The following sermon was preached in St. Matthew’s Riverdale on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013.
Philemon 1-25; Luke 14.25-33
“I am praying that the mutual participation which is proper to the Christian faith you hold may have its full effect in your realization of every good thing that God wants to accomplish in us to lead us into the fullness of Christian fellowship, that is, of Christ,” (v6, N.T. Wright’s translation)
I speak to you in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I confess that I love getting asked if I have any advice to give a soon-to-be-wed couple. I have an answer prepared well in advance. It’s the same answer I’ve given everyone who has ever asked (though granted, that is not a very large population). In fact, I recall giving the same advice to Christina’s sister and her now husband, much to Christina’s dismay. The answer, which I stole from a contemporary theologian, is this: “You never marry the right person.” It can be put positively as well: “You’ll always marry the wrong person.” The point, of course, is that no one really knows what they’re doing when they get up in front of a church full of people and say, “I do.” Who could ever know what they were doing when they promised life-long monogamous fidelity? I mean, we think we know what we’re doing, most often we’re convinced that we’ve fallen in-love (how silly!). This is why there are witnesses at weddings. So that when we inevitably reach the point when we realize that we made a promise when we had no idea what we were doing, there are people that can hold us to it. Marriage constrains us, it binds us to another and to a whole group of folks.
By way of introduction, Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s letters and one which, along with Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, he wrote while in prison in Ephesus. The letter is addressed primarily to, “Philemon our dear friend and co-worker,” (1). It appears from reading the letter that Onesimus was a run-away slave from Philemon’s household. He may have even taken some money with him as he went, to sustain him on the journey. Whatever the case, he ended up, whether by his own planning or by the sheer providence of God, meeting Paul and becoming a Christian. Paul is now faced with two estranged Christians, both of whom, under God, owe their faith to Paul. So, what now? What does the gospel have to say to a world and a church, to families and friendships that are often divided and fragmented? In Colossians, which was composed during the same prison stint as Philemon, Paul wrote: “He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross,” (1.18-20). Elsewhere, in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” (5.17-21). So then, if the gospel that both Philemon and Onesimus have embraced is this message of reconciliation then it must be able to bring together slave and free as it did Jew and Greek, or male and female. Here, in this situation, Paul seeks the particularly Christian virtue of loving forgiveness, which makes demands on both parties – Onesimus to seek forgiveness, Philemon to grant it. And the thing which will inspire both parties to do this is a theological fact, namely the koinonia which belongs to the people of God (N.T. Wright).
This theme of koinonia shows up twice in Philemon, once in verse 6 rendered “sharing” and once in verse 17 rendered “partner”, yet it is the main theological point of the letter. Let us focus on verse 6 for a moment this morning. The NRSV translates the first half of 6 this way: “I pray that the sharing of your faith…”. The NIV translates it, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith…”. These translations somewhat misconstrue what Paul is really saying here. Paul is not talking primarily about evangelism, the sharing of ones faith. Actually, the TNIV (Today’s New International Version), which isn’t typically a go-to translation for me anyways, did a much better job. They translated the verse: “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith…”. Koinonia cannot mean “sharing” in the sense of dividing something up or parcelling it out. Rather, the key idea is “mutual participation”. It carries connotations of a business partnership, or a marriage even, which links Paul, Philemon, and the others. They are in this together, sharing a joint project, and this requires that they be prepared to stand loyally side by side. This is the partnership that comes along with our faith – when people believe the gospel, they are brought into that partnership with all others who believe it. Allow me to say that again: to trust Jesus, to follow him, is to be brought into partnership with everyone else who believes the gospel. This is really important and we’ll come back to it in just a moment but first let’s quickly look at how this actually works in Philemon. Paul’s prayer in verse 6 is really the driving force of whole letter. It is here revealed that Paul desires Philemon to learn in practice that koinonia means an “interchange” between those who are Christ’s. It is that mutuality of Christian life which, springing from our common participation in the body of Christ, extends beyond mere common concern into actual exchange (Wright): “If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation…for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation,” (2 Cor. 1.6-7). In the letter to Philemon, Paul begins by identifying himself closely with Philemon: “our dear friend and co-worker,” (1); “I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love,” (7); “my brother,” (7). Paul then turns and identifies himself with Onesimus: “my child…whose father I have become,” (10); “my own heart,” (12). Paul even says that Onesimus has been representing Philemon to him while he was in prison: “I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel,” (13). The result of Paul’s identification with both parties is that Philemon and Onesimus are brought together in Paul: “welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account,” (17-18); Philemon will have Onesimus back, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother,” (16). Martin Luther here saw Paul playing Christ in the drama, identifying himself with both sinner and offended party, so making peace (Wright). The result, is that the church, instead of breaking apart, grows together “into Christ” (6). Again, what we need to grasp here is that, in Christ, Christians not only belong to one another but actually become mutually identified, truly rejoicing with the happy and genuinely weeping with the sad (Rom 12.15). You and I, we are all bound together, constrained by one another, in a mutual bond that makes our much coveted individualism look shallow and petty.
