Sunday Worship Service 12th September 2021
A prayer of adoration
Most merciful and gracious God,
we offer you our heartfelt love and praise
because your Son, Jesus Christ,
was willing to risk everything for the whole world.
Even for us.
We come to worship you,
earnestly seeking your will for us –
however risky that might be, you are worth it.
Read Philemon verses 1-25
Sermon by Rev Peter Lyth
Tucked near the end of the New Testament is a very small book – a letter in fact. It’s only 25 verses long and is the last of the letters of Paul before the Bible goes on to Hebrews then Peter’s letters. The letter is to Philemon and despite its brevity, and that it is a deeply personal letter, it is included in the Biblical canon. Its subject is slavery. In our time, for the most part we don’t have any truck with slavery nowadays although it has to be said that its eradication is still a long way off. There are laws – the Modern Slavery Act 2015 requires organisations to declare that they do not condone slavery or human trafficking – not just in their organisation but anywhere in their supply chain. Sadly it still does occur – even in the UK. But in Paul’s time, slavery was mainstream.
Paul was writing this letter whilst in prison. We are not sure where but many scholars think it was in Ephesus or in Rome. Despite the imprisonment, he wrote this letter for the slave who had become his friend.
The letter was written to Philemon – hence the name. We know a few things about him. Firstly, he was well to do. He had a house that was large enough to house the local church. His house was also large enough to have at least one guest room. And he was a slave owner.
He lived in Colossae, but he travelled, encountering Paul in Ephesus. He was a convert of his and became a “fellow worker” meaning that he likely took time out from his career as a successful businessman in order to help Paul develop the church. He was not just a rich man that bankrolled the church, rather he was a leader or was the leader of the church in Colossae. The letter was sent to him, but also was a petition to the whole church.
But what was Paul writing about? He was writing about a slave – Onesimus. Onesimus was one of Philemon’s slaves and he had run away. He had become a fellow prisoner with Paul, we are not certain of the circumstances of this. But he was in a position to be sent back to his master. There is a lot of speculation as to the circumstances that caused Onesimus to abscond. Some suggest that he had stolen from his master. Others suggest that he specifically went away to seek out Paul in order to intercede in his behalf. Whichever way, Onesimus’s encounter with Paul was to have far reaching consequences. He had become converted to Christianity and had become very close to Paul despite their difference in worldly status. In fact he is referred to in Colossians as, “faithful and beloved brother”.
Certainly, if Onesimus was indeed a fugitive slave, he would need Paul’s intervention. The punishments for a slave absconding included beatings, chains, branding or even worse. Yet it is likely that Paul’s standing was such as to make this unlikely. This must have been the case, since Paul sent Onesimus back carrying the letter to his master. Paul was hoping that Philemon would act in a way that was just – demonstrating dignity and generosity whilst retaining his honour. By the letter being addressed to the whole church, this could be a very public demonstration of grace.
But Paul’s approach is, for the time, quite revolutionary. He doesn’t just ask for Philemon to restore Onesimus back to his former position in the household as a slave, rather he goes one step further. He asks that Philemon treats Onesimus, “no longer a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother”. So, in sending Onesimus back in that way – some would say a risky strategy in itself, he pushes things still further.
Looking at things with the lens of the 21st Century Britain, we would, of course like Paul to have been more forthright. We would have liked Paul to tell Philemon that slavery was wrong and that he must immediately free his slave and forgive him. But at the time, slavery was the norm. How people treated slaves however was another matter.
So how does this affect us now, given that slavery should not be part of the equation?
The first thing is about boundaries. Paul asks Philemon to treat Onesimus as “family”. That is a huge leap. It would be interesting to know how he reacted to the idea. Probably he felt obliged given that it was Paul who was making the request. But it required a radical kind of forgiveness, quite different from the social norm which would be to mete out punishment or to hand out his slave to the authorities. It suggests that forgiveness can be risky and cross boundaries. We are challenged to forgive those whom we would not be expected to.
Onesimus takes the letter back to “face the music” from his master. He is doing the right thing. It must be ironic for him that Paul is also in chains in a similar way but for a different cause. In that way Paul is showing solidarity with him and is in his shoes. This is uniquely Christ like – after all Christ was God taking human form and experiencing and sharing human life “God with us”. Paul writes with power and emotion talking of bridging the divide between master and slave, prisoner and free, Jew and Gentile. Instead he talks of all being one family – the people of God. His is truly a message of reconciliation. It challenges us once more – what is it that divides us? Are we not brothers and sisters in Christ?
And finally, Paul, having put himself in Onesimus’ shoes speaks out on his behalf. He puts his name to the letter. It is he who speaks in reconciliation as the slave’s advocate. It is he who makes an effort to bring freedom to the oppressed. Notwithstanding his imprisonment that made his life difficult to say the least, he was still concerned for the well being and just treatment of others.
Philemon is a small letter but there’s a lot to say in it. It is a challenge to us now as it was to the recipients then. What boundaries can we remove to show justice and forgiveness to extend our family in Christ?
Prayers of intercession
we bring to you those who have been wounded by words.
They may be words from the past,
that have burrowed into their skin,
undermining their sense of worth.
They may be words in the present,
a constant reminder of conflict or dislike,
hampering the hearts of those who receive them.
They may be words not yet said but imagined,
fears about what labels may be pressed upon them,
when it becomes hard to believe in anything different.
We pray, too, for those who have particular authority,
whose words carry more weight, who have a wide audience.
Give them extraordinary wisdom,
knowing when to speak and when not to speak,
not rushing to appraise or condemn,
but always to consider and reflect
before making statements that can alter the lives of others.
In a world full of voices,
so ready to condemn or to adulate,
so willing to speak without thinking,
have mercy, O God, and help us
to use words to heal, not to harm.
In Jesus’ name.
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