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Philemon, Give up your Possession!

[St.James' Episcopal Church, Florence] It is always wonderful to be here at St. James’, and today in particular, to confirm Raoul and James, to preach the Word of God, and to celebrate the Eucharist with you. Today, I would like to talk mostly about St. Paul’s letter to Philemon. Paul is an apostle, and when the apostles left this world to go be with the Lord, they had left behind successors that we call bishops; bishops are the apostles of today. There is a certain style to a bishop’s letter, and this is it. I have to say, I just love Paul's letter to Philemon not only because of its content, but also for its style. Just look at the beginning of Paul's letter. “Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus” – he’s writing from prison – “and Timothy, our brother,” the man he called "my son" elsewhere in the Bible, “to Phile’mon our dear friend and co-worker, to Ap’phia our sister” – probably his wife -- “to Archip'pus our fellow soldier” (whoever he is!) “and to the church in your house.”

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It is always wonderful to be here at St. James’ Florence, and today in particular, to confirm Raoul and James and to preach the Word of God, and to celebrate the Eucharist with you.

Today, I would like to talk mostly about St. Paul’s letter to Philemon. But first, what about this shocking Gospel in which Jesus says, unless you “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters... [you] cannot be my disciple?” 

Unless you hate. What does Jesus mean? Does he really mean that, after having commanded us to love one another as he loves us AND that we are to love God and to love neighbor. But now, all of a sudden, we are suppose to hate?

No. This is a technique that Jesus often uses in his teachings. For instance, he tells the Pharisees at one point, while they are drinking a drink, they will strain off a little fly that has flown into their glass – a gnat – but rather they would swallow a whole camel. Is that literally true? Of course not. 

So, when Jesus says hate your mother, your father, et cetera, he does not literally mean ‘to despise.’ The key to this text found in is the last verse…”you cannot become my follower if you do not give up all your possessions.” Most people have the habit of thinking of their possessions as their relationships, the family that they belong to, their house, their wives, husbands or children. All of these things that determine who we are in the world are actually what makes us who we are in life. And so, to follow Jesus, we are taught that we need to give ourselves completely up to a new life that He has given us. What Paul asks of Philemon in his letter is a perfect example of that. 

The Epistle of Paul to Philemon

Paul is an apostle, and when the apostles left this world to go be with the Lord, they had left behind successors that we call bishops; bishops are the apostles of today. There is a certain style to a bishop’s letter, and this is it. I have to say, I just love Philemon not only because of its content, but also for its style. Just look at the beginning of Paul's letter. “Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus” – he’s writing from prison – “and Timothy, our brother,” the man he called "my son" elsewhere in the Bible, “to Phile’mon our dear friend and co-worker, to Ap’phia our sister” – probably his wife -- “to Archip'pus our fellow soldier” (whoever he is!) “and to the church in your house” – because in those days, everybody’s church was in a house; they didn’t have a wonderful building like this. 

Paul’s opening is one that he writes in his letters to all of the churches, “Grace to you and peace.” And then he goes on. "When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother."

That’s the nice part. Now, he gets to the hard part. “For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty’ – see the Bishop part?? 

For the love of Jesus, “on the basis of love” I would rather appeal to you and, I, Paul, do this as an old man and a prisoner. “I am appealing to you for my child, Ones'imus.” Ones'imus is Paul’s possession; Ones'imus is a runaway slave. By running away, he has injured his master because his master has lost some property. The Roman Empire had an economy based on slavery. In fact, scholars reckon that when Paul was writing this around 60 A.D., there were more slaves in the Empire than there were citizens. Slaves were very tightly controlled because people still remembered the rebellion of Spartacus 100 years before, and all of the horror and terror that that entailed for the masters -- might as well, for all of those slaves that they had slaughtered on the Appian Way, but that’s another story!

Slavery meant that you were not a human being. Americans have a terrible memory of this, the kind of slavery that existed in our country. And being French, as well, I cannot say that the French didn’t do it either or the Spanish. Even today, it estimated that there are 20 million people living in slavery, in forced labor, or as forced sex workers, forced children to slave away, as they say, in a factory, here and there.

So, Ones'imus is a piece of property. Now, read it again. “I am appealing to you for my child,” Paul says, "my child, Ones'imus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.”  So, who is this Ones'imus fellow? Scholars think that his name shows that he was born into slavery -- that his parents were slaves -- because his name was a slave marketer’s dream. Ones'imus means useful. And so you can imagine him standing at a slave market, standing naked on a block and people walking around him, looking at him, pinching him, testing his muscles, looking at his teeth, and saying, “this guy’s really useful”…and it is only 300 sesterces, and of course, for you, 250.

And so Paul says, before this, "he was useless to you" -- a rebellious slave -- but now he is indeed both useful to you and to me" because he has become a follower of Jesus. And this changes everything, not only for Ones'imus, it changes it also for Philemon.

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