The Christian is perfectly free, lord of all, subject to none; the Christian is perfectly bound, servant of all, subject to all. So said Luther in his writing On the Liberty of the Christian in 1521. Perfectly free before God through faith in Christ; perfectly bound before the neighbor through love.
That pretty much summarizes St. Paul’s little letter to Philemon. It isn’t often that we get a whole book of the Bible as a text, and so you can leave here this morning saying you heard a sermon on an entire book. The epistles are sermons, of sorts, intended to be read aloud in the churches to which they are sent. Even this one, though it’s written to a man named Philemon, it is also addressed “to the church that meets in your home.” Congregations gathered in the living room of wealthy patrons; it saved the bother of property issues.
Here’s the back story. Paul is in prison somewhere, Rome or Ephesus most likely. Timothy is with him. And he gets a visitor named Onesimus, whose name means “useful.” Onesimus is a slave in the household of Philemon, who lives in Collosae. Apparently, Onesimus plucked some money from Philemon’s wallet, bolted to freedom, and landed on Paul’s prison doorstep. While he was with Paul, Onesimus came to faith in Jesus, likely through conversations with Paul who claims Onesimus as “his son.” And now Paul is writing Philemon, urging him to take back his runaway slave and receive him as a brother in Christ and not punish him. Under Roman law, Onesimus could have been put to death. And so back Onesimus goes to his master with Paul’s letter in hand.
The slave returns to his master a free man in Christ; and his master is bound as a brother in Christ to receive and forgive him.
Paul begins by thanking God for Philemon’s faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and his love for all the saints. Faith and love go together, as James put is, like a body and breath. A body without breath is dead; faith without love is dead. And a bodiless breath is about as senseless as faithless love. What God joins together, let man not separate. Like two sides of one coin – faith and love. In the same writing I referred to, Luther said that the Christian lives entirely outside of himself – through faith he lives in Christ, through love he lives in his neighbor. We pray the same thing after receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, that these gifts would strengthen us in “faith toward Thee and in fervent love for one another.” We are in communion both with Christ and with each other, body- and blood-brothers and sisters. The same body and blood that goes into you also goes into those around you; and that changes everything about how we treat one another.
Philemon’s faith in Christ resulted in love for others. He opened his home for a congregation to worship there. He supported Paul in his efforts and sent gifts to him in prison. “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, borther, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.” There is a light-heartedness here, and throughout the letter. Though the matter is serious, the tone is friendly and playful – friends in Christ working through a difficult situation and not getting dragged into the oh-so-serious games we like to play with each other.
This is how free people deal with one another – in all truth and honesty, but also with a playful love that recognizes we are fellow servants of one Master, that we are justified sinners before God, that we, in ourselves, do not have a leg to stand on and the law condemns us as surely as Roman law would have condemned Onesimus for running away and stealing from his master.
We are all baptized into one Baptism. We are all given the same Spirit. We all receive the same forgiveness, the same Body and Blood. Though we have different callings and different gifts, we are all priests to God in the one royal priesthood of Jesus Christ. And we are free men and women. Free from the condemnation of the law against our sin. Free from the threats of hell and damnation. Free the way the good Samaritan was free, unlike the priest and Levite who were bound by the law, free to stoop down in the ditch and be neighbor to whomever God puts in our path, free to forgive the brother who has wronged us and receive him again.
I like the way Paul says this. “I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you.” Isn’t that something? Paul could have flexed his apostolic authority and ordered Philemon to take back Onesimus. But then, what good would that have done? Obedience out of fear is not the same as obedience out of love. You parents know that. Which do you prefer? That your children obey you out of fear or out of love? Because you say so, or because they want to do it? Oh, I know you’re happy simply if they obey period, and things are always a mixed bag of fear and love, as the Catechism reminds us. But the way of free men and women in Christ, the way of those who have died and whose life is hidden in Christ, is the way of love.
This love is patient, kind, not envious, boastful, or proud. It isn’t rude or self-seeking. It isn’t angered easily; it doesn’t keep a record of wrongs; it doesn’t delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perserveres.
Just listening to that list, you know that kind of love is not something you can wind up in yourselves. That’s a love that flows from God to you in Christ through faith. Love to the loveless that they might lovely and loving be. Jesus made is a “new commandment” – “Love one another, as I have loved you.” The old commandment simply said, “Love one another. Love your neighbor as yourself.” Presuming you even love yourself. But the new commandment takes the “self” out of the picture: Love one another as I, Jesus, have loved you. His love to us comes first; then it flows through us to others.
It’s all well and good in the abstract. Easier said than done, we say, (though you have to say it.) This love takes concrete shape. For Philemon, it meant forgiving a slave who had stolen from him, and receiving him back into the household, not only as a servant for life, but as a brother in Christ. The slave comes home a free man; the free man, his master, is bound in love as a servant. A tall order, you say. Not so tall when it stands under the cross of Jesus, who though Lord of all became Servant of all to suffer and die to save all.
Paul writes to Philemon, “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will.” Not out of necessity but willingly. We speak of “free will” offerings. Things given freely, gladly, out of love not by way of command or necessity. It’s an exercise of true liberty, of genuine freedom. Paul could have ordered Philemon with all the weight of apostolic authority behind him, but that wouldn’t have been love. Paul could have kept Onesimus as one of his assistants, but then where would the opportunity for love demonstrated and lived be for Philemon?
Paul is confident in Philemon’s faith-wrought love. He even writes his “thank you in advance for your cooperation” and tells Philemon that if Onesimus owes anything to “charge it to my account,” promising “I will repay,” of course, reminding Philemon, with tongue in cheek, of all that he owes Paul. Free men simply don’t keep books on each other; just as God in Jesus doesn’t keep books on us. “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.” This isn’t a matter of who owes whom what. We are all beggars.
The slave runs away from his master with a pocketful of stolen cash and becomes a disciple of Jesus. And as a free man in Christ, he returns to his master with Paul’s letter in hand, to be received as a brother and a member of the household.
The servant is free to serve his master in love; and the master is bound in love to forgive his servant and receive him as a brother. The useless runaway becomes the useful brother.
The wonders never cease under the cross of Jesus. The Lord grant you such faith in Christ and such fervent love for one another.
In the name of Jesus,