Paul's Letter to Philemon 7–20
I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
For this reason, 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—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’
Then he said to the disciples, ‘The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, “Look there!” or “Look here!” Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation.
It is a sobering fact that the Bible appears to support the idea of slavery. In the letter to Philemon, which we’ve just heard, Paul begs his brother (that is Philemon) to accept back into his service one Onesimus, a slave. Presumably, Onesimus had run away from Philemon, and then found himself serving Paul, during his imprisonment. Along the way, Onesimus had become a Christian – and Paul appeals to Philemon: ‘please take back Onesimus, not just as a slave, but as a Christian brother.’
This is rather shocking to us. Paul does not appear to condemn the idea of slavery itself. Instead he simply asserts that, because he is a Christian, Onesimus is more than a slave. The issue of his slavery is not at question. At all.
This passage was one of the key reasons why it took so many years for the British Empire to abolish slavery. After all, if slavery appears to be perfectly acceptable in the Bible, why should slave owners feel any guilt about it? (Or so the slave owners argued). It took years and years of patient exposition, mainly by the likes of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect, to persuade the British Parliament and people that there were higher biblical principles at play. They reminded them that slavery was simply considered ‘normal’ in Biblical times. No-one questioned it – even the slaves, mainly, accepted it. It was just the way things were. But Jesus brought about a transformation in the way that human beings began to think of themselves, especially in relation to one another. He invited us to see ourselves as sisters and brother of the same heavenly Father. And, later on, Paul himself would write that we are all equal before God. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal.3.28)
The letter to Philemon then, arises at a time when such thinking was only beginning to percolate. The Good News of Jesus for all humankind was only just beginning to take root. The Holy Spirit was only just beginning to nudge humanity towards the Kingdom. And writings like the letter to Philemon are a snap-shot in that process…. they are like a still-frame photo of an opening flower. Half open, but not yet fully revealed.
And that’s the danger of using any Scripture to justify any kind of hatred or antagonism towards others. Scripture only ever offers us a snapshot in time. It is a snapshot of what people OF that time thought about God. In the Hebrew Bible, that includes snapshots of a time when people thought that God wanted the Hebrews to forcibly possess the lands of other tribes. It’s a time when they thought that God wanted parents to stone their own children for blasphemy at the city gates. It’s a time when the people thought that the world was made in six days, and that God insisted that no-one should wear cloth made from two different types of fabric! (Bad news for anyone wearing a poly-cotton shirt today!). It’s from a time when people thought that God could be contained in a Temple, or that he lived on top of a mountain.
The New Testament is also a product of its time. It’s from a time when slavery was considered the normal way to structure a society. It’s from a time when Paul could say that he would never permit a woman to speak in church…and get away with it! It’s from a time when a woman was commanded to obey her husband, rather than form a partnership of equals. It’s from a time when non-binary relationships were still considered a sin, and not an inevitable consequence of a gloriously diverse creation.
But since those days, as we move inexorably towards the end of all things, and the coming of the Son of Man, the Holy Spirit has continued His work among God’s people. Slavery has been abolished – in every legal sense (although it still exists, illegally, tragically, underground). The status of women as priests and bishops, writers, artists and business people has been made legally equal to men – at least in most of the Reformed Churches and Western nations. And now, the last of the great taboos – the appalling treatment of Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender and other non-binary people – is at last rising to the top of the heap.
Which is why I delight in the fact that this week, the Church of England has launched an exciting new initiative, to listen again – with even more attentiveness – to the experience of people who experience their bodies in ways that are different to the majority. The Bible teaches us – right throughout its pages that we are on a trajectory of change…leading towards a future, glorious day, when EVERY knee will bow at the throne of the God of Love. The Holy Spirit has led us, along the way, to work hard to rid ourselves of slavery, of racism, of sexism, and paternalism. My prayer is that in the coming months and years, we will also say goodbye to homophobia….and embrace the truer, deeper reality that we are ALL made in the image of God. Amen.