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SERMON
15 Pentecost - Proper 18
September 9, 2007
The Rev. Robert C. Granfeldt
667 Mount Road, Aston, PA   19014                                                 610-459-2013
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– the lesson that sets the theme for the day, in our three-year lectionary rotation – and
the Old Testament reading, which is chosen to complement the Gospel. More often than
not, I don’t even get around to MENTIONING the Epistle reading – except for those
relatively rare occasions when the Epistle reading accidentally matches the other two.

This morning’s lessons are NOT one of those occasions!

But today’s Epistle is worth noting, though, because it’s one of the very few occasions
when the reading actually comprises virtually the whole of an epistle. Most Epistles are
quite long, and are covered in our lessons over a period of weeks. Only this one – the
Letter of St. Paul to Philemon – is short enough to be covered in one shot! A few verses
of farewell greeting are left out at the end, but the essentials are all right here.

Philemon is different from Paul’s usual letters in other ways, too: it doesn’t contain any
theological ruminations or teachings; and it doesn’t deal with any problems that have
arisen in any of the small, new Churches that Paul or his friends have “planted” in their
travels.

Rather, it’s a very personal note from Paul to a friend about a mutual problem and it’s
really quite delightful – and revealing!

It’s delightful, even though Paul is writing from prison: “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus,”
he writes, “and Timothy our brother, to Philemon, our dear friend and co-worker, to Ap-
phia our sister, to Arch’ippus our fellow soldier, and to the Church in your house: grace
to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

I mentioned a while back that Paul had spent time in prison at least twice – though if we
listen closely to what he says in some of his letters, it’s probable that he was imprisoned
a number of times, for the sake of the Gospel. Which imprisonment this was, we don’t
know, or at what point in his ministry. But there are some things we ought to understand
about prisons in Paul’s time, because they were VERY different from what we think of.

Prisons, in those days, weren’t great, grey buildings dedicated to the long-term
incarceration of criminals. In fact, while imprisonment AS PUNISHMENT was known to the
ancients, it wasn’t done very often. Instead, a variety of other punishments were
preferred: anything from fines, to beatings, to property forfeiture, to banishment, to
execution, and lots of other approaches to punishment in between were used.
Imprisonment, itself, was most often used only while the accused was waiting: waiting to
be tried, waiting to be banished, … waiting to be executed.

The jail, itself, MAY have been a special building, made for the purpose – especially in
larger cities, like Rome, where a prisoner might be incarcerated and kept in chains; but
more often it would have been a less formal setting – a house, perhaps, set aside for the
purpose; possibly even the prisoner’s own house or lodging – a kind of house-arrest.
Nor were prisoners necessarily isolated, as today. Not only could they typically have
plenty of visitors, but in the less dismal accommodations, they might even be allowed to
have friends or relatives staying with them! (That’s not really so strange, by the way – it’s
a practice that continued through most of the 19th Century in England and France, for
instance!)

Again, which imprisonment this is, we don’t know; nor where or precisely when.

What we DO know is that somehow, he has met someone during his imprisonment, and
THAT someone has responded to Paul’s teaching and preaching by making a decision to
become a Christian – a decision to devote his life to the Lord! Through their
acquaintance, they’ve discovered that, by sheer coincidence, Paul and his new friend
have mutual acquaintances: the very Philemon, Ap-phia and Archip’pus Paul is writing to!
And, what’s more, this new Christian, Onesimus, BELONGED to one of them! Onesimus, in
fact, was a slave. Which of them he belonged to, we can’t tell from the letter – whether
Philemon or Archip’pus (Apphia was a woman; so she couldn’t have owned him) – but it
isn’t important. The important thing is, Onesimus, has run away from his owner; AND – he
stole from him, when he left! Which is, under the law, not one but two CAPITAL offenses!

How he came upon Paul in captivity isn’t explained. But they’ve now met, Onesimus has
heard Jesus Christ preached, and become a Christian. And Paul feels very deeply – even
fatherly – toward the young man.

And, now, Paul writes his owner! And he shows himself not only a master writer, but a
master in Human relations! He could – as he notes – “pull rank;” could use his authority
as an Apostle and Evangelist. But he doesn’t. Rather, he appeals to the better side of his
friends, to the Christian side of his friends, and to their side that is concerned with
spreading the Gospel – and he plays on that better side! Paul shows himself, actually, to
be a master at manipulation, and a charmer.

Referring to himself as Onesimus’ father, he appeals for “his child”. He points out that he
COULD have kept Onesimus’ with him, to serve him in his imprisonment, but didn’t do
that; that he chose, instead, to send him back in order to give THEM the opportunity to
show their goodness. How? Well by releasing him, of course, or (Paul gently suggests)
even sending him back!

