Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
I started last week’s “Edit-O-Earl” with a prayer I had written last Tuesday. Many of you recently received a news release regarding the safety of our missionaries. I received on the same day a letter from some missionaries who, interestingly, are more concerned about our welfare–here in the United States–than their own.
In a beautiful example of what goes around comes around, they wrote to their many supporters and prayer warriors: “We have been in prayer for you all, just as you have prayed for us for so long. The world seems to be just erupting with evil right now…it’s hard not to wonder what the spiritual implications of all this are, as our world speeds toward the day of Jesus’ return. How much more important it is to share the Gospel with those who haven’t yet heard!”
That last line reminds me of these words from Abraham Lincoln that apply to all Americans right now: “Let us to the end dare to do our duty, as we understand it.”
My days at Concordia Seminary are long ago and far away in my memory banks. I do not remember any class on Paul’s letter to Philemon. It may interest you to know that the commonly accepted interpretation of the letter–that Onesimus was a fugitive slave and that Paul was seeking to aid him in his reconciliation with his master Philemon–was not suggested until the fourth century. Prior to that, the letter’s place in the canon of Scripture was deemed extremely questionable. Many early church leaders thought it too personal to be of any great use to the church at large.
St. John of Chrysostom first suggested the now classic interpretation. It is no small coincidence that Chrysostom used the letter to support his polemic against those who claimed their faith as an excuse to forcibly free Christian slaves from Christian masters. His interpretation was based on the single line in the letter that suggests the possibility: “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good–no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”
Some scholars wonder if that passage, coupled with four other uses of the word “brother,” might imply that there was, in fact, a direct familial tie between Philemon and Onesimus. He may have been a useless and sponging younger brother–disinherited by accident of birth-order, but lazy by choice. He may also have been the victim of misuse by Philemon–the reference to “slave” could be a judgment on Paul’s part that Philemon had not given his brother a fair shake. Onesimus may have rebelled and may even have taken money or some possession as his own parting “gift,” in retaliation against Philemon.
The latter possibility occurs whether we accept the common interpretation or the family tie idea. Paul suggested it when he wrote, “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me…I will pay it back.”
The heart of the letter remains intact, regardless of the interpretation we prefer. It is a letter filled with tact, a masterpiece of delicate diplomacy, but it is far more a wonderful example of Christian love in action. Whether Philemon is a runaway slave, a criminal in the society–guilty of a capital offense–or a runaway relative, in some ways more difficult to forgive, Paul openly and bluntly expects Philemon to forgive him. But Paul’s masterful literary skills pale in comparison to his faith.
The Apostle notes that his position in the church provides him the authority to command obedience from Philemon, but he does not do that. Instead, Paul appeals to him “on the basis of love.” Paul’s literary genius can be hidden from us unless we know that words used throughout the letter, “useless,” “useful,” “benefit,” or in some translations “profit,” all play on the translation of the name Onesimus. But there is nothing hidden about Paul’s love for Onesimus and Philemon and their entire household. Nor is there anything hidden about the Apostle’s clear and concise appeal.
He could order Philemon to do his duty, but instead he elevates that response from a drudgery of duty to an act of love–a loving obligation, a fulfilling of duty in the joyous spirit of the Gospel. Charles Kingsley spoke of two freedoms: the false where a person is free to do what he or she likes, and the true where a person is free to do what he or she ought.
Philemon and Onesimus share a role in life. Paul notes that they are both encouragers. He wrote to Philemon: “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.” He says of Onesimus, “I am sending him–who is my very heart–back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the Gospel.” Paul says that Onesimus has been encouraging him in prison, just as Philemon had done before. In fact, he says that Onesimus took the place of Philemon in doing that.
Leonard Sweet wrote: “Ultimately, what Paul desires of these two men–both of whom have shown the ability to uplift and encourage Paul in his ministry–is that they now join their gifts together, enabling Paul to ‘refresh my heart in Christ.'” If I were Paul, and I knew you personally, is there any obligation of love, any Christian duty that I might urge you to do, whereby you could refresh my heart in Christ? Do recent events press to your mind the urgency to tell the Good News about Jesus to every person in every language and corner of the world? Then, “Let us to the end dare to do our duty, as we understand it.”
Contemporary Christians prefer words that have less punch than obligation or duty. One of the things that make some TV and radio evangelists popular is that they make faith and religion seem amusing and easy.
If you read this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, you will see that Jesus would have blown His Nielsen ratings with that sermon. In a far-ranging study of American television called, Amusing Ourselves To Death, Neil Postman included religious broadcasting in his work, and noted: “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another religion altogether.”
I don’t know much about Postman, but I wonder if he understands what the serious demands of Christianity actually entail. Many people confuse those demands with the price of their ticket into Paradise. Those who do that are mistaken. The priceless ticket could never be bought by anything we say or do. It is given to us by the grace of God, but its price is the very costly life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The demands of faithfulness are the joyous obligations of love–to love as we have been loved, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to serve as we have been served. The Letter to Philemon might add that we are to encourage as we have been encouraged.
Do you know the marvelous story behind the lovely old ballad, “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms”? Thomas Moore wrote the words and the music after his wife’s beautiful face had been disfigured by smallpox. It was then that he sang it to her:
Let thy loveliness fade as it will.
And around the dear ruin each wish of my heart
Would entwine itself verdantly still.
The poet’s love for his wife obliged him to show it in the way his poetic talent could. In that sense he had an obligation to fulfill, a duty to perform. And as Phillips Brooks said, “Duty makes us do things well, but Love makes us do them beautifully.”