The letter to the Philemon is generally overlooked. It’s only a page long and deals with the return of a newly converted slave to his Christian master. So, it might not seem that it’s relevant to us. This sermon seeks to explore how it might be.One book I found particularly helpful was Marianne Meye Thompson’s excellent commentary on Colossians and Philemon. I preached this sermon a few months ago now, hence the reference to non-league day, but I think that the rest of it is still relevant!
It was Non-league Day yesterday. A day when the footballing focus isn’t on the big clubs, but on the little clubs. I’m afraid that Gresley FC lost 1-0 to Loughborough, after a late penalty decision. In better news, Stockport County, the team near where I grew up, beat Gainsborough 3-1, their first win of the season.
I don’t imagine that you’re at all interested in that information, even if you follow football. Which is one of the points of the passages that we heard read. They’re both about people that weren’t really that interesting or notable, or noticeable. They’re both about the humble and unexalted.
But, yesterday these non-league sides were featured on national radio, the football pundits discussed them just as seriously as they do the Premier League sides, they were given time and interest that they don’t normally get. And the point of the Non-league Day campaign is that giving that sort of time and interest to the normally unregarded, unrecognised, perhaps even unloved, is important, is transforming.
In the passage that we heard Jesus is talking about the difference between those people who are jostling for God’s attention, who are jockeying for a better seat in God’s kingdom. “Do not take the place of honour” he tells his hearers. Don’t assume that there’s no-one more important than you coming. Do think that you’re as much in need of God’s mercy and generosity and love as the person that you’re looking down on.
And a good example of that sort of attitude is in our other passage, Paul’s letter to Philemon. In this letter, Paul is spending some time and effort writing about a slave, and is even willing to spend money on this slave. “If he has done anything wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me”, Paul writes. Because Paul has understood the importance of Jesus’ words “Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Both these passages call for a transformation in our understanding, a change in the way we think about things. They call us to look at things with God’s eyes, to see things not in our terms, but in terms of God’s mercy, love and justice.
These passages also tell us about the importance of invitation, of sharing that understanding, of sharing our changed lives, with others. Jesus tells the parable of the unregarded, the uncared for being invited. And, Jesus says, this will make a difference to them, and a difference to you. You will be blessed. You will be repaid.
Paul is writing to Philemon, who was probably a travelling merchant. It’s most likely that Paul met Philemon whilst he was on his travels and told him the good news of Jesus. Philemon became a Christian because of Paul’s teaching and when he went back home in started a house church.
And it’s to this person that Paul is, sometime later, writing a letter.
We can often read this as an individual letter. Most of it is in the first person, Paul writing directly to Philemon. “I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love” we hear. So, we can often read this as a request between two individuals, one Christian to another, asking for a reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon.
And, to explain why this short letter seemingly between two individuals has been kept, people have invented romantic notions about Onesimus being the same Onesimus, who became a bishop. Because, of course, if this Onesimus had been a bishop, then he would have been in a position to make sure that the letter was preserved. But, it doesn’t actually seem to have been the case. Onesimus was a common name and there’s no other link. But, the fact that people sought to make the link shows that they thought that the individual had to be important.
But, it’s not an individual letter at all. Its authors are given as Paul, and Timothy. And it’s sent, not just to Philemon, but also to “Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow-soldier”. So, it’s sent to several people, including a woman. As a fourth century commentator wrote [Theodore of Mopsuestia; Thompson, p209]: “Paul makes a point of greeting Philemon and Apphia equally. He wants to show that in no way is there a difference of faith or strength of faith between men and women.” That’s pretty revolutionary stuff, then. It shouldn’t be now.
And it’s not even sent just to those three individuals. It is also sent to “the church that meets in your house”. This is a letter, just like Paul’s letters to the churches, that is meant to be read out loud to the church as they come together to worship. This isn’t really an individual writing to an individual. It’s a couple of church leaders writing to some other church leaders, and including the whole of the church, about a personal matter.
That’s quite a different way of looking at this letter and how we do things. It’s quite a challenge to the individualism of our society, which we import so often into our life in church. Do we put the individual before the community? Do we look first at how this impacts on me rather than how this impacts on us? One of the things that we as Christians have to learn and keep on learning is that we, together, are the body of Christ. We, together, are the church that God loves. And that being together should impact on how we worship, on what we do with our lives, on how we use our money, on how we treat each other, on what we do with the gifts that God has given us to use.
So, at the end of the letter to the Colossians, Paul tells the same Archippus “See to it that you complete the work you have received from the Lord”. This is another example of the individual and the community. Archippus has an individual task to do. He’s been given that by God, and he needs to use his God-given gifts to do it. But it doesn’t remain his own private task. His commission is individual, but the church is given the responsibility of encouraging him to do it.
Is that a challenge for us as we seek to work out how to serve God? Is that a challenge for us as we, together, seek to worship God in what we say, in how we worship, and in what we do?
So, Paul met Philemon, Philemon became a Christian and went back to his home town of Colossae and started a house church there. But then, sometime later, one of Philemon’s slaves ran away, probably stealing some money to help him on his way.