And now a word on that much coveted individualism by way of returning to what I said earlier: when people believe the gospel, they are brought into partnership with all others who believe it. Christianity is never solitary, you see. It is always personal, but never private. There is no relationship between Jesus and I that does not necessarily include all of you, and the whole church. Put another way, to meet Jesus is to meet Jesus and his body. To presume that we could know Jesus apart from the church would inevitably result in a decapitation. If that sounds gruesome to you, consider that this is the central image of the relationship between Jesus and the church: Jesus is the head of the body. It is not even true to say that separate persons, Philemon and Onesimus for example, are united to Christ as separate persons and then combine to form the church; for, to paraphrase the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, to believe in Christ is to believe in One whose body is a part of himself and whose people are his own humanity. To be joined to Christ is to be joined to Christ-in-his-body. S. Paul shows us that the Christian is confronted by the one body of Christ at their conversion, and at every stage along the way in their growing knowledge of Christ. On the one hand, Saul was not converted by a solitary Jesus. The voice on the road to Damascus, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” declares that the disciples are his own risen humanity in whom he suffers. The moment therefore that Saul turns to Christ he turns to the fact of the body of Christ (Ramsey). And because faith is never a solitary relationship with a solitary Christ, our act of faith, releases us from self and brings us into dependence upon our neighbours in Christ. Similarly, a Christian’s growth in Christ is a part of the growth of the one body and all its members. Our knowledge of Christ grows, as the one body grows by the proper working of all its parts, and as Christ is made complete in all his saints. Therefore, the Christian can never escape from the church; it is a part of his/her own existence since it is a part of Christ himself. Without the church the Christian does not grow. There is no getting around this fact, you and I are constrained by one another in the faith that we share. Constrained! We cannot grow in Christ apart from one another.
We’ve focused thus far on the first half of verse 6. Let us end by turning our attention to the latter half. So, we have this common faith that we share which binds us to one another, which constrains us and makes us partners. Paul’s prayer is that this partnership, this mutual interchange, this koinonia, “…may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share in Christ.” First, this “understanding” or “knowledge” is not merely head knowledge, an intellectual ascent, but an integrated and operational grasp of “every good thing”. In other words, Paul wants Philemon to have such an understanding of what God has done and is doing in Christ that it becomes apparent what he, Philemon, must do in consequence. Paul wants Philemon to be so overwhelmed by the reality that he has been reconciled to God in Christ, and thus reconciled to Onesimus, that Philemon will joyfully receive back Onesimus as a beloved brother. If Philemon will allow the reality of his mutual participation with Onesimus in the faith to inform his thinking and living, then the right results (i.e. reconciliation) will follow. Paul’s prayer in verse 6 literally ends with the phrase, “unto Christ.” I would agree with the likes of N.T. Wright who sees here a reference to the growth of the church towards a full and mature life “in Christ”. In other words, Paul’s desire is that the theological fact of mutual participation, enjoyed by Philemon and his fellow Christians, will result in the full unity of the body of Christ. Our life is meant to grow deeper in love, deeper into Christ, and this happens only when we realize that we are constrained by one another in Christ because we share one baptism and one faith (Eph. 4.5). In the same way, my prayer for us here at St. Matthew’s, and for the Anglican Church of Canada, and for the whole body of Christ, is that our knowledge of what God has done for us in Christ, how he has reconciled us to Himself and to one another, that our knowledge of this would so deepen that we would respond to the invitation to work out the proper conclusions of this theological fact in our life together, willingly, out of love for one another.
I began this morning by talking about marriage, and how foolish is the idea that we fall in love and get married. For these reasons, we do not know how to think about marriage today, and for similar reasons we do not know how to think about the church much either. Marriage names the life-long commitment that people by being faithful to one another can look back over their years together and call it love (Hauerwas). Love, in the context of marriage, is not first and foremost something one might feel or not feel, depending on the week. It would be a mistake to think of the sort of love that marriage makes manifest as something which one can fall in or out of. Rather, love is what a couple sees when they look back over their life-long commitment of faithfulness to one another. That is to say, love is the actual act of sticking together. Love is the concrete action of my giving myself to my wife in faithful commitment. The love lies in our being bound to one another, our being partners, our being constrained in some fashion by the other, rather than trying to constrain the other. And doing all of this willingly. In our reading from Luke this morning, Jesus warns his would-be followers to count the cost of being his disciples: “Your whole life, becomes mine,” he says. Tell me, who knows this when they first begin to follow Jesus? I did not. Who can know the demands made of a disciple of the risen Jesus? To die. Thus, we may be tempted, when things get difficult, to think we’ve simply fallen out of love with Jesus and our partners in the faith. This is why there are witnesses at a baptism. So that when we inevitably come to the point when we realize that we didn’t know what we were doing when we made all of those promises to Jesus and his body there are people who can hold us to what they heard us say. May our hearts and minds be captured by all that God has done for us and in us, all of us, in Christ. May we realize that it is love that binds us to Jesus and at the very same time to one another. May our common sharing of the one faith, form in us a fitting and good life, so that together we may grow into the fullness of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.