“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.” Philemon 1:15-16
The Reverend Luther Zeigler
September 4, 2016 – 16C Pentecost
This past week, I was struck by an opinion piece that I read in the Crimson by a sophomore named Zoe Ortiz. Writing in part for the benefit of the incoming freshmen class, and in part for the wider University community, Ortiz reflected back on her own experience as a freshman new to campus. As you will hear, unlike most of her fellow students, Zoe is the first person in her family to attend college, and comes from a low-income background. She is also a person of color.
She describes her first classroom experience in these terms:
I’m sitting in a classroom, surrounded by my peers, but I can’t speak. There’s a pit of uncertainty pooling deep within my stomach, growing larger with every expectant glance from my Teaching Fellow, and I can’t help but feel inferior.
It’s my first day in Ethical Reasoning, where my peers effortlessly pronounce the French names of philosophers and politicians long gone. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Maximilien Robespierre roll smoothly off their tongues. They reference their multiple international trips and confidently reason with one another as the polished lawyers they say they want to become. They easily toss about words I only learned from standardized testing, words that no one from home ever integrated so effortlessly into their daily vocabulary.
A girl sitting next to me poses a question, and I know the answer. My mind erupts in a tug-of-war: Do I answer her or do I let it go? I feel the answer on the tip of my tongue, but I swallow it down, burying it deep inside. Better to stay quiet than to suffer the judgmental looks of everyone around me as they realize I’m different. Then they’d know; they’d know my weakness; they’d smell my fear of not being good enough.
I imagine what it might have been like to be born into a family of college graduates where money and experience could comfortably guide me towards a secure future. I wonder what it would have been like to be like them—the seeming majority of Harvard’s student body that, unlike me, isn’t first-generation, low-income, or a minority.
Ortiz’s purpose in writing is not to bemoan the injustice of it all, or to express bitterness or resentment at the privilege enjoyed by others, so much as it is to open our eyes to difference, to the experience of others, and to invite us to reflect more deeply on who we are, and the comparative advantages that may shape our own experience of the world. This capacity to step back from the particularities of one’s perspective, and to feel the world as others do, is called empathy. As Christian writer Sue Monk Kidd describes it: “Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it’s accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify with another, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another’s eyes.” Such empathetic understanding is only the starting point, however. If real change is to happen, a person must allow empathy to stir the heart to such a point that our relationships with others and with the world are thereby transformed and renewed.
Saint Paul’s letter to Philemon, our epistle reading today, is an exquisite lesson in how a faith rooted in Christ can open our hearts to such transformation and renewal. A mere 335 words and 25 total verses, Philemon is the third shortest book in all of the Bible; and unlike Paul’s other letters, it is less an encyclical to a whole church (like Romans or Galatians, for example) as it is a personal note, an intimate plea, to a fellow Christian.
There are three principal characters in this moral drama: Philemon, Onesimus, and Paul.
Philemon is a friend of Paul’s, a Christian living in Colossae, a small town in what is now Turkey. Philemon is also a slaveowner.
Among the slaves Philemon owns is the second character in our story, Onesimus. We don’t know much about Onesimus, other than the fact he finds himself in a predicament. Onesimus has run away from Philemon, possibly as the result of some misdeed. Perhaps he has failed to carry out some appointed duty, or stolen some money, the text is not clear. All we know for sure is that Onesimus has left Philemon and is in trouble. For a slave to run away from his owner under Roman law was serious business, punishable by flogging or worse. And certainly if Onesimus has stolen from his owner, death, even crucifixion, was among the possible punishments.
And then finally, of course, the last character in our story is Paul. Paul finds himself in prison at the time of this letter, either in Rome or Ephesus, the scholars are not in agreement. Calling himself “a prisoner for Christ Jesus,” Paul is undoubtedly in custody because of his evangelizing escapades, seeking to bring the good news of Christ to the world in disregard of prevailing Roman law barring the worship of anyone other than the emperor. And it is in prison that Paul apparently befriends Onesimus, whom Paul describes as “his child,” one to whom he has become “a father” during his imprisonment. We can safely assume this language to mean that Paul has converted Onesimus to the faith while in prison, just as Paul had previously converted Philemon.
So what is Paul’s purpose in writing? On one level, Paul’s purpose is to persuade Philemon to free Onesimus from bondage, to give him his liberty. And viewed on this level, Paul’s request is revolutionary indeed. But Paul’s point is more theological than legal. Paul wants Philemon to see Onesimus in a new light, to recognize him no longer as a slave but as a brother in Christ. Look past all of the accidents of birth, of appearance, of privilege, of legal ownership, Paul implores, and recognize Onesimus as a human being with dignity who is your equal in God’s eyes.
Importantly, even though Paul could have exercised his apostolic authority to coerce the outcome he desired, that is not Paul’s tack here: “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty,” Paul writes, “yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” And so Paul takes the extraordinary step of sending Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter in hand, trusting that Philemon will do the right thing. “I wanted to keep him with me,” Paul writes, “but I prefer 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,” Paul concludes, “so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” I ask you to “welcome him as you would welcome me.”
God’s way is never coercive. Paul knows that if Philemon is genuinely to be reconciled to Onesimus, and to regard him as an equal in Christ, then he must do so freely, and of his own volition. Love cannot be compelled. Indeed, Paul is so confident in the possibilities of God’s grace acting upon Philemon’s heart that he closes his letter by saying, somewhat shrewdly, “confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”
At the very heart of this letter is a theological vision of humanity being newly recreated in the image of Christ – that is, through baptism in Christ, each of us is made new and our identity as a child of God is restored and liberated from all the corrupting differentiations of race, class, social standing, and the like, that human beings are prone to make. Even though our earthly identities continue to reflect these accidental characteristics, when we look upon each other with Christ’s eyes, Paul wants to say, we see all these artificial distinctions fall away, and we see each other as God sees us.
This theological insight from Paul’s letter to Philemon is also the key, I think, to understanding the admittedly difficult language from today’s gospel reading, where Jesus seems to suggest that hating one’s family is a precondition of discipleship. Jesus’ wish is not, I’m confident, that we should literally hate our fathers and mothers. Rather, Jesus uses this shocking language to drive home a point: that we are first and most fundamentally children of God, no matter who are human parents may be, and that this relationship with God precedes all others. Before we are male or female, white or black, Jew or Gentile, gay or straight, husband or wife, we are God’s children; and too often we allow the partisan claims of family, tribe, or class to obscure the truth of a common human dignity that is God’s good creation. To be a follower of Jesus is thus, in the words of our Baptismal Covenant, “to seek and serve Christ in all persons” and “to respect the dignity of every human being.”
Which brings me back to our friend, Zoe Ortiz, and young people like her, who carry with them a fear of not being accepted for who they are, of being judged because they are different, of being relegated to the margins because they are misunderstood. While I hope and pray that Harvard, and our wider culture, may learn to see past the distorting effects of privilege and advantage, and create a more hospitable environment for the Zoe Ortizes of the world, the truth is that the worship of achievement and competition and survival of the fittest runs deep in these parts. Which is why it is so important to have vibrant church communities on our campuses, giving witness to a Christ-like love that forgives rather than judges, that welcomes rather than excludes, that brings hope rather than fear, and that insists that there is always room for one more seat at the table, no matter who you are or whence you come. Amen.