Let’s just pause for a minute there. A man who had become a Christian through the preaching of Paul, a man who had gone home and started hosting a house church. But, even so, a man who kept slaves. People can often struggle with the acceptance of slavery that the Bible seems to have. Slavery was then a normal part of life, but now we see at least some forms of slavery as the evil that they are. Although, sadly, there are still millions of effectively enslaved people all round the world. But, this issue of slavery reminds us that there are things that we accept as normal that people are going to look back on in disbelief and horror. Perhaps the way we use cars and planes and other things that we do that contribute to global warming, but are such a normal part of our everyday life.
So, one of Philemon’s slaves ran away. But, somehow, ended up, like Philemon had, ended up meeting Paul. And, like Philemon, that encounter was life-changing. Like Philemon, the slave Onesimus became a Christian. And now that he is a Christian, Paul is seeking to send Onesimus back to his old master. But, that’s not at all the language that Paul uses in this letter.
Onesimus is a fairly common slave name, because it means being useful to someone. So Onesimus is called useful. Which in itself is rather degrading: being defined not by who you are, but by what you can do. Because, if you’re defined by what you can do, not who you are, what happens what you can’t do that anymore? That’s not how God looks at people.
But Paul plays on the name Useful to make his first point. He points out that although Philemon had called his slave Useful, he had been useless to him, as he’d run away. But, he’d been useful to Paul. Useful was living up to his name. He was Useful, as he had been useful to Paul. He had helped Paul, and so had done what Philemon would have wanted to do, if he’d been there.
And then Paul moves on to his main point. Paul doesn’t use the language of master and slave. Instead he talks about how he has gained a new son, and how Philemon has gained a new brother. Paul is trying to show that their relationship has been transformed, has been changed by their new relationship with Christ. This new relationship, this new guest of honour in their lives, has changed the seating pattern, has rearranged who sits where and why.
Paul calls himself ‘prisoner’ to show solidarity with Onesimus. He identifies with him so closely that Onesimus’ debts become his debts. That’s still challenging and radical now. But, imagine that you’re a slave-owner and the person that you look up to, that you respect and admire, is saying that he is more like your slave than he is like you. That’s a totally different way of looking at the world.
Paul didn’t call for social change leading to the freedom of slaves, because he couldn’t. Paul also speaks about money as a root of evil, but he and we still use it. Seeing that should give us pause to think about how we use money, but not using money is not a live option. It was the same with slaves in the Roman Empire, where slaves were part of how the world worked, and where those at the top were very rich and powerful, and most other people had no real power at all.
But, by transforming the relationship of master and slave into brothers, by getting Philemon to think about how he treats Useful as a person made in the image of God, Paul is damaging the whole system of slavery in the process. That it took so long for people to work that out is a challenge to us and how we can miss even what is obvious. Again, it’s a challenge to ask God to help us look at our lives with his eyes.
Slaves were treated as morally, spiritually, and intellectually inferior to free persons. So, who do we do that to? The unemployed? Talking of them as shirkers. The disabled? Talking of them as unproductive, as useless. The mentally ill? Talking of them as people who just need to pull their socks up. Immigrants? Talking of them as flooding and swamping the country. Who do we treat as beneath us, as less than us? Do we need to hear the host say to us “Give this man your seat”?
In his letter, Paul is inviting Philemon to take another step on his journey of faith, in his understanding of how the gospel transforms the whole of our lives. Paul invites Philemon to think about Onesimus as a brother. Jesus talks about inviting people to the feast, and reminds us that we are here by invitation.
Yesterday, Hartshorne church was open as part of Heritage Open Day. The bell ringers were out in force, people came to listen to that and to the cathedral organist play, people went up the tower, had tea and cakes, and even started spontaneously singing hymns as the organ played. People were invited through leaflets and posters, through individual contacts, and they came. Across the Deanery and across the Diocese, there were many other churches open as well, using Heritage Open Day as a way of inviting people into church.
As a church here in Hartshorne we are called to serve the people of Hartshorne, we are called to grow God’s kingdom in Hartshorne, and we are given God’s Spirit to help us to do so. We are given God’s Spirit so that his love and power overflow from us to Hartshorne. We are called to bring this part of God’s earth into his kingdom. And we are given his Spirit to help us.
And one very important part of this is inviting. It’s inviting people to our events. Like yesterday, like the upcoming Harvest celebrations. It’s inviting people to take another step on their own personal journey of faith, and seeking to support people as they do that. And that means being sensitive to the prompting of God’s Spirit, it means seeking to see things with God’s eyes, and it means putting on things, events and services, that draw people closer to God, that help people encounter God and his people, and help people to know God’s love and power.
We are doing this because we have met with God’s love and mercy and justice, we know the change that that has had on how we look at things, and we want to invite others to meet with God too. We’ve been invited by God, and God invites us to invite other people.
The point of Non-league Day is to remind people that local football clubs exist, to encourage people to go along and, they hope, to get people to keep on coming. Remind, invite, welcome. That’s also what we need to do as a church.
The important thing is to invite. It’s great when people say ‘yes’, it’s not a failure if they say ‘no’. But, this is our invitation to take another step on our journey of faith, it’s an invitation to invite others to join with us in the never-ending celebration of God’s love for each one of us. Slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, we are all equally invited to be a part of God’s family. Let’s celebrate that and invite other people to join the party. Amen.