“ONESIMUS” – A SERMON FOR RACIAL JUSTICE SUNDAY
“No longer as a slave…but as a brother” (Philemon v.16)
from today’s appointed epistle -
the letter of Paul to Philemon, part of which we heard read earlier.
Philemon is unlike any of the other surviving letters of Paul.
others are open letters written to Churches, communities,
to be read out to all their weekly meeting or whenever.
This is a private letter to one Christian man, Philemon.
appears that Philemon had a slave called Onesimus
who ran away – maybe he also stole from Philemon –
that is not clear, but he certainly ran away.
to have made his way to Rome
(probably aiming to hide amidst the anonymity of the big city).
There he is befriended by the Apostle Paul,
and he becomes a Christians and a great helper to Paul.
– maybe a visitor from Colossae,
maybe Onesimus humself –
tells Paul that Onesimus is a runaway slave.
What does Paul do?
Paul tells Onesimus to return to his master Philemon –
taking with him a letter from Paul to his master. –
the letter which we now know as the letter to Philemon
in our New Testaments.
were a runaway slave, you didn’t return to your master lightly.
There were an estimated 60M slaves in the Roman Empire,
and the authorise felt the need to keep them under strict control.
Their human rights were effectively non existent.
A returned runaway slave could be branded on the forehead,
tortured or even crucified by his or her master with impunity.
As the transatlantic slave traders were to argue 1700 years later,
slaves were to be treated as property, not as human beings.
his letter, Paul says to Philemon –
I am sending your slave back to you –
receive him not as a slave but as a brother.
not propose (here or elsewhere)
the abolition of slavery as a political programme –
that showed him to be heartless or pragmatic,
we might wish to argue- we haven’t time to go into that now.
But what Paul does do is this – he points out that
· all people are children of God called to Christian service,
· all are equal before God who is the ruler of all,
· all need to be treated as people not as slaves or masters.
writes elsewhere (Gal 3:28):
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,
for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.
And in so
doing, he lays the foundations of a radical Gospel
critique of slavery and indeed of all discriminatory
and demeaning human relationships –
this is a lesson which has been frequently
forgotten or ignored in the succeeding centuries of human history.
It is exactly 50 years ago this week –
to be precise on 4 Sept 1957 –
that Elizabeth Ann Eckford of Little Rock, Arkansas,
set out for a new school term.
Schools in Little Rock had been segregated
for black and white pupils up until that day.
This was to be the first day of integrated education in
and Elizabeth Ann, a 15 year old Afro-American,
had a place at Central High School.
She was the first black pupil to seek entry
to what had until that date been a white only school.
As she approached the front of the building,
she was met by a huge angry mob barring her way.
Some shouted that they should lynch the nigger.
The Governor of the State had sent troops –
not to protect the new black students, but
(in defiance of the Supreme Court ruling),
to make sure that the black students could not gain admittance.
Elizabeth Ann Eckford fled back to a bus and escaped the mob.
3 weeks later, she and 8 other students
were finally able to begin their studies at the school –
but not until President Eisenhower had sent in the US army
to provide a guard to get the pupils past the hostile white crowds.
Today is Racial Justice Sunday.
recall stories such as that of Elizabeth Ann Eckford,
we confess the sins of the human race down through the centuries,
and proclaim the unity of humankind –
not as slaves one of another but as sisters and brothers together.
It is said that one day Alexander the Great
(son of the late King Philip of Macedon)
came across the philosopher Diogenes
looking intently at a pile of human bones.
“What are you looking for?” asked Alexander.
“Something which I cannot find” said the philosopher.
“And what is that?” asked Alexander.
“The difference between the bones of your father
and those of his slaves.”
Modern spiritual writer Anthony de Mello comments:
“The following are just as indistinguishable:
Catholic bones from Protestant bones.
Hindu bones from Muslim bones.
Arab bones from Israeli bones.
Russian bones from American bones.”
And then he adds, most significantly:
If you are really enlightened, you
“fail to see the difference
even when the bones are clothed in flesh.”
(William Dych, “Anthony de Mello: Writings” Orbis 1999 p.17)
look at the inner man and woman and see our brother and sister?
Or do our eyes fail to get beyond the outer signs and signals
of one class, nation or creed against another?
This week the people of Liverpool
have been coming to terms with the death
of 11 year old Everton supporter Rhys Jones,
whose funeral was on Friday in Liverpool Cathedral.
Maybe like me you have to have lived in a city like Liverpool
to understand how important football
is to many people’s identity there.
When I was a Minister in Penny Lane,
I certainly conducted many funerals where the flowers
were all either Red and White or Blue and White
according to the footballing allegiance of the deceased.
So Rhys’s funeral (at the suggestion of his father)
saw thousands sporting their football colours.
But the good thing (and I speak as a fan of Liverpool FC)
was that Rhys’s death has put
even Merseyside footballing rivalries into perspective.
