ON THE BASIS OF LOVE
A sermon at Ketchikan Presbyterian Church by George R. Pasley
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.”
So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
Then the word of the LORD came to me.
He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
“Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.
Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.
Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.
If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.
I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.
Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings.
And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
First of all, let’s affirm that the God WE worship is a God of freedom, a God who hears the cries of the oppressed, a God of mercy and grace- and let’s affirm that by reading together the verse that is printed in the bulletin, Psalm 81 verse 10:
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.”
That’s our destination- to reveal, inasmuch as it is possible to reveal anything about God- that PARTICULAR facet of the God we worship, and we shall travel to that destination via the story of a slave named Onesimus.
There was, in the very early church, a bishop named Onesimus, and there has always been speculation that the bishop Onesimus had been the SLAVE Onesimus. But we don’t enough about either of those persons to know if they were the SAME person.
It’s a pleasant, and inspiring thought though- a slave who found freedom, and became a bishop…but other than the fact that we don’t know if THAT Onesimus was THAT Onesimus, this is a bigger story than that.
So let’s begin.
The story of Onesimus is the story of a relationship, between a man, Philemon, and his slave, Onesimus.
That makes us cringe, I know, but weirdly enough- or maybe tragically enough, back in their day it was just taken for granted- people belonged to certain social strata, and the strata were pretty much fixed, and they were hierarchical, and that’s just the way it was. Nobody thought much about those facts, except a few Christians (who didn’t really matter), and often even those Christians had a hard time getting their mind around them. But in those times, one of the perks of being in one of the upper cast was having slaves- and not JUST to do your work for you, if you get my drift.
One of the smaller perks was getting to lord it over your slaves, and insult them, because, after all, they were SLAVES for heaven’s sake, and how could you expect your slaves to do anything right?
So there are, in lots of ancient documents, lots of jokes about how useless those slaves were. Except here is a slave who is named Onesimus, which means, “useful.” And he WAS very useful, especially to the Apostle Paul- because Paul, as was often the case, was in prison.
Somewhere, he was in prison, and when you were in prison you either sat there and starved and begged for some attention, or you had friends that came and went and brought you food and carried your letters away- and Paul had a few friends that did that for him, and one of those friends was Onesimus.
Except, you see, Onesimus was supposed to be somewhere else, taking care of Philemon. So he wasn’t very useful to Philemon, was he?
It seems that Onesimus had run away.
Well, who wouldn’t? especially if you were a Christian, and had heard the great Christian teacher Paul say something like this: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
So Onesimus took care of Paul, and Paul taught Onesimus about Jesus. There is much speculation that Onesimus, on the run, had landed in prison because the Romans figured out that he was a slave and supposed to be somewhere else- that wasn’t too hard to determine, because slaves all had a hole in their ears. But I think that is not the case.
I think Onesimus ran, and he ran to someone he knew, and he knew where Paul was because there was a church in Philemon’s house, and they were praying for Paul because Paul was in prison. And I think Onesimus knew about Jesus before he ran, and I think that when he caught up with Paul, Paul taught him MORE about Jesus, because that’s what Paul DID.
So Paul taught Onesimus, and then he told him to go back. Go back to your owner.
And I think Onesimus hung his head down, because, well, you know why- and so does everybody else, and Paul has gotten a bad rap for the last 2,000 years precisely BECAUSE of that.
But Onesimus went, because it was the right thing to do, in his case, but not because it was the right thing for good Roman slaves to do.
No, it was the right thing to do if you were a Christian, and your owner was a Christian, because you SEE- if you are a Christian your primary relationship is with Jesus, and that affects all the other relationships of your life, ESPECIALLY your relationships with other Christians, and ESPECIALLY those ones who are in your church.
So Onesimus went, and he took this letter with him.
This letter that begins, “Dear Philemon…”
Well. I’m pretty sure Philemon was overjoyed to get his slave BACK.
But I’m also pretty sure he was NOT overjoyed to get this letter.
Oh sure, there was a church that met in his house, and sure, the apostle Paul was very near and dear to Philemon, and sure, Philemon had been praying for Paul BUT…
But it’s always been a lot easier to say you are a Christian than to actually BE a Christian, and this letter, well, WOW. This letter just grabs Philemon by the neck and says, “Did you FORGET what belonging to Jesus is all about?”
And Philemon, like most of us, had forgotten that when you are a Christian, you belong to Christ, bought and paid for, just like Onesimus belonged to him. “I’m not going to tell you what to DO, Philemon, but I’m going to tell you what someone who belongs to Jesus would do.”
You see, we’ve talked in recent weeks about how it was for the early Christians- about how they were DIFFERENT than their neighbors- the lived different, they loved different, and they DID different.
And if you were going to be a Christian, and be baptized, and BELONG to Jesus, then the underlying premise is that everything about you was going to change. And that’s what they taught in their membership classes. But BEFORE you could get into a class, they asked you— can you change? And they asked your sponsor- can this person change?
If you were a gladiator, you were expected to stop. And if you were a prostitute, of either gender, you had to stop. The Apostolic Traditions, and ancient text, makes it clear: “If you live in a certain way in everyday life, you cannot hear, comprehend, or live the gospel that the Christian community is seeking to embody.”
So one of the things they would have asked Philemon was this: can you sit at a communion table with your slaves, and be an equal to them?
Can you love them with an agape kind of love, which is unconditional upon their usefulness to you?
And can you embody those practices of the church everywhere else in your life?
And Philemon would have said, “Yes,” EVEN THOUGH DOING THOSE THINGS WOULD HAVE MADE HIM THE SUBJECT OF SCORN AND RIDICULE.
You see, you didn’t love those lower than you, you used them. And you didn’t consider yourself equal to a slave, for mercy’s sake.
So Paul piled it on- remember those jokes you told about useless Useful? Well, Onesimus is very useful to me, and to Jesus, and he will be to YOU, because you are BROTHERS, and his usefulness is not of this world. It’s the ridiculous usefulness of God, and it’s a usefulness that he has because Jesus is working on him, the way a potter works on a lump of slimy clay.
And here’s the kicker from Paul’s letter: What I HOPE, Philemon, is that YOU are useful too! Is Jesus working on YOU? Are you learning how to LOVE?
Then take him back, the way the father took back the prodigal.
Put your robe on him and your ring, and welcome him, and throw a feast in his honor, and open the windows so the neighbors can see that you, just like me, belong to Jesus.
And if those things were a sharp little stick in Philemon’s ribs, well then- this was the twist:
I know, Philemon, that you have been praying for MY freedom- and I think your prayers will be answered, so make plans: I’m coming to see you- and if you’ll be glad to see me in a Christian sort of way, you’ll be glad to see Onesimus in that way.
The thing is, those words would have reminded Philemon that Jesus was coming, too. And the table needed to be set, and the guests invited- slave and free and male and female, not any more. Just, all one, prisoners of Christ.
Meanwhile, Jesus is asking us- is there someone you are holding as a pioneer to their past?
Someone who is a slave to your prejudice?
Someone who is a prisoner to your stereotype of them?
Someone you haven’t forgiven?
Someone who is not your equal?
Someone you’d rather not have lunch with?
Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
Because Jesus is working on them- and on you- to make something new, from a slimy lump of clay.
Something useful, and beautiful, and breathtaking- a vessel, fit for the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC,
But which will hold water
That the thirsty will be glad to drink.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.