior, not just this one thing, not just this one guy's status - I want to go all the way down until every heart is transformed." The relationship is everything. This is why Paul called in so many favors here, because he hopes he has won the favor of Philemon and that that favor can be extended. The relationship of favor is what God longs for us all. That is the point: we don't have a relationship with Jesus because we think that is the means to our salvation; God offers us a relationship because a relationship with Jesus Christ is our salvation! There is nothing more, nothing bigger. There's nothing better than to know and be known by God! God is playing for our hearts.
And because our heart is the root of all our actions, all our thoughts - the salvation that God offers us touches everything that we do. It matters for how we treat one another; it matters for how we worship; it matters for how we serve, and it matters for our evangelism.
It's interesting. I was talking to a friend recently - she was in another conversation with another friend. This other friend was a part of a smaller denomination that makes the bold and audacious claim that they have a monopoly on the gospel, that if you are not a part of this particular church you are not truly saved. So my friend is talking to her friend and says "So to all your friends think that this is pretty much it for me, and I'm headed to hell even though I'm a Christian." Her friend said "Yeah, pretty much." So my friend responds "You don't think that do you!" Her friend responded, "Well, no.'
To which my friend said "Thank you!"
I thought that was such an interesting response "Thank you." Thank you, as if we have the right to to expect that from someone else. I wonder what your own response would be to somebody comes in and immediately begins questioning your faith, begins questioning whether it is of any ultimate value. I imagine your hackles might get a little raised. I imagine that's why in a study of the most effective evangelistic churches in the country - those that are growing not only by by adding folks with the church backgrounds but adding and converting adults who've never heard the gospel before - found that the least common reason of all reasons - so small as to be statistically insignificant - of all the reasons people gave for why they first started looking for the good news of Jesus Christ - the least of all reasons was because somebody told them, "look, you're going to hell if you don't," It turns out that's not a terribly powerful motivator for non-believers. Now, interestingly, it can be a very powerful motivator for us to go out - when we see the world around us and we know that there is grace, that there is hope, that there is favor for them surely that gets us off our tails for all those who are living in is if they have missed it! But if we go out leading with the news of what's wrong rather than the news of what God's best plan is, it turns out folks don't often hear what we have to say. It turns out that in evangelism relationship is everything. I've mentioned before that the number one reason why people begin pursuing a relationship with God, the number one reason they give for how they started the path towards professing Jesus, is that someone they knew and admired invited them to church. Relationship is everything.
And sometimes that means that we end up being the ones to bear the costs of the good news. Paul says to Philemon"if he is cost you anything; if you are out in any way, let me know. Charge it to my account - here, I've signed it with my own handI will bear the costs
In a world in desperate need of good news, the question we are being asked is what cost would we bear to show our love. Will we go out of our way; will we make ourselves uncomfortable, and inconvenience ourselves , will we bear any of the cost ourselves, or do we expect everyone else all to pay upfront? Do we expect the change to come all at their expense or is there some cost we will be willing to bear ourselves?
If so, then not only others, but we ourselves are changed. And we discover that our hearts, too, are being won over by God as we o ffer them to others. We settle for nothing less either than an appeal to woo and win the hearts of others - though sometimes it seems like it'd be easier if we could impose the point of the sword, the law written in stone, or just the overwhelming weight of popular opinion to get our way. Intead we appeal to the heart, refusing to settle for anything less. For where would we, and who would be if Christ settled for anything less than our own hearts?