So on Friday you saw many red Liverpool shirts
were sported in solidarity with the blue shirts of Everton.
For as Rhys’ uncle said,
“Football is nothing without rivalry,
particularly in a city such as ours . . .
But Rhys was grown up enough to know
that friends came first and football second.”
Beneath the outer appearance, beneath the
we are all sisters and brothers.
We celebrate the unity of the human race
whether our shirt is red or blue,
whether our skin is black or white,
whether – as Paul puts it - we are Jew or Gentile, slave or free.
We don’t know the outcome of the story of Onesimus –
though tradition says that he went on in later life
to became Bishop of Ephesus,
and there is some evidence to support that claim.
We don’t know, but it is not impossible
that when the make up of the NT was being discussed in Ephesus
at the turn of the Century,
Onesimus may even have been in a position of influence
to get his very personal letter included in the Pauline corpus.
are now, nearly 2000 years
after Onesimus escaped from Philemon.
we still live in a world of slavery -
be it the trafficking of young women into enforced prostitution,
or the economic slavery of men and women in the developing world
imprisoned in unjust economic systems.
we still live in a world of inequality –
a world in which all too often people identify themselves
with one social group against another
(be it on the basis of wealth or class or colour or creed) -
a world in which members of one gang or faith or nation
look down on, abuse or exploit those of another group.
If we are
honest, we all know what it is like to be Philemon –
conveniently and easily living in a world
where our comfort is achieved at the expense
of ignoring, manipulating or oppressing others.
need to hear Paul’s words to Philemon –
receive back the one who was your slave –
but receive him back as your brother!
never ever forget that (like the father of the prodigal son)
Christ welcomes us back not as slaves but as his children.
can be so welcoming and generous to us,
dare we treat any member of the human race
with less love than Christ has shown to us?
ORDER OF SERVICE
10.30 a.m. Holy Communion for Racial Justice Sunday
led by Rev Andrew Sails
Hymn 11 “Lord of all being”
Luke 4:16-21 (p.1031)
Hymn 425 “Lord, save thy world”
Hymn NHWS 348 “We have a dream”
Prayers and Lord’s Prayer
1. 나같은 죄인 살리신 주 은혜 놀라와
잃었던 생명 찾았고 광명을 얻었네
2. 큰 죄악에서 건지신 주 은혜 고마와
나 처음 믿은 그 시간 귀하고 귀하다
3. 이제껏 내가 산것도 주님의 은혜라
또 나를 장차 본향에 인도해 주시리
4. 거기서 우리 영원히 주님의 은혜로
해처럼 밝게 살면서 주찬양 하리라
(congregation remains standing)
Minister: Lift up your Hearts.
All: We lift them to the Lord.
Minister: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
All: It is right to give him thanks and praise.
Minister: Father we give you thanks
for all your love for us throughout history,
and especially for the gift of your Son, living our life,
walking alongside us in our pain and sorrow,
freeing us from the bondage of sin and death
and bringing us into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
So with all our sisters and brothers in this world,
and in the world to come, we join with the angelic choir as we sing:
All: 거룩 거룩 거룩하신 주 전능하신 하나님
(sing in 거룩 거룩 거룩하신 주 전능하신 하나님
English or 어제도 계셨고 오늘도 계시며
Korean) 이제 곧 오실 거룩하신 주
holy, holy is the Lord;
holy is the Lord God almighty!
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord;
holy is the Lord God almighty!
Who was, and is, and is to come!
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord!
Minister: On the night he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took
he gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying
“Take, eat, this is my body.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way he took the cup; he gave thanks and gave it to them saying:
“Drink of it, all of you; this is my blood of the new Covenant
which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Hear us, O Christ, and breathe your Spirit upon us
and upon this bread and wine.
May they become for us your body, vibrant with your life,
healing, renewing and making us whole.
And as the bread and wine which we now eat and drink
are changed into us, may we be changed again into you,
bone of your bone, flesh of your flesh,
loving and caring in the world.
Look, the Body of Christ is broken for the life of the world.
[The congregation is seated]
Minister: Jesus said, “I am the bread of life”.
Those who come to me shall not hunger
and those who believe in me shall never thirst.
Draw near with faith.
Distribution of Bread and Wine
are invited to receive bread and wine.
Please come forward to the rail when the steward indicates.
Should you wish to receive a blessing only, simply come forward to the rail,
but do not hold out your hand for bread and wine].
During the distribution, the choir will sing “View me Lord” by Richard Lloyd
Prayer after Communion:
All: God of power,
may the boldness of your Spirit transform us,
may the gentleness of your Spirit lead us,
and may the gifts of your Spirit equip us
to serve and worship you
now and always. Amen.
Hymn 566 “Now thank we all our God”
“Nun Danket” from Cantata 79 by J.S.Bach
in arrangement by Virgil Fox