It’s a painful reality that Christians have, in some instances, been on the wrong side of history when it comes to issues of injustice and oppression. Is that a right representation of Christianity? Is that a reflection of what the Christian faith is all about? The New Testament book of Philemon suggests otherwise. Watch this sermon as we consider a lesser recognized contrasting reality: That the most powerful critique of oppression actually has a Christian source.

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    An increasing number of people today believe that Christianity is harmful rather than beneficial to society. And therefore the first question that a skeptic might ask is not necessarily “Is Christianity true?” but “Is Christianity good?” Because if a person isn't convinced that Christianity is, in fact, good, there's no point in exploring whether or not it's true. That changes things for someone in my position. In addition to trying to show you that Christianity is in fact true and that there are good reasons to believe, I also have to help you see that Christianity is good — so good that you should want it to be true, even if you have your doubts.

    Accordingly, we're in the midst of a sermon series in which we are considering some of the common contemporary challenges to the Christian faith in order to figure out if Christianity is, in fact, good for you and good for the world. The question that I'd like to take up today is “Is Christianity oppressive?” Is Christianity an oppressive force in history?

    For starters, we have to admit to our shame that Christianity at times in the past has been used as a tool of oppression. It's not hard to point out some of the glaring failures of the Christian church when it comes to issues like slavery or segregation. It took the church far too long to catch on and to follow through with what the Bible actually says, and in far too many cases, people deliberately misuse the Bible in order to justify the enslavement or the mistreatment of others. As Christians we have to own the complicity of the Christian church in some of these evils.

    Thankfully, there's more to the story than is often recognized, because by contrast, renewal movements within Christianity also fueled the effort to correct those very same injustices. What people often don't realize is that the most powerful critique of oppression has a Christian source.

    In response to the question “Is Christianity oppressive?” I'd like us to explore the Apostle Paul's letter to Philemon. This little letter is only 335 words long. It's a short little letter, and yet it is a small masterpiece. It is truly revolutionary. To help you see why, I'm going to give you a little thought exercise. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright asks us to imagine that this little letter, the letter to Philemon, is the only document that we have from early Christianity. Assume that we don't have the gospels. Assume we don't have any of Paul's letters to the Romans or the Corinthians. Assume there is no book of Revelation. All we have is this 335-word letter from Paul's personal correspondence. Wright suggests that even so, if this is the only letter we had, we would know that something radically transformative had happened in the ancient world that fundamentally changed the way that people lived, interacted with one another, viewed each other and the world around them. That would force us to ask the question, “What happened?” What changed their lives so dramatically, and how do we account for this? Let's find out. 

    Let's take a look at Paul's letter, and as we do, I'd like us to consider three things: 1) the plea of Paul's letter, 2) the paradigm of Paul's letter, and 3) the power of Paul's letter.

    8Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—

    10I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.

    13I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

    17So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.

    19I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.

    21Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

    The Plea

    First, let's begin with the plea. What exactly is Paul asking of Philemon in this letter? What is his appeal? To answer that question, we need to understand who the various players are in this little drama. On the one hand, there's Philemon, who was a man of wealth and status and he ran a considerable estate. He had a large household. One way or another, he became a Christian through the ministry of Paul. It had a profound impact on him. In verse 19, Paul can say, “You owe your faith, you owe your life to me.” Philemon becomes a brother in Christ. But more than that, he becomes a partner in the work of the gospel together with Paul. He takes his large estate and he opens up his home and turns it into a house church. Philemon is a little bit like a Community Group leader. (By the way, we need more Community Group leaders, so if you're interested in hosting a little house church of your own, please reach out to Lauren Brown). Philemon becomes something of a house church leader.

    Like every other well-to-do member of ancient society, Philemon owned slaves. At the outset, we have to recognize that slavery in the ancient world was not the same thing as slavery in the new world context. It wasn't like chattel slavery. People weren't treated like property. People also weren't necessarily enslaved for life. Slavery in the ancient world was not race based. It didn't have anything to do with colonialism or imperialism. In fact, anyone could become a slave. If you've seen the movie “Gladiator” featuring Russell Crowe, you know that anybody could become a slave. If you were on the wrong side of a war or a bad business deal, if you were captured on the battlefield, or if you simply fell into debt, you could be sold into slavery. Philemon becomes a Christian, he owns a large estate, and he owns slaves.

