Philemon and Onesimus, Kindred in Christ

A Homily for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Philemon 1:1-21; St. Luke 14:25-33


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who makes us members of a new family. Amen.

Three Sundays ago, we read Christ’s words that he “came to bring fire to the earth,” bringing not peace “but rather division,” rending family against family. Last Sunday, we read about a wedding banquet where the first are sent to places of dishonor and the marginalized are ushered up front to the places of honor. And this Sunday, Christ told the crowds following him that discipleship means hating your family, taking up your cross, and giving up all of your possessions.

And throughout these passages of Gospel that sounds like bad news, you’ve heard me say that this is only Good News because of the overwhelming goodness of the coming Kingdom. It’s not easy, nor is it anything we accomplish apart from the grace of God. Indeed, as ethicists David Gushee and Glen Stassen remind us, “The kingship of God leads to the cross for those who proclaim it and fight for it.” Following Christ will bring us into direct and painful conflict with the powers and principalities of this world as they cling to their violent positions of authority. This coming Kingdom is costly, but in the end, the Triune God will set all things to right.

In the meantime, we are caught in the middle. Christ has conquered the grave, and our victory is already assured, but the powers and principalities still hold sway for a while longer because our final victory is not yet here. Instead, we occupy a time when fore-glimpses of the Kingdom erupt forth into our world. The question, then, is how do we act in this time between the times? What does it look like for the Church to live faithful lives while we wait for the reign of God?

This is what Gushee and Stassen call kingdom ethics, putting our faith into action – not simply or passively waiting for the Kingdom of God but actively living into this new reality. It’s God’s work, but “we disciples actively participate” in it, letting our existence in this world be radically transformed by what God is doing.

Which is great in theory, but our lives aren’t built on theory, are they? What do kingdom ethics look like when they’re lived out in a world full of corruption, avarice, arrogance, and other systemic-yet-deeply-personal sin? In this violent and chaotic world, how do we practically delight in God’s will and walk in the ways of the Lord to the glory of God’s holy name?What does it look like when a person truly takes up the cross, when a person really and truly lets God redefine what family means?

philemon

Saint Paul, as we have seen this summer, frequently found himself in prison and, eventually, in Rome awaiting death. During one of those imprisonments, a leader of a house church named Philemon sent his slave Onesimus to comfort Paul. (It should be noted that prisons have never been comfortable places, but they were somehow even worse in the first century. The jailed were dependent upon the generosity of those outside to provide not only financial and legal aid but also food and drink, and Paul relied heavily on patrons like Philemon to keep him alive during his repeated time in jail.) During the course of his imprisonment, Paul and Onesimus became close friends – no, not friends. Family. Paul goes so far as to say that he has become like a spiritual father to Onesimus.

For this reason, Paul wrote to his spiritual brother Philemon, risking division in a fragile church with a big, bold ask: set Onesimus free. And throughout this short letter (Seriously, we read all but one verse of it today. It fits on a single page.), we see glimpses of this new Kingdom ethic in practice.

In the Greco-Roman household structure, Philemon would have been Onesimus’ superior. Based on his position as both a slaveowner and the patron of a house church, we might reasonably assume that Philemon was the pater familias of a large household, several rungs up the social ladder from a lowly slave like Onesimus or a prisoner like Paul. Now, Paul says, they are brothers, equal members of the new family of God through Christ. He writes:

Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

In the reign of God, the imprisoned become spiritual fathers and slaves become brothers – equals! Wealth and prestige are not signs of greatness but tools to be used for the sake of others. This new Kingdom is upending everything! And while it is described as a Kingdom, and Christ is Lord, this new monarchy doesn’t look much like the power structures of this world; our Lord doesn’t look much like the kings and rulers of this age. As Gushee and Stassen put it:

[In] God’s consummated kingdom we are all kin, at last, and treat each other as such. And in such a world, God will at last rule….

Our social stations, our self-imposed rules about who is better or worse, who is in or who is out, all of it is passing away to make way for something new. Our small understanding of family is falling away so that we may see all members of Christ as brother, sister, sibling, beloved. In Baptism, we were adopted into a larger family than we could ever imagine, one in which we are all children of God, heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Have you been taught that you are inferior based on your occupation, your pay check, your race, your gender? Behold, you are a beloved member of God’s royal household! Do you believe that your skin color or your job makes you better than your neighbor? Look at them and see your new sibling! Love them and serve them as they were your own flesh and blood, because you are united with them in the Body of Christ.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple,” says our Lord, but he is reconciling us to our Heavenly Father and giving us new kindred! He is calling us to lay down our pride, our prestige, our wealth, our power, and even our very life. But he has promised life eternal! Living into this new Kingdom, then, we are free to give up everything because we know that Christ will replace it with something far better.

Amen.

 

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