The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
16th Sunday after Pentecost
September 4, 2016
A couple of weeks ago, I was in our backyard mowing the lawn. As if mowing the lawn in the middle of August isn’t bad enough, I was stung by a wasp. And it hurt. A lot. Not immediately, but in about a minute after the sting, that was about all I could feel. Like radiating waves of pain shooting up my leg. And it’s crazy, right, here I am, I’m over six feet tall, but all I could feel was this tiny, tiny little wasp sting. From a bug that I could kill with a fly swatter.
It’s the proverbial pebble in your shoe or the pea under your mattress. It’s amazing how such a small thing can cause such big trouble. If a butterfly flaps its wings in Africa, it creates a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean. A little wasp sting and all your mind can do is think about the pain, and the swelling on a tiny little spot.
Today we read one of the tiniest little letters in the New Testament. Saint Paul’s letter to Philemon. We’re used to Paul writing these letters that go on forever. We’re used to his dense, theological arguments and abstract ideas. But this morning, we read from this tiny little letter of Philemon. It’s small, but it’s the wasp sting of the New Testament. It’s the little butterfly that flaps its wings and causes a social hurricane. This little letter is Paul’s way of showing that life in Jesus is a completely different way of life altogether.
So let’s get started. In this little letter there are three main characters. First, is Saint Paul himself. He starts the letter by saying, “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” See, Paul was a troublemaker, and he often found himself in prison. While Paul is writing this letter, he’s most likely in prison in the coastal town of Ephesus.
The second character is Philemon. Most likely, Philemon was a wealthy man in the town of Colosse, just eighty miles inland from Ephesus. Philemon has a church in his house, so clearly he’s a leader in the early Christian movement. We can also assume that he’s fairly wealthy because he owns a slave.
And that slave is our third character, Onesimus. In Greek, “onesimus” means “useful.” His name is, “Mr. Useful.” Slaves back then were often given utilitarian names. Mr. Useful and Mr. Handy were quite common.
Now it appears that Onesimus has run away from slavery in Philemon’s house and has sought out Paul. While talking with Paul, Onesimus has been converted to Christianity and has been baptized. And there’s the rub. Suddenly, Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon are all on equal standing. Because for Christians, social hierarchy is not determined by whether you’re in prison or not, whether you’re a slave or not, whether you’re wealthy or not. In the church, social hierarchy among baptized people is completely equal.
And now Paul says that he is returning Onesimus back to Philemon. Paul says he could use his authority to command obedience from Philemon, that Paul could require Philemon to do his duty and take Onesimus back without punishing Onesimus. But Paul refuses to do that. He prefers that Philemon do this as a voluntary good deed. See, in the ancient world, when a slave ran away from their master and was returned, the punishment was harsh. Typically, run away slaves were crucified by their masters. Listen to that, run away slaves were crucified by their masters. Clearly, this is a touchpoint for these three Christians. Paul says to Philemon the slave holder, “I am sending Onesimus back to you no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” A beloved brother. And beloved brothers surely can’t crucify each other, can they?
Saint Paul is subtle here. But what he says is explosive. It totally turns over the whole social structure of the ancient world. Simply put, Saint Paul is saying that Philemon can no longer treat Onesimus as a slave. For he is more than that now, Onesimus is a beloved brother. This subtle little letter calls into question the whole enterprise of slavery, of ownership, of social hierarchy among Christians. No self-respecting pagan or Roman of the day would have ever imagined that a slave could be equal to his owner. But Christians are different. In baptism, all the old categories are washed away. All the old identities have no meaning. In baptism, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. This shows us that already, just twenty years after Jesus rose again from the dead, the early Christians have a radically different way of living than their non-Christian contemporaries.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is a wasp sting on the ancient world. It’s tiny, but it makes all the difference in the world.
And now, the question is turned to modern Christians. Do we live in radically different ways from our world? Or do we behave just like our non-Christian counterparts? This is what Saint Paul’s letter to Philemon brings up for us. Paul and his fellow Christians lived and died in completely different ways from their contemporaries. As Saint Paul says, the early Christians have been transformed by Jesus. So now us, two thousand years later, have we been transformed by Jesus? Or do we conform to the ways of the world? In other words, do we really treat each other as beloved brothers and sisters?
The gospel is still that tiny little wasp sting that makes the whole church think about its behavior. And it still stings us today. You’ve heard of the glass ceiling for women? The same thing in the church, we call it “the stained glass ceiling.” In the Episcopal Church, clergywomen of every age and position in the church, on average, are compensated less than their clergymen counterparts. And though women comprise the majority of congregations, women represent just a fraction of the number of bishops in the church. I wonder, have we been transformed by Jesus? Do we really believe that in Christ there is no male and female? Because the numbers show us that we are still conformed to this world.
The gospel is that little wasp sting that stops and make us think. Have we ever used shame, coercion, or manipulation in the church? Remember what Paul says, he could command Philemon to take Onesimus back, but he doesn’t. Paul says that Philemon should take Onesimus back as a beloved brother because it’s the good and right thing to do. There is no room for coercion or manipulation in the gospel. This is never more important for us to hear than when we are approaching a capital campaign. Our gifts, our gifts of money and labor for this project, they are just that: gifts. They are not forced, but are signs of our love. I have been in churches that used fear and coercion to try to raise money, but that has no place in the gospel. The gospel, the love of Jesus Christ is a free gift, and all that we give back are free gifts.
And now comes the most difficult lesson of all from the letter to Philemon. This is the social dynamite that the Church desperately needs to hear. The baptized life is the life of reconciliation. In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself. Now we are given that ministry of reconciliation. In Christ, Jesus opened wide his arms upon the cross to hold together God and humanity. And now, in Christ, Paul is reaching out his hands, reconciling Onesimus the runaway slave and Philemon the angry master. The mission of the church is nothing less than stretching out our arms to reconcile enemies.
Think of it – Onesimus is going back to Philemon. Philemon has every right in the world to crucify him for running away. But in the Church, we must be reconciled with each other. In the Church, there is no room for gossip, for backbiting, for rumors. We must not crucify our brothers and sisters with our words. There is only room for reconciliation. If you have been hurt, do not wait for someone else to say they’re sorry. Like Onesimus, you have to go to them to be reconciled. If you have been hurt, the ball is in your court to start the work of reconciliation. That is a wasp sting, isn’t it?
Life in the church looks radically different from life outside the church. Or, at least it should. That is the journey that you and I are on, a journey of transformation.
Sometime later today, or later this week, I want you to read Paul’s letter to Philemon again. It’s tiny, so you’ll probably have to look in the table of contents in your bible to find it. But don’t let it’s brevity mislead you. This little letter is a wasp sting. It calls into question our whole way of life. It calls into question all our assumptions about how we should behave. This little was sting points us directly to Jesus and how we, as his disciples, are to live. I appeal to you, my beloved brothers and sisters, do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.