Paul’s letter to Philemon gives us a picture of what Christ has done for us and what it costs to be a disciple. In Christ, God has set us free from our possessions so that we might live as Christ in the world.
Vicar Emily Beckering; Time after Pentecost, Sunday 23, year C; texts: Philemon 1-21(22); Luke 14:25-33
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
It is an uncommon and even illegal practice in our country to read other people’s mail. And yet, here today we find ourselves reading the personal correspondence from Paul to Philemon and to the church of Philemon’s house. Because it is personal communication regarding very specific circumstances, the letter might seem cryptic to us today. Questions arise: How did Onesimus come to Paul and what exactly is Paul asking Philemon to do? How does this private conversation regarding a specific situation in one household apply to us?
The Church decided to add it to our canon of scripture, most likely because it was circulated between the early churches, and in those communal readings, Christians found the gospel to be at the heart of Paul’s argument. As such, this letter gives us a picture of what Christ has done for us and what that means for how we are to live as his disciples. When we listen in on this letter, we, like early Christians, might also hear Paul’s words to Philemon as God’s words to us.
Paul, who has been instrumental in Onesimus’ and Philemon’s conversion, is writing this letter to Philemon from prison. Onesimus is a slave in Philemon’s household. Because the letter does not explicitly tell us, we cannot be sure as to whether Onesimus is a runaway slave, or if Philemon found him useless and sent him to serve Paul who was dependent on his friends for food and resources while in prison. Nor can we know with certainty if Paul is asking Philemon to free Onesimus from slavery. It is clear, however, that the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus is strained, and that Paul seeks to redefine that relationship. This relationship is no longer what it once was. Before, Onesimus was useless to Philemon. Now he is useful to both Philemon and to Paul. Before, Onesimus was a slave. Now, he is no longer a slave but much more: a brother. The term brother signifies a very different relationship than master and slave, for now Onesimus and Philemon are to treat each other as equals who love one another as deeply as brothers.
What has occasioned this change? Christ. Christ has changed everything between Philemon and Onesimus, and everything between them and Paul. By naming them each as a “brother,” Paul challenges the ordering of the traditional familial structure in the Greco-Roman culture in the 1st century and smashes it together: in Christ, there is no longer a hierarchical ranking, but a sibling relationship. The Old Structures—master and slave, have and have-nots, dominator and submitter—these structures that once defined Philemon and Onesimus and their relationship have passed away and no longer hold any power over them. Christ has transformed their identities, their relationships, and their obligations to one another.
If they are faithful to Christ and what Christ asks of them in this new relationship, then there is also risk. As a brother in Christ, Onesimus cannot lord his new identity over Philemon. Discipleship requires him to seek reconciliation with Philemon on the basis of love. At the very least, he risks chastisement and rejection. If he is indeed a runaway slave, he risks his life because Philemon would be entitled to punish him physically or put him to death.
However, Christ also requires something new from Philemon. As a brother in Christ, Philemon cannot use his status to dominate Onesimus or treat him like a possession. Discipleship requires him to receive Onesimus as his beloved brother. If he does so, he risks giving up the security of his position as the dominant overseer of the household and risks ridicule from his peers for treating a slave as a family member. What is more, I had the lector read verse 22 today so that we could also hear that Philemon is accountable to Paul, for Paul hopes to return to them once he is released from prison.
Not even Paul is free of responsibilities. As a brother in Christ, Paul cannot keep Onesimus as his possession or use his apostolic authority to control Philemon. Discipleship requires him to send Onesimus back, to appeal to Philemon on the basis of love, and to trust Philemon to do the same.
And so we see that Paul’s letter to Philemon is a real-life example of what it costs to be a disciple. Being liberated through Christ does not mean that we have the freedom to do whatever we want. Discipleship is a costly path that has real consequences for how we must live. What God has done in Christ for Philemon and Onesimus determines what they must do for one another. In the same way, what Christ has done for us changes everything about us: our identity, our relationships, and what is expected of us. No longer are we slaves to sin: we are free and reconciled with God. As a result, no longer can we be captive to the patterns of this world where we advance our own interests at the expense of others. Instead, we are called to align ourselves with God’s vision and God’s purposes.
This is precisely what Jesus calls for in today’s gospel. By using the hyperbolic expression, “hate,” Jesus calls for uncompromising loyalty toward himself and his Father. To hate our possessions means letting go of the world’s empty promises and instead clinging to what we have been promised in Christ. The call to hate our father and mother, brother and sister—even our own selves—does not mean that we cut our families out of our lives or that we abuse or neglect ourselves or those whom we love. No! Instead, Jesus’ call to “hate” is a call to turn away from the old ways of measuring ourselves according to wealth, prestige, praise, and how valuable we are to others, and instead to turn towards Christ, who Christ would have us be, and what Christ would have us do.
This turning is what God demands of disciples, and yet God has found a way to make it possible for us to hate our possessions. God has found a way to set us free from their grasp on us: through Jesus Christ our Lord. Through our baptism into his death and his resurrection, we too have died to those possessions and their powers over us and have risen to new life in Christ.
This new life isn’t promised to be easy or without the pain of persecution, rejection, or ridicule; these we will experience if we are living like Christ. But what Christ does promise us in this new life is that all of those things that we once perceived as risks—even death itself—do not threaten us for they have power over us. Just as Christ offered Philemon, Onesimus, and Paul freedom from fears about reputation, retribution, and self-preservation, so too have we been freed from the burden of our possessions: our reputation, our financial security, our intelligence, our talents, our credentials, our academic or athletic achievements, what other kids at school think about us, our value to others, or our power to influence. All of these things no longer define us: we are defined by Christ alone and Christ’s love for us. We are freed to do what Christ would actually have us do, which is to listen to his voice and respond to his call. This is discipleship.
Because God has done all of this for us, it is evident that in writing his letter to Philemon, Paul follows in the way of our Lord, for our God also appeals to us out of love: a love lived out unto death on a cross. Rather than overpower, punish, or destroy us for our waywardness or force us to obey, God has instead chosen the way of love: a self-emptying love through which we have been given God’s own self.
And now, having listened to Paul’s letter to Philemon and to Jesus in today’s gospel, I wonder if we might hear their words as God’s words in a letter to us. Could it possibly sound like this?
I know well of your love for all the saints and your faith toward me. The faith that you have been given will deepen your understanding of all the good that belongs to you in Christ. I indeed have much joy from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my children.
For this reason, though I am bold enough to command you to do your duty, I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love, and I do this as your Father. I am appealing to you through my child, Jesus. Formerly, you did not know him, but now he has changed everything for you and for me. I sent him, that is, my own heart, to you in order that your good deeds might be voluntary and not something forced. This is the reason he was separated for you for a while, so that you might have him back forever. Now you are no longer a slave. Do not live as one, but much more than a slave, you are a beloved child, especially to me.
So, if you consider me your Father, your savior, your partner, welcome others as you would welcome me. If you come to me but do not listen to my voice or if put your reputation, your money, your security before me, you cannot be my disciple. Give up all of these possessions. Take up your cross and follow me.
If you have been wronged in any way, or if anyone owes you anything, forgive them on my account. I have written this on your heart and in my own hands for the world: I have redeemed it. I have made you new and set you free; you owe me even your own self.
Yes, child, let me have this benefit from you. Refresh my heart as my disciple. Confident of your obedience, I say all of this to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
One thing more, prepare room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.