"A Family Matter"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 6/17/2018
“A Family Matter”
June 17, 2018
            Let’s do some time traveling this morning.  We’ll start in the English colonies of North America around the year 1700, give or take fifty years.  Missionaries from England were having a problem getting permission from slaveholders to address enslaved Africans, despite the words of King Charles II to his subjects in 1660:
“And you are to consider how such of the Natives or such as are purchased by you from other parts to be servants or slaves may best be invited to the Christian Faith, and be made capable of being baptized thereunto, it being the honor of our Crowne and the Protestant Religion that all persons in any of our Dominions should be taught the knowledge of God, and be made acquainted with the misteries of Salvation.”[1]
Planters largely ignored and occasionally outright opposed this because they believed (and so did many of their slaves) that anyone baptized would have to be set free.  So Maryland passed a law denying that belief in 1664 and by 1706 was joined by at least five other colonies.[2]
           Let’s jump back about a thousand years from there, to early medieval Ireland.  We have a letter from someone who identifies himself this way:
“I am Patrick, yes a sinner and indeed untaught; yet I am established here in Ireland where I profess myself bishop. I am certain in my heart that "all that I am," I have received from God. So I live among barbarous tribes, a stranger and exile for the love of God. He himself testifies that this is so. I never would have wanted these harsh words to spill from my mouth; I am not in the habit of speaking so sharply. Yet now I am driven by the zeal of God, Christ's truth has aroused me. I speak out too for love of my neighbors who are my only sons; for them I gave up my home country, my parents and even pushing my own life to the brink of death. If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me.”[3]
Yes, we’re talking about that Patrick: Saint Patrick, the March 17th guy, patron saint of Ireland.  He was furious with a group of Christian soldiers and I’ll let him tell you why.
“The very next day after my new converts, dressed all in white, were anointed with chrism, even as it was still gleaming upon their foreheads, they were cruelly cut down and killed by the swords of these same devilish men. At once I sent a good priest with a letter. I could trust him, for I had taught him from his boyhood. He went, accompanied by other priests, to see if we might claw something back from all the looting, most important, the baptized captives whom they had seized. Yet all they did was to laugh in our faces at the mere mention of their prisoners.”[4]
The “baptized captives” were mostly women and were considered the spoils of war, to be kept as slaves or sold as slaves.
“Because of all this, I am at a loss to know whether to weep more for those they killed or those that are captured: or indeed for these men themselves whom the devil has taken fast for his slaves. In truth, they will bind themselves alongside him in the pains of the everlasting pit: for ‘he who sins is a slave already’ and is to be called ‘son of the devil.’”[5]
Maybe Patrick was especially sensitive to their plight because he himself had been born in Britain but had been captured as a child by Irish raiders, carried off to Ireland, and held in slavery until he escaped.  What makes him a saint was that he found compassion for his captors’ souls and returned years later to share the gospel with them.
            In Patrick’s life, that’s an echo of something that had happened in Rome and in Greece about four hundred years earlier.  That is the story that we hear in the letter of Paul to Philemon.  A slave named Onesimus had run away from Philemon, who was a Christian and a slaveholder.  Somehow, Onesimus made his way to Rome and came to spend time with Paul, by that time a prisoner waiting for trial because of his faith.  Again, we don’t know all the details, but Onesimus turned to the Lord and was baptized.  Paul then took the audacious step of sending this runaway back where he’d come from, fully knowing that the usual punishment for a runaway slave was to be made a public example through some gruesome form of death – often crucifixion.  However, Paul sent a letter with him that not only asked him to be pardoned but also to be freed; and not only to be freed but to be sent back so that he could help Paul.  It went completely against the entire economic and social system of the day.  N.T. Wright says it would be like a preacher today saying, “We all know that global warming is our own fault and needs immediate attention, so please leave your cars where they are parked and never use them again.”
            Paul’s letter said this:
“I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.  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; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed [hint, hint] might be voluntary and not something forced.” [Philemon 1:12-14] 
           Now, get this.  This is why Patrick was upset that Christians would enslave Christians.  This is why the Africans who survived the horrors of being shipped to North America in chains would get the idea not only that forced servitude was a violation of their humanity but that it violated the slaveholder’s standing before God as well.  Paul said,
“Perhaps this is the reason he [Onesimus] was separated from you [Philemon] for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh [which has made some scholars think they were half-brothers, one by a slavewoman] and in the Lord.” [Philemon 1:15-16]
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we are brothers and sisters in Christ.  The way we treat each other and anyone else called by his name is how we treat our own family.  As the hymn says, albeit in somewhat dated language,
“Join hands, then, brothers of the faith,
Whate’er your race may be.
Who serves my Father as a son
Is surely kin to me.”[6]
            The gospel of Christ brings freedom and dignity to those who are at the bottom of the social scale and it calls those further up to recognize them as equals.  Time after time there have been efforts to suppress that implication, and the suppression has sometimes lasted for centuries, and sometimes it has even been put in place by law and by force, as in our own national history, but it keeps on coming back.  There is no getting around what Mary expressed in her song of praise when she learned that God was sending the Savior:
“He has shown strength with his arm;
      he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
      and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
      and sent the rich, empty, away.”  [Luke 1:51-53]
            That’s all very well, but isn’t it impossible, or at least impractical?  Ask yourself why this, of all the letters that Paul must have written, was one of those that not only survived but was held eventually to send God’s people a message for all time.  According to Frederick Buechner,
“It’s not known whether or not Philemon took the hint and let Onesimus return to be the old saint’s comfort for what time was left him, but there’s at least one good reason for believing that such was the case.  Years later, when Paul was long since dead, another saint was in jail by the name of Ignatius.  The Bishop of Ephesus had sent some friends to visit him, and Ignatius wrote to ask if a couple of them could be allowed to stay.  Ignatius in his letter used some of the same language that Paul had used in his to Philemon, almost as if he was trying to remind him of something.  And what was the name of the Bishop he wrote to?  It was Onesimus.”[7]
What can God do?  Judge for yourselves, my brothers and my sisters.

[1] Cited in Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 97.
[2] Ibid., 99.
[3] St. Patrick, “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus”, I. i., found at http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/p02.html
[4] Ibid., I. iii.
[5][5] Ibid., I. iv.
[6][ John Oxenham, “In Christ There Is No East or West”, no. 192 in The Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The Methodist Publishing House, 1964).
[7] Frederick Buechner, “Onesimus” in Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 127.
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