Lectionary texts For this Sunday, September 8 proper 18(23), juxtaposes Philemon with Jesus’ hard sayings about hating family and life, taking up the cross, and giving up possessions.
More to the point the juxtaposition comes from the story we are able to tease out from this short Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the leaders of a church, a church that meets in the house of Philemon and his wife Apphia. Philemon and Apphia are clearly wealthy, they have property. There may be many ways to see this. The Gospel has penetrated these wealthy citizens of the Roman Empire. They, at some risk to themselves and their property, hold and lead an unprotected (in the least) alternative religious cult in their home. The Gospel and even Jesus’ saying in Luke may have been interpreted by them as being fulfilled in this risk and this hospitality.
But something is a little odd: Philemon owns slaves. A Christian leader of a church under Paul’s jurisdiction to whom the gospel has come and who says “Jesus is Lord”, in defiance of empire, still has slaves. There’s a contradiction, a contradiction Paul in sending a runaway slave Onesimus back to his owner, not for punishment or to remain property of Philemon, but for Philemon to give up his rights under the law, and give up his property by receiving his former slave as not only a brother in Christ, but as the Apostle himself.
This context of Philemon, I would argue is nascent Christendom. How so? An aspect of Christendom is that it is a space where society and those in the society are brought into the influence of the Gospel and the claims of the Gospel but in ways that are contradictory and which make compromises with the society brought into the influence of the Gospel. In the long view of history, eventually the Church and the Gospel suffer under the strains of these compromises and contradictions. We currently are fully aware of how Christendom fails to live up to the ideals of the Gospel and Jesus Christ’s teachings. However, what we have in the situation of Philemon is these two elements: people who have come under the influence of the Gospel and transformative power of the Kingdom of God, and compromises and contradictions that result in such initial contact.
What we see in Philemon is both the contradiction but also that the state of affairs of bringing people and a society into the realm of influence of the gospel can also allow for authentic transformation. Christendom comes into existence perhaps because the Gospel and the Kingdom of God, transform in subtle, unnoticed, and gradual ways. Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus leaders of the church in their house. Philemon and Apphia, according to tradition, not only die martyrs death under Nero, but Philemon was a bishop. Their conversion was authentic. These are Christians, followers of Jesus, and yet Philemon continues to own slaves. Furthermore, Paul is concerned for the safety and well being of the runaway slave Onesimus. Paul has no legal standing with Philemon, Paul has been harboring a criminal and stolen property. The Apostle Paul has harbored a known runaway slave and he admits to have contemplated continuing to harbor this fugitive. Paul is concerned that this leader of a church he founded would seek to act upon his legal rights in relation to his runaway slave. Instead Paul publicly (he writes not only to Philemon and Apphia but the entire church in their House), calls for Philemon’s further conversion.
My thought is that Christendom existed in the household of Philemon and Apphia. Through their conversion and through their household being the meeting place of the church, the Gospel and the Kingdom of god has influence upon their lives and thoughts and actions. Yet, it has yet to fully penetrate, most glaringly perhaps in that they still own slaves while leading a church, but also in their retaining a great deal of wealth (as would be necessary for them to maintain a house in which a church could meet). Though this also may be for Philemon and Apphia an example of how they have understood and interpreted Jesus words found in Luke about taking up the cross and giving up their possessions. They are within the realm of influence of the Kingdom of God and the Gospel but they retain elements of their society and culture that are in contradiction or at least in tension with much of the Gospel and the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth.
But there is more and this is what we who still suffer a hangover from the ultimate failure of European Christendoms fail to recognize about Christendom: the being brought into the influence of the Gospel. Through this nascent form of Christendom, Philemon is called to continual conversion. The tiny seed of the Gospel and Kingdom of God has taken root, and now the representative of this Gospel and this Kingdom, an Apostle of Jesus Christ can call for and point out the contradiction in this leader of one of his churches, a bishop, and say you have been wrong, and now see the seed of the Kingdom of God has sprouted in your slave, and in this one who was once your slave I come to you and say he isn’t property,and you are to receive him as a freed man, a brother, and as an Apostle, my own self. Paul is fretting but also confident in the slow working transformative power of the Kingdom of God and Jesus Christ.
It is not the fullness of the church, or Gospel, or Kingdom of God, but the contradictions that exist are also opportunities for conversion. Paul apparently didn’t demand that Philemon and Apphia upon their conversion give up their wealth or even ask them to give up their slaves, until this moment, when a runaway slave finds his way to Paul and Paul sends him back pointing out the contradiction and calling for conversion.
I’d argue that at some point established and enforced Christendom eventually loses this quality. Eventually it entrenches and solidifies the contradictions and then the contradictions become things members of the church seek to justify and then those who have been brought into the influence of the Gospel find ways to explain away the hard teachings of Jesus. But I think it is important to see also that the contradictions can also lead to conversion. It is important to remember that as a number of Jesus’ parables point out this quality of gradual transformation: the Gospel and the Kingdom of God, don’t demand immediate and absolute transformation. Rather God seems quite content with subtle almost entirely unnoticed under the surface work, that no one notices, like a seed that grows into a little weed that no one notices until it has taken over the entire garden. God or at least the Gospel may not be as activist and confrontational as we often try to claim it to be. But make no mistake if you are brought under its sway, you are called to change and the contradictions are a call to conversion, and you may just find that without realizing it your world has been turned upside down, and slowly your grip on the world has loosened, and you die only to find true life for all.