22 Oct 2017
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger

15 Oct 2017
This Too Shall Pass

8 Oct 2017
The Simple Truth: Head, Heart and Hands

1 Oct 2017
Humility – Staying close to the ground

2 Jul 2017
Welcoming the Silence

25 Jun 2017
Always Uniting…

18 Jun 2017
Are you ready for harvest?

11 Jun 2017
Don’t Blame it on the Snake

4 Jun 2017
Words Beyond Words: Breath Beyond Breath

28 May 2017
Seeing with new eyes

14 May 2017
Grace, Gracious and Graceful

30 Apr 2017
A Time for war and a time for peace

23 Apr 2017
Faithful Doubting

16 Apr 2017
God became human so that we could become divine!

12 Mar 2017
Wind of the Spirit

12 Feb 2017
From the Mountainside: The Impossible Dream?

22 Jan 2017
Grounding our Life and Faith

25 Dec 2016
That Humanity should become Divine

11 Dec 2016
Joy is for Everyone

4 Dec 2016
The Mingling of Water and Spirit

27 Nov 2016
Living Fully in the Present Moment

16 Oct 2016
Persistence and Justice

9 Oct 2016
Gratitude and Thankfulness

2 Oct 2016
Standing in the Tragic Gap

25 Sep 2016
Rich Man, Poor Man

4 Sep 2016
The Gift of Freedom

21 Aug 2016
A Hidden Wholeness

14 Aug 2016
We all need wise words to live by

31 Jul 2016
When Less is More

24 Jul 2016
Developing Healthy Relationships

17 Jul 2016
Died Wise

10 Jul 2016
Meeting Strangers on the Road

3 Jul 2016
On the Road Again

29 May 2016
Faith is the Answer

22 May 2016
The Way of Wisdom

15 May 2016
Icons and Stained Glass Windows – Inner light

8 May 2016
Unity and Oneness

1 May 2016
A Hidden Wholeness

24 Apr 2016
Lest we forget: What?

17 Apr 2016
God became human so that we could become divine!

3 Apr 2016
Thank God for St Thomas!

27 Mar 2016
Living life’s great contradictions

20 Mar 2016
Message of Peace

13 Mar 2016
Living Fully, Loving Wastefully

6 Mar 2016
Come Home, all is forgiven

28 Feb 2016
Simply, leave it alone

21 Feb 2016
Why do we “kill” our prophets?

7 Feb 2016
Keeping your Head in the Clouds


The Gift of Freedom

04 September, 2016 Philemon Pentecost 16 By Rev Dr Christopher Page

“The art of acceptance is the art of making someone who has just done you a small favour wish that he might have done you a greater one.”  ~Martin Luther King, Jr.


It is intriguing that a personal letter that Paul of Tarsus wrote to his friend Philemon about a runaway slave becomes a part of what we call today the Holy Scripture. I am sure that there are many letters that Paul wrote during his lifetime that have now been lost and are not a part of the Bible. Some may say that there was a divine presence guiding what would and would not become Holy Writ. I take a more pragmatic view and that is that the early Christians gathered what they saw to be wise and helpful to the life of their emerging community and chose to share these writings with others, while other writings were later discarded.

This short letter, read this morning in its entirety, represents one of the earliest writings in what we call the New Testament. And it deals with an issue that the Christian church took almost 1800 years to come to terms with. As the letter suggests, it has to do with the relationship between friends, servants and slaves. I chose our first reading this morning because of the central role Martin Luther King Jr played in the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. As we know, slavery in America was legally abolished after the American Civil War through the forceful and strategic leadership of Abraham Lincoln.

Slavery was abolished in America by the passing, on January 31, 1865 (ratified by Congress on December 6, 1865) of the 13th amendment to the constitution that stated, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

The law of the land was changed and the power of legislation was invoked against those who didn’t uphold this law. But sadly, as we know, it takes a change of heart for a nation to live within the spirit of the law.

The Bible Today:
The Bible is often used as an example of giving assent to slavery. The letters to the Colossians, to the Ephesians, the first letter to Peter and the first letter to Timothy all exhort with the words, “slaves obey your earthly masters, submit to their authority.” This injunction is given more often than we realise. And yet today we see slavery as abhorrent, an abomination and in opposition to the
life-giving message of the Gospel. I don’t want this sermon to become a Bible study, but there are two good reasons why these “commands” for slaves to obey their masters should be separated from the central message of the Good News and therefore not obeyed:

  • First, wisdom and a bit of maturity should convince us that the Bible is a “time-bound book”. In fact it wasn’t a book until the 16th century, until then it was parchments and scrolls. Nevertheless, it is important that we recognise that nothing can be written, or spoken, or done outside of the present moment and the culture in which it is produced. So it is logical and reasonable that within this treasure trove of wisdom, insight and rich human experience, we find in the Bible the blind biases of the day. And slavery is but one of them. So do we reject everything because the book doesn’t fit our 21st century sense of humanity and justice? In the same way do we reject a person because they are not what we would like them to be, or because they are not perfect?

  • But there is a second point to this dilemma that is also important to explore and this one is more difficult to communicate in this short time. But it is this. The letter to Paul’s friend Philemon was one of his first writings of what became the New Testament. This letter has so much of the vigour, vitality and flavour of Jesus’ message of freedom, relationships and reconciliation. Many scholars believe that the letters in which slaves are called to obey their masters were written much later and not necessarily by the apostle Paul. In fact, some were a correction to his “overly” radical words of freedom and justice for all people, that “slave and free, male and female, Jew and Gentile” should be treated alike. So in a world of increased persecution of the followers of Jesus, it may have been judicial to suggest it was best not to disrupt the social order. The fact is that the infant Christian church got into trouble primarily for two things. First, their unwillingness to say Caesar was Lord and secondly, for violating social norms around gender, class and race.

Letter to Philemon:
So here in the Biblical record we find this brief letter to Paul’s friend Philemon. We know that for whatever reason, Paul has been “harbouring” this runaway slave Onesimus.

I am appealing to you for my child Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.

It should be said that before these words Paul spends some time flattering Philemon and building him up to the issue he is about to raise.

I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

We know from history that slaves were controlled by the threat that they would be executed if they ran away from their masters. We also know that slaves were a part of the household in ancient times. The word used for slave in the New Testament is “ δοῦλος”, doulos, and can be the same word as servant. But Paul puts forward here a more radical proposal. He does it carefully and with considerable linguistic skill.

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 might be voluntary and not something forced.

He is arguing that there is a relationship between himself, Philemon and this man who is Philemon’s slave. They are in fact all equal before God and therefore friends and not slave and master.

Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you 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 and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.

Is it really possible that our constructed social norms and barriers can actually be broken down through this reconciling message of Jesus of Nazareth? I hope the answer is yes. We see it in part, as the world has mostly rejected slavery, although it does reappear in different forms. I don’t think we can go much further than the words of Martin Luther King Jr:

Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.

But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not just eros, a sort of aesthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding and goodwill for all men and women. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of all people. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilisation.

Perhaps after two thousand years we are only just now catching a glimpse of that reconciling love that can see all men and women; all black people and white people; all Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists (have I left anyone out?) drawing their life and wholeness from the same well of redemption and reconciliation. Pray God the day comes soon.

Keep up to date with the latest Toorak Uniting news