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My Very Own: Philemon
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For Listener Supported My Spiritual Advisor, this is Mark Kurowski with a reflection for Sunday, 9/4/2016 The 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time.
Please pause this audio and read The Letter to Philemon.
Philemon. What a strange little name! You know, the Greek names have meanings that are interesting. This little name for the recipient of one of St. Paul’s letters is also key to the letter and filled with irony. I will talk about that later. But, if you think of the name “Philadelphia”, it is a name that means “Brotherly love.” So, in looking up the name for this sermon, the meaning of “Philemon” is close to the idea of “brotherly love”. It could be thought of as “One who is my brother.” Yet, I think it needs to be something more.
In Romans 16:16, St. Paul says, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” The Greek word there for “kiss” is pronounced “Philemati”. So, the name “Philemon” means more like, “One who is my very own.” It is a name that has incredible meaning because for the man Philemon is one who came to know Jesus Christ through the ministry of St. Paul. So, indeed, Philemon is Paul’s very own. It is not like the nice-nice we have in churches today between priests and pastors and their flocks. This connection is from the gut. The commitment to one another is more like Navy Seals than people who have a cup of coffee and donut after Mass over the weekend.
So, here is the story of this little letter: Philemon has a slave named Onesimus. His name, by the way, means “useful, profitable”, just for good measure. Onesimus has run away from Philemon. He has, rather shrewdly, I believe, run to St. Paul who is in prison. But wait, the plot thickens. (All of this is just like the Lord, naming people things that fit into the narrative of faith.) Onesimus is allowed to take care of Paul when Paul is in prison, of course, at no cost to the Roman State who has imprisoned Paul for his faith. So, Onesimus (aka “useful”) has left Philemon (aka Paul’s very own) and gone to St. Paul whose witness to the goodness of God converts Onesimus to Christianity.
St. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with a note and asks Philemon to no longer treat Onesimus like a slave for two reasons. First, although Paul could call in the chip of Philemon coming to Christ because of Paul’s ministry, he appeals to him to act out of the Law of Love. Secondly, Paul testifies to Onesimus’ conversion and says to Philemon that the man who once was his slave is now his brother. Here it:
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love….I am appealing to your for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in imprisonment. Formerly he was useless (play on words) to you, but now is indeed useful (again play on the name) both to you and to me…So, if you consider me your partner (says the man who brought Philemon to faith), welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you…charge it to my account….I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.
There are four things we can get out of this master stroke of a letter by Paul trying to get a man to do what is right. Philemon by any standard other than the Gospel has the right to be angry with his former slave. Paul has a right to tell Philemon to do what he wants, but forcing people to do right is not the Gospel. So, here are the four things that we get out of this from St. Paul:
- The Law of Love is the rule of life for the Christian.
- We believe that people can be converted from evil to good.
- We dedicate ourselves to love the least, the lost, and the lonely.
- That love is marked by selflessness.
First, the law of Love is the rule of life for the Christian. Think about it. God loves those who do evil just as much as he loves those who follow him. I have pounded this notion for about six months now in my preaching. We, as Christians, believe that loving others, looking after the welfare of the other is our first order after loving God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Of course, our primary relationship is with Jesus Christ. That relationship should cause us to stop looking at people as good people and bad people, but as people who recognize God loves them and those who don’t.
Living this out, Paul says to Philemon, Mr. “One who is my own”, even though I could pull the authority card as your priest, I won’t. I will appeal to an even higher law than ordination. I appeal to the Law of love your neighbor as yourself. I will get to this more fully in the third point. But, what Paul is saying is that this idea of love is not just a nicety. It is serious business and it is hard.
OK, the second point is we believe that people can be converted. This should permeate everything we do. One of the saddest things ever to hit the inner cities is the idea of prison being about an eye for an eye rather than a second chance. It was Christians who fought for prison reform in our country. We fought for it because we believe that people can be changed. Our belief isn’t in the prisoner. Our belief is that one who can change bread and wine into his Body and Blood can surely change hardened criminals into loving men and women who praise the Lord.
Paul is saying to Philemon, “don’t you dare ‘yeah, but’ me about this slave.” Paul is saying that Gospel changes people and it has changed Onesimus. He, who was not useful because he had no love, is now fully useful because he is not your slave anymore. He is a servant of the Most High King. In other words, he is your brother.
It is because of this belief in God’s power to change others that we come to the third point: we dedicate ourselves to having friends in the lowest of places. I, personally, have friends in prison who have molested children, shot at police in an bi-polar episode, been disbarred, failed at business, failed at marriage, failed in life. I pray for them every day. I don’t do it because I believe in them or their abilities. No! I do it because I believe in the power of God to change people.
Here is the thing, though, [friend] brethren, I don’t do it so they become like me. I do it so that they can know the incredible love of God. The Law of Love is also the Law of mercy, grace, compassion, empathy, and sympathy. The Law of Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things while the world offers a firm stiff backhand. Paul calls on Philemon to live out this belief as Onesimus places this letter in Philemon’s hand.
Finally, this brings us to the fourth point: The Law of Love is marked by selflessness. Just look at a crucifix! The crucifix is a visual proclamation of the Lord’s death until he comes again. There, on the cross is a man who spared nothing so that you, I, Paul, Philemon, and then Onesimus can be saved. It is a screaming proclamation that God holds nothing against us! What a relief! No one else will give us a break, but the Lord of the Universe does over and over. We know the relief this offers someone who is beaten down. Why would we, Philemon, not offer this selfless generosity to others? Even those who have betrayed us?
Masterfully, Paul takes all the platitudes of the Christian faith and shows us how they are to be applied. He says, Philemon, act out of Love. Love testifies that people like Onesimus can change because of God. Take back this one who was lost, says Paul, not as slave, but with the generosity of a father welcoming home a wayward brother.
This is my message today: you can be change. Accept the Lord’s love. Let it heal you within. Once you were hated by the world and you embraced that hatred. Now, you realized that you are loved by God. Welcome home. Welcome home, one who is my very own. [Welcome to this little house church.] You have always been useful to me. Let us now welcome your brother. Amen.
This audio is under the copyright of My Spiritual Advisor, Incorporated and may not be used, reduplicated, or distributed for commercial use without the express written consent of My Spiritual Advisor, Incorporated. My Spiritual Advisor, Incorporated, 2016.
Mark Kurowski, M.Div.
Spiritual Director, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Theologian