I used to swear a lot. Not necessarily in a mean or nasty way, it was more that I frequently accented my speech with a few four letter words. But then I became a Pastor and a father. Once people know that you are a pastor, they begin to apologize to you for using profanity; as if it were the first time you were hearing these words, as though they were defiling your virgin ears. As odd as this is, it does drive home the point that what we say matters. Around clergy, people often want to be good, to do good, they want to be perceived as decent and kind. And those four letter words, although sometimes useful, can undermine this effort. They can make you sound mean, or careless. After realizing this, I tried to cut down on my cursing, because I want to encourage people in doing their best to be kind, and I definitely don’t want to come off as careless or mean.
Yet as much as becoming clergy has chained my speech patterns, becoming a father has done so even more. My daughter Ruth is getting to the point where she can speak in whole sentences, and, of course, she learns to speak from listening to us. She is a parrot. She will repeat nearly anything you say. If you have any doubt that curse words can sound nasty or mean, wait until you hear a two year old say one. When it comes from the mouths of babes it is easy to see how such language can be ugly, nasty, or even mean. So I now try my best to limit my swearing, I try not to do it at work, try not to do it at home. In my former life, single, with no kids, and working construction, it seemed so natural to swear, but now I have changed, circumstances have changed. I’m not the same person that I was back then. And so know my behavior must change as well. Though I still bring them right out anytime I’m venting to a friend or family about my frustrations, I’m doing a lot better at limiting my swearing,
Our New Testament reading this morning was nearly the entirety of Paul’s letter to Philemon. This letter is unique in all of Scripture not just for its brevity but for its content. Although the letter is addressed not only to Philemon but to the others in his church, it nevertheless is written as a personal letter. In it Paul speaks directly to an individual, most likely Philemon, about a very personal matter; Paul wants Philemon to welcome home his estranged former servant Onesimus, as a brother. Paul is writing from prison where he has met and befriended Onesimus. He baptized him and ever since Onesimus has been helping Paulin his apostolic ministry. He has become a valued colleague and trusted friend to Paul.
We are not sure what is the cause of the estrangement between Onesmus and Philemon. It could be that Onesimus was an unfree servant in Philemon’s house who simply ran away. It might be that Onesimus stole something from Philemon. It could very well be both. But whatever it was, after having met Paul, the two of them decide that Onesimus should return to Philemon to try and make things right. Paul is unable to travel with Onesimus so he does the next best thing, he rights him a letter to take to Philemon. As it turns out, Paul doesn’t just know Onesimus’s master, he actually baptized Philemon as well. So Paul, using his authority, power, and privilege as an apostle, writes to Philemon to ask him to forgive any debts that Onesimus owes, and to no longer treat him as a servant, but rather to welcome him as a brother.
Slavery was a fact of life in the Roman empire in the first century. It was the way of that world. Though not nearly as barbaric as chattel slavery here in the United States, slaves did still belong to their masters, they were not free to leave or to live independent lives. It is therefore, not surprising that Philemon and his house had slaves, for that was the norm. But at some point in his adult life, Philemon converted to Christianity. He was baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This conversion meant that he was living a new life, as a new person. He now belonged to Christ, he was now living in and for Christ. He no longer belonged to the world, and he no longer lived for it.
There are those in our day, and certainly in Paul’s day as well, who view belonging to a church as similiar to belonging to a country club. For them church is a nice place to visit with other like minded people, a place to feel that you are among the good and righteous, but certainly not an institution that requires you to change how you live and interact with the world. This is not the way that Paul viewed faith in God. For Paul, and for Jesus Christ, faith meant turning your world upside down. It meant belonging to a different kingdom, a kingdom in which the meek were blessed, a kingdom in which there was no male or female, jew or greek, free or slave, for all are one in Christ Jesus. Paul believed that faith called you out of the world into a life of service to Christ.
So when Paul meets Onesimus and hears of his estrangement from his former master and his fear of reprisal from Philemon, he knows how he can help. In the ancient church, apostles had incredible authority, their words were taken as divine revelation. This means that Paul could command Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery and forgive his debts. However, Paul chooses not to command Philemon but rather to remind him what his new faith requires of him. Paul writes, “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment… I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion, but of your own free will. Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all , or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand, I will repay it-- to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord.”
Previously, Philemon had treated Onesimus as the world treated him, as a slave, an inferior person. But now, Philemon has been baptized, he has begun a new life as a follower of Christ. What does this new life require of him? It requires him to see Onesimus as a brother in Christ and no longer as a slave. It requires him to forgive his debtors just as his debts have been forgiven. It requires him to see God in the face of his brother. It requires him to do all that he can to help Onesimus serve God as best he is able. Paul reminds him of his new faith, he reminds him of his new life in Christ and how this life requires him to treat Onesimus as a brother in the flesh and in the Lord.
The world of 1st Century Rome provided many reasons for one to view oneself as superior to others. Masters were superior to slaves. Greeks were superior to Jews. Men were superior to women. Romans were superior to Barbarians. All of these categories divided the people against themselves. In this respect not much has changed from the world of Rome to our world today. Our world is also full of reasons to view yourself as superior to others. The rich are superior to the poor. Whites are superior to non-whites. Citizens are superior to non-citizens. Those who work are superior to those who don’t. Our world is full of dividing lines, things that separate us from one another, things that justify our poor treatment of those different from ourselves. Yet we do not belong to the world, just as Philemon no longer did. We belong to God in Christ. We belong to the church and not to a country club. This belonging to God, this belonging to the church, makes demands upon our lives. It demands that we give up our feelings of superiority. It demands that we see others as siblings in Christ. It demands that we do as Paul did and lend every ounce of our power and privilege to set another free. This is what our faith requires of us. It requires us to acknowledge that we are no more than forgiven sinners and to extend that same grace, forgiveness, and acceptance that we have received in Christ to all others. May we begin to see others, as Paul saw Onesimus, as beloved brethren in Christ.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast