August 23, 2020 Sermon
“Pursuing Change for Christ: Philemon, Part 1”
1st Scripture Reading – Philemon 1:1-3
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, 2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
2nd Scripture Reading – Philemon 1:4-9
4 When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. 7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.
“Pursuing Change for Christ: Philemon, Part 1”
It’s pretty easy to see in our day and time that people seek change, isn’t it? I spent some time this week perusing headlines of various news outlets, and, while I’m not going to share the headlines with you – most of them are so partisan that they’ll torque someone off to the point of not being able to hear the rest of the sermon – I will share with you a summary of the change being sought that’s reflected in the headlines:
- There are people seeking to make changes to the systems of this nation they perceive to be systemically racist, these desired changes represented by phrases like “Black Lives Matter”;
- There are people seeking changes to the systems of law and order in this nation, these desired changes represented by phrases like “defund the police”;
- There are people seeking changes to the people occupying positions of power, these changes being amplified by the reality that we’re in an election year…election years being our nation’s built-in system for facilitating changes in the people who occupy certain positions of power. This past week, the desire for this kind of change was represented by the Democratic National Convention; this coming week, desire for this kind of change will be reflected in the Republican National Convention.
- There are people seeking changes to the kinds of things we remember and memorialize; these changes include a transformation of our public school curriculum, changes in naming conventions for all kinds of things including sports teams, changes in the naming conventions and logos emblazoned on the products we purchase, and changes in the types of statues we place in public spaces, among others.
- There are changes being sought to what kinds of rights our society believes are granted to the citizens of this nation – for example, how far does our right to bear arms extend in terms of weapons with high ammo capacity and how far does our right to worship as we see fit extend amidst a pandemic – and even changes to the understanding of “to whom” these rights extend – do constitutional rights extend to citizens only or to non-citizens who reside within our borders, as well.
- There are changes being sought to the fundamental distribution of powers and separation of powers among our branches of government: the executive and judicial branches seek to do things that sound an awful lot like the power to make laws that was granted to the legislative branch, even while some within the legislative branch seek to dictate how the executive branch can implement the laws and how the judicial branch can interpret the laws. And of course there’s the ever-growing bureaucracy within the government that appears to be wresting control of certain governmental functions from the folks who can be replaced by the will of voters in elections.
- There are changes being sought to a great many more things: how elections operate, how and how much mail is delivered and at what cost, tax codes, freedom to move about without restrictions, national borders and immigration policy, the fundamental nature of our economic systems, and more.
Y’all, we truly live in a time in which you don’t have to look very hard at all to discover people are seeking to CHANGE, to TRANSFORM, our society.
Which shouldn’t surprise us. Christian author, preacher, and seminary professor Leonard Sweet has said about change:
What is the difference between a living thing and a dead thing? In the medical world, a clinical definition of death is a body that does not change. Change is life. Stagnation is death. If you don’t change, you die. It’s that simple. It’s that scary.
In other words, the fact of our being alive COMPELS us to seek change, compels us to change. We should not be surprised at all that people in our society, living people, are pursuing change. That’s a great big part of what it means to be alive.
Even as Christians, we KNOW change is a part of our faith; we KNOW God calls us to change. Many times in God’s words given through the Apostle Paul, God called us to walk in what Paul referred to as “newness of life”, “new life in the Spirit”, or as “new creations”. Paul’s references to this kind of change are summarized in Romans 5:17, in which Paul declared of Jesus followers: “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
Even Jesus, himself, called his followers – us – to pursue change. Jesus identified this change a little differently than Paul; Jesus used the phrases “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of Heaven” and contrasted this transformed kingdom with the “kingdom or kingdoms of the world”. Entering into the kingdom of God required CHANGE from living in the kingdom of the world.
And so, our sermon series that begins today seeks to answer one of the most fundamental questions of our faith: as Christians, how are we supposed to pursue change? Are we supposed to pursue the kinds of changes people around us are pursuing? Are we supposed to pursue change the way people around us are pursuing change – meaning, what kinds of strategies and tactics should we be employing?
