Three Requests (Philemon 17-20)

October 25, 2017

Up to this point, Paul’s letter has greeted the community where Philemon serves, thanked God for Philemon’s service in that community, and described his relationship with Philemon’s slave Onesimus. Only now, in verses 17-20, does Paul get to the point. What does Paul want Philemon to do? Why is he writing him?

Paul only uses the imperative mood—typically commands or requests—four times in Philemon. Three are in this section (verses 17-20) and one in verse 22.

  • welcome him as you would me (v. 17)
  • charge that to my account (v. 18)
  • refresh my heart in Christ (v. 20)
  • prepare a guest room for me (v. 22).

This litany of requests—one on top of the other—is focused on the central reality Paul wants to emerge within Philemon’s believing community. Probably the best word for this, which itself epitomizes the central focus of the Christian Faith, is reconciliation.

As this letter is read at Philemon’s house church where Philemon’s other slaves, his family, and other believers are present along with Onesimus himself, Paul envisions this community as a reconciled one, where slave and free, Jew and Gentile, and male and female share life together as a family, the body of Christ. The question remains, however, whether Philemon will express the heart of his own faith by reconciling with Onesimus.

The three requests present in verses 17-20 build on each other. The first lays the foundation for the others.

If you consider me your partner (koinonon), welcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me.”

Paul assumes a partnership or fellowship in the gospel. Philemon and Paul are co-workers and dear friends in the shared life of the family of God. If this communion is real—if Philemon is authentically committed to this shared life—then Paul not only requests but expects that Philemon will welcome Onesimus.

Welcome is a significant theological word. Paul uses it three times in Romans 14-15 to describe how believers should treat each other, that is, strong believers should “welcome” weaker believers (Romans 14:1, 3; 15:7). Paul roots this “welcoming” in how both God and Jesus have welcomed us into God’s own life. We welcome—or “accept”—each other because God has already welcomed us. We welcome each other because Christ has already welcomed us. We do not pursue this course out of some self-interest but “for the glory of God.”

To welcome the other, and for Philemon to welcome Onesimus, is at the heart of the gospel. If the gospel means anything, it means the Christian community must reflect God’s own welcoming, and if God has welcomed Onesimus into the family, so must Philemon. In other words, Onesimus appears in Philemon’s house church as a brother in Christ rather than as a slave. Within the Christian community, his status is family rather than slave; his status is heir rather than servant. Whatever status Onesimus bore in the social world of Roman, in the familial world of the body of Christ he is a brother.

Indeed, Paul requests Philemon to welcome Onesimus as if he were Paul himself. In other words, Onesimus status—as part of the family of God—is no longer one of a slave but a brother. And Onesimus is no second-class brother but one who should be received, as per Paul’s request, as if he were Paul himself. Paul identifies Onesimus with himself and expects that Philemon will receive and treat Onesimus like he would receive and treat Paul. This elevates Onesimus’s status—it is the status that belongs to Onesimus as a brother in Christ, a member of the body of Christ.

Moreover, “if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” With his own signature (“I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand”), Paul signs an “I owe you” over to Philemon.

Though Paul could have asked Philemon to forgive any debt since Philemon owes Paul his own life (perhaps because Paul is Philemon’s father in the faith), he does not exercise that right or privilege. Instead of seeking an equal exchange, Paul assumes whatever debt Onesimus owes Philemon. Paul forgoes his rights (what Philemon owes him) in order to assume the status of debtor to Philemon.

In this Paul embodies the gospel itself. This is a kenotic move. I allude to the word Paul uses in Philippians 2:7 to describe the move the Son makes when he becomes incarnate. Though the Son was existed in the form of God as an equal with God, he “emptied himself” when he took on the form of a human being. This “emptying” is kenosis; it is self-giving.

Paul does the same here. He “empties himself” by taking on a debt that does not belong to him. Instead of asserting his status or exercising his right, Paul embodies the gospel in this self-giving or self-emptying. In this moment Paul embodies Christ for Onesimus’s sake.

When Paul asks for Onesimus’s debt to be charged to him, Paul models the gospel in a way that calls Philemon into that same way of living. Just as Paul is willing to live kenotically, so Philemon is called to live in a self-emptying and self-giving way as well. Even though Paul is willing for Philemon to charge everyting to Paul’s account, Paul’s own self-emptying example, which is an imitation of Christ, also calls Philemon to empty himself as well.

This leads to the third request: “refresh my heart (splagchna) in Christ.” His request renews Paul’s thanksgiving where Paul expresses joy and hope for Philemon’s consistent practice of his faith as he continually “refreshed” the “hearts (splagchna) of the saints” (verse 7). Paul is grateful for Philemon’s faithful history, and Paul asks Philemon to continue his faithful walk by refreshing his own heart. Paul’s heart, we should remember, is Onesimus himself (verse 12).

In other words, refresh Onesimus! The word carries the meaning of rest, renewal, and rejuvenation. It is as if it were a new beginning or a new start. Refreshment is reconciliation.

It is difficult to imagine exactly how this might have looked on that day when this letter was read to the church at Philemon’s house. One can imagine the looks, the tension, and the anticipation.

Did Philemon welcome Onesimus as a brother within the community, or did he treat him as a slave who must honor his superior? Did they embrace as family members or did Onesimus kiss his ring?

We know Paul’s hope and expectation but we don’t know what happened. The letter is open-ended. We don’t know the rest of the story. We don’t have any postscript which says, “And Philemon…..”

What we have, however, is a narrative that challenges us as it challenged Philemon. And the question for us is what will we do? How do we receive each other?


No Longer Just a Slave (Philemon 12-16)

October 16, 2017

Listening to this letter within the community of his own house church, Philemon hears Paul’s affection for Onesimus. He is not only Paul’s child but Paul’s own “heart.”

“I am sending my heart back to you,” Paul writes.

This simple statement has several significant rhetorical functions. First, Paul not only does not secretly hide Onesimus from Philemon by keeping him in Ephesus (presumably) but returns Onesimus to Philemon. Paul holds nothing back. He is, we might say, “above board” with his “beloved co-worker” (verse 1).

Second, rather than hiding this from Philemon, he fully invests in their relationship by returning Onesimus to him. Paul makes the first move toward reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon to which—I presume—Onesimus is fully committed as well. Onesimus seeks reconciliation, too, as I imagine a scenario where Onesimus approached Paul as a mediator between himself and Philemon (in contrast to a runaway who happened to meet Paul in prison—but we don’t know the real situation).

Third, Paul commends Onesimus. Not only is Onesimus now “useful” to both Philemon and Paul, he is Paul’s own “heart.” This is not the normal word for “heart” in Greek; it is a word similar to our metaphorical use of “guts.” It is the emotional center of a person—their guts (in Greek, splagchna). This communicates both Paul’s affection and hints toward Paul’s hopes for the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. Earlier Paul commended Philemon for how he had habitually refreshed “the hearts (splagchna) of the saints.” Clearly, Paul wants Philemon—and will request such in a few moments—to refresh his own splagchna, who is Onesimus.

