Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost.
From Paul, who is a prisoner for the cause of Christ Jesus, and our brother Timothy.
To Philemon our dearly loved coworker, Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church that meets in your house.
May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
Philemon, I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers because I’ve heard of your love and faithfulness, which you have both for the Lord Jesus and for all God’s people. I pray that your partnership in the faith might become effective by an understanding of all that is good among us in Christ. I have great joy and encouragement because of your love, since the hearts of God’s people are refreshed by your actions, my brother.
Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to command you to do the right thing, I would rather appeal to you through love. I, Paul—an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus— appeal to you for my child Onesimus. I became his father in the faith during my time in prison. He was useless to you before, but now he is useful to both of us. I’m sending him back to you, which is like sending you my own heart. I considered keeping him with me so that he might serve me in your place during my time in prison because of the gospel. However, I didn’t want to do anything without your consent so that your act of kindness would occur willingly and not under pressure. Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus 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—that is, as a dearly loved brother. He is especially a dearly loved brother to me. How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually in the Lord!
So, if you really consider me a partner, welcome Onesimus as if you were welcoming me.
I’ve conducted five funerals since this pandemic began. And as I’ve watched families navigate grief in these difficult times, when the obvious hallmarks of familial affection have been stripped away—the hugs, the plane flights in, the big communal meals—there’s been a line in the funeral liturgy that has stuck out to me more than ever.
It’s part of the committal, the final prayer before burial. “We commit to the earth our brother Philip,” it says. Or, “our sister Julia.”
We don’t often use brother and sister language in the white Presbyterian tradition. And of all the people I’ve buried lately, they were much more likely to have been my grandfather or great-great grandmother than my brother or sister. There is a moment, saying that line, that sustains some cognitive dissonance: the person was not my sibling. And yet it also is the moment I find most dignifying, most humanizing in the entire funeral service. The person who died lived a very different life than mine, at a very different time, and their path has ended while mine is hopefully still just beginning. But all the same, under God, they are my sisters and my brothers. So I honor them as such.
Family language comes naturally to Christians. How often do I refer to y’all as my CSPC family, my brothers and sisters, my siblings in Christ? How often do you talk about your church family, or proclaim that we’re all children of God, or pray to God the Father? How many of you have had a pastor you called Father, or maybe even Mother? It’s so ingrained into our vocabulary that it almost seems cliché. But take it back to the early church, and it’s revolutionary.
Biological family was everything in the ancient world—Jewish and Roman alike. Wealth, occupation, legal status, citizenship—all these flowed directly along family lines. In our Hebrew scriptures, family language is almost always used in technical terms—a biological brother, an ancestral father. But when the apostle Paul began to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, he throws around family terms like its going out of style—everyone is his brother and sister, his mother, his children, he is like a father, we are all family in Christ. Across bloodlines, across geographies, across status, across faiths, across conflicts, Paul fashions all who believe in Jesus as the new chosen family of Christ.
Family itself is an interesting word. It comes from the Latin familia—but familia was more than who we would consider family today. A familia in the Roman world meant everyone who lived in a household—parents and children, yes, but also servants and slaves and employees and even clients. When the familia gathered, not everyone was equal. There were slaves in the family, too, people without access to the family wealth, or name, or legal status. People who were considered to be without fathers, without relations, without history or legacy. They were considered less than human, props and instruments to be used to better the family fortunes. Yet they were counted in the familia.
And when the familia converted to Christianity, and formed a church in their home, the slaves were there, too.
Our letter today is from Paul’s letter to the Philemon, which has the distinction of being the shortest book in our Bible, and one of the most unsettling as well. The gist of the letter is this: Onesimus, enslaved by Philemon, ran away from the household and fell in with Paul. Paul is now sending him back to Philemon.
The temptation, of course, is to take this letter and use it to talk about slavery, and hopefully, to try to condemn it, although it’s been used for both sides of what should never have been a debate to begin with. But I’m not interested in arguing against slavery, because at this point in our history I hope I would be arguing against thin air. I don’t think anyone in this room thinks we should return to enslaving human people for profit.
What I want to talk about instead is family.
Listen to the language that Paul uses in this letter. He writes alongside his brother, Timothy. He writes to Philemon, his dearly loved coworker, and Apphia his sister. He writes on behalf of his child Onesimus, who he has become a father to. He asks Philemon to accept him as a dearly loved brother, as he is a dearly loved brother to Paul.