Not surprisingly, I can’t answer these questions in a single sermon. If I tried to do so, I’d end up quoting dozens of different scripture passages without diving deeply into any of them. You’d probably depart here after that sermon much more confused than you would depart with a toolbox full of options for pursuing change. So…we’ll spend 6 weeks talking about this. Each week, I’ll hone in on one strategy, one tactic, to help you pursue change in a manner consistent with Jesus, the One we say we follow, the One I truly hope we DO follow with the actions of our lives.
And today, we begin what is a two part sermon based on what the book of Philemon, a book that’s so short it has only 1 chapter and rarely gets preached, reveals to us about God’s desires for pursuing change as followers of Jesus.
I chose this book as the starting point for our sermon series because, in it, Paul addresses an issue that continues to provide the impetus for change in the 21st century, that issue being slavery, which I’ll define as “the practice or system of individuals being owned by other individuals and therefore forcibly required to obey their owners.” Slavery – owning people.
YES, slavery existed in the Bible. YES, slavery existed even in the New Testament. YES, slavery existed as a practice even among followers of Jesus in the New Testament. And, YES, God sought through the apostle Paul to end the practice of slavery, to end forever the notion that one person has the right to own another. THAT is what this book is about: Paul pursuing this kind of change. Paul wrote this letter to a man named Philemon, a fellow Christian, who ALSO happened to be a slave owner. Philemon owned at least one slave, a man named Onesimus. And we’ll discover in our reading for next week that Paul wrote this letter to convince Philemon to free Onesimus, and in the process of doing so, God provides through Paul the fundamental Christian theological and practical reasons for why slavery should not exist – about 1800 years before the United States came to the same conclusion. We should take notice.
Today, specifically, we should take notice of something ELSE, something related for sure but still but something else. Since the sermon series is about HOW to pursue change, we shold consider how God works through Paul to CHANGE Philemon’s mind about slavery, about feeling that he has a right to own Onesimus (or anybody else.)
Before we consider the general tone of Paul’s approach to pursuing change in Philemon and the Church, which is what we’ll be considering today, I want us to consider the question for our modern time, our modern world. I want you to stop, right now, and consider how you think modern, 21st century Americans, would approach a person who claimed the right to OWN another human being, to own a slave or a whole group of slaves.
By the way, if you think this is merely a hypothetical question or issue, since slavery ended in the 19th century, let me set the record straight: slavery STILL exists in the world today and affects MANY people. According to the website worldpopulationreview.com, which places the number of countries in the world at 232 (I know, some number the countries at under 200; it all depends on how you define a country), slavery is still practiced in 167 of 232 countries – that’s more than 70%. And an estimated 46 million people are enslaved throughout the world. That amounts to less than 1% of the global population, but it’s STILL 46 million people. To put this in perspective, that’s about 12 times the number of slaves in the United States back in 1860, at the height of slavery in the United States. The point is, slavery is STILL an issue in our world today, even if not so much here in the United States. (Although, we do need to be aware that slavery does still exist in the form of human trafficking in the United States – with estimates of 400,000 slaves presently in our nation, even though slavery is illegal here.)
OK…slavery still exists. But most Americans don’t seem to be aware of it. Which gets me wondering: how can we try to discern HOW modern Americans generally approach the change they desire, the change they pursue, with regard to slavery…if most Americans aren’t aware slavery still exists? We need to dig a little deeper to discover the nature of the change being pursued. Today, in this country, the desired change is less about pursuing the change of an end to slavery, itself, (or perhaps we could say the end of LEGAL slavery, since this change has already taken place) than it is about pursuing a change to the systems and attitudes that developed during the time of legal slavery in this nation – some people would say the systems and attitudes that directly resulted from and reinforced legal slavery in this nation. So, we’re talking about:
- How Americans approach pursuing changes to discriminatory attitudes and practices;
- How Americans approach pursuing changes to the existence of and public display of memorials that remind us and maybe even glorify the time of slavery, where said memorials include more than statues but even corporate logos, various symbols, and even flags;
- How Americans approach pursuing changes to systems of governance that developed prior to 1865 and even up until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964…which basically includes all of our nation’s systemic structures and all our nation’s founding documents – you know, the original Constitution and most of the Bill of Rights – as well as most state constitutions and local governing documents and structures.