“I am sending my heart back to you” is how Paul initiates the reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus. It is a first but risky—for Paul but more especially for Onesimus—step toward reconciliation, which is the central purpose of this letter.

Voluntary, Not Out of Necessity

Given the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon (presumably Onesimus is Philemon’s slave), Paul regards Onesimu’s “service” to him as something that Onesimus renders in the place of Philemon. This is substitutionary language; Onesimus stands in for Philemon. This is how Philemon serves (diakone) Paul during Paul’s imprisonment for the sake of the gospel. We might even say this is part of what Paul may have meant by calling Philemon his “co-worker” in verse 1, though more is probably intended (such as past relationships as well).

Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him to continue this service. We presume he could have kept this secret from Philemon, though that seems unlikely given their relationship. He may have retained Onesimus and simply informed Philemon by letter about the fact or askedPhilemon to consent to what Paul had already decided to do.

Paul, however, chooses to return Onesimus, initiate a process of reconciliation, and make his request in a way that applies the least possible demand upon Philemon (given the power/authority relationship implicit in their history). Paul wants Philemon to act out of love rather than duty (verse 9) and to act as one committed to the story he believes rather than under the pressure of an obligation without authentic, heartfelt consent.

Paul wants Philemon fully involved in the decision. He does not want to do anything without Philemon’s knowledge (gnomes) because he wants Onesimus’s service to arise out of Philemon’s decision rather than out of some kind of necessity. This is something Philemon must decide voluntarily, that is, what Philemon truly wants. It cannot be forced or arise out necessity (anagken).

Interestingly, Paul makes exactly this same point when seeking to persuade the Corinthian church to share their resources with the poor, Jewish saints in Jerusalem in 2 Corinthians 9:7-8. Because God loves a cheerful giver, God does not want any gifts that arise from “compulsion” or “necessity” (anagkes). As in the letter to Philemon, Paul does not “command” but requests, and the request is not an apostolic imposition of authority but an appeal to the Corinthian’s investment in the story that they claim to believe.

That is what Paul wants and it is that for which he prayed earlier in the epistle. In verse 6, he hoped that their shared faith would give Philemon eyes to see the “good” (agathou) that the community (the whole church) is doing “for Christ.” Now, Paul offers Philemon the specific opportunity to participate in the “good” (agathon) Paul is doing for Christ as a prisoner for the gospel.

What will Philemon do? Paul has not yet made any specific requests.

Something Has Changed

Whatever Paul might actually request, verses 15-16 reflect the ground for the request. Something has changed.

We don’t know exactly what precipitated the separation of Onesimus from Philemon. Perhaps Onesimus ran away. Perhaps a problem arose between Onesimus and Philemon—apparently, Onesimus is indebted to Philemon in some way (v. 18)—and Onesimus went looking for Paul to moderate the dispute or help with the problem. Perhaps Onesimus is not a runaway but seeks to resolve a problem by enlisting Paul’s help. We don’t know, though it appears Onesimus initiated the separation.

But the separation has a serendipitous result. Onesimus has become a believer. Though Paul uses the word “perhaps” to soften the pain of the separation as he prepares to make his requests, the word seems to indicate that Paul himself believed that this was a “God-thing” (we might say today). His strategy may be more rhetorical than theological. In other words, Paul uses the word to open the eyes of Philemon to a possibility without making any assertive claim (though Paul may have believed the claim itself). In Paul’s mind, the separation resulted in good, and God is the one who works all good things and brings good out of broken circumstances. God is at work here, and the “perhaps” reflects Paul’s humility as well as his rhetorical approach characteristic of the whole letter.

Relationship between Philemon and Onesimus

 

Previously

Now
Separated Returned
For a while Forever
In the Flesh In the Lord
Slave Brother

 

What changed? In a word: status.

Whatever we may say about slavery in the Roman empire, the status of an enslaved human being was at the bottom of the social ladder. Slaves had no inherent legal rights; they had no power within the social order, which was fundamentally a top-down, hierarchical system. This extended to all facets of their lives, including who they might marry, to whom their children belonged, and their inability—except by the grace of the master—to change their situation. Slaves were powerless within the Roman social order. However some might mitigate the reality of Roman slavery by comparisons with other social situations or slave conditions, life as a slave in the Roman world was dehumanizing.

As I read verses 15-16, Paul contrasts the slave world of the Roman society with the familial world of the house church (or, the fellowship). In the flesh, Onesimus was separated from you and useless (v. 11). I take “flesh” here to mean not only a kind of physicality but also a kind of existence in the social order of the Roman world. We live “in the flesh,” that is, we still live in this broken, sordid order that characterizes social relationships in wider society. In that order, Onesimus is a slave. It is a social reality.

At this point in the letter, he still is a slave, though not (just) a slave. Paul has made no request that Philemon release or free his slave. Onesimus is returned as a slave, not as a free person. The “in the flesh” relationship still exists.

But something has changed.

Onesiumus is now a brother, a member of the family. He is more than a member of Philemon’s household as a slave. Now Onesimus is a member of God’s household, the fellowship of the body of Christ, which is fundamentally relational and mutual in character.  It is a shared life; it is a fellowship (koinonia), a family or relationships that are mutually enriching and reciprocal.

This move is powerfully significant. Though the Roman social order still exists as part of the old creation (“in the flesh”), new creation has broken into that order through a familial relationship of sister and brother “in Christ.”

This new creation, though its presence is incipient within “the flesh,” is a subversive element for the social order not only for the Roman world but for the old creation itself.

However, at this moment, Paul does not employ this new creation theology to make a specific request but only to not the change of status. His requests will follow in the next few verses.

Imagining the Change

We might imagine this change of status in the context of the social world of this house church in Colossae in this way in order to illustrate the significance of Paul’s announcement.

In the Roman world, slaves did not eat with their masters. They served them during their meals. They would stand around the tables or prepare food elsewhere, but they did not sit at the table with them.

In Philemon’s house church, we might imagine that slaves sat at the same table with their masters as they ate the Lord’s meal together—not simply bread and wine but a meal honoring the risen Lord where communion was shared across all the social barriers that are part of “the flesh” (old creation).

In contrast to the surrounding Roman social order, what we would see at the Colossae house church was a table where men and women, slave and free, and Jew and Gentile would eat a meal together at the same table.

Onesimus was more than just a slave; he was now a brother.  In one world, he is powerless to sit at the table; in another world, he is invited.


How Can I Ask for This Favor Without Wrenching it from You? (Philemon 8-11)

October 9, 2017

Paul could demand it.

Paul is “bold enough” to “command” Philemon to grant Paul’s request—whatever that is—because “in Christ” Philemon has a “duty” to obey. Paul could assert his authority, whether that is apostolic (though Paul nowhere uses that title in this letter) or relational (as if “you owe me”). Paul resists asserting his authority.

