From slavery to freedom
Sermon at St James, Colwall, 8 September 2019
Paul’s letter to Philemon 1-21
To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:
You have no telephone and therefore, of course, no texting. No internet and therefore no email and you are under house arrest. The only way you can communicate with friends or family is if they come to see you or if you write them a letter.
When, I wonder, did you last write a long personal letter? I can’t remember.
Anyway, in around the year 61 AD St Paul finds himself having to write a personal letter – imprisoned in Rome and yet trying to keep in touch with friends. That is why we have the epistle to Philemon in our New Testament which we heard just now as one of our readings. It’s a short, personal letter from Paul to a friend of his called Philemon and his wife Apphia who live in Colossae. Colossae was near the Aegean coast of modern Turkey and there was a small Christian community there which probably met in Philemon’s house.
“From Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus to Philemon and our dear sister Apphia”
So why is Paul writing to Philemon?
Well, it seems that a trusted household slave of Philemon has run away and arrived in Rome where he has sought out Paul. The slave’s name is Onesimus and reading between the lines of Paul’s letter he may have upset Philemon or even stolen some money from him. Onesimus has proved himself a hit with Paul, converting to the faith and being an able assistant to Paul in prison.
Paul has now decided that this state of affairs cannot continue and that it is time that Onesimus should return to his master. It is time for Onesimus and Philemon to be reconciled – after all this theme of reconciliation is central to the Christian Gospel. So, it is Onesimus who has to be the messenger and it will be Onesimus who will face Philemon and ask for forgiveness. Not easy.
So Paul writes, “I, Paul, ambassador as I am of Christ Jesus – and now his prisoner appeal to you about Onesimus whose father I have become in prison….I am sending him back to you, and in doing so I am sending a part of myself”
He then pleads with Philemon to take Onesimus back for good and no longer as a slave, but as a dear brother. He also offers to pay off any debts or wrongs that Onesimus has incurred. “Now brother, as a Christian, be generous with me, and relieve my anxiety; we are both in Christ.”
Sadly, we shall never know the result of all this and can only hope that the master and his former slave became friends as a result of Paul’s intervention. But what is there for us to take from this story to give it a reason for being included in our scriptures?
There are at least two points to highlight. The first is a moral one and the second theological.
First, as Christians we have always asked God to forgive us as we forgive others in the Lord’s Prayer. We cannot expect God’s grace, his love and forgiveness, to flow towards us if we are intolerant and hard towards those who insult us or let us down. Our Lord forgave those who crucified him and Stephen, the first Christian martyr prayed for those who stoned him. Forgiveness and reconciliation has to be a way of life for anyone claiming to be Christian. Not easy - as it would not have been for Philemon.
And secondly, the theological point. Do you remember at the beginning of his short ministry Jesus was invited to read from the Old Testament in his local synagogue in Nazareth? The passage he chose was very significant because it was from the prophet Isaiah writing about the coming of the Messiah.
“The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives; to set at liberty those who are oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”
In other words, Christ came to bring us freedom, freedom from the effects of wrong-doing, freedom from anxieties and fears that weigh us down, freedom from guilt which eats us up, and freedom from insults and hurtful remarks. This freedom comes to us because of our trust in Christ and as Paul wrote to Philemon, “My prayer is that your fellowship with us in our common faith may deepen the understandings of the blessings that our union with Christ brings.”
To put it another way, Christ’s death has freed us from any possibility of slavery to sin and evil and given us the freedom of being the children of God.