Proper 18C, September 5, 2004 St. James
Philemon 1-20, Luke 14:25-30
My husband knows I love the small things. Literally - I love little vases, little icons, little boxes. Somehow in the artistry of a small thing I can sense the wonder of the greater thing - the artist and his work.
That is why I tell stories - sometimes the smallest of incidents can tell us more than a wealth of data. I can bore you to tears with a lecture on the effects of the atonement on the life of the Christian Community, or I can tell you a story. Which would you rather hear?
So, there were two men - one was named “affectionate” and the other one “useful.”
The names fit them, for Affectionate had become a person of great love. This was not easy for him, to become a person of great love. It was hard, because in his time, men were not encouraged to be loving toward others. It was a time when there were very strict rules about who one spoke to and how, about who one ate with, who one could have as a friend.
Affectionate had had a life-transforming encounter, not that long ago. He had turned away from his old life, a life that, as far as we could tell, was involved in shallow relationships with many gods, to a life that involved acceptance of the love of One God. A man had come to his city, and preached about the saving life and death and resurrection of Jesus.
This apostle had convinced, convicted, Affectionate and his family, and they were baptized, and they believed.
Affectionate committed his life to Christ, and worshiped in the Name of Christ. In fact, he had offered his home for the meetings of the Christ-worshipers in his town.
And in this he was living up to his name - Affectionate.
But as a man of his time and place, Affectionate still had some blind spots. And one blind spot was the role of people of different classes - slaves and masters. Affectionate was of the class of the masters, and to him a slave was a slave, a thing, a piece of property, a something to do what it was told - not a person, not a soul, not human being to be free in Christ.
And Useful - remember Useful?, was his slave.
Useful was a good name for a slave, for a slave was first and foremost to be of use. To serve and to do his job and to be invisible. Which may be why, when the apostle first came and spoke to Affectionate and his family, when they all came to believe in Christ, why this slave still fought against his bonds, remained angry and did not know Christ in his heart.
Useful, perhaps dimly understanding that what his master said about forgiveness and new life and freedom did not match up with his actions, ran away. He stole from his master, and he ran away.
The existence of a runaway slave is dangerous. He could be caught at any time, by anyone, for a reward. He could be beaten, maimed, killed.
So where did Useful run? We don’t know for sure how he got there, but he ended up with the apostle. The Apostle who had preached about the saving work of Jesus Christ, who had converted and baptized his master and his master’s family. Useful ended up being useful to the Apostle, who was in prison. Maybe Useful ran errands for him, maybe he went to work and earned money to buy them both food and necessities.
The Apostle in prison and the runaway slave became close. Useful found his heart transformed in the love of Christ. He believed.
And time passed. The Apostle knew that this person, this man, whom he loved like a son, who shared his ministry, who worked side by side with him, who demonstrated the love of Christ in his life and work - was a wanted man, had committed a crime, had stolen, had run away from his master.
There was still this gap, this division, between Affectionate and Useful - between a slave and his master, between two men who had both been wronged. Affectionate would see Useful as a runaway and a thief, as someone who had hurt his pride, his pocketbook and his honor. Useful would always see Affectionate as the one who held him in bondage, who degraded and dehumanized him.
The Apostle knew that this grand canyon stood in the way of the Gospel. This estrangement meant than neither Affectionate nor Useful was truly free in Christ - they were still caught up in the past, in the anger, in the betrayal, in the memories of their life together. And as they were caught in these emotions and thoughts they could never be the apostles they were called to be.
So the Apostle wrote a letter and he sent Useful back to Affectionate with the letter. He did not ask that Useful repent - He did not ask that Affectionate apologize. He did something different in that letter, the letter that we still have, we still read. We read that letter today.
The Apostle said: My dear friend and brother, Affectionate, or Philemon, I love you. And I am I sending you someone who is now my very heart, my son, Useful. I know you have a history with him, but for the sake of the love you have for me, and for the love you have been given in Christ Jesus - love him.
The apostle refuses to take sides. He will not argue anyone’s case. He is not going to go over the past. He will not accuse Affectionate of being such a bad master that the slave risked his life to get away. He will not accuse the slave of being such a rebel that he sunk to theft. He stands between them, with his arm outstretched and his love around them both. And this is not a cheap plan - not just ‘forgive and forget’ - this is something much deeper and wiser.
This is the crucial thing, he takes up the cost of the reconciliation in himself. “if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”
That is, welcome him not as a slave at all, but as an honored guest, the most honored one possible, the guest who brings the Good News of Christ. Do not hold the crime against Useful, rather assign the theft - the value of the gold or jewels, the humiliation, the anger, all the consequences of the crime - not to Useful, whom we know as Onesimus. No, assign them to Paul, the Apostle. Charge him with the crimes, he will take the punishment.
He stands between them like Christ - arms outstretched - outstretched in love, in embracing, outstretched on the cross. He stands between them as Christ, saying, between the lines, as Christ says in our Gospel - yes, this is costly, for both of you -
it is costly to give up anger,
it is costly to see someone who hurt you in a new light,
it is costly to put the Gospel before all else.
There is a cost to discipleship, there is a cost to following Christ. There is a cost to reconciliation. And as Onesimus and Philemon learn -
That cost is borne by Jesus Christ.
That cost is seen every week on the Altar.
That cost is learned every day in our hearts.
Be reconciled. Charge the cost of the crime to Christ, and be reconciled.
Be reconciled to one another, and so fulfill the love Christ has for you.