    In that context, he owned one slave named Onesimus, who apparently had run away. We don't know much about Onesimus, but in verse 18, Paul suggests that he might have stolen money from Philemon. He might have wronged him in other ways, because Paul says, “If he has wronged you at all … charge that to my account.” Onesimus runs away. He presumably hides in a big, large city. Eventually he perhaps finds himself in a tight spot and reaches out to Paul for help. It's possible that he knew of the apostle Paul because Philemon had spoken fondly of him, and he thought maybe Paul could help him in his plight. We don't know. All we know for certain is that Onesimus has become a Christian as well through the ministry of Paul. Paul refers to Onesimus as his child in verse 10 and refers to himself as his spiritual father.

    What's the purpose of this letter? Why does Paul write this letter to Philemon? Both Onesimus and Philemon had become profoundly important to Paul, and now he's going to ask both of them to do something risky, to do something dangerous, to do something absolutely unprecedented.

    For starters, Paul asks Onesimus to go back. He asks Onesimus to go back to Philemon. In verse 12 he says to Philemon, “I'm sending him back to you, and with that I am sending my very own heart. That's how much he means to me.” That's not an easy thing to do. Given the way that fugitives or runaway slaves were treated, it's very likely that Onesimus thought that he would be treated severely or maybe even killed. But Onesimus is not the only one who's being asked to do something hard.

    What I'd like us to do is to look more carefully at Paul's plea, and we can break it down into three parts. First, Paul appeals to Philemon to receive Onesimus back, not as a slave but as a brother. Beginning in verse 15, he says, “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother.” Rarely do we know all the reasons why certain things happen to us in life. But Paul is helping Philemon trace the fingerprints over Philemon’s circumstances. He says perhaps this is why this all happened. Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, but not as a slave but rather as a brother. By receiving the gospel, both of them now have undergone a transformation that is radically life-changing. Despite the difference in their backgrounds and positions in life, Philemon and Onesimus now belong to the same family. The moment that God adopts you as his son or daughter, he makes us brothers and sisters with one another. He's telling Philemon that you must now treat Onesimus as your brother. You must treat him as your equal. In verse 17 he goes on to say, “Receive him as you would receive me.” Treat him not only as your brother, treat him not only as your equal, but treat him as if he were the Apostle Paul himself, so that when Onesimus shows up at your door, receive him as if it were Paul standing there.

    Here's the second part of his appeal. Paul's not only asking Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother, but he's also asking Philemon to then send Onesimus back to Paul to help him in his ministry, because it's not just Philemon who's now become a partner in the work of the gospel, so has Onesimus. Onesimus has become very useful to Paul in his ministry, even while Paul is in prison. There's an irony here. The name Onesimus literally means “useful.” But in verse 11, Paul acknowledges that Onesimus was not all that useful to Philemon. In fact, he was pretty helpless. “Useful” had become useless. But now the gospel has produced a radical change, and Onesimus, the one who had been useless, has now become useful in the ministry. So Paul says in verse 13 that he would be glad to keep Onesimus with him, but he refuses to force Philemon's hand by compulsion because the gospel motivates us not by duty but by delight. He refuses to command Philemon to do something. Paul uses the same powers of persuasion in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, for example, when he appeals to the Corinthians to make a financial gift. He is asking them to give generously, to give sacrificially, but he's not going to command anyone to do so. Rather he asks all of us to give in response to the grace that we have received in and through Jesus. He asked that Philemon would send Onesimus back to Paul, but to do so freely — not out of duty or obligation, but rather out of gratitude and joy for what we've already seen in and through Christ.

    But that brings us to the third part of this appeal. Here's the kicker. When Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother and then to send him back to join Paul in his ministry, that can only mean one thing. He's telling Philemon, without stating it explicitly, “You must set him free.” You must give him his freedom. Without question, that is what Paul has in mind when he says in verse 21, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” This is subtle, which is why it's so easy to miss, and yet it is unmistakable. That is what makes this little 335-word letter so revolutionary. Slavery was a fact of life in the ancient world. It was simply taken for granted. People depended upon the institution of slavery in the same way that we depend upon electricity today. We couldn't imagine a world without it. No one ever called it into question until Paul. No one called it into question until Paul. There's nothing like this in ancient literature. You could read the letters of others, like the Roman governor Pliny the Younger. There is no letter like this. Paul introduces something truly unique, truly new, truly revolutionary in this short little letter.

