A Useful Problem

By Rev. J.C. Austin

Philemon. It’s kind of a strange choice, I’ll admit it. It would be even under normal circumstances, but it feels especially strange given where we find ourselves these days: in a society that seems ever more anxious, fearful, angry, and polarized as we grapple with the worst global pandemic in at least 100 years, the dynamics of systemic racism, and a presidential campaign season that is starting to sound almost apocalyptic. And we’re going to read Philemon? Really?

Philemon doesn’t even feel like it necessarily should even be in the Bible. It’s so short it doesn’t even have any chapters: just 21 verses, 335 words (in the original Greek, anyway). And unlike all of Paul’s other letters in the Bible, this one is not written to a congregation or a group of congregations; despite mentioning two other leaders and the church in his greeting, he is writing to just one single other person.[i]

So the letter is short, it’s personal, it’s vague, it doesn’t have any good stories or elaborate metaphors or ringing sound-bites of theology; in fact, the language itself is so flowery and flattering that it is hard to read or to hear. All reasons why this letter is rarely read or preached from in the church today.

But here’s something else that’s strange about this letter. It actually was popular not so long ago, in the age of African slavery in Europe and the Americas. The white people of that age liked it because they read it as being about Onesimus, whom they understood as a lazy slave who had stolen something from his master and run away to escape punishment, whom Paul had converted and was sending back to his rightful owner as newly converted and obedient.

Thus, to them, it was a story that reinforced their values as “Christian” slave owners and traders whose slaves owed them submission in a God-ordered society. “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me,” Paul writes. The slave masters read Onesimus’ being “useless” to mean what they considered a useless slave: lazy, contrary and unproductive, so that you had to spend all your time beating him and breaking him into submission, rather than getting productive work out of him.

Clearly, he ran away at some point, and again, the slave traders assumed that this was because he was disobedient and probably because he stole something; clearly Philemon, as the master, was the one who had been wronged in this episode. And to them, that all made sense, just like his conversion made sense. Obviously, the definition of a slave’s worth is his or her usefulness, so his conversion must have made him docile and obedient, ready to return and accept his identity as a slave.

Now, it’s only fair to point out that Paul is being unusually diplomatic and indirect in this letter, so it can be hard to tell exactly what he’s getting at. But if there’s anything that is clear, it is that Paul is not sending Onesimus back as a docile, obedient, and useful slave for Philemon. It’s extraordinary how the white slave masters missed verse 16; it’s the whole point of the entire letter! Paul urges Philemon to take Onesimus back “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother.”

Paul doesn’t want Philemon to just accept Onesimus back into his household; Paul wants him to accept Onesimus back into the church that meets in that household, accept him as a brother in Christ, an equal, a fellow co-worker in the gospel. He wants Philemon to not only forego his claim over his life as well; he wants Philemon to set Onesimus free. The name “Onesimus” literally means “Useful One.” Paul wants Philemon to take Onesimus back so that he can accept his identity, his usefulness, not in slavery, but as an equal and free partner in the gospel.

That’s an awful lot for Paul to ask. Behind all the flowery language, the compliments and the affirmations, Paul is challenging Philemon to take the demands of the gospel not simply seriously, but personally. He is asking Philemon to do something that his society tells him is unnecessary and even unwise: Paul is asking him to accept his former slave as an equal for the sake of the Gospel, to say goodbye to Onesimus the slave and embrace Onesimus the brother. That entails a real personal cost. Not a financial cost—Paul has offered to cover any losses there. No, it will cost Philemon his cultural status and power over Onesimus, everything that his culture tells him is his right and privilege. And Paul is asking him to choose to pay that cost.

But paying that cost, that price, also brings a reward. Onesimus is useful to Philemon not because he will now be Philemon’s obedient slave, but because he is already Christ’s obedient servant, carrying the cross back to Philemon and offering it to him. By returning to Philemon, Onesimus embodies personally the promise and the opportunity of the gospel: the chance to transform their relationship, their perspectives, their very identities into something totally different from what their culture said would be, or should be, or couldn’t help but be—something that reveals the living reality of the risen Christ, something that reflects the stunning, overwhelming, transforming power of God’s grace. It is that same grace which would confront one of those slave traders centuries later, transform him and inspire him to witness to that grace in song: “amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found was blind but now I see.”

Transformation always seems inevitable on the other side of it. But as Nelson Mandela famously said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” That is, after all, why the grace is so amazing in the first place: because it is so unexpected, so unanticipated, so unlikely. That’s why stories like, say, the Good Samaritan story are so much more popular that this letter to Philemon. The Samaritan just instinctively does the right thing, without hesitation or debate, when he finds the man beaten, robbed, and left for dead in the middle of the road to Jericho, despite putting himself at great risk by stopping in an area so notoriously overrun by violent bandits.

