Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sept. 4, 2016
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Philemon 1-21
Sermon Theme: “Slavery and the Christian”
(Sources: Anderson’s Cycle C Preaching Workbook; The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible; The New Harper’s Bible Dictionary; original ideas; The Parables of Peanuts; Footnotes, Concordia Self-Study Bible; Life Application Study Bible; Believer’s Commentary; Church History in Plain Language by Bruce L. Shelley)
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Flawed human nature after the Fall of Adam and Eve developed a bullying system that no doubt began with Cain and Abel and led to the institution of slavery, wherein one human being ruled the life of another.
It seems to be a flawed human trait for some people to want to lord it over others. In the microcosm world of Charlie Brown and his friends, we see the rudiments of slavery in the bullying tactics of Lucy Van Pelt. Not only did she lord it over Charlie and his friends, but her precocious little brother Linus always caught the brunt of her bullying.
In one cartoon strip, Lucy hands Linus a script for the Christmas play, and tells him to start learning it. He reads aloud from the script, “So the words spoken through Jeremiah the Prophet were fulfilled: A voice was heard in Rama, wailing and loud laments, it was Rachel, weeping for her children and refusing all consolation because they were no more.” “Good grief!” Linus says after reading it.
Lucy says loudly, “Memorize it and be ready to recite it by next Sunday.”
Linus responds, “I can’t memorize something like this in a week! This is going to take research! Who was Jeremiah? Where was Rama? Why was Rachel so upset? You can’t recite something until you know the ‘who,” the “where,” and the “why”!
Lucy shoves her face in Linus’ face and shouts, “I’ll tell you the ‘who,’ the ‘where,’ and the ‘why!’” She shakes her fist at him and continues, “You start memorizing right now or you’ll know WHO is going to slug you and you’ll know WHERE she’s going to slug you and you’ll know WHY she slugged you!”
As Lucy leaves the room, Linus says to himself, “Christmas is not only getting too commercial, it’s getting too dangerous!”
Sometimes when you read the Old and the New Testament, you begin to wonder whether or not God approved of slavery. No doubt the Confederate States of America used the Bible in an attempt to justify their ownership of slaves.
There is no way that a good, loving, and just God could approve of slavery. Nowhere in the Bible, either New or Old Testaments, does God tell us that slavery is a good thing and is justified. So why did it exist, and why were their laws regarding it? We need to pursue this, because our sermon text from Paul’s letter to Philemon deeply concerns the slave, Onesimus .
Human slavery has been a worldwide fact since the beginning of human records. Slaves could be acquired by capture, especially in war; slaves could be acquired by buying them; by payment of a debt; by birth, by being born the child of a slave; and by selling yourself or your child into slavery. God didn’t say this was good; it was a fact of life among fallen human beings.
The world’s attitude toward slavery was that it was totally acceptable. The Roman Empire in which Paul and his co-workers lived was typical of those cultures which approved of and relied on slavery. In Roman society, a slave, whether male or female, was totally at the mercy of his or her master. If slaves didn’t suit the master, they could be discarded or killed like a worthless animal. The few Christians, who did own slaves, treated them differently. And, at least one former slave, Callistus, became the Bishop of Rome.
The Hebrew culture and the Jewish religion, out of which Paul had come, did not share the world’s view of slavery. There were no slave markets in Israel, but there was slavery. In the Old Testament, for example, Joseph’s brothers sold Joseph into slavery, an action that certainly was not approved by God, yet it was a common occurrence.
The Israelites had been slaves of the Egyptians who grossly mistreated them. God led them out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised land. The Promised Land was surrounded by ethnic groups that practiced slavery. Thus the Old Testament had many laws pertaining to the treatment of slaves, including a law that said a slave could be released after six years, and all slaves had to be released during the Jubilee Year. Jewish law entitled all slaves to receive justice, and it protected them in other ways. Why God even tolerated slavery is a question we can’t answer.
In no other country in the world were slaves better protected, better treated, and more fondly thought of than in Israel. No doubt, having themselves been slaves of the Egyptians helped foster this. Slaves in a Hebrew family were usually loved as part of the family. This sets the stage for the coming of the Savior, Jesus Christ, and the ministry of early Christian leaders like Paul, Peter, Barnabas, Apollos, and the others. Philemon and Onesimus are a case in point with regard to following Christ, relating to slaves, and dealing with slavery.
Our sermon text was a very personal letter from Paul to Philemon, and it is so short it isn’t even divided into chapters. Paul wrote this letter while imprisoned in Rome around 60 A.D. Onesimus was a domestic slave who was owned by Philemon, a wealthy Christian in Colossae who set up his home as a “house church.” You remember that Lydia had used her home as a home base for the disciples.
The fact that Philemon had been converted to Christianity through the efforts of Paul, and was now using his home to help spread the gospel must have made Paul confident that Philemon would take to heart and obey Paul’s request.
Onesimus had run away from Philemon, probably because he had stolen either money or goods from his master. (Under Roman law, a slave could be executed for stealing from his owner.) Eventually he had made his way to Rome, where he met Paul, and where Paul preached the Gospel to him, thus he became a Christian and helped Paul in many tasks, as, by now, Paul was very old and under house arrest and in need of help.
Paul convinced Onesimus that running from his problems wouldn’t solve them, and that he needed to return to his master, Philemon. And, at the same time he wrote to Philemon to forgive and be reconciled to his runaway slave.
In what has to be Paul’s most personally endearing letter, Paul makes his appeal to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, not on the basis of authority or rank (Paul was like the Circuit Counselor of a bunch of churches), but on the power of love. Paul refers to himself as a “prisoner” of Christ, and to young Timothy as “our brother,” and he addresses Philemon as “our dear friend and coworker.” He refers to Philemon’s wife, Apphia as “our sister,” and Philemon’s son, Archippus as “our fellow soldier.” He also says that Onesimus is no longer a slave, but a beloved brother. The way Paul addresses himself and these other Christians is very significant in light of his reason for writing the letter in the first place. He wants to communicate that the concepts of “master” and “slave,” and other such designations, have no relevance in the church.
You see, in Paul’s mind, there is no greater power than the power of love, that is, of God’s love in and through us. Only the love of God has the power to change us from within; only His love can set us free and empower us to set others free.
This is revolutionary talk! No wonder Paul is in prison. Paul and the other Apostles knew the truth and they wrote it, spoke it, and preached it fearlessly. It also shows us how Christ changes us. Paul had once been a Pharisee who lorded it over people of lesser rank and persecuted Christians, so it is doubly powerful coming from Paul. Philemon is a man of wealth and position; how strongly does Christ live within him? The Bible doesn’t tell us how Philemon acted when he got Paul’s letter, but we like to believe that Christ-like love reigned in his heart.
For those who think that Paul’s letter is not relevant to us today, because slavery in America ended with the Civil War, let me say this. Today there is slavery among immigrants who are literally owned by their sponsors and their pimps. There are abused children and abused senior citizens who are literally slave-like prisoners to their care-givers. There are battered and abused wives who have found hope in women’s shelters throughout our country, and many more who have not taken shelter because they feel unworthy and believe they deserve such violent abuse. Paul’s letter is very relevant.
God loved all people of the world so much that He gave His only Son to die for them, for their redemption and restoration. God, who is love, condemns slavery of any kind, and His Son Jesus calls each of us to speak His gospel and to lift up the enslaved. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.