I suppose one could read his unwillingness to assert that authority as an assertion itself. In other words, it is a kind of back-handed manipulation. When Paul says he does not want to assert his authority, some say, Paul is actually asserting that authority. This puts Philemon in an impossible situation. If he acts contrary to Paul’s wishes, he will find himself outside Paul’s righteous wishes. If he complies, then he submits to that authority…perhaps for the very reason Paul does not want him to do so, that is, because Paul—in so many words—demanded it.

Paul himself is in a difficult position.

What Paul wants is for Philemon to act out of love (agape) rather than prescriptive coercion. He wants Philemon to internalize this decision so that it arises out of a shared love rather than out of a begrudging submission to authority.

In other words,Paul wants Philemon to internalize his acting so  that it is formed by the central story of God in Christ rather than imposed by some external authority. Paul gives Philemon the opportunity to humble himself by loving another in a way that cost himself something rather than to merely comply with an apostolic command.

Paul hopes Philemon will perform the story of Jesus the Messiah in his situation, that is, to have the mind of the Messiah (cf. Philippians 2:5). What I mean is this: just as Jesus, though he shared equal divine status with God as he existed in the form of God, emptied himself in order to take on human form and participate in the human condition. This emptying is kenosis; it is self-giving for the sake of the other at a cost to the giver. That is Christian love (agape).

Will Philemon himself perform that story? Does he believe it that deeply? Will it shape his actions?

Paul lays it on thick. He reminds Philemon of his age (“old man”—probably in his 50s) and of his imprisonment for the sake of Jesus the Messiah. Perhaps this is about “pity” or “wisdom,” but I tend to think it is about relationship. Paul is an “old man” in the faith as well as old chronologically. Paul has status in the community as an elder statesman in the community. This is furthered by his willingness to suffer for the cause of the Messiah; he is a prisoner. What I hear in this message is the encouragement to imitate Paul’s own performance of the story. Paul has lived this story for a long time (“old man”) and he is willing to empty himself for others by suffering imprisonment for the sake of the gospel.

But is this not further manipulation?

There is little doubt Paul intends to persuade, and he uses this rhetorical strategy toward that end. But that is not necessarily manipulation.

Suppose a particular authority figure wanted to encourage a person to act out of their own internal convictions rather than because of imposed authority. They might request the action without mentioning the authority, but the authority would be assumed. To ignore that authority is its subtle imposition. To name the authority and to disavow its application  is to clear the air, acknowledge the “elephant in the room,” and perhaps effectively rid the situation of any subtle imposition.When we want to encourage authentic action, it is better to name the authority relationship and not apply it than to be silent about it. Silence is as much a potential manipulation as naming it. Indeed, I think naming it takes away the imposition.

For example, how might a parent ask his/her child to do something for them but not in  a way that assumes the parent asks out of their authority status? I can imagine that I might say something like, “Son, I don’t want you think that you have to do this because I am your father; I want you to do this because you know it is right. And I will not force you to do it.” My hope is that my son would act out of the principles I have cultivated in his life rather than out of fear of whatever consequences he might imagine I would impose if he did not do what was right.

In the same way, Paul named the “authority” option in order to set it aside as a motive for action, and the best way to call Philemon to act out of love rather than duty was to name it and thereby nullify it. To not name it has a greater subtle manipulative power than naming it.

Paul is clear: he wants Philemon to act out of love. And Philemon will need it because Paul’s request is about Onesimus.

This is the first time Onesimus is named in the letter.

It must have been a tense moment when that name was heard in the reading of this letter to the church in Philemon’s house. Consider who was there—Philemon, Apphia, Archipus, neighbors and friends, and other slaves in Philemon’s household. Onesimus is there, too. Perhaps Tychicus was also there. Perhaps he read the letter to the church (cf. Colossae, Colossians 4:10). This was a communal moment. Everyone’s eyes were on Philemon, then Onesimus, and then back-and-forth!

Whatever the problem between Philemon and Onesimus, the whole community hears Paul’s appeal. I wonder when Onesimus was named whether everyone turned their eyes to him and wondered why Paul is so concerned about Onesimus (presumably—at this point in our study—a runaway slave).

Onesimus, Paul writes, has become a Christian; he has become Paul’s child (teknou). Paul was his father, which is a common image Paul uses for the relationship between himself and his converts (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:11; 1 Timothy 1:2).

How did this happen? We don’t know.

What we do know is Paul is in prison (in my opinion, Ephesus). We might imagine that for whatever reason Onesimus sought out Paul as a mediator between Philemon and himself. It seems unlikely—though, of course, possible—that Paul and Onesimus “happen to meet” in prison (which presumes Onesimus was himself a prisoner). I think it more likely Onesimus knew Paul from his relationship to Philemon and therefore wanted Paul to help him in the situation he found himself. Ultimately, however, we don’t know.

Whatever the case, Paul and Onesimus met, Paul led Onesimus to trust in Jesus the Messiah, and now Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon.

As Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, the situation has been transformed. Absent from Philemon’s house, Onesimus was useless to him but now is useful for both Philemon and Paul. Where value was once lost, it has now been restored. But Onesimus’s value is much greater now than it was previously because Onesimus is now also useful to Paul as well as Philemon.

We still don’t know what the request is. We only know that Paul wants Philemon to accede to it out of love rather than duty, and he wants Philemon to recognize Onesimus is now living in a different story than previously.

Philemon and Onesimus now share the same story; they are both children of God (cf. Philippians 2:15) and both are committed to the story of Jesus the Messiah.

What difference should that make in how Philemon treats Onesimus?

We shall see.

 

 

 


I Give Thanks: Paul on Philemon’s Faith and Love

September 27, 2017

For those familiar with Paul’s letters, it is no surprise that Paul follows his opening salutation with a thanksgiving. Like the opening itself, we should read this thanksgiving as more than formulaic. Rather, it introduces themes and concepts upon which Paul builds in the body of the letter, including his three requests or hopes. Paul’s thanksgiving, like his opening and closing, lays some groundwork for those requests and cultivates an atmosphere where Philemon (and the church in Colossae) might live out the narrative of Jesus in this situation.

Thanksgiving (Philemon 4-5)

“I give thanks to God” are the first words Paul addresses to Philemon specifically in isolation from others. When we start a difficult conversation with someone in gratitude, we start with common ground, humility, and appreciation. When we start with the positive, focus on the good, and embrace what is shared, then we are empowered to talk about the difficult dimensions of our lives together. Moreover, when this gratitude is oriented toward God for others, then we humble ourselves before God’s gifts to us in other persons, and we situate both them and ourselves under the reign of God.

Paul’s letters offer small windows into his prayer life. While those windows don’t tell the whole story, of course, they do suggest a habit of prayer in which thanksgiving and intercession figure prominently. His prayers were, apparently, filled with people as he remembered his associations in the gospel. He named them and stayed connected through prayer if not also through presence and letters.

