“Perfect Harmony” (September 4, 2016: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost–Proper 18C)

This sermon was preached on September 4, 2016 at the 8:30am Rite II, 11:00am Rite II, and 6:00pm Rite I Eucharists at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Collect: Grant us, O Lord, to trust in You with all our hearts; for, as You always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so You never forsake those who make their boast of Your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Readings: Jeremiah 18.1-11; Psalm 139.1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1.1-21; Luke 14.25-33

“I appeal to you for my child Onesimus…If you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.”—Philemon 1.10, 17[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

The date: November 11, 1936; the place: The Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City.  It was on that date and at that place that two white jazz musicians from Chicago, Benny Goodman, a clarinet player and the undisputed “King of Swing,” and Gene Krupa, an energetic and innovative drummer, appeared on a stage with two black musicians, Lionel Hampton, a vibraphonist also from Chicago, and Teddy Wilson, a piano player from Austin, Texas, for the first time as the Benny Goodman Quartet.  It was, for American jazz, total integration for the first time.  As recounted by Lionel Hampton in 1982, Goodman was later asked why he hired Hampton and Wilson to be in his band, to which Goodman replied, “You know one thing?  It takes the black keys and the white keys both to make perfect harmony.”[2]  Goodman did not see color in Hampton and Wilson, but rather musical colleagues and equals.  Wilson remained with Goodman until 1939 and Hampton until 1940, with them both launching out on their own and having successful music careers for the rest of their lives.

Saint Paul’s Letter to Philemon, today’s second lesson, is a book that we hear from only once every three years in the Sunday lectionary cycle.  As I was preparing today’s sermon, there were some commentaries I read that questioned Paul’s intent regarding his letter and labeled his language as being vague and not explicit.  On the contrary, I believe that Paul was both very clear and explicit regarding his expectations of Philemon concerning Onesimus and to prove that, a careful walk through of the text is needed.  Today’s sermon will, to the fullest extent, be an exegetical sermon.  But most importantly, as all sermons should do, will be highlighted and proclaimed the Good News.

Although the letter does not give the specific circumstances, Onesimus, a fugitive slave from Colossae, came into contact with Paul during the latter’s imprisonment in Rome.  It is speculated that Onesimus committed some sort of offence against his master, Philemon, back in Colossae and fled to Rome in an effort to avoid detection.  Paul and Onesimus made contact with each other and, in the process, Onesimus became a Christian.  Onesimus grew in faith and, as implied by Paul, became very helpful to him in spreading the Gospel.  Paul did not see Onesimus as a fugitive slave, but, rather, as one of God’s fellow workers, part of God’s field, God’s building.[3]

Philemon was a wealthy Christian from Colossae.  During Paul’s three-year ministry in Ephesus, about 100 miles away, from AD 52-55, Philemon heard the Gospel and was saved.  He began serving the cause of Christ in the Colossian community, opening his home to a group of Christians to meet and worship regularly.[4]  Already, we see two things in common between Philemon and Onesimus: 1) they both came to faith in Jesus Christ through Paul’s preaching and ministry, and 2) became very helpful to Paul in the sharing of the Gospel.  Just as he did Onesimus, Paul saw Philemon as a “beloved fellow worker.”  There was more that united Philemon and Onesimus than there was that divided them.

Although Paul wished that Onesimus could have stayed with him in Rome, he knew that Onesimus had to return to Colossae and face up to Philemon.  Jesus said, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go.  First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”[5]  Although slavery in New Testament times was not the same as what we think of in the historic American context, there was still a penalty for runaway slaves, if recaptured, to be flogged, or even killed.[6]  Paul knew the risk of sending Onesimus back to Philemon, but he also could not ignore Jesus’ directive for reconciliation.  He hoped that Philemon, being a Christian, would also be mindful of this directive and do what was right upon Onesimus’s return.  Hence the letter that we heard read several minutes ago.

Paul says to Philemon, “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you.”  As ‘an apostle, not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father,”[7] Paul could have directly ordered Philemon to free Onesimus.  But he chose loving persuasion over coercive pressure.  Loving persuasion is what the Gospel does; it is what Jesus does.  Jesus does not force Himself upon us.  He wants our love for Him to be free of coercion.  When we say yes to Jesus and voluntarily submit to His will, we become changed from the inside out.  By appealing to Philemon in love, Paul hoped that his words would move Philemon to make a free-willed decision to extend mercy and forgiveness to the slave that wronged him.  And though it is clear that Philemon was the primary addressee, by also including as addressees “Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house,” this made clear Paul’s intent for the letter to be read aloud in front of others, perhaps another “tactic” of appealing to Philemon to do the right thing.

But where Paul’s expectations of Philemon become, in my opinion, clear and direct is at verse 17: “If you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.”  Paul put his personal relationship with Philemon right on the line in pleading for Onesimus.  Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, once said

What Christ has done with God the Father, that Saint Paul does also for Onesimus with Philemon.  For Christ emptied Himself of his rights and overcame the Father with love and humility, so that the Father had to put away his wrath and rights, and receive us in favor for the sake of Christ, who so earnestly advocates our cause and so heartily takes our part.  For we are all his Onesimus’s if we believe.[8]

And there is where we see the Good News.  Just like Onesimus, we all were once held captive—captive to sin and death.  Then Jesus came, sacrificing Himself for us, freeing us from our captivity.  Because of Jesus, we are free—free from the shackles of sin and death!  We are ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven people!  Perfect Love lifted us out of our bondage.

What Paul said to the Galatians is true: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[9]  He pleaded with Philemon to accept Onesimus back “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother,” recognizing his status as a new creation in Jesus and, thus, as His complete equal.  Likewise, we are all called to accept and recognize each other as equal one to another, because the sacrifice of Christ on the cross says that we are.

So what about Philemon and Onesimus?  Did Philemon accept him back?  Was Onesimus truly repentant of his offense?  Did Philemon forgive Onesimus?  Was all well there at the end?  Unfortunately, we do not know, but it is my hope that all was well.  I hope that Philemon took Paul’s counsel seriously and did the right thing.  I hope that the time that he and Onesimus spent apart—perhaps by God’s Providence—helped both of them to grow more mature in Christ to which Onesimus was repentant of his offense and asked for forgiveness, with Philemon accepting his apology, forgiving Onesimus, and freeing him from his bondage.  We do not know what happened between them, but we can only hope for the best.

This brings us to our closing point back to 1936 to that first Benny Goodman Quartet performance.  Benny Goodman refused to recognized racial segregation.  What he saw in Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson were two musicians just as skilled as he was and, together, they worked toward the same purpose and goal: making great music.  Seeing them on the stage at New York’s Pennsylvania Hotel represented the goodness of God’s Kingdom: no distinctions, no divisions, complete equality and cooperation with each other.  What a blessed and beautiful sight it must have been to behold.  May all the world get to such a place with the help of Jesus.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.  Amen.   

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

[2] 1964MBrooks.  “A Tribute to Benny Goodman 1982.”  Recorded December 25, 1982.  YouTube video, 17:44.  Posted November 22, 2011.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6c7uOrKKzKo.

[3] I Corinthians 3.9

[4] “Introduction to the Letter of Paul to Philemon,” The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2008), 2353.

[5] Matthew 5.23-24

[6] “Exposition of Philemon,” The Interpreter’s Bible (Volume XI: Philippians; Colossians; Thessalonians; Timothy, Titus; Philemon; Hebrews) (New York, New York: Abingdon Press, 1955), 561.

[7] Galatians 1.1

[8] “Luther on Philemon,” The Lutheran Study Bible (Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 2009), 2094.

[9] Galatians 3.28

 

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