Sermon for Sunday, September 8, 2019 || Proper 18C || Philemon 1-21
I guarantee you that the Apostle Paul has no idea he was writing scripture. This fact lends a certain authenticity to his words because he was never trying to add to the Bible. Rather, his letters flow from his close relationships with people all over the Mediterranean, people he has met while planting house churches. Today, we heard most of Paul’s shortest surviving letter, his letter to Philemon. We know Paul isn’t aware this letter will become Holy Scripture because his words are so personal, so timely. “One more thing,” he says (after the verses we read this morning), “Prepare a guest room for me.” That’s like me emailing an old college buddy and seeing if I can crash on his couch for a few days. Such a normal, everyday request gives this short letter a down-to-earth quality, a glimpse into Paul’s extraordinary (and yet still very human) life.
And one sentence in this letter that is so often overlooked among Paul’s output, one sentence shows Paul’s lifelong struggle. And not just Paul’s, but the struggle of leaders – indeed, of whole societies – throughout history; a struggle that crops up even in our own very human lives. The sentence is this:
“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.” Here Paul lays out a fundamental dichotomy between power and love. He could command Philemon; that is, he could exercise his power as a bigwig in the Church, his founder’s privilege, if you will. But Paul would rather appeal to Philemon on the basis of love; that is, Paul would rather emulate Jesus.
The only beings Jesus ever commands are the demons he casts out of people. For the people themselves, Jesus invites, he encourages, he shares stories, he teaches, he heals, he leads by example. Jesus eats with, walks with, prays with, cries with, dies with – in a word, Jesus loves. The word “love” is on Jesus’ lips in some of his most important moments in the Gospel.
A lawyer once asked Jesus a question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus replied with a potent summary of all the commandments: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).
During his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).
Jesus loved his friend Lazarus and wept with sisters before going to Lazarus’s grave. The bystanders are astounded, and they say, “See how he loved him!” (John 11). Once when a rich young man asked Jesus his advice about how to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus looked at him and loved him, before giving him guidance he can’t stomach (Mark 10:21).
During his last dinner with his friends, Jesus spoke of love over and over again. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). And later, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
Then Jesus did just that. He laid down his life out of love, for “God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son” (John 3:16). The horror of Jesus’ crucifixion pitted power against love: the death-dealing power of empire that only ever seeks its own propagation against the life-giving love of God that only ever seeks to bring all creatures back into right relationship with each other and with God. Our faith proclaims the Risen Christ, whose resurrection demonstrates that love will always have the last word, no matter how tightly power clings to everything and everyone it touches.
Paul knew the corrupting nature of power when he persecuted the early Christians. He approved of the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr. He obtained power to go to Damascus and root out the followers of Jesus there. But on the road, everything changed. Temporarily blind, Paul went into the city and found the very people he meant to destroy. And they welcomed him with open arms and healed him (Acts 9). In that life-changing event, Paul knew that in the struggle between power and love, there was only one choice, and that choice was love. For as he would write later, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.“ (1 Corinthians 13:2).
So we find Paul in this unguarded letter to his brother in the faith, Philemon. Paul struggles between power and love, and he chooses love. And the reason is this. Philemon once had power over a man named Onesimus, who was a slave in Philemon’s house. We don’t know the details, but somehow Onesimus came into Paul’s service. It’s possible Philemon sent Onesimus to Paul while Paul was in prison. Or perhaps Onesimus went their on his own against Philemon’s wishes. Whatever the case, Paul appeals to Philemon on the basis of love to voluntarily end any claim he has over Onesimus. Paul writes to the Galatians, “There is no longer slave or free…for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” And Paul echoes these words to Philemon: Onesimus, who Paul calls “my own heart” (12), returns to Philemon “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother…both in the flesh and in the Lord” (16).
Paul could command Philemon, but that would just perpetuate the wretched cycle of power: Paul over Philemon, Philemon over Onesimus. By appealing to Philemon on the basis of love, Paul breaks the cycle of power just like Jesus did. And just like we can, too. When we act on the basis of love, we detox from all the systems of power that distort this world: the delusion of white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism, Christian nationalism. There are so many, but the one thing they all share in common is that they choose power over love. We know better, for Jesus taught us to choose love over power.
Remember, in the Gospel Jesus eats with, walks with, prays with, cries with, dies with. The word “with” is all important because love is the desire to be woven together, to have all of our lives so inextricably linked that the suffering of one is the suffering of all and the joy of one is the joy of all. Love challenges us to confront the biases and privileges that keep some in positions of power. Love challenges us to speed way past mere tolerance and embrace the beautiful diversity of human experience. Love challenges us like it challenged Paul: to put down our need for power, which always isolates, and choose as our foundation God’s love, which always connects.
For, as Paul writes so beautifully, “Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. [Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:6-8).