More specifically, Paul is particularly grateful for two things. First, he gives thanks for Philemon’s faith toward the Lord Jesus, who is Israel’s Messiah. This is a way of describing Philemon’s most basic orientation toward life—faith (trust, allegiance) to the Lord Jesus. Faith is the conviction that Jesus is Lord rather than Caesar; it is a commitment to love the God of Israel above all else. One might say it is one way in which Paul affirms the first commandment, that is, to love God with all one’s heart, mind, and soul. Philemon loves God through his allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

Second, Paul affirms Philemon’s love for people, specifically for “all the saints.” This, of course, expresses the heart of the second greatest commandment, which is to love your neighbor. In this light, Paul is grateful for Philemon’s commitment to loving God and loving neighbor. Apparently, Philemon lives this.

Faith in Jesus and love for others is the heart of Christianity. 1 John summarizes it in exactly the same way: faith and love (1 John 3:23). Paul’s thankfulness recognizes Philemon’s participation in the story of God revealed in Jesus.

I wonder if Paul anticipates his requests when he stresses how Philemon not only loves the saints but “all the saints.”

Intercession (Philemon 6)

When Paul remembers Philemon, he gives thanks and he also intercedes for him. He petitions God will actively accomplish the purposes of the kingdom in Philemon’s life.

There are some difficult translation problems in verse six. For example, does “fellowship of the faith” (NASB, literal translation) mean the “sharing of faith” (NRSV, as in evangelism, the spread of the kingdom), a “common faith” (NEB, as in a shared commitment to Jesus), or participating in the faith (HCSB, as in Philemon’s active generosity). Whatever the precise meaning, the term koinonia (fellowship, commonality) signals a shared community or something shared with others in the community, and “faith” is the content or context of that sharing and commonality. The point, however construed, reflects the partnership and community Paul and Philemon share.

Paul prays that this common faith—if we read it that way—would become “effective” or “come to expression” (NJB) as Philemon recognizes all the “good” that they—Paul and Philemon together (“us”)—do for Christ.

Paul’s request pushes for a deeper understanding of this commonality that yields positive goods within the community for the sake of Christ. Paul prays God will work in Philemon in such a way that Philemon will comprehend and embrace the good God is doing within the community, including Paul. He wants God to show Philemon the good that God is accomplishing “among us” for Christ. The “us” assumes a deep connection between Paul and Philemon, a shared mission. They both see the good God is doing, and how they both participate in what is happening “for Christ” (literally “toward, for” rather than “in” Christ) or “for Christ’s sake” (NASB).

Paul prays for Philemon’s growth and development. Everything is about Jesus; it is for the glory and honor of Christ. God is working good through Paul’s ministry and in Philemon’s life for sake of the kingdom. Paul wants their “common faith” to become even more “effective” (energized or operative) as Philemon’s grasp of what God is doing expands and deepens. Philemon, Paul desires, must see beyond his own circumstances and see everything through the lens of what is “for Christ.”

Refreshment (Philemon 7)

Paul has high hopes because he knows Philemon’s faith and love has already been effective within the community. Paul sees his own intercession coming to fruition because Philemon already has a track record of loving the saints.

Philemon has “refreshed” the “hearts of the saints” in so many ways. We can only speculate what that refreshment was. Perhaps it is Philemon’s generosity, or perhaps it is patronage of the church through hosting the community in his home, or perhaps it is some other acts of love and kindness toward the people in his community (“the saints”). We don’t know, but it is sufficient to bring Paul “great joy and encouragement.”

Paul writes this letter—and thus makes his requests—out of this basic experience with Philemon: joy and encouragement. Philemon’s life has put a smile on Paul’s face and reassured his heart.

This is who Philemon is, Paul believes. He is a person of faith who loves the saints and generously refreshes their hearts. The people of God, as Paul represents them, rejoice over Philemon’s work and are encouraged by his life.

May God, Paul prays, deepen Philemon’s grasp of the good God is doing in the world among us for the sake of Christ.


Today I Kneel

September 24, 2017

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal”. Martin Luther King, announcing his opposition to the Vietnam War in 1967.

I love baseball. I’ve been an avid Chicago Cubs fan for over 50 years.

But I love the United States of America more. I value its ideals and democratic processes.

But I love justice more, specifically that justice which is embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus.

Today I will kneel and pray for the reign of God to fill our nation and the earth with justice, peace, love, and joy.

Amen.


The Opening and Closing of the Letter to Philemon

September 19, 2017

As is common in ancient letters from the first century, the letter to Philemon has an identifiable opening (vv. 1-3) and closing (at least 23-25, some say 19-25).

Though brief, they are significant for several reasons.

First, they introduce us to the people connected to this letter. This includes not only the letter’s primary author (Paul) and its main recipient (Philemon) but also the community that surrounds them. Those communities are, apparently, deeply integrated in a common life and narrative.

Second, they introduce use to key theological ideas that shape the world in which these communities live. What appears in the opening and closing is not simply formulaic but arises out of the worldview that shapes these communities.

The Community

Interestingly, whether calculated or not, there are five names in the opening of the letter and five names in the closing of the letter. The symmetry is fascinating, and, if nothing else, balances the brief letter in an interesting way.

The names in this letter unite it with the letter to Colossae. Paul and Timothy are the authors of both letters, Archippus (Colossians 4:17) and Epaphras (Colossians 1:17; 4:2) are prominent in both, and the same four coworkers are named by Paul in both Colossians and Philemon: (John) Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke (Colossians 4:10, 14).

Due to this shared milieu, most have believed Philemon lived in Colossae, and Epaphras and Archippus were ministry leaders in the church there. One ancient commentator, Theodoret of Cyrhus in Syria (d. 466?), reported that Philemon’s house had “remained to this day” in Colossae (a translation of his commentary is available in the Westminster Theological Journal [Spring 1999]).

If Philemon lived in Colossae, where was Paul a prisoner? Most have suggested Rome, but a strong case can be made for Ephesus. Onesimus is more likely to have met Paul in Ephesus than in Rome. Ultimately, we don’t know.

Either way, Paul emphasizes his imprisonment throughout the letter (vv. 1, 9, 10, 13, 23). He calls himself a “prisoner of Jesus the Messiah” (cf. Ephesians 3:1). Though this might be claimed as an honorific title, socially it was a shameful situation. This emphasis probably intends to socially locate Paul with Onesimus rather than assert some kind of authority over the community. Paul shares the social location of a slave as a prisoner in the Roman system.

Paul, with Timothy, addresses the letter to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and to the church in “your” (singular) house. Philemon is Paul’s “dear (or, close) friend” (literally, beloved) and “coworker.” This suggests a kind of intimacy as well as shared mission. Coworker, in fact, is probably a technical term for some kind of known or gifted ministry (cf. Romans 16:3, 9, 21; Philippians 2:25; 4:3). Paul, Timothy, Luke, (John) Mark, Demas, and Aristarchus—along with Philemon—are “coworkers.” They are, in a broad sense, a ministry team.

