13th Sunday after Pentecost – C (Proper 18) LSB #’s 809, 845, 851
Text – Philemon 20
Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
RADICAL FAITH – RADICAL REQUEST
On June 17, 2015, a man named Dylan Roof entered a church in Charleston, SC & was invited to join the Bible study that was going on. After about an hour of being with the church members as they studied the Word of God, Dylan stood up & began shooting. He killed nine people that day in cold blood.
Two days later, family members of the victims, one after another, spoke words of forgiveness to Dylan at his first court appearance. In the Spirit of true Christian faith, they refused to allow Dylan’s hatred to infect their souls. Those family members of the victims are proof that the Christian faith has an extremely radical aspect to it.
It’s that radical nature of the faith that frightens Satan the most. That radical aspect of the Christian faith is what causes all authoritarian governments to fear Christian freedom. Any government that attempts to restrict Christian speech proves itself to be on the wrong side of God’s history.
Of course, not everything that Christians say comes from God. In this life, even God’s children struggle mightily against sin. And there are plenty of people, often they are pastors, who claim to be speaking for God, yet their words come from Satan himself. In a world full of sinful people, true Christian faith will always request that we love others in radical ways.
St. Paul gives a very concrete example of that with his letter to Philemon. For his day & time, over 2100 years ago, it was a very radical request that Paul made of Philemon. And though our cultural understanding of slavery is entirely different today, St. Paul’s example calls us to have a faith that is just as radical. Martin Luther described that radical aspect of faith in Jesus while commenting on the Lord’s Prayer:
“…we who would be Christians must surely count on having the devil with all his angels & the world as our enemies & must count on their inflicting every possible misfortune & grief upon us. For where God’s Word is preached, accepted or believed, & bears fruit, there the blessed holy cross will not be far away. Let nobody think that he will have peace; he must sacrifice all he has on earth – possessions, honor, house & home, wife & children, body & life. Now, this grieves our flesh & the old Adam, for it means that we must remain steadfast, suffer patiently whatever befalls us, & let go whatever is taken from us.
That is a radical description of the Christian life, totally at odds with the prosperity gospel popular in our nation today. And what is the antithesis of the prosperity gospel? It is no prosperity. It is slavery. Luther’s comments on the Christian life could also be used to describe what slavery is like. The child of God:
“…must sacrifice all he has on earth – possessions, honor, house & home, wife & children, body & life.” And, when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, by Satan, Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, & Him only shall you serve.’” (Luke 4:8 ESV)
Granted, Jesus also said, “No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends…” (John 15:15 ESV) My point is this, it is not a one-sided issue. The Bible does at times reference us as servants & as slaves. Jesus calls us friends & He calls His friends to serve God & to serve our neighbor with everything God gives to us.
In this life, following Jesus is first about death to sin & to self. It is a surrendering of all my wants & desires. As that death occurs then comes resurrection. Martin Luther also counseled us to die to sin each day & to rise again, each day, to new life. The Holy Spirit works that in us as we remain in Jesus through the Word of God & through His Sacraments. Apparently the Holy Spirit worked that death & resurrection in the slave Onesimus, who was in the culture of their day owned by a master named Philemon. In a world that had little in the way of a middle class, there were wealthy people & the rest of the people lived in poverty. Poverty & death may be a better description.
If you were fortunate enough to be born to wealthy parents, & they decided to keep you, you were a member of the upper class. Pretty much, everyone else, was subject to slavery. The Jewish culture was different, but it was just a tiny fraction of the world’s population by that time. The Christian faith was made up substantially of the enslaved class of peoples.
Crucifixion was known in the Roman world as the slave’s death. A book entitled Crucifixion has this to say:
“In the person & the fate of the one man Jesus of Nazareth this saving ‘solidarity’ of God with us is given its historical & physical form. In Him, the ‘Son of God,’ God Himself took up the ‘existence of a slave’ & died the ‘slave’s death’ on the tree of martyrdom, given up to public shame & made the ‘curse of the law,’ so that in the ‘death of God’ life might win victory over death. In other words, in the death of Jesus of Nazareth God identified Himself with the extreme of human wretchedness, which Jesus endured as a representative of us all, in order to bring us to the freedom of the children of God.”
Hopefully you can see the attraction for enslaved peoples to the Good News that Jesus taught. By offering eternal life, Jesus was bringing the hope of freedom to a class of people that had zero hope for freedom in this life. In the letter to Philemon, St. Paul was making an appeal to a brother in Christ to put that freedom into effect already in this life for a fellow brother.
In that culture, at that time, it was a radical request. Onesimus was a member of the lower class of people. He had been enslaved by Philemon, a member of the wealthy class. In those days that meant that Philemon provided Onesimus with food, clothing & shelter which Onesimus would not have had otherwise. At some point, Onesimus stole some of Philemon’s wealth & ran away. By God’s providence, Onesimus ended up in contact with St. Paul & was converted to Christianity. He became a different man. He was helpful to Paul who was in prison at the time. Under those circumstances Paul writes to Philemon who had also been converted to Christianity under the tutelage of St. Paul.
In those days legal remedies were common for runaway slaves. It’s one reason that crucifixion was referred as a slave’s death, but Paul writes to Philemon & appeals to him out of brotherly affection not to press charges. Beyond that, St. Paul informs Philemon of the conversion of Onesimus & asks Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a fellow brother in Christ.
It’s a radical faith that Paul lives & wants to pass on to those who come after him. And that radical faith that Paul has desires that the faith of Philemon be put into action. To accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ will not only cost Philemon the work that his slave would do, it will also cost Philemon’s pride as he had been betrayed by Onesimus when he ran away.
With our American context of slavery, it can be really difficult to think in the same terms as Paul. Yet, Paul does not try to cancel Philemon or shame him, but he simply counsels him to treat Onesimus with love & respect as a brother in Christ, even though Philemon could resort to legal means that would be harsh to say the least.
Who might we forgive in our own lives simply because of Jesus Christ? You can probably think of one or two, that would require a radical faith on your part to accomplish. Paul could have used the Law to order Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother, but instead he uses the Gospel which does not make demands of us.
Instead, Paul invites Philemon of his own saintly nature to accept this former slave just as he would accept Paul who was the spiritual father of Philemon. This is the same way in which our heavenly Father invites us back to His altar for Holy Communion. Jesus appeals to our saintly nature to live out the radical faith that He has instilled in us. It’s the faith that Jesus instilled in the family members who forgave Dylan Roof even though he deserved none of it.
This letter illustrates the attitude of the Apostles & of Christians toward social problems. Paul does not plead for Onesimus’ liberation. He focuses solely on Christ as the source of reconciliation, & he asks Philemon to consider that as his motive.
Labor Day focuses on the rights or the plight of workers. Paul points to love & respect of all as the answer. Obviously laws are necessary to protect workers, but the legal system of man can never do the job that God’s love can do. The letter to Philemon shows us the greater reality, & the eternal reality, under everything we see & hear.
May we hear God’s Word today as it has come to us through the Apostle Paul as he works to reconcile his brothers in Christ. May that Word also work reconciliation in our lives. Amen.
Where charity & love prevail there God is ever found; brought here together by Christ’s love by love are we thus bound. Forgive us now each other’s faults as we our faults confess, & let us love each other well in Christian holiness. For love excludes no race or clan that names the Savior’s name; His family embraces all whose Father is the same. Amen. LSB 845:1, 3, 6.
 Luther, Large Catechism, Lord’s Prayer, p. 65.
 Hengel, Crucifixion, p. 88-89.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet