A sermon based on Philemon 1:1, 10-21, delivered by Pastor David Russow,
Hope Lutheran Church, Andover, MN; October 29 & October 2, 2019
In the name of Jesus, who freed us from the slavery to sin, death, and the devil:
“In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British Colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the Colonists. America was not yet America, but this was this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of the slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.” (The 1619 Project)
Reads like the opening lines of a new history book, doesn’t it? That’s exactly what New York Times wants as it rolls out with The 1619 Project: a revised history. 1619 not 1776 is supposed to be America’s birthday according to the 1619 Project. Not “conceived in liberty” but in slavery according the 1619 Project. A noble beginning? No! A vile and contemptible one, according to the 1619 Project. Inspiring founding fathers or repulsive racist, white supremacists? Forget Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, the outcome of the Civil War, and the 360,000+ Union soldiers, (and, for that matter the 250,000+ confederate soldiers). The 1619 Project wants us to RETHINK AMERICA where we came from and who we are!
Not that we don’t care, and not that slavery in America was horrible in so many ways, but rather than rethink America, the Lord God invites us to rethink slavery itself. Recorded for us is the relationship of a slave owner, Philemon, and a slave, Onesimus. Paul writes about their relationship to Jesus and to each other in ways that cause all of us to rethink slavery.
1Paul a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon, our dear friend and coworker…10I am appealing to you on behalf of my child, Onesimus. I became his father while I was in chains. 11There was a time when he was useless to you, but now he useful both to you and to me. 12I have sent him (who is my very heart) back to you. Welcome him. 13I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might serve me in your place while I am in chains for the gospel. 14But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that your kindness would not be the result of compulsion, but of willingness. 15Perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a while: so that you would have him back forever, 16 no longer a slave, but as more than a slave, as a dear brother. He certainly is dear to me, but he is even more of a dear brother to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18And if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19I, Paul, have written this with my own hand: I will repay it – not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20Yes, brother, I am asking for a favor from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
Slavery and Jesus:
Whenever we read the Bible we need to look for Jesus’ story, because that’s what the Bible is. So, where’s Jesus and what the Savior’s done in this letter in which Paul writes to a slave owner, Philemon, about his slave, Onesimus? Nowhere, but everywhere.
Paul writes about being in chains for the Gospel. Gospel is one of those religious catch words that we use that we think everyone knows but it’s good to review. Gospel means “Good News.” What was such Good News that a man like Paul was willing to give up his freedom, be imprisoned and finally be martyred – lose his life – for the sake of Christ and his Good News? This is the Best News ever about being set free from slavery to our own sin and sinfulness, by Jesus. The Good News is that Jesus gave up his freedom as Creator and became one of us created ones who had to obey the Law of God, perfectly. He did. He stayed holy, though tempted. His holiness unlocked our chaines to failing under the Law and being counted by God the Father as if Jesus holiness was ours. In fact, Jesus gave up his holiness in exchange for our sin. And that meant death. Jesus was perched on the slave block of the cross and whipped and dripping with blood, but the worst was his souls was sold into eternal death, hell, for the rest of us. The wages of sin is death, the double barreled shotgun of death fired one barrel and his soul left his body in physical death, but the other barrel was worse, separated from God forever. For the price of a slave – 30 silver coins – he was betrayed to the point of death even death on the cross, even the death of damnation. Sin and death were taken off of us and place on him. We’re freed.
But the best part of the Good News – Jesus didn’t stay dead. He rose alive the third day. The bondage of the declared that we are emancipated from the chilly grip of the grave! As Paul writes to the slave owner, Philemon, he refers to the best release from slavery of all. - A preacher from the time our nation was readying to become free, George Whitefield, described how impossible it would be for us to free ourselves from sin, death, and the devil’s accusations. He said to set ourselves free would be like, “…climbing to the moon on a rope of sand…” Jesus set us free!
Slavery and each other:
With such a radical change of a relationship with God through Jesus, the relationship of Philemon, the slave owner, and Onesimus, the slave also was radically changed. And then it wasn’t.
It wasn’t because Onesimus was returning to Philemon still his slave. But, I think we’d better understand, that, for the most part, slaves in the Greek/Roman world was more like an employer/employee relationship. Or, maybe it’s like in the NFL. Adam Thielen and Kirk Cousins, players for the Vikings, just couldn’t decide one day to go and play for the Bears. Why? Because they are under contract, the ownership of the Vikings has rights to their playing. Sure there were the abusive slave owners who did what those who were bad slave owners in our nation’s history did, but the owner/slave relationship was almost like a contractual relationship. Onesimus was not free to run. But he did as an unbeliever.
He ran into Paul, caught and in prison, he was set free by the Gospel and enslave, with a good slavery, to the bond of believers. He was dear to Paul and Paul appeals to Philemon to welcome him back no longer a slave, but more than a slave, as a dear brother. Onesimus still had a role to serve. Jesus gave him worth, like he gives us the highest worth. And Philemon, who was bonded to Jesus, now was bonded to his slave, Onesimus with a brotherhood in Christ, one of love. In fact, Paul says that Philemon would have Onesimus back “forever.” Their new relationship would last and eternity. Their new relationship made them equal even as they had their roles, they had one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father, in this new bond of Jesus’ love. Their roles hadn’t relay changed with each other, but their worth in Christ had.
What a new bondage! - You may know the name Frederick Douglass, who grew up as a slave in Maryland in the early 1800’s. He escaped and became educated and an orator as a leading abolitionist, who fought to end slavery forever. Douglas talked about the closest bond he had, one with his mother. Like many slaves he was separated from him mother, but she ended up on a plantation/farm 12 miles from Frederick’s. And he knew that close bond because his mother would leave her place of slavery after all were asleep, jog the 12 miles to Frederick and over the years, hold him, sing to him, care for him, see him to sleep and then jog the 12 miles back before sunup when she’d have to be in the fields again – or else! Those trips were almost a marathon that she made repeatedly. What a bond! What dedication! Isaiah asks, “Can a mother forsake the baby at her breast?...Though she may forget, I ill not forget you.” (Is. 49:15)
Philemon and Onesimus shared that strongest bond. So do we. When we interact with each other, especially when we we’ve been hurt or disappointed by another Christian in some way (like Philemon and Onesimus) let’s remember that greatest bond FIRST. Then we’ll approach each other as enslaved to one another in Jesus, thinking, “There’s a brother and sister in Christ,” first before any other thought. In that bond there is peace, resolution, and solution. That strongest bond binds us again when in our weakness we shatter that bond. Then there is peace and love – the bond of love which is the strongest – as we carry out our various roles with each other having the same worth.
I am concerned about The 1619 Project that asks us to rethink America. I am concerned about a revisionist history and what generations will be taught and believe about our nation and its roots. But as concerned as we might be our kingdom is really not of this world, it is Jesus’ Kingdom. In his kingdom we have been set free from the slavery of sin, death, and the devil. And in his kingdom we are bonded together – slaves to one another – in his love. Amen.