Apphia is the only woman mentioned in the letter. Some suggest she is Philemon’s sister (some manuscripts read “his sister”), a few suggest she is Paul’s biological sister, but most think she is Philemon’s wife. They are addressed as a couple or a husband-and-wife team, much like Priscilla and Aquila (cf. Acts 18:18, 26). The fact that she is named probably intimates that she, along with Philemon and Archippus, are leaders in this house church. Much like “Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” in Micah 6:4 or like Priscilla and Aquila, she is a leader in the community.

Archippus is called a “fellow soldier.” This metaphorical expression reflects his devotion to his vocation or the work he shares with Paul. Some think Archippus is the son of Philemon and Apphia, but it is probably best to regard him as a leader in the church at Colossae, which is also suggested by Colossians 4:17 (“complete the ministry that you have received from the Lord”).

The church—the gathered assembly—meets in someone’s house. The language is singular, but whose house? The most natural suggestion is Philemon, and if Apphia is his wife, then this reflects her interest in the situation as well. Some think it is Archippus’ house since his name is the closest referent and that Philemon and Apphia were members of the congregation. Some suggest the “your” refers to Apphia because when Paul mentions women it is typically because they are leaders in the community in some fashion (cf. “Chole’s people” in 1 Corinthians 1:11). It is impossible to tell though it seems most likely that “your” (singular) refers to Philemon since he is the main addressee in the letter and the other singular second person references are to him throughout the rest of the letter.

Among Paul’s coworkers named in the closing of the letter, four appear as part of Paul’s seemingly regular entourage at this moment in his ministry: (John) Mark, Demas, Luke, and Aristarchus. The latter is the most interesting because Aristarchus is identified as a fellow prisoner in Colossians 4:10. If this is the same person that appears in Acts (19:29; 20:4; 27:2), Aristarchus was involved in the disturbances in Ephesus, traveled with Paul to Jerusalem, and accompanied Paul to Rome as well. Wherever Paul is imprisoned, Aristarchus shares that fate with him.

He was not, however, the only one imprisoned with Paul. Epaphras was as well. Colossae knew Epaphras who, presumably, was a leader in the church at Colossae and was sent by the church there to minister alongside Paul or even to minister to Paul in his adversity (Colossians 1:7; 4:12).

This is an impressive group of people—on both the receiving and sending ends of the letter. Their names loom large, and their names lend weight to the letter’s purpose and request. This is a communal moment about a communal concern; this is no mere personal concern.

A Common Narrative

The opening and closing of the letter project (and assume) a shared worldview, a common narrative. We may recognize this in what is repeated in both the opening and closing, particularly in the language of the “grace of the Lord Jesus the Messiah.”

Shared Lord, Jesus the Messiah. This is such familiar language we may miss its world-shattering significance. It signifies, at least, two major points that identify the narrative of the early Christian movement.

First, Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. This is, in part, a political statement. It sets allegiance to Jesus over against allegiance to the Roman Emperor. As such, it marks this community as an alternative one that is different from the surrounding imperial world. The fuller meaning of this confession is lived out in the day-to-day political and economic values of the Roman world, and we see the ramifications of that conflict in the Apocalypse (the book of Revelation) in particular. The believer’s fundamental allegiance is to Jesus.

Second, Jesus is the Messiah (Christ, the Anointed One). To call Jesus the Messiah is to link this community with the story of Israel and Israel’s God. The narrative, then, is shaped by all sorts of values, history, and liturgy that constitutes Philemon’s community as part of Israel itself. This confession is not about a Greek “Christ,” but a Jewish Messiah. The church at meets in Philemon’s house is a missional outpost of Israel, part of the diaspora.

Shared Grace. This is the grace of the Lord Jesus the Messiah as well as the grace of God the Father. Grace is the fundamental disposition of God toward Israel, toward those who confess Jesus as Lord. This is the atmosphere the church breathes. We are gracious toward each other because God is gracious toward us in Jesus the Messiah. This community is originated in grace, is rooted in grace, and lives that grace. It begins and ends the letter just as it shapes every aspect of the believer’s life in God and with each other.

Shared Mission. “Coworker” appears in both the opening and closing sections of the letter. Practically everyone named is a “coworker,” and we might think of all those named as such. They work together in the same field toward the same goal for the same God whose Messiah is the Lord Jesus.

Shared Hardship. Though it is not the same word, the shared social condition of imprisonment is highlighted in both the opening and closing. Paul is a prisoner, but so is one of Colossae’s own—Epaphras. Paul and the church in Colossae share the same hardship or affliction. They share the same risks as believers. Their common faith places them in a common danger.

Essentially, the opening and closing say, “We are family; we share the same story, mission, and grace.”

The question is, and it remains with us to this day, will we act like family?


The Narrative World of the Letter to Philemon

September 11, 2017

This brief letter contains its own narrative world. What it offers is partial, often ambiguous (to us), but nonetheless profound. I begin this series on Philemon by simply (though it is not all that simple) observing the world this letter evinces.

Backstory

Paul’s letter presumes a relationship with Philemon who was, presumably, the host of a church in the city where he lived. The letter does not tell us where Philemon lived. Most think he probably resided in Colossae or Laodicea. Paul had never visited these cities (at least at the time when Colossae was written) but peopled frequently traveled between those cities and Ephesus.

Paul spent several years in Ephesus some time in the mid-50s. Through this missional outreach he became acquainted with Philemon whom he led to faith in Jesus the Messiah. Paul regarded him as both a son in the faith and a co-worker.

When Paul wrote the letter, he was in prison. No one is certain where, though the most common identification is Rome. Possibly, perhaps likely in my estimation, Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus. We know Paul endured severe risks in Ephesus (e.g., 2 Corinthians 1:8-9) and may have been imprisoned there at some point.

At some point, Paul met Onesimus while in prison. We don’t know much about Onesimus except that he had some kind of relationship with Philemon and was indebted in some way to Philemon. We don’t know how he and Paul met except that when they did, Paul led him to faith in Jesus the Messiah.

Some speculate Onesimus knew something about Paul because of Paul’s relationship with Philemon and sought out Paul because of that. Perhaps he thought Paul might serve as a mediator or peacemaker between Philemon and himself. Or, perhaps Onesimus was also a prisoner when he met Paul. We don’t know. Either way, Paul ultimately sent Onesimus to Philemon with this letter in hand (perhaps also with the letter to Colossae as well).

The letter does not unambiguously tell us what the precise relationship between Philemon and Onesimus was. The traditional suggestion is that Onesimus was a runaway slave (Chrysostom and Theodoret of Cyrhus both assume this in the early fifth century). Others, though few, suggest the two are biological brothers involved in some kind of quarrel. No one can say with absolute certainty.

The letter’s narrative backstory, then, is “simply” something like this. Paul converted Philemon while in Asia Minor. Then Paul was imprisoned when Onesimus and Paul met. Paul converted Onesimus. Then Paul acted mediated some kind of conflict between Onesimus and Philemon toward reconciliation.

The Plot of the Letter

Community. Paul invites Philemon’s community into this story.

