Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 4, 2016

Philemon 1:1-21 Commentary

Garry Wills’s book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, is a fascinating study of one of the world’s more famous speeches. Wills claims that in the Gettysburg Address Abraham Lincoln, in the span of a scant 272 words which took him all of three minutes to deliver, forever altered our understanding of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln was not even the main speaker that day. That honor was given to a then-famous orator named Edward Everett, who spoke just prior to the President. Everett’s soaring rhetoric about the Civil War lasted a whopping two hours. But few now recall his many words, elegant though they were. Lincoln had been asked to make just a few brief dedicatory remarks for the new cemetery at Gettysburg, and that’s what he did. So short was the President’s speech that some in the crowd were disconcerted, wondering, “Is that it?!” Indeed, it was. But it changed history.

The Gettysburg Address changed history but it did so subtly. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here . . .” Mr. Lincoln intoned. But he was wrong. The world has little noted what the Honorable Mr. Everett had to say, but Lincoln’s handful of words are the stuff of oratorical legend. Again, however, it was the subtlety of what he said that altered the nation’s collective thought. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” But Mr. Lincoln, unlike those founding Fathers, was now including the Negro people in the definition of “all men.”

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Through a linguistic sleight-of-hand Lincoln turned the tables on his audience and on the nation: he shifted from dedicating a cemetery to making the American people dedicate themselves to a new birth of freedom–a new birth which was nothing less than the end of slavery.

Sometimes you do not need many words to create a huge effect. Sometimes you do not need “in your face” rhetoric to get someone’s attention and so alter his or her viewpoint from the inside out.

Exactly this looks to have been Paul’s tactic in his letter to Philemon. It is really more of a memo than a full letter. Indeed, most scholars have concluded that this note or memo to Philemon was brought by courier in the same “envelope” that brought the larger Epistle to the Colossians to the church at Colossae (a portion of which met in Philemon’s own house). The evidence for that comes in Colossians 4:9 where Paul mentions that among those accompanying the letter to the Colossians was a certain Onesimus. Thus it appears that after completing the public epistle to the Colossians, Paul took a separate piece of paper and penned also this private note to his friend Philemon.

It is far and away Paul’s shortest New Testament composition. At just 334 Greek words it takes only a few minutes to read. Yet like Lincoln’s equally short Gettysburg Address, so Philemon packs a punch–a punch delivered with the velvet glove of subtlety and maybe even a little irony. Because through this letter it appears that the same apostle Paul who nowhere directly challenged the social institution of slavery nevertheless undermines slavery in a way which would, in Christian circles at least, lead to slavery’s abolition.

It begins with how Paul identifies himself. This is the only instance when Paul calls himself a “prisoner” right up front. He will repeat the word “prisoner” two more times in verses 9 and 23 and will also twice take care to mention that he is “in chains” in verses 10 and 13. Paul makes more references to his imprisonment in these 334 words than he did in the entire letter to the Philippians. Why? After all, Philemon is well aware of Paul’s current location and status. Indeed, Philemon has been praying earnestly for God to spring Paul from prison. So why does Paul take such careful pains to remind Philemon of something he already knows quite well?

Perhaps because it sets up the entire argument of Paul’s letter! Philemon needs to see the disparity between his earnestly praying to God for Paul’s release and his fierce determination effectively to imprison Onesimus. Prior to this letter it appears that Philemon was indeed going to imprison Onesimus by forcing him to remain in slavery. But in verse 6 Paul says that he hopes Philemon will come to a “full understanding” of the faith and of the good things we have in Christ. It soon becomes apparent that what that “full understanding” would involve for Philemon was a new view of all fellow Christians, starting with slaves like Onesimus.

Paul wants the gospel to take hold in Philemon’s life and to sink down roots. So in verses 8 and 9 Paul does not command Philemon to treat Onesimus like a brother instead of a slave but rather Paul cajoles–Paul sidles up alongside of Philemon to help him see the sweet gospel reasonableness of adopting a new viewpoint. In the Greek Paul uses the word parakaleo, which literally means to come up next to a person so as to encourage something. Not only is this a gentle way for Paul to put things, it rather ironically is also the same posture which Paul ultimately wants Philemon to take over against his former slave. There is to be no more top-down, master-slave authoritarianism. Instead Philemon is to view Onesimus as a brother, as an equal, as one who stands alongside Philemon on the same level.

Paul then continues, laying it on pretty thick. He calls Onesimus “my very heart.” Then note the quick shift in rhetoric in verse 16: first Paul suggests that Philemon receive Onesimus back not as a slave but as a brother. But before that same verse is finished Paul switches from the suggestion that Onesimus be seen as a brother to the absolute statement that when Onesimus returns to Philemon, he will be a brother in the Lord! This is then rather quickly re-enforced when Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus is to be welcomed the exact same way Philemon would welcome Paul himself. Further, if Onesimus has incurred any debt that needs re-paying, Paul offers to do it himself (although Paul quickly adds that, by the way, Philemon is himself already in debt to Paul in that Paul was instrumental in Philemon’s conversion. After that zinger you have the sneaking suspicion that even if there was some money involved in all of this, Philemon would never dare mention it!)

And just in case Philemon thinks he maybe could get away with not following through on Paul’s advice, Paul rounds things out in verse 22 by saying, “Oh yes, and one more thing: I will visit you soon so get a room ready.” It was Paul’s none-too-subtle way of saying, “If you ignore my advice, I will find out soon enough.”

The way of the gospel is the way of love but that love has to grow out of the gospel’s core of God’s own grace, mercy, kindness, and love toward us. A disciple needs to understand the reach of God’s love to all people (both the lovely and the not-so-lovely) before recognizing that so also his or her own love needs to be just that expansive, just that inclusive, just that big. It is no coincidence that in verses 4-7 Paul twice throws out the word “love.” Philemon has distinguished himself as being quite loving. Indeed, Paul says that Philemon has the reputation for loving “all the saints.” It’s just that now Paul is going to include Onesimus as being in that group of “all the saints,” thus obligating Philemon to love also him as the brother in Christ he is.

So in this ancient scrap of a memo called Philemon, Paul comes to us and pleads–for where love is concerned that is all anyone can do–he pleads that we work on coming to a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

And that is actually a good thing for all of us to do anytime, any day.

Illustration Idea

Paul’s little tagline in this memo to Philemon—“Prepare a room for me for I will visit you soon”—reminds me of the old TV show Colombo starring Peter Falk as the Los Angeles Police homicide detective Lt. Colombo. Colombo always seemed clueless and a bit out of touch but, of course, he was actually highly savvy and keenly observant and always solved the murder mystery at hand. Among his characteristic mannerisms was always being so apologetic when he started to interview or talk to someone. “Gee, I’m really sorry to bother you, um, but . . .” But then, as soon as he seemed to have finished talking to someone and started to walk away, he’d then slowly turn back to the person and say “Oh, and just one more thing . . .” and then he’d ask the question that became the kicker in the whole investigation.

Lawyers in courtrooms sometimes do this too. When they say to a witness on the stand “Oh, just one last question . . .” that is usually prelude to the most important piece of damning evidence in the whole trial.

As Paul gets ready to sign off on his memo to Philemon, he seems to be finished but then says, “Oh, and just one more thing . . .” and tells Philemon he’d be there in person very soon to see how things were going with Onesimus! It is something of this short memo’s kicker!


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