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Thinking Theologically

The following sermon was preached by The Rev. Canon Frank Logue
at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Pooler, Georgia on September 5, 2010

Thinking Theologically
Philemon 1-21

In just 12 minutes or so, I want to teach you a skill that I have found quite meaningful; the skill to learn about God. Specifically, I want to help you find God, in this case, in what you read. But the skill is thinking theologically and we can think theologically about anything.

Theology comes from the two Greek words theos, meaning God and logos, meaning words, things, matters, concerns. Theology is words or concerns about God. More specifically, theology is the study of things pertaining to God. Each of you thinks about God. You have your own way of understanding God and approaching God. Each of you is a theologian. I know this very well through the many conversations after church, or in a Bible study where I have had the opportunity to hear most of you think and speak theologically. Moreover, I know from experience that you are no theological lightweights. You think hard about who God is and what that should have to do with your life. You try to sort out what the Bible has to say that should concern your day-to-day life. You try to understand the many joys and tragedies in life in terms of understanding God. Therefore, you are a theologian.

I’m not just speaking of the adults gathered here. I know that the kids at St. Patrick’s are also theologians. Kids also are known by God and know God, sometimes in ways that elude adults. That’s why Jesus said that we must all have faith like a child. Children, teens and adults, we all have access to God equal to that of any professional theologian. But theology is a discipline. And each of can sharpen up our skills as theologians. The best way I know to do this is by thinking theologically. Take a subject, any subject and reflect on what it tells us about God. This can be a little tricky at first as we can get bogged down in untheological ways of thinking. I thought we could practice thinking theologically this morning so you can get a feel for it.

Let’s turn our attention to our second reading for today. In it, we heard almost one entire book of the Bible. The book was Philemon and it is just 25 verses long. Our reading this morning only skipped the closing greetings of the letter. I want to think theologically with you about Philemon, but first I want to consider the other ways we could think about this book of the Bible. That way we can better understanding how thinking theologically is different.

We could look at Philemon as a story. The general outline is that Onesimus was a slave who ran away from his owner Philemon. The apostle Paul, who knows Philemon and his wife by reputation at least, writes the letter we now know as the Book of Philemon in an attempt to intercede for the slave Onesimus, asking the slave owner for good treatment of the returned slave. Onesimus had come to Paul in prison asking Paul to help him out of a jam. Paul instead shared the Gospel with Onesimus. The runaway slave came to faith in God through the person of Jesus Christ. Then Paul challenged the runaway slave to return to his owner Philemon. Paul then gave Onesimus a letter to take to Philemon, challenging him to see the runaway slave differently as he was now a baptized Christian.

We could consider Philemon from a more literary perspective. Then we would consider Philemon not just as a book of the Bible, but we would look at it as a letter. Philemon is a letter Paul and Timothy sent from jail in Ephesus to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus and to the church gathered in Philemon’s home. We could look at the letter alongside other letters from the same time period and place to see how this letter is similar. We would find that it was not completely uncommon to find a runaway slave appealing to a third person to reconcile him or her to their owner. We could also compare this letter to other letters written by the Apostle Paul to see how this letter’s treatment of slavery expands the view taken by Paul elsewhere in the New Testament. In Philemon, Paul comes as close as he ever will to speaking out directly against slavery.

We could take a strictly rhetorical look at Philemon. This would mean analyzing the way that Paul conveys the main points in the correspondence. For example, Paul uses an interesting play on words. Onesimus was a quite common name for a person born into slavery. The name Onesimus meant “useful.” In verse 11, Paul plays on this as he writes, “formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.” The slave named useful was useless to Philemon, but now he is useful both to Paul and Philemon.

We could look at Philemon from a political perspective. The stability of Rome depended on the slave system. Anyone who spoke against that slave system was a threat to the Roman Empire. As a leader of the Christian movement, if Paul spoke or wrote openly about overthrowing slavery, his words could target Christianity as a threat to Rome. Paul came close to doing this at least twice. In Galatians, Paul said that in Christ there is neither Gentile nor Jew, woman nor man, slave or freeperson. Paul said that those distinctions know longer mattered in Christ. But, of course, this is not the same thing as saying that no one should be a slave anymore. Paul let us know in his first letter to the Corinthians (7:17-24) that he was teaching what is sometimes called interim ethics. Paul is so certain that the Lord will return soon that no one need take on the political system. The time is too short. If you are a slave, Paul says to the Corinthians you should remain as a slave.

