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Thursday, September 12, 2019
Today’s Scripture Reading | Philemon
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To 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. 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.
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 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. 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. (NRSV)
This book of the Bible, all twenty-five verses of it, has some of the most revolutionary social concepts in the entire biblical canon. Paul is sending the slave, Onesimus, who has likely run away from his master, Philemon, back to him (as the law requires). When he returns, there is the very real possibility that he could be arrested and then brutally punished. Paul knows this and does not state that he thinks Onesimus should be set free. He takes a different tact. As Onesimus’ advocate, Paul holds before Philemon a new pattern in his relationship with the slave, Onesimus—a way of forgiveness and compassion after the way of Christ.
In our country we come face-to-face with those who find themselves bound by systems of power, with little possibility for change. They need an advocate. Sometimes folks find themselves in a family where they fear another family member’s control over them and know that if they confront the situation they may be at risk. Sometimes they encounter governmental systems that privilege some and others have no access to the same privileges. Sometimes it is our gender identity or race or economic or national status that silences us or diminishes our capacity. And in these moments we don’t know where to turn.
But here is one lesson from this little book in the Bible: Change can happen! And there are times when we are the change, when we face the systems that seem impenetrable and, like brother Paul, we courageously call others to higher ground: to mercy, forgiveness, and transformation of the static systems that keep all of us bound—in this case, master and slave alike. We don’t know if Paul’s word to Philemon did a blessed thing. But we do know that the last verse from Paul reads, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” I’d say there was a grace note that arose from the page—yes, a grace note.
O Holy One, never give up on this world with all its systems and powers. And even more, never give up on us as agents of your love and persistent unraveling of all that binds us. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Written by Lucy Forster-Smith, Senior Associate Pastor for Leadership Development and Adult Education
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