It’s altogether a charming display on the part of the aging Apostle – who even manages to
slip in a reference to his poor, aging status…! And the letter reveals to us a side of Paul
that his more theological works do not – a more human Paul, a softer Paul – but
nevertheless a still righteous and even self-righteous Paul.

This Epistle would be worth reading if it did nothing more than reveal Paul to, us, but it
teaches us other things, as well.

Slavery was an important fact of life in the ancient world. It existed in the Middle East –
including amongst the Hebrews – from the very earliest times, and in the Greek and
Roman worlds, as well: it was a tool of war – with captives being reduced to slavery; it
was a part of the penal system – with some offenders losing their freedom for a time, or
even permanently; and it was an important, even VITAL fact of economic life!

As in America in the 18th and 19th CENTURIES, much of ancient life and commerce were
built on slavery!

And Christians need to realize and remember, always, that there is not so much as a
whisper of condemnation of slavery in all of Scripture – not from Paul, not even from
Jesus!

This letter to Philemon is the most detailed discussion of a situation involving slavery in
the whole Bible  – and it comes nowhere NEAR even the slightest suggestion of
disapproval! Paul simply would like to see THIS, particular slave, Onesimus, freed – freed
not because slavery is wrong, but out of personal affection for him, and because he
might be effective in serving Christ! But of the INSTITUTION of slavery – that pervasive,
universal practice – not a word of condemnation!

If that comes as something of a shock – we need to remember that our scriptures are
marked by what has been called progressive revelation; that is, the idea that God does
not reveal all of his truth at once, but only slowly, over time – though I think the doctrine
is actually misnamed; that it is not that God reveals himself, progressively, but that we
only come to UNDERSTAND, God’s self-revelation progressively!

And we need to keep in mind, as well, a second, closely related understanding, that I’ve
spoken of, before: that, as this third millennium since the birth of Christ begins, we are
really just BEGINNING to sort out what it all means to us and for us – as individuals, as a
culture, as the human race.

That two thousand years after Christ, it is still just BEGINNING to come clear to us what
his life meant, what his teaching meant, what his death meant; That two thousand years
after Christ, it is still just BEGINNING to come clear to us that the meaning we’re
discovering has consequences; makes demands; that BECAUSE of Christ – because of
who he was, because of what he meant – we human beings NEED to change: to change
the way we think, behave, treat each other; to change the way our societies are
organized; to change the whole way in which we live in the world, live with one another.
And we’ve barely just begun!

It never occurred to St. Paul that it might be WRONG to enslave other human beings, to
treat them as chattel; to buy and sell them, to beat them, to kill them – even as, he
recognizes, Philemon had every right to do to Onesimus. But his faith caused him – in
whatever small way – to step outside the usual boundaries of accepted behavior
regarding the treatment of runaway slaves, and propose something special to Philemon,
something special for his child in God, Onesimus.

It took nineteen more centuries, but Paul’s unrealized insight, the merest BEGINNING of a
new understanding, embodied in this letter, eventually led to the legal abolition of
slavery throughout the Christian world.

We are only slowly coming to understand, we are only slowly coming to realize what our
DAWNING understanding requires of us, and put our realizations into practice! We are
only slowly coming to understand that the Bible is limited in time and space – two
thousand years old! – and asking “what does the Bible say?” is only the beginning
question; that the final question must be “in what DIRECTION is the Bible pointing? In
what DIRECTION would it lead us?” If, a Century and a half ago, we had stopped our
questioning at “what does the Bible SAY,” we would still be slave owners, today!

These are, I believe, the two most important ideas that twenty-first Century Christians
need to grasp: that we cannot allow ourselves, our Church or our world to dwell in the
past, because we are just now beginning to learn, to understand, our place in God’s
world – and that our dawning understanding makes demands on us! Demands that we
learn, finally, as Paul was dimly learning, what it means to “love our neighbor as
ourselves"!

Oh, and by the way. The Scriptures don’t tell us how Philemon and Archippus responded
to Paul’s pleas; they don’t tell us what became of the young slave! But there is a
tantalizing hint from another source!  The great Bishop of Antioch, St. Ignatius mentions –
some time in the first seven years of the Second Century – one Onesimus: who must
either be the same Onesimus, or the second and last one ever mentioned in all of  world
literature – which would be a considerable coincidence. But this Onesimus who was still
alive at the end of Ignatius’ life was no longer a slave: he was Bishop of Ephesus! And
that’s important, too!

In Christ’s name. Amen!