The Rev. Dr. Frank Senn
Proper 18/Lectionary 23/Pentecost 16/Year C
Texts: Philemon; Luke 14:25-33
September 4, 2016
Some of you may remember the spiritual song from the 1960s that had a chorus that went, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” We sang it on college campuses in Spiritual hootenannies and in the folk masses of that era. I actually thought it was kind of a dippy song back then, but it was a response to the words of Jesus, “I give you a new commandment: love one another”---to which he added, “If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35). I liked the Beatles’ song better, “All you need is love, all you need is love, all you need is love, love, love is all you need.” It was an idealistic time for both church and society back in the 60s. Being young, we didn’t realize that love always has to be worked out in difficult situations, often involving interpersonal relationships. Our readings today illustrate those difficult situations in which love is tested.
We heard almost the whole of Paul’s letter to Philemon; it’s the shortest of Paul’s letters, less than a full page. It’s also a personal letter rather than a letter written to churches. There was some debate in the early church about whether it should even be included in the biblical canon. But it was, perhaps because it tells us how love gets worked out between Christians, especially in close personal relationships.
Paul says he has heard good reports about the love that Philemon has been demonstrating. He speaks particularly of Philemon’s love for other Christians, and he describes this love as something that refreshes people’s hearts, something that perks people up and reminds them that life is worth living. And having given him this big pat on the back, Paul sets about spelling out to him what he sees as the next big step that Philemon needs to take in expressing his love to the saints. He has to take Onesimus back into his household and treat him as his brother in Christ.
Who is this Onesimus? The tradition, at least since the time of John Chrysostom (a contemporary of Augustine’s in the Greek Church), has regarded Onesimus as a slave, perhaps a runaway slave. This letter attracted a lot of attention in the U.S. before the Civil War. Both abolitionists and pro-slavery people appealed to it to support their positions. Runaway slaves need to be returned to their masters, said the anti-Abolitionists. See? It’s right here in the Bible. But the Abolitionists pointed out that Paul tells Philemon to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother.”
But what kind of a brother? A brother “both in the flesh and in the Lord.” I was stopped by the phrase brother “in the flesh.” I checked the Greek. Yup, it uses the word sarx. That’s “flesh.” I checked out various translations. The Jerusalem Bible says “blood brother.” Maybe Onesimus wasn’t a slave at all. Maybe he was actually Philemon’s brother.
Allan Dwight Callahan makes this suggestion in his Commentary, Embassy of Onesimus: The Letter of Paul to Philemon. If Onesimus was Philemon’s blood brother, what’s the bit about Philemon receiving him back “no longer as a slave?” Is Paul using the term “slave” figuratively?
Throughout his letters Paul uses the term both literally and figuratively. Maybe he’s using it in both senses here. Perhaps a scenario can be constructed in which Onesimus was indentured to his older brother (perhaps after the death of their parents), chaffed under the relationship, and ran off to Paul, who was in jail at the time (perhaps in Ephesus). Onesimus proved to be very useful to Paul, but now Paul wants to send him back to Philemon---to bring about reconciliation between two brothers “in the flesh” so that their brotherhood “in the Lord” can be restored.
Doesn’t this up the ante for reconciliation? Isn’t it easier to be magnaminous to, say, an employee than to a brother, with whom you may have had a falling out? Paul goes overboard in making his appeal. He even pledges to make good whatever financial losses Philemon might have suffered because Onesimus ran off.
This is one of the most manipulative letters you’ve ever read. I’ll repay you whatever Onesimus owes, writes Paul, although remember that you owe me your life. I won’t command you to take him back, but please get a room ready for me, because I’m coming to visit Colossae as soon as I’m out of jail. Inplication? I’ll know how you responded to my appeal.
Love involves the hard work of reconciliation where relationships have been broken. That’s the kind of love Paul is asking Philemon to work on. Paul is the third party mediator, using whatever persuasive powers he has. Philemon has shown a lot of love to all the saints. Now he must show love to someone in his own household---perhaps a slave, but more likely an estranged brother. That’s more difficult.
So must family members always be loving each other no matter what? Not if you listen to Jesus in today’s Gospel. He tells the large crowd following him---following him on the way to Jerusalem---, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Obviously this is a perplexing saying, because Jesus’s ethic of love makes it unthinkable that Christians should hate anyone, let alone those closest to them. But such hyperbole was a common form of making a point in the culture Jesus lived in. It’s not unknown among us either, especially when you listen to politicians’ speeches. A contrast is exaggerated to its logical extreme to make its implications apparent.
Thus Jesus’s words may simply be taken (as some translations do) as saying “those who come to me cannot be my disciples unless they love me more than they love father and mother, spouse and children, sisters and brothers, and themselves as well.”
But I think there’s a bit more to it than that. The overall context of the passage is about counting the cost of following Jesus. Jesus tells two parables about counting the cost before you begin an undertaking: count the cost of building a tower before you begin construction; count the cost of setting out to wage war before you pick a fight with another country.
I think that context suggests that the verse is not just about who we love most, but about facing the consequences of who we love most.
And so I think Jesus is not just saying “love me more than your family.” He is warning us that if we really live as his disciples, loving him with all our heart by embracing his values, we might be accused by our families of hating them.
When I was teaching in Indonesia, I heard the story of a student who converted to Christianity from Islam. He said he expected to be beaten by his friends, and he was prepared for that. But being beaten by his family members was hard to take. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” said Jesus. There are contexts in which following Jesus entails suffering, physical and mental suffering.
Sometimes it’s difficult to break away from family ties to follow Jesus. Francis of Assisi felt that he needed to make a dramatic gesture to show how serious he was about following Jesus in a life of poverty. He stood before his merchant father and his father’s affluent friends and stripped off all his clothes, left them in a pile, and walked away naked. “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” said Jesus. To part with your possessions can be as difficult for some people as parting company with your family.
To follow Jesus means to accept the values of the kingdom that he preached, and that might set you at odds with family members, your friends, or a society that doesn’t share those values. None of us can give any kind of advance guarantee about how we will cope with the consequences of that commitment, if push comes to shove. But Jesus is making sure that we don’t end up saying we’d been conned into discipleship without being shown the fine print.
The fact is that real love always involves risks. Real love always lies beyond our comfort zones. But a new community of disciples founded on deep love, on risky undertakings, perhaps even championing socially controversial actions, is truly worth whatever discomfort and disrepute it takes to be part of it.
Jesus has gone that way before us, and as we gather around this table we are reminded that his body was broken and his blood was shed to make possible this new community of disciples.
So we must come to this table in a state of reconciled fellowship. Philemon and Onesimus must come together to the Lord’s table as brothers in the Lord. Hence the greeting of peace before we come to the table. Maybe you’ve got to wander around the church finding the person you need to be reconciled with and share the Lord’s peace with them before you come to the table.
But we are also reminded that on the other side of the deep baptismal waters of disrepute and death, lies the promised land where the new wine of love and mercy and peace is poured out. And with the bread and wine of scandalous love, we are nourished for the risky journey into communion in the ultimate love of God for us, a love we can only desire to return.
Lift up your hearts. We lift them to the Lord. Yes, Lord, you I love with all my heart.
Frank C. Senn