On the one hand, Timothy—whom Philemon presumably also knows—is the “co-author” of this letter with Paul, though the letter uses the first person singular throughout (“I”). Further, Paul sends greetings from others who are present with him, including Epaphras who is imprisoned with Paul as well as (John) Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke who are all identified as “co-workers” just like Philemon is also Paul’s co-worker. In one sense, a whole community addresses Philemon, a community that knows both Onesimus and Philemon. We might even say, the letter carries the weight of that Christian community, and, consequently, its request is a loaded one.

On the other hand, Paul addresses the letter not only to Philemon but also Apphia (“our sister”), Archippus (“our fellow-soldier”), and the whole church that meets in someone’s (“you” is singular) house. Paul’s salutation wishes grace and upon upon the community (“you” is plural in verse 3). Paul addresses the whole community, though Philemon is the principal addressee, which is indicated by the singular second person (“you”) used throughout the rest of the letter. The addressees, however, reflect that Paul’s request is a public one, and the weight of Philemon’s own community is also in play.

These communities are important to the plot of the story. They function as witnesses; they represent the living community or fellowship of believers who will watch what happens. They are, in fact, a gentle peer pressure of sorts since they all share the same communion or fellowship (koinonia). Philemon is no isolated believer who receives a mere individual request. He is part of a community—both in his own home city and in other places. He is a believer in Jesus, and this means he is part of a community larger than his own household.

Reconciliation. Whatever the problem is—which is not unambiguously identified—Paul seeks to reconcile Philemon and Onesimus. Since Paul appeals to Philemon, Philemon is, apparently, the offended party. Paul recognizes some kind of debt Onesimus owes Philemon, and Paul is willing to credit this debt to his own account.

What’s at stake is communion or fellowship (koinonia or koinonon) and mutual hospitality (or, welcoming), which lies at the heart of this new movement of believers in Jesus. Fellowship and welcome are the theological values that shape how believers treat each other, and the Philemon-Onesimus-Paul relationship becomes a case in point. Can this new community make peace within its own narrative world? Does it really believe its own story?

Moreover, reconciliation not only serves fellowship but also utility or participation in the work of God in the world. Paul desires Onesimus (whose name means “useful”) to become “useful” in Paul’s ministry. Philemon can make this happen through not only reconciliation but also missionality, that is, Philemon can send Onesimus back to Paul for the sake of ministry.

Further, Paul anticipates more than reconciliation and missional usefuleness. He does not say what that it is explicitly, but it is beyond mere peace and utility. Paul seems to think that if Philemon captures the full story, Philemon will do more than reconcile and send Onesimus back. The gospel, in essence, calls us beyond the boundaries of what is normally expected or even requested. What that might be is something we will consider in later posts.

Future

We don’t know what happened. Did Philemon welcome this letter and respond positively? Were Philemon and Onesimus reconciled? Did Onesimus return to Paul?

Paul invites himself to Philemon’s home, but did Paul ever get the opportunity to go? We don’t know if Paul ever visited Philemon or Colossae. If he is imprisoned in Ephesus, perhaps he did sometime after writing this letter and its companion, the letter to Colossae. We wonder what that reunion might have been like. Perhaps he never had the opportunity.

We don’t know what happened to Onesimus. We would like to know. Some think the Onesimus in this letter is the same as the Onesimus who was bishop of Ephesus in the early second century (see Ignatius’ letter to Ephesus, chapter 1). No one is certain, however.

Conclusion

Ultimately, from where we sit, the letter does not fill out the backstory completely. Our retelling will have to fill in some gaps—sometimes best guesses, sometimes probabilities, rarely certainties.

But that is OK. This is the nature of literature itself. Indeed, it is what we are supposed to do. We enter this world in order to see our own more clearly.

Who are we in this story? Paul, the reconciler? Philemon, the creditor? Onesimus, the debtor? What is our relationship with each other like? What is the goal? Where is the peace? Where is justice? What is the bond between us? What is the conflict? Do we believe our own story? Are we willing to live our own story, even if it costs us?

How will we live together so that faith in Jesus the Messiah is honored, communion is authentic, and shared ministry bears fruit for the sake of the reign of God in the world?

That is the real story of Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon, whatever the precise historical factors actually were. That is the story I hope to pursue in this series on Philemon.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Eating with Jesus: Only Once a Week?

September 8, 2017

We pray for daily bread, and we eat daily meals. Yet, some restrict the Lord’s Supper—the meal where we eat at the table of the Lord—to only and exclusively the first day of the week, Sunday. This restriction is a rather unique dimension of Churches of Christ. Is eating with Jesus (Matthew 26:29) restricted to only Sunday?

I think this exclusive approach is misguided. I will offer a few brief reasons. I have no intent to fully air the point here but only offer another approach, which I regard as more rooted in the story of God.

  1. Jesus himself instituted this meal as a continuation of and fulfillment of Israel’s Passover. When Jesus instituted it, it was not on a Sunday but most likely on a Thursday (though some say Wednesday). It seems rather strange that we can only do what Jesus did on Thursday when it is Sunday.
  2. The Passover celebration itself extended beyond a single day. It involved a whole week of feasting at the table of God. The Feast of the Unleavened Bread was a daily meal with God from Sabbath to Sabbath (Leviticus 23:6-8). Israel ate their feast daily throughout a whole week of celebration. It was not limited to a single day. Israel, which is renewed in the church, knew ate with God during whole weeks of celebrations.
  3. Israel ate with God regularly, even daily, throughout its history through its sacrificial system. For example, the “fellowship” (well-being or peace offerings), whether as thanksgiving offerings or vow offerings, were offered regularly, sometimes daily (Leviticus 3 & 7). Whenever anyone had a thanksgiving to offer or a vow to make, they offered a fellowship offering, which involved eating with God at the table. They were also part of the weeklong celebrations of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Feast of Tabernacles, and Feast of Pentecost (Harvest) as daily meals with God in the community of faith. When talking about the Lord’s table, Paul advised the church to “consider the people of Israel” (1 Corinthians 10:18).
  4. On the day of Pentecost when God poured out the Spirit upon the church for the renewal of Israel (as Joel 2 promised), they continued in the apostle’s teaching and in fellowship, particularly in the breaking of bread and prayers (Acts 2:42). The Jerusalem church broke bread daily (Acts 2:46); it was not simply a weekly event nor only for Sunday.
  5. When Paul guides the church in Corinth in how to eat with God at the Lord’s table in 1 Corinthians 11, he does not specify any particular time but simply says “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:26). He does not say, “as often as you do this every Sunday.” His language is “whenever you do this…” (the same meaning as the only other time this language appears in Revelation 11:6).
  6. When we break bread at the table of the Lord, we eat with Jesus who hosts the table, and we commune with the Father through the Son in the Spirit. Eating with God is a grand privilege, and there is nothing inappropriate with eating a daily meal with God.

Some restrict eating with God to Sunday because they read Acts 20:7-12 as an exclusive example that prescribes a weekly breaking of bread.

