Paul's Problem and America's

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 23
September 4, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Paul had a difficult letter to write to Philemon, and today that letter about an escaped slave can provoke debate in the United States, where slavery is automatically associated with race. And while slavery is in our past, it created injustices that persist. Christians can influence the way society deals with those injustices by being a community that really displays the love of Christ.

"When the Spirit of truth comes," Jesus told his disciples, "he will guide you into all the truth."1 The apostle Paul would write to the Galatian Christians about an insight from the Spirit: "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ," he said. "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female."2

But sometimes it takes a while for Christians to grasp the full meaning of the truth that the Spirit gives.

Now Paul was sitting in prison, thinking and praying about a difficult letter that he needed to write. It would deal with a sensitive matter, and Paul wasn't sure how Philemon, the letter's recipient, would feel about the matter. The whole thing needed to be approached with some care.

During this past week, a lot of pastors have been looking at the texts suggested in the lectionary for today and wondering if it would be wise to preach on the reading from Paul's letter to Philemon. Some of them, thinking about what that letter deals with, may have said, "That's a sensitive subject. I don't want to preach about politics right now."

What's their problem? Why should there be controversy about Paul's shortest letter? At first glance, the answer isn't obvious because while the apostle was trying to be persuasive here, he apparently felt that it would be best not to come right out and demand anything of Philemon.

But if you paid attention during the reading, you noticed Paul's use of the word "slave." The man3 whom Paul was sending man back to Philemon was a fugitive slave, and Paul hoped that he would be received, "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother." This was the Roman Empire of the first century, and slavery was legal. In the view of most people of that time, Paul was sending a lost piece of Philemon's property back to its owner.

That's why this letter of Paul's can be controversial, especially today in America. Slavery has been part of our history, and a divisive part. Even though slavery was legally ended in 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment, it still has an influence on our society, and on the Christian church today .

Should we "get over it"?

At this point some of you may be thinking, "Why do we have to keep talking about this? We haven't had slavery in this country for over 150 years. Stop bringing it up and upsetting people!"

We have to be clear about one thing before going further. For us in the United States today, reference to slavery calls up thoughts about black people from Africa who were brought here against their will to be slaves. But for Paul and for Philemon, slavery wasn't primarily a racial issue. There were prejudices about people from some areas in the first century, and there were slaves of African descent as well as some from Europe and the Middle East. But you couldn't tell from the color of a someone's skin if that person was a slave, descended from slaves or never enslaved. In America today, you can make a pretty good guess about whether or not the ancestors of another citizen were slaves.

The aftereffects of slavery still affect our national debates. To justify the enslavement of Africans, white Americans had to convince themselves that black people were inferior and in some sense were even meant to be slaves . Those ideas and negative caricatures of black people continued long after the legal abolition of slavery. African-Americans had legal rights on paper, but it wasn't until a century after the Civil War that those rights began to be realities in much of the country.

The aftereffects of slavery aren't just a matter of people's attitudes. Bad things that sometimes happen when black people are stopped by police are pretty well known. And there are real economic consequences of slavery. I won't quote a lot of statistics, but a couple are worth noting. An article in Forbes magazine last year reported that at present in America, blacks on the average earn 30 percent less than whites, and black households have only one-eighth the wealth of white households.4

So if someone asks why we "can't just get over" the issue of slavery in America, the answer is that the consequences of slavery just aren't over.

Led into the truth

The issues raised by Paul's letter challenge Americans today, but they also present a challenge to the Christian church. To put it simply, "Why doesn't the Bible ever say clearly that slavery is wrong?" Why didn't Paul just tell the escaped slave that he was a free man?

As we saw earlier, Paul wrote that "there is no longer slave or free" within the Christian community. But Paul and slaves and slaveowners also lived in a Roman Empire in which slavery was legal and common. The early Christian movement was small, with no political power or influence. Attempts to abolish slavery among a large population who had never heard of Christ, let alone believed in him, would have been futile.

When the authorities in Jerusalem told the apostles to stop proclaiming Christ, Peter refused. "We must obey God rather than any human authority,"5 he said. Paul and other Christian teachers weren't ready to take that stand about slavery in the larger society. Believing that Christ would return fairly soon, it may have seemed better to focus on expanding the community in which there really was no distinction between slave and free.

When Christianity became the state religion in the fourth century, slavery continued. Christian teachers spoke of its evils, but they didn't demand its abolition.6 The teaching that there is no longer slave or free in Christ was to some extent accommodated to the ways of the world. Slavery, and serfdom, a halfway condition between being bound and being free, continued through the Middle Ages. They were not seen as really good things but as necessary evils.

That ended with European voyages of exploration and settlements in the Americas. Enslavement of Native Americans, and then of Africans transported to colonies in the "new world," became important economically. Some Christians in the United States began to say that slavery wasn't just a necessary evil but something that was actually good.

But Christians in Great Britain and the United States played a major role in the abolitionist movement to end slavery, which they saw not as a "necessary" evil but simply evil. Others realized the difficulties of immediate abolition, but worked to stop the expansion of slavery and bring it gradually to an end. Slavery was ended after a terrible war. Abraham Lincoln never joined a church but was strongly influenced by the Bible. In his somber Second Inaugural Address, delivered as the war drew to a close, he spoke of God's judgment upon "the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil," and quoted from the 19th Psalm that "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."7

Preaching about politics?

Pastors are sometimes told that they shouldn't "preach about politics." That may be an appropriate warning if it means not to say, "Vote for Ms. X or against Mr. Y." But if it means not to speak about moral issues that have a political dimension, it's another matter.

Christians are not supposed to remain isolated from the rest of humanity. "You are the light of the world," Jesus told his disciples, and he went on to emphasize that that light is to "shine before others."8 We have the light to share with others because we have received it from Christ.

That light can be shared by proclaiming, "Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved."9 The message will be more convincing if Christians live and speak as though they believe it themselves. "Everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another," Jesus said.10 Love for one another means the things Paul spoke of, that there is to be no discrimination on the basis of ethnic background, economic status or gender. And letting that be part of the light we share can itself have a significant political impact.


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