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Useful…or Used?

Useful…or Used?
Philemon 1:1-21
January 17, 2016
Jennifer Browne

Paul’s Letter to Philemon is the shortest book of the Bible: 335 words in the original Greek. Now that Twitter has lifted the 140 character limit, Philemon could be an ancient tweet. Easily an email.

Scholars agree that this letter is not just attributed to Paul, it really was written by him. And it is the only one of his epistles that is addressed, not to an entire church or Christian community, but to an individual.

We don’t know with certainty all the details behind the letter – who all the people mentioned were, where the letter was written, or exactly when – but it is clearly an appeal on Paul’s part for one of his companions named Onesimus, a run-away slave who has embraced the Christian faith and found his way to Paul, who is in prison. Interestingly, his owner, a man named Philemon, is also a Christian – presumably a wealthy merchant of Colossae, and likewise a friend or follower of Paul.

Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon along with this “cover letter,” that Mike read for us. “If he has harmed you in any way or owes you money, charge it to my account. I, Paul, will pay it back to you,” he writes. Paul heaps us the compliments and words of praise for Philemon –holy flattery you might call it – hoping…what? 

  • That Philemon will treat Onesimus kindly?
  • That he will send Onesimus back to Paul? 
  • That Philemon will free Onesimus? 

We don’t know.

Curious, as well, is the name Onesimus, which essentially means “useful” or “profitable” in the original Greek. It reminds us that slaves were property, not fully people. In his letter, Paul engages in word play with the name, suggesting that Onesimus will be more useful as one who labors with Paul to spread the Good News than as one who labors only for Philemon’s benefit.

We don’t know the result of Paul’s plea on Onesimus’s behalf – whether Onesimus was given his freedom, returned to work with Paul, or spent the rest of his life in servitude.

But we do know what has happened to the letter itself in the centuries since Paul wrote it. It became one of the principle books of the Bible used to support the institution of slavery. Paul asks Philemon to treat Onesimus “no longer as a slave…but as a beloved brother, implying that God sees both slave and slave owner as moral equals.  But Philemon is not ordered to release Onesimus from slavery; slavery is not criticized as inconsistent with Christianity; nor does Paul argue that one Christian cannot hold another Christian as a slave.  None of that is said.

And this is not the only passage in the Bible that assumes slavery is acceptable, either by stating that outright or by failing to condemn it. From the story of Noah and his sons in the book of Genesis to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, Titus and Timothy, biblical passages sow the seeds of racism and lay the foundations for slavery, segregation and apartheid.

The culture of the New Testament was one in which slavery was quite common; not even Jesus condemns it.  He and Paul both assume it to be one of the social givens of the day. With great eloquence, Paul argues that distinctions are to be leveled among those who are called to be Christians. But he is equally clear that such spiritual freedom does not overcome the human circumstances in which one is found.

As far as the Lord is concerned, the distinction between slave and free…is of no account.  [But] it is clear to Paul…that in this life the distinctions do count. “So, brethren,” he writes (1 Cor 7:24) “in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God.” In the Letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians he urges slaves to be obedient to their masters in the same way that they would obey Christ.

Of course, no one but the most extreme white supremacist would use the Bible to argue for slavery now. But it wasn’t too long ago that segregation was supported that way. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” written in 1963, was his response to a letter addressed to him from white clergymen who, in the name of scripture, urged him to end his crusade for civil rights. They told King that his actions were unbiblical and uncharitable, and that no one in the name of religion should be coerced into changing his mind on deeply held, devoutly held, principle.

A lot has changed in 50 years.  Even the Southern Baptist Convention – a denomination founded in order to support the institution of slavery – formally apologized and repented in 1995 for the sin of its racism. No one reads Scripture with regard to race as was done in 1863 or 1963. And no one feels that some travesty of scriptural integrity has happened because of that fact.

So what has changed? Not the Bible – it remains the same.  What has changed isn’t the text, it is the lens through which we read the biblical text. Scripture hasn’t changed, but we have, and the world with us. Scripture, like Jesus Christ himself, may be the same yesterday, today, and forever, but our capacity to read scripture and to appropriate Jesus Christ and his teachings is not the same as it was.