Then with Philemon, Paul takes a different approach. Instead of taking on the political structure of Rome, Paul asks Christian leader to Christian leader for Philemon and Apphia to treat Onesimus as they would treat Paul. Without ever asking directly that they free their former slave, setting Onesimus free to work for the Gospel, Paul hints quite strongly that they should do just that.

We could also approach Philemon from a historical perspective. We could learn more about slavery in the Roman Empire. We would learn that the Roman Empire depended as much on its slave system as the plantation system in the southern United States would later depend on slave labor. However, unlike the slavery that existed much later in this country, there was no race-based dimension to Roman slavery. You could own people of your own ethnic background as a slave. Romans considered slaves intelligent enough to elevate some to positions of trust, including overseeing a master’s entire household. Slaves were property, and as such were bought and sold. Of course, many if not most slaves were treated extremely cruelly during the Roman Empire. Slave escapes were a common problem. Slaves were branded to help prevent this problem. In addition, Roman law permitted slave owners to kill runaway slaves.

From a historical perspective, we could also learn about a Bishop of Ephesus named Onesimus and the long tradition that connects that Bishop Onesimus to the Onesimus of our story. It would seem that Philemon and Apphia did take Paul’s hint and free their former slave. Further we see that Onesimus rose in respect in the early church to become a leader in one of the great cities of the Roman Empire.

Of course, from a biological perspective, we see that the people involved in Philemon are mostly male, though there is one female addressed alongside the others. Most importantly, we learn from a biological perspective that they are all humans, indistinct from each other in their basic physical makeup.

From a religious perspective (which is separate from a theological perspective), we could look at the church offices held by different people in this letter. Paul was made an apostle by Jesus after the resurrection. An apostle is a church starter, a person sent out to go spread the Good News of Jesus to new places, leaving behind new communities of faith. The letter was addressed to three specific people—Philemon, Apphia and Archippus—who were all three leaders in a church, which met in Philemon and Apphia’s home. The letter was also directed to the whole church that met in that household. So, the apostle Paul did not write a simple letter from apostle to church leader, but he made the matter a public one. Whatever decision this church leadership makes, it will be made with the knowledge and oversight of the whole local church group.

Do you see how we could approach this one 25-verse letter from many perspectives? How would a theological perspective be different? If we are thinking theologically, we read the letter, aware of the literary, rhetorical, historical, biological and other concerns but letting those concerns go. Instead, we reflect on the letter asking, “What does the letter to Philemon tell us about God?”

This little letter has much to say about God. Here is the main thing that I notice. Paul uses a very godly approach to Philemon in his appeal for Onesimus. Paul’s use of naming is particularly important. Paul sees everyone involved through the lens of scripture and the event of baptism. Paul sees that saving knowledge of Jesus and the transformation of baptism as changing everything.

Paul humbles himself. Paul refers to himself as a prisoner and an old man. But Paul names Philemon a dear friend, coworker, and brother, while also referring to Philemon as Paul’s own child in the faith. Paul then names the runaway slave Onesimus as one who was useless who is now useful. Paul names Onesimus as his own heart. Then Paul challenges Philemon to think of Onesimus, not as a slave, but as his own beloved brother.

The fact that the letter was preserved, together with the tradition about Onesimus going on to be a Bishop of Ephesus, show that Paul understood God rightly. God saw potential in the runaway slave Onesimus than anyone else. Onesimus stopped running from his problems long enough to hear from God. Onesimus had a life-changing encounter with God during that visit to Paul in jail. Then Onesimus was ready to return and face his problems head on. Onesimus came through Paul to see himself as God already saw him. Then, not just Philemon and Apphia, but the whole church gathered in their household, came to accept Onesimus as the transformed Christian he was. They allowed Onesimus to be changed and in time, the church trusted Onesimus increasingly with leadership.

Thinking theologically about Philemon shows us that God sees more potential for our lives than we do. God is waiting for us to stop long enough to listen and then to trust long enough to move ahead. Are you willing for God to give you a new name? Are you willing to live into the potential God wants to release in your life? How about the other people in your life? Are you willing to let God transform them? Or do you want to hold them back, limiting them to your understanding of who they are and what they can become?

God looks at people who see themselves as rejects, as useless, and God loves them. God is always willing to transform a useless person into someone who is a valued, useful member of his or her community. God always views the person deserving death as one deserving life. Our challenge is to let go of all the other thoughts long enough to see the people around us through the lens of scripture and baptism as Paul did, as God does. Then we see ourselves, and the people around us, as transformed by God’s love. If we will allow God to do so, God will make all things new.

Amen.

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