How do, how are, Americans pursuing these kinds of changes right now? Obviously, there’s not one way; there are a number of general approaches, including:
- Trying to convince those who disagree to change their ways by using logic and civil argumentation/persuasion;
- Even trying to convince those who disagree to change their ways by using civil theological persuasion;
If only these were the primary ways Americans were pursuing these changes, but, if you look around, you know better. You see people pursuing change in the systems, structures, memorials, and attitudes that resulted from slavery predominantly with other general approaches, like:
- Misinformation campaigns;
- Seeking to cancel the careers and even the lives of people who disagree, even people who disagree with their tactics but not with the change they desire;
These are but some of the general approaches and tactics we see all around us right now. And it gets me wondering – should get ALL of us Christians wondering – what is the general approach we Christians should take in pursuing this kind of change? Like I said, we will discover next week that Paul reveals in this letter that he absolutely, positively, 100% believes slavery to be incompatible with Christianity. And Paul set out to convince Philemon of the same so that Philemon would free Onesimus. What was Paul’s general approach? Did it look anything like the modern approach of so many people? Let’s find out.
Since we live in a time when it seems so many people proclaim that ANY means – even destructive violence and malicious personal attacks – justify the very righteous ends of justice and equality for all people, it’s important that we, as Christians, seek answers from the Bible regarding whether or not God communicated agreement with this attitude in the scriptures. Or did God communicate something else? Paul’s general attitude and approach toward Philemon on this topic is VERY instructive.
Had Paul received his marching order from today’s crowd of folks pursuing this kind of change, we can imagine what kinds of things Paul would have said to and about Philemon, right?
- For starters, Paul would likely not have written a letter to Philemon at all but would rather have written a letter to all of Philemon’s closest friends and business acquaintances, urging them to SHAME Philemon for his hideous sin, encouraging everyone to AVOID Philemon as if he had some kind of plague, all to force Philemon to make the desired change but without ever directly conversing with Philemon or seeking to change his heart or mind.
- And Paul would have called Philemon all kinds of names: whatever the first century equivalent of “white supremecist” or “nazi” or “racist” would have been.
- Paul might have even sent an attack squad of violent protestors to Philemon’s house with pitchforks, swords, and torches to destroy Philemon’s property and maybe even burn down Philemon’s house with Philemon and his family still inside.
- And then, Paul would have taken from Philemon’s estate whatever he could – cattle, field implements, building materials, produce of the field – anything Paul and his followers could get their hands on that they might be able to enjoy for themselves or sell to further the cause of their ministry…because Philemon as a slave owner was such a miserable person, maybe not even worthy of being called a person, that whatever belonged to him would be MUCH better off in the hands of Paul and his righteous band of justice warriors.
By the way, if you think I’m being sarcastic or extremist by suggesting ANYONE would advocate for such things, let me just say this. In the past few months, I’ve heard Christians, even ministers, directly advocating for ALL of the above actions – up to and including violence – against people whom they perceive to merely participate in systems that continue some of the lingering effects of slavery…which is far different, far less, than Philemon’s sin of actually owning people.
But let’s see how Paul approached the slave-owner, Philemon.
- Paul called Philemon, “our dear friend and co-worker”. By the way, “co-worker” in this context means fellow Christian, fellow follower of Jesus, fellow DOER of Christ’s work, fellow minister for Jesus. Would we DARE to call a slave owner a co-worker for Christ?
