September 8, 2013

16th Week after Pentecost

Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, put it this way: "The illiterate of the future are not those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."

Today's second reading is the complete text of a short letter in the New Testament: Paul's brief, provocative, almost teasing note to his convert Philemon. In it, Paul challenges Philemon to unlearn something and to learn something else in its place.

To start with, some background. Paul is in prison. There he has made the acquaintance of a runaway slave named Onesimus. Onesimus has become a Christian. It turns out that the master Onesimus ran away from is none other than another of Paul's converts, namely Philemon. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon bearing is his hand the letter we heard read this morning.

And what does Paul say? Paul gladly acknowledges how Philemon has been an excellent example in showing love to other Christians. Paul also recognizes that he could command Philemon's obedience, but prefers instead to appeal to him on the basis of love.

Then Paul goes on to the heart of his letter. He is pleading with Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, the runway slave he has sent back from where he came. Paul calls himself the father of Onesimus, his spiritual father in the Christian faith, and admits that Onesimus could have remained with him and helped him greatly in his old age. But Paul chose instead to recognize Philemon's claim on Onesimus, and so sent the slave back from where he had escaped.

Paul indicates that Philemon is not to receive Onesimus back as a troublesome slave, but instead welcome him as a beloved brother in the Lord. Any wrong Onesimus has done should be charged to Paul's account. In other words, the debt of Onesimus is to be considered paid, since Philemon was in debt to Paul for his Christian life.

What we have in this letter is an invitation to unlearning. Philemon starts out thinking of himself as the slave owner offended against by Onesimus. Paul invites him to unlearn that understanding of himself and to accept instead a different self-understanding. Philemon is to see himself not as the master of Onesimus but as his brother in the Lord. To achieve this purpose, Paul, writing from his prison cell, chooses to persuade rather than command.

What finally happens? This brief letter is all Scripture offers us about the story of Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. But according to church tradition, Philemon did manage to unlearn and relearn. He set Onesimus free, and dispatched him to Rome where once more Onesimus was of great help to Paul.

What we need to unlearn is often firmly embedded in our minds. It may be something we have never examined or considered. We simply assumed this was the way things were. If we are to unlearn something of this sort, it hardly seems effective for someone to command us to do so. The best others can do for us is to persuade us, gently yet firmly, to unlearn and relearn. Such persuasion can be long, hard work, with no guarantee of success, yet it can produce surprising, even widespread results.

There is another name for this process of unlearning and relearning, a specifically religious name. It is conversion. The essence of conversion is seeing things differently than you saw them before. Christian conversion is a matter of seeing more and more of life in the radiant and truth-revealing light of Christ.

As the terms unlearning and relearning suggest a process, in the same way conversion refers to a process, or if you will, a series of conversions. Whatever the order in which they appear, these conversions can include conversion to God, to Christ, to the church, to discipleship, to a life of prayer, to the sharing of faith, to the doing of merciful deeds. There can be conversion to the poor, to the world, to creation, and other conversions as well.

Like our learning, our process of unlearning and relearning needs to be life-long. There are so many wrong directions we can go, and Christ keeps calling us to turn around, turn around and meet him in the thousand ways Christ makes himself known. Our turning around is conversion, an unlearning and relearning.

Each of us is caught up in some process of unlearning at this time in our lives. It can feel awkward, even painful. Something we once counted on, that we may have accepted without question, is appearing hollow and untrue and no longer alive. Do not fear! With the unlearning comes relearning. What is no longer acceptable gives way to something authentic.

Modern scholarship says that Onesimus may just have been in trouble with Philemon, and had traveled to Philemon’s friend, Paul, to ask him to intercede. Even if that is the case, Onesimus sacrificed what must have seemed very good—his personal freedom—in order to do what Paul had offered as the best choice…go back and to rely on the love and integrity of Philemon. We don’t know what Philemon finally decided. Certainly it must have seemed good to take his slave back and put him to work. You didn’t just let a slave go free because some friend asked you for a favor. Why should he do what Paul said was best? He must have struggled long and hard to decide what to do. No one knows for sure what Philemon’s decision was.

But in the history of the early church, there was a Bishop of Ephesus in the generation of the church just after the apostles who was named, you guessed it, Onesimus. Church tradition has always held that it is the one and the same Onesimus for whom Paul begs forgiveness and Philemon releases to freedom.

Learning brings knowledge and mastery. But unlearning and relearning is sometimes more valuable. It brings wisdom and opens us to new possibilities. It clears out a space in the heart where the mystery of God’s own self comes to dwell.

Amen.