    The Paradigm

    Let me turn then from the plea of Paul's letter to the paradigm of Paul's letter. If that is what Paul asks, we have to consider why he asks it. What's motivating Paul? What's the paradigm that he's operating out of? The answer is simple. The answer is the gospel. First, there's Philemon. He owes his life to Paul. Paul says in verse 19, “to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” Philemon never would have become a Christian, never would have become the person that he has grown into being apart from Paul's effect and ministry on his life. Then there's Onesimus. Onesimus could equally say that Paul stuck out his neck for me. Paul put it all on the line for me. Paul was willing to cash in all of his chips for me in order to secure my freedom. Paul gave me a new lease on life, because Paul literally offers to pay all of Onesimus’ debts.

    Look more closely at verse 18. Paul writes, “If [Onesimus] has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” If he's wronged you in any way, if there are any debts outstanding, charge it to my account, count it to me, and reckon it to me. This is the exact same word that Paul uses in Romans 4 when he says that God counts us, reckons us, charges us as righteous in God's sight, but only through the righteousness of Christ that is counted to us. It's the same word he uses in Romans 6 when he says, “Count yourself, dead to sin and alive to God, as a result of your union with Jesus.” This is the very heart of the gospel: Jesus became sin with our sin so that we might become righteous with his righteousness. Our sin is charged to Jesus so that his righteousness might be charged to us, so that we might be reconciled in our relationship with God.

    Paul goes on to write then in verse 19, “ I, Paul, write this with my own hand.” You can imagine him taking a pen and then writing out his own personal “I owe you.” Whatever Onesimus stole from you, whatever outstanding damages may exist, charge it to my account. I will repay. Let all of his debts fall on me, so that he may be set free. What would motivate Paul to act in such a radical and bold and dramatic way? The only answer is the gospel.

    What Paul is doing here is, he's not preaching the cross; he's doing the cross. Paul, in effect, is standing in the middle between Philemon on the one hand and Onesimus on the other to serve as a mediator. He says to Philemon, whatever it is that Onesimus has done, receive him as if he were me. Paul's enacting the gospel, following in the footsteps of Jesus, because what has Jesus done for us? He stands in the middle as the mediator in order to reach out to us with one arm and to reach out to God the Father with the other in order to bring us together.

    You could imagine Jesus saying to his father on behalf of any one of us — I'll use myself as an example — he could say to his father, “Father, receive Jason as if he were me, as if he had lived the perfect life that I have lived, as if he already died the death that I died for all of his debts and sins, as if he already rose to new life together with me. Receive him as if He were me. Whatever debts he's incurred against you, whatever outstanding damages may exist, charge them to my account. Count him innocent by counting me guilty, so that when you see Jason outside your door, receive him as if it were Jesus standing there.”

    This is the very heart of the gospel. Paul, through this encounter with Philemon and Onesimus, is not preaching the cross; he's doing the cross. He's not merely experiencing the gospel; he's enacting the gospel. As much as Onesimus could say, “Paul loved me, and gave himself for me,” so we have even more reason to say, “Jesus loved me, and gave himself for me, and that's why I will give myself away in sacrificial service to others.”

    The Power

    Let's close by considering some of the implications of this, especially in light of that question, “Is Christianity oppressive?” Let's turn now from the plea and the paradigm to the power of Paul's letter. There's no question that Paul is appealing to Philemon to set Onesimus free of his own accord. But still, many people who read the New Testament are disappointed. They're disappointed because Paul doesn't take a more aggressive stance against slavery. It's true: Paul doesn't come across as an out and out abolitionist here. He's not calling for the end of the institution of slavery throughout the Roman Empire. But we have to remember that Paul was the leader of just a tiny little band of Jesus followers, marginalized and disempowered, scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, and sometimes persecuted. They had zero power or influence. The earliest Christians never dreamt that they could ever change the societal structures of the entire Roman Empire. That thought never would have crossed their mind. Who are we? What could we possibly do? And yet while that may be the case, this letter makes clear that these early Christians refused to follow the patterns of this world. Instead, they founded new communities throughout the Mediterranean that were shaped by a different story — the story of the gospel.