- Paul referenced a church that met in Philemon’s house, meaning Philemon was a LEADER in the Church, and Paul uplifted Philemon in that leadership role, without rebuking Philemon and demanding that he relinquish the church in his house to someone better suited for the role, someone who didn’t own slaves. Would we DARE allow a slave-owner to lead a house church?
- “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Really, grace and peace from God and Jesus to a slave owner? That’s a far cry from name-calling and shaming.
- Paul remembers Philemon in his prayers and thanks God for the love Philemon shows to all the believers and for Philemon’s FAITH toward Jesus. What a minute, doesn’t one big sin, like the sin of being a slaveowner, negate EVERY positive thing a person does? Isn’t that how we modern folk act, anyway? How could Paul uplift the love and faith of a slave owner?
- Paul writes of having received much joy and encouragement from Philemon’s love. When we perceive someone as being so bad, so vile, so evil as disagreeing with us about something so important as owning other people, do we allow ourselves to receive ANY joy or encouragement from them, or do we allow the knowledge of their heinous sin drive us absolutely mad, even crazy, and then blame THEM for our misery?
- And finally, as Paul transitions from all this praise to what Paul is going to ask of Philemon – to free Onesimus and essentially STOP owning slaves or believing it’s acceptable to own other people – Paul writes that his approach is going to be one of “appealing to [Philemon] on the basis of love” instead of commanding Philemon “to do [his] duty”. I wonder, do we follow Paul’s example – given by God – to appeal on the basis of love rather than COMMAND when we know we’re right?
Y’all, I hope you can see from Paul’s general approach to toward Philemon, a man who was in the midst of committing, as a leader of the Church – one of the most egregious sins against humanity that we imagine in our time, I hope you can see that maybe we’ve got some learning to do about how to approach change.
From a practical standpoint, for sure, I would imagine Paul’s approach just makes more sense than the approach of so many in the modern world. When we use the tactics of name-calling, shaming, violence, and canceling, have you noticed how things tend to turn out? We don’t usually make new converts to our side – even when our side is right, is Godly. No, we tend to entrench people against us…less because of our righteous position than because of the heinousness and hypocrisy of OUR approach, our actions. How can we advocate toward peace while we dispense violence? How can we advocate for love while we dispense hate? And what do you think, practically, will better lead to the possibility of long-term change: persuading people out of love for them and all the world or pushing people who disagree with us into hiding by making it difficult if not impossible to show their true thoughts, feelings, and identity in the light of day?
But from more than a practical standpoint, there is a theological standpoint to consider. Jesus told us to love our neighbors, even to love our enemies, since it’s easy to love those who love you…everybody does that. Unfortunately, I think too many of us within Christ’s Church have forgotten this fundamental theological claim of Jesus.
We…are…supposed…to…love…EVERYONE…even those we perceive to be racists, even those we perceive to be bigots, even those who are on the other side of the political aisle. And while we might try to convince ourselves that Jesus’ idea of love included tactics of name-calling, shaming, and violence to produce the necessary changes in those whom we perceive to be in need of change, Y’all, that’s NOT what we find in the gospels; that’s NOT what we find from the apostle Paul, and so I would suggest that when we make such claims we are actively working AGAINST instead of for God’s ideal of love for neighbor, even love for enemy.
We live in an amazing and critical time. We live in a time in which so many people are open to change, so many people are pursuing change. This amazing and critical time, it can lead to something wonderful or it can lead to something disastrous. And we – WE in the Church, we who follow Jesus – we KNOW what will determine the course of this change; we know what will make the difference between disaster and wonderful. We KNOW the answer is love. So it’s time for us to STOP justifying ANYTHING that is unloving in our pursuit of change. We need to START pursuing change out of love, even love for those who disagree with us, even love for our enemies, as the singular focus of our efforts to change, so others will notice, others will follow, and we will receive the change God desires for us, the change that is wonderful, the change that will usher in God’s kingdom.