March 21, 2010
How many of you noticed last week that Pastor Mary and Pastor Josh disagreed in worship?
Yes, it is true—sometimes Mary and I disagree. Last Sunday we interpreted the morning’s sermon text differently. I taught one thing about the text in the children’s message, and she taught something different in her sermon. And we laughed about it later. (It doesn’t bother me that Mary occasionally fails to see that I am right.)
Over the course of Christian history, though, there have been differing interpretations of Scripture that have been far more serious than last week’s. Sometimes different Christians have read the same passage of Scripture, only to reach opposing conclusions. And sometimes one of these interpretations has had terrible consequences.
Today’s sermon text, Paul’s letter to Philemon, is a book that as recently as a century and a half ago was interpreted in polar opposite ways toward polar opposite ends. From the 17th through the 19th centuries, Philemon was used by both abolitionists to attack slavery and slave-owners to defend slavery. One Christian who opposed the slave trade was the 18th-century British politician William Wilberforce. This week, our small groups will be watching clips from the movie Amazing Grace, which tells his story. (The song “Amazing Grace” was written by another character in the film, John Newton; Newton was a slave trader before becoming an Anglican priest.) Before reading Philemon and attempting to understand how it came to be used and misused in the slavery debate, let’s watch a scene from Amazing Grace that provides a glimpse of what this debate looked like in 18th-century Great Britain.
[A scene from the movie Amazing Grace is shown.]
That a Christian named William Wilberforce took a stand against slavery is something for which we should be thankful. But here’s the rub: All those weird-wigged guys who opposed him were Christians too. There wasn’t much religious diversity in the 18th-century Western world; the vast majority of Westerners were baptized Christians who went to church. It would be far too convenient for us to celebrate the fact that Christians ended the slave trade without also admitting that Christians started it. William Wilberforce and his opponents read the same Bible, yet reached different conclusions. It's possible that they both made use of Paul’s letter to Philemon—a text to which we now turn.
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, [t]o Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul and Timothy begin their letter in typical fashion—with a salutation. The addressees are the members of a house church (there were no church buildings in the first century). Philemon is named first, probably indicating that he is the head of the household. And it seems that what follows is written by Paul and directed to Philemon.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
In the Greek, there is a change here that is imperceptible in English translations. When Paul and Timothy earlier wrote, “Grace to you,” they used the plural of you—in other words, they wrote, “Grace to y’all.” Now a shift occurs—a singular first person addresses a singular second person. Paul addresses Philemon. To this person whom he calls “brother,” Paul continues:
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.
Paul wants Philemon—his brother in Christ—to do...something. Exactly what he wants Philemon to do is unclear. At this point, only two things can be said with confidence: (1) whatever Paul has in mind involves a man named Onesimus, who seems to be a convert to Christianity (hence Paul’s talk about becoming his “father,” and about Onesimus becoming “useful” to Paul in his missionary work); and (2) Paul does not want to coerce Philemon (Paul’s concern about coercion is consistent with the teaching and example of Jesus). Will Paul make himself clearer? Will he say exactly what he wants Philemon to do?
Perhaps [continues Paul] this is the reason [Onesimus] was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but 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. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
Now we have a little more clarity. It seems that Onesimus is a runaway slave, and that Paul is returning him to Philemon. Paul makes an appeal on behalf of Onesimus, urging Philemon to treat him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” The Greek that is translated “more than a slave” is huper doulon--literally, “a beyond slave.” What is a beyond slave? Is he merely a slave who is treated better than a typical slave? Is he merely a slave who is treated with brotherly love? Or is he something more--perhaps an emancipated slave? Paul is still not as clear as I would like him to be. “[W]elcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me” and “do even more than I say”—Paul says these things clearly. But I want him to say, “Let Onesimus go!” Maybe you are hoping that Paul writes with this kind of clarity in what follows. Instead, Paul concludes:
One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.“[P]repare a guest room for me.” What did Paul hope to see when he visited Philemon? Did he hope to see Onesimus as a well treated slave? Or did he hope to see Onesimus as a free man?
Here is how one 19-century American answered:
The principles laid down in the epistle to Philemon…would lead to the universal abolition of slavery. If all those who are now slaves were to become Christians, and their masters were to treat them ‘not as slaves, but as brethren,’ the period would not be far distant when slavery would cease. (Albert Barnes, 1857)
And here is how another 19th-century American answered:
Paul sent back a fugitive slave, after the slave’s hopeful conversion, to his Christian master again, and assigns as his reason for so doing that master’s right to the services of his slave. (George D. Armstrong, 1857)
Two Christians in the same context read the same book of the Bible; two Christians in the same context reached polar opposite conclusions. And they were not alone. Both abolitionists and slave-owners commonly appealed to Philemon in making their arguments.
How were such divergent interpretations reached?
No doubt there were many factors. But perhaps the most important factor was the failure of the slave-owners to read Philemon in the light of the story of Jesus. Our Confession of 1967 states the importance of interpreting Scripture in the light of the story of Jesus like this: “The Bible is to be interpreted in the light of God’s work of reconciliation in Christ” (The Book of Confessions, 9.29). Philemon is to be read in the light of the gospel—the good news—of and about Jesus.
What difference does this approach make? In the case of Philemon, it will at the very least bring Paul’s understanding of the gospel into the conversation. In both Romans and Galatians, Paul explains that one of the reasons the gospel is good news is that it is liberating news. He writes, “[N]ow that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification [growth in holiness]. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:22-23). According to Paul, the good news is that Jesus has liberated us—emancipated us—from slavery to sin and death. His message is part Good Friday and part Easter Sunday, for it’s in Christ’s death and resurrection that we die to sin and rise to new life.
In this new life, we have one master and one master alone. We are not set free from other masters to be our own masters. Rather, we have been set free to serve the one called “Master” and “Lord” and “Captain” and “King” in the African-American prayer used earlier. We have been set free to serve God.
As brothers in Christ, Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus were equally subject to the same master. Let us never seek to subject others to any other master. May the Holy Spirit lead us to use Scripture to liberate others for service to God.
The audio of this sermon will be posted shortly at http://www.trinity-pres.org/vid_sermons.html.