  • When we read texts like Paul’s Letter to Philemon with eyes that have also read Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham City Jail,
  • when we think about what it means through the perspectives created in us by social movements from Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter,
  • when we read canonized Scripture with our hearts influenced and minds opened by decades of  African-American leaders in every field of human endeavor,

we discover that we ourselves are liberated from slavery to literal meaning of the text. The Bible itself is liberated from its captivity to its own context.  When the moral principles of the Bible are in conflict with the practices of those who wrote it, we can give priority to its principles.

In other words, the Bible can be useful to us in the 21st century if we do not allow it to be used as if we lived in the 1st century.  Because you know as well as I do that even the devil can quote scripture.

John Wesley knew this too, back in the 18th century. He argued that the holding of slaves, although permitted in scripture, was inconsistent with an understanding of the New Testament’s paramount teachings on spiritual rebirth, sanctification, and evangelism. He used one part of the Bible to argue against other parts, evoking New Testament teachings against materialism and obsession with worldly goods and insisting that slaveholders should release their slaves.  

That kind of argument, using the foundational principles of scripture to argue against its historically-bound specifics, added to a zeal for social reform inspired and sustained by scripture, became the basis for the antislavery crusades in England of the 18th and 19th Cs. It led to the abolition of the English slave trade in 1833.

It worked the same way in America. Abolitionism was based on the moral principles of the Bible, its condemnation of injustice and its sentence of judgment against those who acted unjustly toward others.

Which means that you and I and all others who claim the name Christian have an obligation to study Scripture, so that we might discern for ourselves what are its moral principles and what are reflections of an ancient culture.

If we are to be useful Christians, and not simply used by forces that wish to persuade us of one opinion or another, we must learn to read and think and believe and act according to the same principles that motivated Jesus to read and think and believe and act.

And that kind of work requires studying the Bible with other people.  Alone, we can’t see the lenses through which we interpret the world.  We need others to point out our distortions and biases, to give us new insight and perspective, to remind us that ours is not the only way of reading and understanding the Word of God.

So join a Gateway group!  It’s not too late.  Call Debbie Stevenson in the church office and find a group that fits your schedule.  Attend the Adult Sunday School hour at 9:15 on Sunday mornings. Pay attention to your own spiritual health, just as you do your physical and emotional health.

We go to physicians for medical advice, but we know that it’s up to us to exercise and eat properly for our physical health. We might seek the help of a mental health professional, but we know that it’s up to us to control our stress levels and surround ourselves with helpful people and healthy environments in order to keep our balance. In the same way, our spiritual health depends on more than showing up on Sunday mornings. Becoming healthy, mature followers of Jesus Christ requires active participation in the life of a faith community, including shared study of our Holy Scriptures.

Brothers and sisters, the church is not being the church if it asks you to receive and accept a single interpretation of a biblical passage. We neglect our responsibilities as Christians if we ask the Church – or anyone - to do our thinking for us.

Sitting in the Birmingham City Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote this to the clergymen who appealed to him on the basis of the “principles of law and order and common sense” to be patient and wait for inevitable change to come:

Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.  It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God….

Then he replied to them not on the basis of law and order and common sense, but from a deep understanding of the principles of Holy Scripture:

You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme.  At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of the extremist.

But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.  Was not Jesus an extremist in love?  “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice – “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ – “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist – “Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God.” Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist – “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist – “we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.”

So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness.

“I hope the Church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour,” Dr. King wrote.

He speaks to us today, too.  As our denomination moves toward its General Conference in May, considering the full inclusion of LGBT persons; as our country responds to the crisis in Syria, deciding whether or not to open our doors to the refugees fleeing from that crisis, Dr. King speaks to us:

I hope the Church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.  But even if the Church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation….  We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of…prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over [us] with all of their scintillating beauty.





Peter Gomes. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. Avon Books: 1996.

Christian A. Eberhart. Commentary on Philemon 1:1-2. September 08, 2013.

Frank Hegedus. Freeing our usefulness, 16 Pentecost, Proper 18 (C) – 2013. September 8, 2013.

Bruce Reyes-Chow. When a Passage Does More Harm than Good.  September 1, 2013.