"The art of acceptance is the art of making someone who has just done you a small favour wish that he might have done you a greater one."
~Martin Luther King, Jr.
It is intriguing that a personal letter that Paul of Tarsus wrote to his friend Philemon about a runaway slave becomes a part of what we call Holy Scripture. I am sure there are many letters that Paul wrote during his lifetime which have now been lost and are not a part of the Bible. Some may say that there was a divine presence guiding what would and would not become Holy Writ. I take a more pragmatic view that the early Christians gathered what they saw to be wise and helpful to the life of their emerging community and chose to share these writings with others.
This short letter that Tim read in its entirety represents one of the earliest writings in what we call the New Testament. And it deals with an issue that the Christian church took almost 1800 years to come to terms with. As the letter suggests, it is to do with the relationships between friends, servants and slaves. I chose our first reading this morning because of the central role Martin Luther King Jr played in the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. As we know, slavery in America was legally abolished after the American Civil War though the forceful and strategic leadership of Abraham Lincoln. By the way, the recent film titled Lincoln is worth watching to understand the significance of slave labour in the American economy and the struggle for many to see the intrinsic humanity of those whose skin colour differed from their own.
Slavery was abolished in America on January 31, 1865, and the congress ratified on December 6, 1865, the 13th amendment to the constitution that stated, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
The law of the land was changed and the power of legislation was invoked against those who didnt uphold this law. But sadly, as we know, it takes a change of heart for a nation to live within the spirit of the law.
The Bible Today:
The Bible is often used as an example of giving assent to slavery. The letters to the Colossians and to the Ephesians, the first letter to Peter and the first letter to Timothy all exhort with the words "Slaves, obey your earthly masters, submit to their authority." This injunction is given more often than we realize. And yet today we see slavery as abhorrent, an abomination and in opposition to the life-giving message of the Gospel. I dont want this sermon to become a Bible study, but there are two good reasons why these "commands" for slaves to obey their masters should be separated from the central message of the Good News and therefore not obeyed:
Letter to Philemon: So here in the Biblical record we find this brief letter to Pauls friend Philemon. We know that for whatever reason Paul has been "harbouring" this runaway slave Onesimus.
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.
It should be said that before these words Paul spends some time flattering Philemon and building him up to the issue he is about to raise.
I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
We know from history that slaves were controlled by the threat that they would be executed if they ran away from their masters. We also know that slaves were a part of the household in ancient times. The word used for slave in the New Testament is "douloß", doulos, and the same word can also mean servant. But Paul puts forward here a more radical proposal. He does it carefully and with considerable linguistic skill.
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.
He is arguing that there is a relationship between himself, Philemon and this man who is Philemons slave. They are in fact before God all equal and therefore friends and not slave and master.
Perhaps this is the reason he 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.
Is it really possible that our constructed social norms and barriers can actually be broken down through this reconciling message of Jesus of Nazareth? I hope the answer is yes. We see it in part, as the world has mostly rejected slavery, although it does reappear in different forms. I dont think we can go much further than the words of Martin Luther King Jr:
Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.
But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not just eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding and goodwill for all men and women. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.
Perhaps after two thousand years we are only just catching glimpses of that reconciling love that can see all men and women, all black people and white people, all Christians and Muslims, drawing their life and wholeness from the same well of redemption and reconciliation. Pray God the day comes soon.