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Ain’t we all just runaways? Yeah. — The Killers

For the past eleven years, I’ve preached in a congregation that loosely follows the Revised Common Lectionary when it comes to organizing the Scripture readings that guide our corporate worship and sermons. We don’t follow it slavishly, and I’ve certainly deviated from time to time, but it’s kind of our default. It’s certainly my default. I’d rather be assigned a text to preach from than choose one. Or at the very least, to have four from which to pick. Following the lectionary forces me outside of the texts I’d naturally gravitate towards. At the very least, it throws up an interesting surprise or two along the way.

This week, for example. One of the readings is the tiny book of Philemon. It’s not a terribly well-known part of the New Testament. It’s possible you haven’t even heard of it. I’ve certainly never preached on it, even though it’s apparently shown up three times over the last decade. I can’t remember hearing a sermon on Philemon. Well, challenge accepted. The last Sunday of summer is usually a pretty light one attendance-wise. If it’s terrible, there’s a good chance only a few will be subjected to it.

The book of Philemon is actually not a book, it’s a letter. A letter from Paul to Philemon concerning a certain Onesimus, who happens to be a runaway slave. Onesimus seems to have converted to Christianity mid-flight and become something like a son to Paul. But now Paul is writing to Philemon to try to convince him to take his runaway back. We bristle at the idea that Paul would be so accepting of the institution of slavery. But Paul’s world is not our world. And even though Paul seems too accepting of his cultural institutions for our liking, we should note that he pushes against them, however subtly. In verse 16, he urges Philemon to accept Onesimus back, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.”

I know you’re all terribly interested in some of my thoughts in the early days of these week’s sermon gestation, so I’ll offer a few not-too-connected thoughts on Philemon. First, that line above from verse 16 brings to mind a line from a certain Christmas carol that we sing each year:

Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother. And in his name, all oppression shall cease.

It’s interesting to think that this line from a little letter that is often criticized for not being critical enough of slavery has lodged itself in a broader Christian imagination that eventually did away with slavery. All oppression has obviously not yet ceased, but the Christian hope is that it must and it shall, in the name of the divine slave who is also our brother.

Second, I wonder if the book of Philemon can sort of rehabilitate Paul, for those tempted to write him off as a misogynist kill-joy. Paul lays himself on the line for this runaway. He tells Philemon that in sending Onesimus back to him, he is sending “my own heart.” He tells Philemon to “welcome him as you would welcome me.” He says that if Onesimus has wronged Philemon in any way or owes him anything (maybe he dipped into the proverbial change purse on the way out the door?) he should charge it to Paul’s account. Paul will pay the debt. Paul is something of a Christ figure here, doing for Onesimus what he cannot do for himself.

In his commentary on this passage, N.T. Wright puts it like this:

[Paul] will stand in the place of risk and pain, with arms outstretched towards the slave and the owner; he will stand at one of the pressure points of the human race from that day until very recently; he will close the gap not just between Philemon and Onesimus but between the two sides of the great divide that ran through, and in some places still runs through, the life of the world. Paul, firmly rooted in the saving gospel of the cross of Jesus is “entrusted with the gospel of reconciliation.” This is what it looks like in practice.

Well done, Paul. This almost makes up for that time when you told your enemies to go castrate themselves.

Finally, there are hints of the story of the lost son in Philemon. The runaway making his way (however reluctantly, in this story) back home. The analogy is of course decidedly imperfect. The lost son came home of his own (desperate) volition while Onesimus might prefer to stay with Paul, thank you very much! The father waits, lovesick, in the story of the lost son. With Philemon, we have no idea. Perhaps he’s waiting with the strong arm of the law in mind. We hope that he’ll take Paul’s letter to heart and welcome Onesimus like a beloved brother, potentially even set him free (there are hints of this possibility in verse 21)! But we don’t know how the story ends.

But I suspect that few of us have trouble identifying with the runaway. We run from the past, from ourselves, from expectations and obligations, from unwelcome futures creeping up on us, from those who have done us wrong, from the wrongs that we have done. We run from God. Whatever we’re running from and whatever our reasons, we are all prone to wander in our own way. This is the human condition. And in the end, we’re all looking for what Onesimus hoped to find and what the lost son did. The redemptive embrace of one who calls us beloved.

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