Letter or Spirit: Slave or Free (2 of 2)

Last week we looked at New Testament texts that mention slavery, and some of what we found was pretty disturbing.

We saw that both Jesus and Paul used slavery as a metaphor to describe our relationships.

On the one hand, the metaphor of slavery (and/or servanthood) can describe our relationship to righteousness, to God, to Christ, and to one another. In 1st Corinthians 9:19 the apostle says,“I have made myself a slave of all, that I might win the more.”

On the other hand, the metaphor of slavery can be useful to describe our relationship to sin, death, and the devil, meaning all the powers of evil. Remember, to believe in the devil is to believe that evil is greater than the sum total of its parts (C.S. Lewis), and that the possibilities of evil are not exhausted by purely human evil. (Emil Brunner) In John 8:34 Jesus said, “the one who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Paul, Bob Dylan, and Etta James were right:

“Everybody has got to serve somebody!…
It may be the devil; it may be the LORD; but
Everybody has got to serve somebody.”

Now here is the hard part: Though both Jesus and Paul use the metaphor of slavery to illustrate our various relationships, neither spoke out against the powers that kept slavery in place as part of the world domination system.

We saw that there were at least three reasons for this strange silence.

First, slavery in the New Testament Era was very different from the peculiar institution as it was practiced in America. Slaves in many Roman households were better off than those who were free but poor. The poor often lacked the basics of life; but slaves almost always had food, clothing and shelter. So, too, slaves were often educated in the same vocation or trade as their masters. They served as doctors, scribes, accountants, artisans, artist, musicians, and the like. By the time that Jesus was twenty years old, slaves were entitled to trials like the free, could own property; and, best of all, they could often gain their freedom. Paul recognizes this in 1st Corinthians 7. There he says that if a slave can gain his freedom, he should avail himself of the opportunity.

Second, had Jesus or Paul led or inspired a slave revolt, there is no guarantee that a significant number of people would have been immediately better off than they already were; and, there is certainly a chance, that a significant number of people would have been immediately worse off than they already were. It may be that the Empire would have collapsed, and the New Testament itself teaches that God used the Empire to spread the gospel. As Barth said, “God can make even the devils praise him.”

Third, and this is the most important of all, both Jesus and Paul thought that this present world was passing rapidly away. The day was about to arrive when masters and slaves alike would stand before Judgment Seat of Christ to receive a reward for the things done in the body whether good or bad.

Some people may be troubled that Jesus was uncertain of the time that God’s kingdom would come in its fullness; but Jesus himself said it was so. In Mark 13:32 he says, “Of that day and hour, no man knows, not the angels in the heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” I can promise you all one thing: The New Testament teaches that no one will have to wait more than a lifetime before we see the triumph of God.

Now today we are going to look at the single most important text in the New Testament with regard to slavery: St. Paul’s letter to Philemon. The content of this letter, does not vary greatly from the content of Paul’s other letters; but the Spirit of it something else again. The Spirit of the Letter to Philemon is in perfect harmony with Galatians 3:28 in which Paul says:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free,
there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The storyline in Philemon goes like this. St. Paul writes to his friend, and co-worker Philemon on behalf of Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus. There are four major characters in this drama.

First, there is Paul. He is “an ambassador in chains,” for the Letter to Philemon is one of Paul’s so-called Prison Epistles. Paul is the key figure in the whole drama. He knows Philemon, and Philemon’s family, and household, and the church which meets in Philemon’s house. Paul calls Philemon his brother, and his fellow worker; but Paul obviously regards himself as Philemon’s senior partner in the gospel.

Second, there is Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave. Having read the epistle several times over it is easy to surmise that Onesimus first heard Paul preach the gospel to the church that gathered for worship in the house of his master. Onesimus the slave must have been totally captivated by the gospel which promised freedom from sin, death, and the devil. Certainly he liked the idea of being a freeman in Christ. Yet we must also surmise that Paul must have left the house of Philemon before Onesimus could make a profession of faith. For a time Onesimus may not have known where Paul was, but when he heard that Paul was in prison, he ran from the house of Philemon to Paul’s prison cell to complete his conversion to Christ.

Third, there is Philemon. The epistle everywhere assumes that Philemon, like Onesimus, is one of Paul’s converts, and a devout Christian. Paul praises Philemon for his partnership in the gospel, and for his work with the church which meets in his house, and for his reputation in the church at large. Paul says that stories of the work that Philemon has done have refreshed the hearts of the saints. Paul is intentional in reminding Philemon that he is a public figure, for he wants to make a fourth character part of the unfolding drama.

The fourth character is a composite character. It consist of Paul companions, which he named in the letter as Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke. It also includes all the family and household of Philemon, and the church which meets in his house, and by extension, the larger church, and, of course, God himself. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is always present with us. God is always watching!