None of these people share a bloodline. They do, however, share a Savior.
I wish Paul had demanded Philemon free Onesimus. Or better yet, acknowledge that human beings cannot be property, and therefore cannot be freed but only have their innate freedom recognized. It might have short-circuited some of the ugliest chapters in Christian history. But he doesn’t, and in the context of the Roman world, I get why.
In the Roman world, slaves were not considered full people—they were something less than human. And freeing a slave did not change that. Manumission did not make slaves into citizens, and to have even basic rights required citizenship. Freed slaves, in fact, never became simply free people: they were always freed slaves. Less than. Nobodies.
Sarah Ruden, who is both a biblical and classical scholar, writes that “Paul had a much more ambitious plan than making Onesimus legally free. He wanted to make him into a human being, and he had a paradigm. As God chose and loved and guided the Israelies, he had now chosen and loved and could guide everyone. The grace of God could make what was [deemed] subhuman into what was more than human. It was just a question of knowing it and letting it happen.” (Ruden, Paul Among the People, page 160)
It is one thing to be legally freed. It is another to be family.
Paul’s letter to Philemon notes that Philemon and Apphia ran a house church. Yet Onesimus, their slave, did not come to faith in Christ until after he met Paul, who sat in chains of his own. I am not surprised by this. To hear Philemon and Apphia read Jesus’ words of blessing to the poor and hungry, while he served them their food; to watch them pray to a crucified Lord while the whip scars were on his back; to dry the floors of water after they baptized each other with forgiveness—how could he have found a place in a house church like that?
We don’t know what happened to Philemon, Apphia, Onesimus, and their house church. Perhaps Onesimus was welcomed back as a brother, freed either by law or custom, treated as an emissary of Paul himself. Perhaps he was given a slap on the wrist and returned to slave quarters. Perhaps he was executed for being a runaway. Perhaps he never went back at all.
We don’t know. We don’t know if Philemon and Apphia ever repented, and learned to see family beyond their bloodlines.
What we do know is that we today who are white Christians are faced with the same opportunity. Legally, enslaved people were freed in this country one hundred and fifty seven years ago. But being free is different than being family.
In those one hundred and fifty seven years, white Americans—white Christian Americans—have used every tool at their disposal to let Black people know that while they might be freed, they were not family, from Jim Crow laws to burning crosses to a calculated lack of compassion for Black lives. On paper, this is a nation of racial equality, and that equality tears as easily as paper when faced with the truth that Black people in this country statistically do not have equal access to quality education, medical care, generational wealth, academic support, home ownership, media representation, political office, and perhaps most importantly—the trust, respect, and welcome of their white neighbors.
To be freed under the law is a start; but we are a gospel people, and we can do better than that.
Of all the scenarios I imagined for Onesimus earlier, the one that chills me most is where he returns to the house church, to the familia, but not as family. The one where he stands in the background, unseen, unwelcomed, and unvalued, while Philemon and his wife display their piety at the table. The one where Paul begged for his humanity and they ignore him. The one where nothing changes.
It may seem like we are at a tipping point as a country, but every moment is a tipping point, if we begin to make different choices. And it is my prayer, my plea, my scream of hope, that this time something will change. That this time we will look at George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbury and see brothers and sisters whose imperfect and redeemed lives we should grieve like they are our own family. Because in Christ, they are.
At each of those funerals I’ve done this spring and summer, someone in the family was missing. Somebody couldn’t make it in because of the pandemic, and maybe they facetimed in, maybe they called, but it wasn’t the same. The family was incomplete, and we felt it. It was a grief all its own, a loss upon a loss.
Do we grieve at how the Black children of God are missing from our family? Do we grieve that we have not remembered to tell our brothers and sisters that we love them? Do we grieve that we have contented ourselves with a familia where we are served, but failed to create a family where we are in service to others?
And if we grieve, do we then have the strength—the faith—to hope? To hope that in Christ, the family can be reunited? That Onesimus can be welcomed as a dearly loved brother? Perhaps even more importantly, that we can see him not just as part of our family, but ourselves as part of his?
Family is not easy. But we are God’s family, and we have been called to this work. Even after all this time, all the blood spilled, all the breath choked out, all the children bombed, all the dividing lines drawn, we can still have hope that God will knit the family back together, with no insiders or outsiders, no superiority or arrogance, no callousness or hypocrisy. As people of faith in this country, we must have hope, and we must do the work, of making God’s vision for humanity come true.
It’s beyond time.