Politics of Paul – and Jesus

Scripture: Philemon 1-21

Let us pray:

Guide our minds, our hearts, O Redeeming One, that we might find guidance in this ancient letter of the faith. In your name we pray, Amen.

How many of you get real snail mail these days? Do you feel a momentary thrill? I look forward to the few hand-written letters I still get now and then, for me, they are a real treat that echo from a distant, simpler time. They are almost like that extra savory little additional dessert reserved just for the grown-ups after the kids have gone to bed, don’t you think? Deliciously opening up the envelope and pulling out the letter… someone actually cared enough to write a REAL letter instead of an email! There might even be something deeply personal in it!

To the early church, Philemon is one of those letters. It begins with a personal salutation to the three leaders of a house-church from the earliest of Christian times: Philemon, Appia, and Archippus – from what scholars have hypothesized, a couple and another man.[1]

Right from the start, we get a sense of Paul as pastor in this letter, rather than theologian, as in the letter to the Romans. He is, as he says himself in this letter, by now an “old man” so I can see why scholars note how carefully Paul weaves his words, navigating with incredible finesse the culture of New Testament antiquity.[2] He has learned many things about speaking with people, encouraging them, convicting them in love, and advocating for their highest Christian selves to rule in their lives and relationships.

Recall the society of the time put heavy emphasis on what honors or shames. Addressing Philemon, Paul skillfully requests his wealthy son in the faith to do two things that normally would weaken his social position – to forgive a debt and to release from servitude a slave. Moreover, Paul actually claims the run-away slave, Onesimus, (which actually means ‘useful’ or ‘beneficial’ in Greek)[3] now has a brother-kinship with Philemon. Which means, culturally for Philemon, Paul is being deadly serious, for it would be considered utterly shameful to enslave a brother according to the social milieu of the time.[4]

So here we are, with Paul’s letter to Philemon. What we are left with for our own interpretation has to be re-envisioned, however. In our post-slavery United States of America, it is relatively hard to draw an application from this letter for our life together in this community. Yet I submit there is a way to look at it through contemporary eyes, letting it hit us and issues of our current times with the same gravity that Philemon would have received it from Paul. Let us attempt to re-draw the characters a bit with a current-day interpretation:

“Imagine an illegal immigrant today. Say that it is José trying to earn money for his family back in Guatemala, or Rosa, a single mother of children born in this country, but who herself entered the country illegally. There are reasons for laws dealing with illegal immigrants, and Christians are meant to be law-abiding citizens; but, before all else, an immigrant – especially a professing Christian immigrant, if that indeed matters – is first and foremost a sister or brother in the love of God. Gospel teaching and baptismal vows call Christians to respect the dignity of every human being. Imagine receiving a letter – one Christian community to another – commending reconciliation and care for José or Rosa.”[5]

What would that mean to you as a community of faith? How might you reach out to José and his family in Guatemala?   What would your response be in the hour of Rosa’s need? Sanctuary from deportation? Now, reflect for a moment: does re-writing the story that way bring it closer to home for you? What would it take to act with the love of God in the politics of Jesus? A timely question, indeed.

Let us pray:

Holy Spirit, guide us all in our moments of decision-making, now and always – choosing that which is good for your Kingdom here on earth. May all glory be unto you and to the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ.  Amen?  May it be so.

Footnotes:

[1]E. Elizabeth Johnson. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

[2] David R. Adams. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

[3] Frederick Borsch. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

[4] E. Elizabeth Johnson. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

[5] Frederick Borsch. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

Question for Reflection

What must you give up to follow Christ more faithfully?

Household Prayer: Morning

Abiding God, awaken my heart to greet you and open my lips to sing your praise. May I follow the way of Christ ever more fully this day. Amen.

Household Prayer: Evening

Lord, you know my strengths and weaknesses and how I long to serve you. Thank you for the love and guidance you have shown for me this day. In your book of life are written all my days; in you I fully trust. Bless me as I sleep this night and bring me to tomorrow, rejoicing in the gift of living ever close to you. Amen.

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
This entry was posted in Conversation Starters, Reflection. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s