In speaking to Philemon about Onesimus in front of this large and august audience, Paul is invoking what theologians call a “triadic relationship.” This means that when any two people are in conversation, we are conducting that conversation in the presence of God, and in the presence of all others who are taking note of our exchange. We may think that the issue that we are deciding between ourselves is personal and private. Yet, in reality, it is about as public as anything can be. This is what Jesus was getting at when he said that words we utter in secret will be shouted from the housetops.

The Epistle of Philemon functions like a classic novel. A classic novel tells a story that is rooted in the lives of specific people who live in a specific time and place, yet, there is a sense in which the truth that is communicated in that story is universal.

When Paul writes to Philemon about Onesimus he is speaking to a very specific situation; yet that specific situation reveals a universal situation and response. That situation is this: Slavery is a fact of life in this world; however, slavery has nothing to do with life in the kingdom of God. In Christ we are all brothers and sisters; and God shows no favoritism. Of course, because God gives us our freedom, the question of whether or not we will show favoritism when God does not, is still up to us to decide. Paul makes that point with Philemon when he says:

8 I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you- I, Paul, an ambassador and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus, 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment. (Philemon 1:8-11 RSV)

Paul does not tell Philemon that it is God’s will for him to free Onesimus, but he comes as close as possible without saying it when says that the reason Onesimus was parted from Philemon for a while was that:

“…15 (you) might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave
but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially to me but
how much more to you…”

Forever is a longtime! The relationship between slave and master is evolving!
Paul goes on to say that in sending Onesimus back to Philemon he is sending his own heart. He says that if Philemon considers him his partner, he should receive Onesimus as he would receive him. He says that if Onesimus has wronged Philemon at all, or owes him anything, Philemon is to charge the debt to Paul’s own account. Paul says the will make good on the debt, and puts his own hand to the Epistle, just as if he were signing a promissory note. Then, and this is the biggie, Paul reminds Philemon that he has credit in the bank of Philemon, because Philemon owes him his very life. Paul is referring to the roll he played in Philemon’s conversion.

Paul then says that he is confident that Philemon will do even more than he asks. And what is does that mean? Well, it can only mean that Philemon will not only receive Onesimus back without penalty, but will make him a free man, too. And Philemon will set Onesimus free not because Paul has threatened him, but because it is the right thing to do, and Paul knows Philemon wants to do the right thing.

It is easy to see that Paul trying to be very open and generous with Philemon; however the apostle cannot help but end this short letter with a barely veiled threat. Paul tells Philemon to prepare a guest room for him, for he is hoping, to be granted the opportunity to visit with him once more, in his house, where the church meets, for this is the very thing for which the church has been praying.

Now here is a question: What do you think that Philemon did? Judge Bill Wood once told me that in his courtroom the very existence of this letter that Paul wrote to Philemon would be considered evidence that Philemon freed Onesimus. “If he had not,” said Judge Wood, “he would certainly have destroyed the letter.”

Now, as we close this sermon, a third sermon on the subject of slavery looms large. For though we can safely conclude that Philemon undoubtedly did the right thing, we must also take note of the fact that many Christians who lived long after this letter became a part of our New Testament have not done the right thing. In our Western World, many people who thought of themselves as devout Christians continued to own slaves for more than 1800 years. It took a bloody Civil War to free the slaves in America. And it is pretty obvious from almost any edition of the Evening News that, in America, the sins of our fathers, and grandfathers, are still being visited upon the children, and grand-children. Whether we like to admit it, all Americans continue to suffer because some of us came here in chains.

I think Christian managed to escape the meaning of Philemon because we were hung up on the letter of the New Testament, even in those few places when the letter had been shown to fall short of the fullness of Christ. We can find a ready example in 1st Timothy 6:1-2. There we read:

1 Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed. 2 Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brethren; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved.

This text was very popular in Southern pulpits just before the Civil War. Today, it is difficult for some, including this pastor, to imagine that Paul could have written both Philemon and this text from 1st Timothy. That said, it really does not matter who wrote these texts. What matters is that we must decide which of these two texts were written down to appease the powers of the world, perhaps buying our fledging faith a little time to spread its wings and grow stronger—and which of these two texts represents the highest and best word the New Testament speaks about slavery and freedom. I vote for Philemon being God’s highest and best word; because it breathes much more the Spirit of Christ than the text from 1st Timothy. If you think I am bold to say this, I would simply remind you that it is a boldness born of a confidence with which God gifts us all.. In 2nd Corinthians 3:4-6 the apostle writes:

4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.

This text is not aimed just at ordained clergy. It is for us all. The truth is that most of you already weigh text against text, and know which represents the highest and best. I know this is true because I have lived among you for almost three decades. However, the outside world is ignorant of our process of selection. We need a way of communicating it to them. There is no better way, than to insist that Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word Made Flesh, continues to be the standard against which all the texts of scripture must be measured.

Finis

About the author:

The Rev. Dr. Worth Green is the Senior Pastor of New Philadelphia Moravian Church.. Follow him on Twitter / Facebook.