And we want to believe that would be us, too, that we wouldn’t actually need to be transformed because we’d already be there on the other side. But the truth is, most of us are much more like Philemon: trying to live faithfully as Christians, but still entangled in the ugly realities of our culture: its divisions and despair, its suspicions and fear, its unjust systems masquerading hideously as the natural, or at least unavoidable, order of things; entangled sometimes to the point that we don’t even realize the hold it has on us.

For the past few months, we here at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem have been intentionally engaging in the work of racial justice in very new ways for us, from a digital learning course on race, racism, and antiracism in June, to creating a 21-Day Racial Justice Immersion Project that can be begun at any time and which includes various resources for both study and action, to the Session’s creation of a Racial Justice Task Force to look at how we can weave our commitments to racial justice into the fabric of our congregation’s ministry and mission.

Overall, the reaction to this ministry here in the congregation has been very positive, both in terms of people’s participation and feedback. But we’ve also been doing this important and challenging work, not in a vacuum, but against the backdrop of ongoing incidents of racism and violence, to the point that it can start raising some uncomfortable questions about whether what we (and so many others) are doing is of any real use. Is this just about making us feel guilty without being able to really do anything about it? Is it just about making us feel better about ourselves because at least we are aware of the problems, but without requiring any real sacrifice?

Or is this work, however well-intentioned, simply too complicated and our society too polarized and the agendas on both extremes too, well, extreme for us to make much of a difference on anything? All of those reactions are understandable, given all that is going on in the world these days, and all are helpful for us to consider in constantly evaluating the faithfulness and effectiveness of our ministry.

But embedded in all of them is also that question of the impact and even possibility of transformation. When terrible things happen that seize our conscience as they have over and over again this summer, we often catch ourselves saying some version of the statement, “what can I do that will be of any use?” “What difference can I make?” And the answer that we often give ourselves is, “not much, I guess.” And I think that’s because we tend to equate making a difference with something dramatic, like the story of  the Good Samaritan.

Which is why I wanted us to consider Philemon this week, instead. Paul starts his letter by saying, “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” When you perceive all the good, then your faith can become effective; that’s a really important phrase. Even when we are trying to live into opportunities for transformation, we remain captive to the scarcity mentality of our culture that limits the possibilities for doing good, by starting with the question of what seems effective or useful. But that has the order wrong: it is not whether we can do something useful that determines whether it is good; it is in doing something good that it becomes something useful, often in ways we could never have foreseen or even imagined.

When the 9/11 attacks happened, I was a pastor in New York City, as most of you know. Within a day or two, I got a phone call from a friend who was Senior Pastor of the First Presbyterian of Dallas, TX at the time, a pastor named Bill Carl. Bill, like many colleagues, reached out to me to express solidarity and support during what was an almost unimaginable crisis in the life of our city and our nation. In doing so, he mentioned that he had seen a line of people stretching around the block there in downtown Dallas that morning who were waiting to donate blood to help the victims of the attack. “You know something profound has changed,” he said, “when Texans will stand in line for hours to give their lifeblood to show their love for New York City!”

Now, the truth is, that blood itself would not be effective in helping New York recover from those horrible attacks; most people either got away with relatively minor injuries, or they never got out of the buildings at all. But the gift of it was utterly transformative, both for the givers and for those of us who heard the story as it was reported in the media, because it bound us together in love, and compassion, and solidarity, and justice. Fifteen years later, it’s so moving to me that I can barely talk about it, because I knew that “even Texas” loved and cared about us in our time of great need and suffering.

So what can we do at times like these that will be useful? The only thing that has the power to make a difference, the only thing that has the power to do anything good: we can love. Love is so powerful that it is one of the only things in this world that grows when you give it away. Light is like that, too. I think that’s why candlelight vigils are so common when terrible things happen in our society; they represent the power of love to multiply when you share it and drive away the together. And even total darkness has to flee from even the smallest display of light; when the light shines in the darkness, the darkness cannot and will not overcome it.

So what will your light be, your sign of transformed and transformative love? That’s the question, the only question that matters, that can make a difference, that can bring transformation, that is useful. What will your light, our light, be? How big, what kind, where it shines, none of those are as important as simply answering the question, “what will your light be?” If it is truly light at all, it will shine into the gloom and the shadows, like curtains opened to greet the dawn. And when it does,  others will see it and be drawn to it, and will even draw from it to start their own light, until the shadows themselves have nowhere left to hide.


[i] All of the second person pronouns (“you”) are singular, not plural, in the Greek, and the content of the letter is exclusively directed toward the relationship between Philemon and his slave, Onesimus. Mentioning others in the greeting does not necessarily suggest the letter was addressed to them; rather, it’s an affirmation of the common relationship.

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