  1. On one hand, I strongly favor weekly communion. The intersection of the first day of the week, breaking bread (eating with Jesus), and the resurrection is a significant one. The first day of the week is the day of our deliverance because it is the day God raised Jesus from the dead by the Spirit. The same reason the church gathers every first day of the week is the same reason it should want to eat with Jesus every first day of the week. Eating with the living Jesus who hosts the table of the Lord is a celebration of the resurrection, and if that is so, why omit the divine ordinance God has given to the church to celebrate it when we gather on the first day of every week?
  2. On the other hand, the fact that the early church ate with Jesus every first day of the week does not mean this is the only day the church can eat with Jesus. Indeed, the Jerusalem church ate with Jesus every day (Acts 2:46).
  3. The prescriptive and restrictive use of Acts 20:7 assumes (a) the church did this every Sunday [which is not stated], (b) that action excludes any other time [this assumes that what it does not include it must exclude], (c) there are no other texts that indicate other times as well as Sunday [though Acts 2:46, in the same book of the Bible, notes another time], (d) implies a command to eat only and every first day of the week [though no such command appears anywhere in the New Testament], and (e) a hermeneutic that since Jesus commanded us to eat the Lord’s Supper Scripture must tell us exactly when to do so [thus dictating what Scripture must tell us, and if it must tell us, then we will find it].
  4. Acts 20:7 is descriptive rather than prescriptive; it is not a law. It describes what the church in Troas did but not necessarily what it had to do. It provides a good model which has theological import (the coordination of the first day of the week, resurrection, and breaking bread just like Luke 24), but it does not exclude other times when we might eat with Jesus.

The church participates in the story of Israel. Just as Israel, from its opening day assembly in Exodus 24:9-11 (“day of assembly in Deut 9:10), ate with God weekly and daily, so the church may also eat with Jesus weekly and daily.

One of my great joys is to eat with Jesus in the company of my students, home guests, and assemblies. I think we should eat with Jesus at least every week, and I enjoy it more often than that.

 


On Reading Philemon

September 7, 2017

Philemon is a brief letter with only 335 words in the Greek text, and it appears in the New Testament without any specific context. Philemon and Onesimus, the main characters in the letter’s story, are unknown elsewhere in the New Testament. Many, if not most of the details, are lost to us as readers to whom this letter appears as a stranger walking out of the fog.

But we are not totally lost.

The letter arises out of a community that confesses Jesus of Nazareth as Israel’s Messiah. This lies at the letter’s core; it is its fundamental narrative. The letter does not defend or develop this confession in terms of its content, but it assumes it, builds on it, and calls others to live within it.

That world is centered on Jesus the Messiah, who is Lord.

  • “prisoner of Jesus Christ” (v. 1)
  • “grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3)
  • “for (into, toward) Christ” (v. 6)
  • “in Christ” (v. 8).
  • “prisoner of Jesus Christ” (v. 9)
  • “in the Lord” (v. 16)
  • “in the Lord” (v. 20)
  • “in Christ” (v. 20)
  • “fellow prisoner in Christ” (v. 23)
  • “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 25).

This is a world where believers belong to Jesus, suffering as prisoners for the sake of the Messiah (3x); where believers live “in the Messiah/Lord” (4x); where grace and peace are gifts of God and Jesus the Messiah (2x); and where everything one does is oriented toward (eis) the Messiah.

The Christian narrative sees the world through the Messiah. It sees the world through grace (v. 3, 25), peace (v. 3), and love (v. 2, 4, 7, 9, 16) from which flow joy (v. 7) and encouragement (v. 7, 9) as the hearts (guts; v. 7, 12, 20) of believers are refreshed within the family of God. In this world, fellow believers are family—brothers, sisters, and children (1, 2, 7, 10, 16, 20). They are co-workers (v. 2, 24) and partners (v. 6, 17) who welcome each other (v. 17). This community is rooted in the gospel (v. 13); it is what the gospel produces. It is the fruit of the Spirit.

Whatever the exact issue or concern Paul addresses in this letter, he does so out of a narrative world centered on his conviction that Jesus is Lord, Israel’s Messiah. The God of Israel has poured out grace upon Israel, renewed peace, and saturated Israel with love.

Paul addresses a community grounded in that work of God. Paul includes the gathered people of God (ecclesia) that meets in Philemon’s (?) house among his addressees. He also sends greetings from other believers who are known to that community. Stretching from Paul’s community to Philemon’s, Paul assumes a shared life (koinonia, v. 7) rooted in familial love, mutuality, and faith.

Paul (and Timothy!) writes from a community to a community about a situation between two believers (Philemon and Onesimus). The church overhears Paul’s requests. Paul attends to the situation—whatever it is—in the context of the whole church. What may have been strictly personal becomes public because Paul assumes that the nature of the Messianic community in Christ involves the whole community when facing this particular issue (whatever it is).

Philemon, then, must respond—not as an isolated individual—but as a person who lives in the Messiah’s community; he must respond as a member of the family.

The gospel drives this; indeed, the gospel demands this (“obedience,” v. 21).

Consequently, when we read this brief letter, we enter a world that assumes a narrative about how the world is different because Jesus is Lord. And the letter says something about what a difference that makes.

The letter to Philemon is a window into the relationality and mutuality of the early Christian church, and the letter evinces what values ground that life together.


Out of the Mouth (Matthew 15:10-28)

August 23, 2017

Lesson preached at All Saints Church of Christ, Nashville, TN, on August 20, 2017 by Taylor Bonner.

Εκ του στόματος

A few years ago I was reliving my high school football glory days on the intramural flag football fields at Lubbock Christian University. This was one of my favorite events to participate in with my social club! There were crowds of fans, about ten people, who would huddle together in the blistering Lubbock wind to come watch the social clubs play. We had just finished a game one night and I was talking with one of my good friends. I do not remember what we were talking about, but I do remember that during the course of this conversation I made a vulgar joke. I do not remember what the joke was about, but what I do remember, quite plainly, was my friend calling me out. I remember my friend asking “Why did you say that?” I did not know why I said it, but I was more taken aback by the fact that I had been called out for saying something that was hurtful and wrong. I apologized to him, told him that he was entirely correct, and walked away feeling convicted. To this day I still remember him calling me out, afterwards telling me that he thinks a lot of me and has the utmost respect for me, and that it was this respect and love that caused him to confront me in the first place.

Did my friend love me in this moment? I believe my friend knew the importance of critically analyzing what comes out of our mouths, and how what comes out of our mouths reflect the nature of our hearts. To put a different way, our voices which animate and give life to our words, are signposts to who we really are. Do not get me wrong actions are important, and it is because of this that I often question the dichotomy we sometimes erect between words and actions, as if speaking or not speaking cannot be seen as an action? Jesus knew this all too well. Jesus knew the action of speech is an indicator of the content of our character.

