Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 4, 2022
Note: On Friday, September 2, three former Trinity Episcopal School students were in a major car crash in Galveston. One of those students perished. May light perpetual shine upon him.
The emails just never stop, do they? I shudder at the thought of how many emails I’ve sent and received in my time as a priest. It’s easily in the tens of thousands at this point. Now most of them are just trash – newsletters and spam. Some emails I spend a little time on – like trying to schedule a meeting with someone. Our emails among the church staff are funny – they wouldn’t make sense to anyone else, I hardly even bother with punctuation in those. And then there are the real emails, the ones that make me stop, and think. Like the terrible emails and texts I received this week after the horrific events on Friday night.
Now with this letter from Philemon, I see that it’s been the same for pastors since Saint Paul. You have the big, meaty letters – Romans, Corinthians, Galatians – with some deep theology. Then you’ve got some shorter letters, that have Paul’s travel plans. And then there’s Philemon. We read it this morning. If Saint Paul could have texted, it would have been Philemon. It’s only 25 verses and we read 21 of them this morning. But this little email, this little letter makes me stop and think.
Now for some background on this. Philemon was a Christian leader in one of Saint Paul’s early churches, and he owned another human. That slave’s name was Onesimus. By the way, that’s a pun, Onesimus means “useful.” Now, Onesimus has run away from Philemon and run to Saint Paul. The wrinkle is that Onesimus has also become a Christian. On top of that, Paul is in prison when all this happens. So what does the pastor say? What does the pastor do? But what comes out of it is this gem of a little letter.
Again, imagine Paul as a pastor sending this email. “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker.” “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” “I am sending Onesimus, that is, my own heart, back to you.” Let’s stop there. Paul is saying that he is father to a slave. This upends the social order. Paul is adopting this slave in the name of Christ. Think of the tenderness that Paul has for this man, this slave, “he is my own heart.” Paul is often portrayed as irascible, angry – but here we see the softer side of the pastor. Saint Paul asks that Philemon would receive Onesimus back, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you.”
This is so very different from how most slaves were treated in the ancient world. Paul is doing something new here. Paul is taking all he knows about Jesus and applying it to this situation. Jesus brought together God and humans, though they had been separated by sin. And so now the ministry of the Church brings together humans, who have been separated by sin, which is slavery. Paul says, “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If Onesimus has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” Y’all that is genius. Saint Paul is standing in for Onesimus the slave, willing to take on any punishment that Onesimus deserves. And you know what the punishment was for a runaway slave, right? Crucifixion. Saint Paul is offering to stand in for Onesimus on the cross, just as Jesus stands in for us on the cross. And if Onesimus the slave owes anything to Philemon, Philemon can charge that to Paul. Just as we are charge our sins to Jesus’ account. I know, I know it can grating on our modern ears to talk about slavery like this, but in this context, Paul is doing something bold for Jesus.
All that was in one little letter, a quick message that Saint Paul sent while in prison. And yet, in just those 25 little verses we see the entirety of the gospel. Saint Paul is reaching out one hand to Onesimus the slave and reaching out the other to Philemon the slave holder, and bringing them together. “Welcome him as you would welcome me.” This is the cross. This is the good news of Jesus Christ. That the two who had been separated are now brought together. All this is the letter to Philemon. The Bible is not an encyclopedia of theological ideas, it’s a book about the living of life. Here are three people, all followers of Jesus, trying to figure out how to live together as Jesus would have them live.
Now, I’m going to do something that I don’t usually do in sermons. I’m going to make two points. You know I’m a one point sermon guy, but today I’m going to stretch it. My first point – Saint Paul’s letter to Philemon is the theology of the cross worked out in the real lives of Christians. My second point – we only know this from the Bible.
Now, I know Episcopalians have this funny relationship with the Bible. We pretend that we don’t read it. It’s like we’re afraid that if we like reading the Bible we’ll instantly become Baptists or something. But Episcopalians, we’ve always been about the Bible. When all the people in church spoke and English and the Bible was read in Latin, who fought so that it would be read in English? Which denomination created the King James Version of the Bible? It was us, our people in the Church of England. We, as Episcopalians, are insistent that our people should know the Bible. Look around, the windows in our church all depict scenes and people from the Bible. The crucifixion. Saint Michael. The presentation of Jesus. Saint Luke. Easter morning. And this magnificent window of the Final Judgment – the bottom line is from the Gospel of Matthew – “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). Episcopalians love the Bible. We read four passages from the Bible every single Sunday morning. The entire prayer before communion is a paraphrase of the Bible’s story of the Last Supper. Our hymns are taken from the Bible. We are a people of the Bible. And the story continues.
This week, Trinity Church received our edition of The Saint John’s Bible. It’s the first Bible in five hundreds years to be done in calligraphy, completely by hand. Plus one hundred sixty illuminations, artistic depictions of the stories in the Bible. All done by hand. And this whole idea, of a calligraphy, illuminated Bible for the twenty-first century, was the idea of one man. And guess what kind of church that guy goes to? That’s right, he’s one of us. The Bible is our book. Yes, the Bible has misused, it’s been used to coerce, and manipulate, and shame – but I say that’s on us because we don’t know it as well as we should.
One of my hopes, with this new Bible we have, is that we will all come to know the Bible better. Just this week, when one parishioner saw that Bible for the first time, she said to me, “this makes me want to read the Bible more.” Be still my beating heart, that’s exactly what I want to hear. My hope with this Bible is not that you just look at it but that you experience it. That you crack it open again, that you read about Philemon and Paul and Onesimus. That you read about Moses and Jesus. That you would read it again for the first time and see that it’s more than words on a page, it is the living of life. That you would return again and again to this sacred text – especially during a hard week like this week. That we would return again and again for hope, for solace, for comfort, for light in the darkness. This is our book, this is the very thing we treasure. We treasure these stories, these pages, these books, because they all point us to Jesus.