Proper 18 Year C 16th Week after Pentecost
Today's epistle 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.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is a model of pastoral care: loving, thoughtful, diplomatic, and challenging. The situation is delicate, and Paul stands between two parishioners who are at serious odds, asking them not only to be reconciled to each other, but also to model the new life in Christ to which the entire church has been called.
Philemon is a wealthy man. He owns at least one slave and is master of a house large enough to accommodate the church gathering at his home. He, his wife Apphia, and Archippus are the leaders of this congregation. And Paul invites the entire church community to listen in as he makes his request on behalf of the slave Onesimus.
Onesimus has run away from his master Philemon and somehow found his way to Paul who is in prison. While there with Paul, Onesimus has become a Christian just as Philemon was also converted under Paul’s ministry. Other than escaping from his master, we don’t really know what Onesimus has done to Philemon, but the letter mentions both being wronged in any way or owing some debt, but Paul asks Philemon to charge both to Paul’s account.
Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon bearing in his hand the letter we heard read this morning.
The letter begins with Paul’s typical greeting, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” which reminds his listeners that Paul speaks not on his own authority but as an apostle commissioned by God. The letter is a masterpiece of combining encouragement with a call to a deeper, more profound understanding of what it means to be part of the body of Christ. Philemon’s love and faith are apparently well-known among the Christians Paul is writing to and so he asks him to put his faith and love to work for the Gospel, to free his slave Onesimus.
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 to where he had escaped from.
Paul sends Onesimus back to his friend Philemon and asks him to receive him no longer as a slave, but as a beloved brother in Christ. Paul goes so far as to say he is sending Onesimus to Philemon “as his own heart” and entreats him to welcome him as he would welcome Paul himself. It is considered extremely shameful in that culture to enslave one’s brother, so Paul affirms that since Onesimus is now part of the Christian family he is no longer subject to his former bondage.
Paul calls Philemon to renounce his legal claim on Onesimus and be willing to suffer loss, both socially and financially. This is at the heart of Paul’s teaching. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul exhorts, “…look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:4b-5). Philemon must imitate Christ’s own willingness to give up his “equality with God” in order to serve the purpose of God.
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 a 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.
There is another name for this process of unlearning and relearning. 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.
Unless our heart has hardened to a remarkable degree, 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.
Love learning. It brings knowledge and mastery. But love unlearning as well. It brings wisdom and wonder and mystery. It clears out a space in the heart where the Holy Spirit comes to dwell.