Rev. George Miller
“Considering Your Partners”
Sept 5, 2010
A few weeks ago we discussed that one of the great Christian mysteries is the claim that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. There are other mysteries: the Trinity, communion; but perhaps the ultimate one is resurrection.
What exactly is resurrection? Mumbo jumbo, medical miracle, hocus-pocus?
I remember how the president of Eden Seminary gave his take on it. Dr. Greenhaw said that to fully understand what resurrection is about, we can go to a story Jesus infamously told. The story goes something like this:
Once upon a time there was a man with two sons. The youngest said “Father, I want my share of the inheritance now.” So the man divided his property between the two and the youngest took his share and scrammed, to another world, far, far away.
He wasted all the money on booze and broads and was in tough luck when the recession hit, so he took a job working with pigs. No one cared about him or fed him; he was so hungry he would have gladly eaten the slop he fed to the swine.
He was good as dead.
Finally coming to his senses, he said “I’m starving to death while the people who work for my Dad have bread to eat. I’ll go back home and admit that I have sinned and ask to be his servant.”
That’s just what the son did. While he was still a distance away, his Dad spotted him and moved with love, came running towards him with kisses and hugs.
The son said the lines he had been rehearsing, but his father interrupted him, saying to his servants “Quick, get me the best robe we have, put it on him with a ring and sandals for his feet. Kill the fattest cow and let’s have ourselves a BBQ....
...because this son of mine who I love so much was once dead and now he is alive again; he was lost and now he is found.”
So they partied like no one’s business. (Luke 15:11-24)
This story, Dr. Greenhaw stated, is about resurrection. It starts with a relationship that had been destroyed; the son for all intent and purposes was dead.
Yet somehow, someway there came about a transformation in which the one who was good as dead had returned to life and the relationship had not only been restored, but enhanced.
I love this understanding of resurrection. What a great image of Christianity: it’s not about holding grudges, punishment or pointing fingers.
Instead, Christianity is about welcome and embrace, about believing in transformation in which relationships are renewed and families are restored.
Resurrection is a way of saying that dead and hopeless situations can become alive and hopeful.
That when one encounters Christ, what seems at first to be useless can become useful.
I share all of this because it occurred to me that today’s reading can also be about resurrection.
The book of Philemon is actually a letter that Paul wrote. The specifics are a bit fuzzy, but Philemon was a beloved friend of Paul’s.
Like Lydia, Philemon had a house church. Early Christians gathered in his home and they learned about Jesus, worshiped God and shared a meal that would include the Lord’s Supper.
Philemon had a slave named Onesimus, and for some reason Onesimus ran away. We’re not sure why; it could be Philemon was mistreating him, it could be Onesimus had done something wrong; it could have been both.
Onesimus visits Paul, who is under arrest for doing the work of Christ. He helps Paul out, doing the things Paul can’t do while awaiting his trial.
In the process, Onesimus becomes a Christian. Paul grows fond him and comes to think of him as his son and as his brother.
This is a joyful thing for Paul, but now he’s stuck in a sticky situation. He considers himself a brother to Philemon as well. He also knows that Onesimus can be punished, even killed for running away, and that he can be in trouble for harboring a fugitive.
What a delicate balancing act Paul must do. He loves both Philemon and Onesimus. He knows he is legally obligated to send the runaway slave back to his master.
But now that Onesimus is a Christian, Paul does not want to see him go back to being a slave, but he can’t tell Philemon what to do.
So Paul composes a letter, a letter sweetened with words of grace and love. He asks Philemon in honeyed words to welcome Onesimus back, as a brother “in the flesh and in the Lord.”
That’s the essence of this letter; let’s unpack it a bit more: when Onesimus ran away from Philemon, it would be as if he had become dead.
Think about it: Onesimus is no longer there. He can’t be seen, he’s not where he sleeps, whatever Onesimus’ task was, there’s no one to do it. He’s not there to clean up before or after the church service or the meal.
Onesimus is gone; as a slave, he’s dead to Philemon. Paul uses the word “useless,” a good word to describe death.
But he’s not actually dead is he? He’s with Paul, learning about Jesus. Onesimus is transformed, becoming more then he was before, moving from slave to Servant of God, working for the Kingdom, set free in Christ.
But even though Paul knows Onesimus has been transformed, he knows he has to send Onesimus back to Philemon.
So Paul writes this letter to Philemon, gives it to Onesimus to carry, and sends this runaway slave, who was as good as dead, back to his master, praying that things will work out...
We never do find out what happens. These two men are not mentioned elsewhere, but the fact that this letter was saved, the fact that it made it into the Bible, the fact that we are discussing it 2,000 years later is an indication that something happened.
We just don’t know what…but we do have our imagination.
Since today’s sermon began with a story that Jesus told, I would like to end with what I would like to a have imagined happening. I invite you to listen and to hear where the notion of resurrection comes in.
Onesimus leaves Paul with this letter in his hand, unsure and scared of what will happen.
Word comes to Philemon that the runaway slave is on his way back. Philemon is full of anger and keeps himself busy by deciding how to punish the one who was dead to him.
The search party brings Philemon back in chains, Philemon’s ire is sky high. He’s handed the letter, he reads it, his rage begins to dissipate with each word.
The Spirit moves with him, he takes some time to think, then says to Onesimus “I am sorry for whatever I may have done to you that made you run away. If I have wronged you in anyway, will you forgive me?”
Onesimus says “Yes, and I am sorry for what I have done to you. If I have wronged you in anyway will you forgive me?”
Philemon thinks and speaks “When you ran away I was so angry that I counted you as dead. But you are not dead. In Christ you have come back to me, much more than what you were before you left. You are no longer my slave, but you are my brother.”
With those words, Philemon invites Onesimus inside where it is Philemon who washes his feet and gives him fresh sandals.
I like to imagine that Philemon gathers all the members of the household and church to celebrate Onesimus’ return. During the meal, Philemon and Onesimus sit side by side, and together they break the bread and share in the cup.
For in that day, the return of Onesimus was like a resurrection of sorts. The one who was gone had returned, relationships were restored and enhanced, and transformation had taken place.
He who had left a slave had returned as a brother. He who had been the master became a co-worker for the Kingdom.
Their bond was no longer one of hierarchy, but of equality found in Christ.
And that day, in Philemon’s home, the return of a slave who was as good as dead taught everyone that in Christ Jesus there is no slave or free, but we are all One.
...I also like to think that after they shared in the Lord’s Supper, they would have sung this song if only they had known it: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost bust now am found, was blind but now I see”...
Let us give thanks for the Spirit that speaks to us throughout the ages, for God who brings life out of death and for Jesus who makes us all brothers and sisters. Amen and amen.