    As we consider this letter to Philemon, the real question that we should be asking ourselves is, what is this little letter doing here? What is this little letter doing in the Bible? This 335-word letter is nothing like Paul's other Epistles, like his letter to the Romans or his letter to the Ephesians. This isn't a theological treatise. This is just a short little note from Paul's personal correspondence. This is a postcard by comparison. So what is it doing here?

    The point is that this letter was directed to Philemon, but it was addressed to the whole church. From the very beginning, this little letter from Paul's personal correspondence was included in the New Testament because this letter was meant to shape the life of the Christian Church forever. Even though Paul doesn't broadcast some appeal to bring the institution of slavery to an end across the Roman Empire, he writes this little letter which he knows will be sent to not only this specific house church, but it'll be circulated among all the churches, and slowly by slowly, it will change the world.

    This is the way that Dick Lucas, the one-time rector of St. Helen’s Church in London put it. He says,

    “If this perspective is correct, the narrowness of Paul’s aim becomes of fascinating significance. A burning appeal to an unknown house church is his way to begin to change the world! It is decidedly less impressive than a grand pronouncement of an ideal to a wider audience. But long after such rhetoric would be forgotten (and its life is conspicuously short), the influence of a letter like this would spread from life to life and from group to group, wherever its inhabitants journeyed.”

    Slavery was ubiquitous in the ancient world. It was simply taken for granted. Where did we get the idea that it was wrong? Following the thinking of Paul in this letter to Philemon, the bishop Gregory of Nyssa, in the fourth century, became the first person in the ancient world to call the very institution of slavery in all its forms intrinsically evil. Why is that? Because he wrote, “Human beings are created in the image of God. And you simply cannot put a price tag on existence, and therefore every human life without exception is priceless.”

    This may seem at first glance like an innocuous letter, until you realize its revolutionary impact. As Christianity spread and its influence expanded through these small little communities of Christians, it created an atmosphere where eventually the institution of slavery would wither and die. It was the ethic of Christianity that the gospel put into action that created an environment where eventually the words of someone like William Wilberforce, or the words of someone like Frederick Douglass, or the words of someone like Abraham Lincoln would not fall on deaf ears. But rather, it would resonate, because people had been so steeped in the story of the Scriptures.

    As one other author put it, Paul, writing in the middle of the first century, was not in any kind of position to burn down the institution of slavery in the Roman Empire. Paul did not have a flamethrower at his disposal. But you know what he had? He had a match. With that match, he lit a spark that ignited a movement that eventually took over the whole world.

    To return to the question with which we began, is Christianity oppressive? Far from it. Christianity is the only religion in the world that gives us a non-comparative basis for our self-worth. You can't put a price tag on existence, therefore every human being is priceless. That truth enables us to reject the impulse to oppress anyone in order to prop up our own ego or to take advantage of others for our own selfish gain. To the contrary, the more that we experience the gospel of Jesus, the more that we enact the gospel of Jesus in our words and in our actions, we don't merely preach the cross; we do the cross by sacrificially serving those around us, not out of duty or obligation, not by compulsion, but motivated by gratitude and joy because of what Jesus has first done for us.

    Onesimus could say that Paul loved me and gave himself for me, but we have even more reason to say that Jesus loved me and gave himself for me, and therefore I will give myself away in service to others. That dramatic, radical kind of love will heal and change the world. That's the kind of love that we celebrate at this table. That's the love that we sing of in our beloved carol.

    “Truly he taught us to love one another; 

    His law is love and his gospel is peace. 

    Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother, 

    And in his name all oppression shall cease.”

    Let me pray for us.

    Father, it would be so easy for us to skip over this little letter of personal correspondence, this postcard from the Apostle Paul. Yet help us to see that the appeal contained within it and the paradigm that it models is the power of the gospel. The gospel is not an oppressive force. No, it is a liberating one. Help us to claim that power for ourselves to be transformed by it and to extend it out into the world as an expression of your grace. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.