In Matthew 15:10-20 we find Jesus fleshing this idea out. He says, “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles him.” In verse 18 and following, after Peter asks Jesus to elaborate because of Peter’s confusion, Jesus explains that the heart is the origin for that which comes out of the mouth. What comes out of the mouth, can say a lot about what is occurring in one’s innermost being. Jesus does not view speech and action as a dichotomy, I believe Jesus sees the two as intertwined, because someone can “do” the right actions; the Pharisees could observe the proper dietary restrictions and ritual cleansing that must occur prior to eating. How do they speak of others, though? How do they witness to others? Are their words burdensome to the oppressed? Jesus is concerned with the heart, who we really are.

It is indeed interesting that right after this passage we encounter the story of the Canaanite/Syro-Phoenician woman with a demon possessed daughter. A story in which I believe Jesus’ prior comments about speech come heavily into play. The identification of this woman as a gentile should not be overlooked and might provide some insight into why Jesus seemingly appears to be so callous. The identification of this woman as a Canaanite would immediately set Matthew’s Jewish audience on edge. This very specific identification would recall, for this Jewish audience, their history and story. Within this story they would remember the tremendous amount of conflict they had with the Canaanites. This group of people were viewed more or less as dogs; looked down upon because they weren’t “fully human”, they were the ones who tried to stand in direct opposition between Yahweh and his chosen people. I believe what we have here in Matthew 15:21-28 is an issue of race, an issue between Jew and Gentile. In this story we have an inferior Canaanite woman who is approaching the Son of David. Yet what comes out of this woman’s mouth is surely shocking. This gentile woman says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David…” This woman has referred to Jesus as her Lord and the Son of David, a direct identification of his royal lineage. This is hardly something a Canaanite woman juxtaposed with the Kingdom of God should have said, and yet it came out of her mouth.

Almost immediately the disciples enter into the scene. These are the disciples of the Son of David, the living Messiah! These are the ones who were with Jesus in Matthew 8 witnessing Jesus’ affirmation that the Centurion’s faith was greater than anyone he has found in Israel! What will these disciples of Jesus Christ say to this woman whose daughter is experiencing a demonic event?! They came to Jesus and implored him, “Send her away for she keeps shouting at us.” Then Jesus does something incredible, he momentarily adopts the racism of his disciples in order to allow the woman to rhetorically dismantle that very racism. I must make this clear, I am not saying Jesus is racist! What I am saying is that Jesus is bringing out the racism the disciples are operating under. Much like a wound that requires the infection to be brought forth and then cleansed, Jesus himself is exposing the infectious modus operandi of the disciples. What is particularly interesting about this story is that though Jesus brings to light this racist ideology, he will allow the gentile woman to cleanse it. It will not be Jesus who teaches the disciples in this episode; rather, it will be the crying, begging, inferior “dog” right across from them. Jesus says, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel!” I can see the disciples nodding their heads in agreement saying, “This is our Messiah. We are the chosen people, this is our inheritance, the promises of God are for us alone, go back to where you came from!” The woman begs “Lord, help me!” Jesus responds, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.” The necks of the disciples are suffering from whiplash at this point from nodding so furiously in agreement! “Yes Jesus! We are the children, she is the dog, the promises of God revealed, embodied, and actualized by you are for us alone!” Then this “inferior” woman stops the vehement nodding of heads and says, “Yes Lord, but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from the master’s table.” Even the so called dogs are rightful partakers of the kingdom of God and the promises contained therein. This woman has demonstrated that the Kingdom of God is not determined by geographic location or racial prejudices. This woman has correctly identified what the Kingdom of God and this Messiah are all about. I can picture Jesus smiling when he says, “O woman, your faith is indeed great…” What came out of her mouth? What came out of the disciple’s mouths? How did the disciples respond to this woman? What does this indicate about their hearts? Just as the woman challenged the disciple’s response to her demonic event, a response born out of racism, I believe this woman can challenge us today in our response to demonic events.

Church, our nation experienced a demonic event a little over a week ago. In response to this event we had many things coming out of our mouths. I read and heard of many pastors calling out this event for what it was, hate-filled, domestic terrorism, and a demonstration of the erroneous and devastating belief that some are better than others. Yet I also heard and read of many other things coming from the mouths of disciples. This past week I heard preachers speak of waiting, to allow time for growth to occur and work towards preparing the ground to become ripe for the harvest, as if the most bountiful yield any farmer has ever seen did not at first begin with the difficult but necessary work of plowing and tilling the hard and unprepared soil of potentiality.

I have heard it said, “be like Jesus”, as if Jesus himself did not carry harsh words and critiques towards the oppressive and burdensome religiosity of the Pharisees.

I have heard it said that we must continue to love, as if love is the antithesis of speaking out against those who are striving to strip others of not only their humanity, but also their divine right to daughtership and sonship.

These are not only wrong because they are full of fallacies, but they are wrong because they all advocate for Christians to wait. In regards to the events of last week, there can be no delay in response from the church, there must not be passivity in our voice when it comes to racism and white supremacy. If we wait, if we are passive, and if we do not raise our voice against the evils we witnessed, then we have proclaimed quite loudly who we truly are. If, in response to this event, our sermons sound more like the sermons of white pastors during the Civil Rights era advocating for passivity and waiting for a more opportune time to take action, then we, too, side with the oppressor.

So did my friend love me when he directly called me out for my vulgar joke? Did my friend love me even though I walked away feeling convicted and ashamed. Did my friend love me when he chose to say something then and there, instead of waiting for a more opportune time? My friend loved me more in that moment than anyone else who had chosen to listen to this joke and say nothing.

I have witnessed a teaching that is growing in the church. A teaching that either explicitly or implicitly identifies love as the absence of confrontation. I do not know where this teaching came from, but it certainly did not originate from the very confrontational Jesus of Nazareth revealed in the scriptures, nor did it derive from the early history of the church and its direct confrontation with many of the social norms and policies of the Roman Empire. The problem with this philosophy of love is that if you are able to define love as that space in which confrontation does not occur, love becomes incredibly safe. When love becomes incredibly safe, we as the church and disciples within the body of Christ are able to hide under a self-constructed safety net of pseudo-love. And isn’t it quite interesting whenever we speak of “love” it just so happens, it’s a curious thing really, to by chance coincide with what is politically, theologically, and financially safest for our congregations at the current moment? Love is not safe, love is not in the business of self-preservation and complacency. Christian love is a dagger cutting through our natural instincts to protect ourselves and an outright challenge towards our timidity in risking ourselves for others. And what we love, how we love, and how we respond to what is happening in our country and the domestic terrorism instigated by white supremacists will show others the contents of our hearts and with whom we really identify. So who are we Church, what are the contents of our hearts? What will we say to these events and the events that unfortunately seem as if they are bound to follow? Will we be passive, or will we love? Will we wait, or will we love? Will we be silent, or will we love? For to do nothing, to say nothing, to call for waiting instead of action is to look into the eyes of the incarnate Christ and say to him “you were wrong.” What will we say? What will come out of our mouths?