Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Church in Your House: A Sermon on Philemon

A few random thoughts about this morning:

We had communion. Remember about the triple warnings about the decency and order crowd? I must have taken that to heart, big time, because I awakened in a semi-panic at 3 AM, 5:37 AM, 6:41 AM... each time, obsessing over the service.

It wasn't just communion: we also dedicated our teachers this morning, using a lightly adapted resource from the denomination. There were also announcements vital to our ongoing lives together, Rally Day festivities, Petra's Birthday!!!! (That last was not observed at Church). So I had many pieces of paper, many things to keep in my head, and not my favorite sermon I've written. But one that was mmmK. I was a wreck on the inside, reasonably energetic and upbeat on the outside.

And it was all fine, all was well, and all was well, and all manner of thing was well. Phew.


“The Church in Your House”
September 9, 2007

It’s not often on a Sunday morning in a Presbyterian Church that we have the ability to read an entire book of the bible. But that is just what we have done this morning, in reading Paul’s letter to Philemon. It’s the shortest book in all of the Christian scriptures, but it’s packed with information about what life was like for the earliest Christians. It is a little jewel. And it seems appropriate to me for a season in which we have homecomings all around us—homecomings in our schools, and on this day that we call Rally Day, but which really functions as a kind of homecoming in our church. This is a day when, after a time of being more scattered and distant in the summer months, we come together once more. We affirm that this is our home.

The earliest followers of Jesus didn’t have beautiful churches such as our own, this one hundred year old treasure in which we meet, have Sunday School, worship God and share the sacraments. The earliest followers of Jesus had no church buildings. But they had homes, and that is exactly where the Christian community gathered… in ordinary houses, places where people ate and slept and made love and fought and made up. In these homes they would gather, mostly, around tables. The heart of their worship was sharing the Word of God in scripture and witness, and fellowship around a table.

I’d like us to stop right there and ponder: what would that be like? Maybe there are people here who already know the answer to this question because you have participated in small groups that met in homes for prayer or bible study. What does it feel like, when church comes home? When you sit down for breakfast at a table that had bibles open on it the night before, or at which people were served the Lord’s Supper? How does it feel to study scripture in a room where you had a massive fight with your spouse or children just a few hours ago? What does it feel like when the dirty laundry of our lives… literally and figuratively… is on display for the community of faith? This was the only church the earliest Christians knew. This was the way church was done. Church and home were one, with no boundaries between them.

The greeting of the letter tells us several things about Paul. First, he is writing from prison, or perhaps under house arrest, probably in Rome. Second, he is not alone… he tells us that Timothy is with him, his companion in spreading the gospel. And third, he makes it clear that he knows Philemon, Apphia and Archippus, the ones to whom the letter is written. These three are leaders of a house church. It is their home in which the Christians of their community gather each week. And it is their home from which a slave named Onesimus has left. We don’t know how or why he left, but we do know that, for a time he was a member of the household, and now, at the writing of the letter, he is gone… or, more specifically, he is with Paul. And from Paul’s letter we can infer that the parting was unpleasant, or difficult, or perhaps even illegal. Maybe Onesimus ran away. Maybe he had good reason to run away. We don’t know the details. But we know that he has gone, and he needs help returning.

Paul knows something else about Philemon, Apphia and Archippus. He knows some fundamentals about them, some basic principles that he values highly: he knows that they have shown love for “the saints and faith towards the Lord Jesus.” The translation I read in the Message is slightly, subtly different, “I keep hearing of the love and faith you have in the Master Jesus, which brims over to other Christians.”

As for Onesimus, we don’t know exactly how he and Paul met each other. Maybe the fugitive slave came to Paul for help in reconciling the situation with Philemon’s household. If so, he made a good choice, because listen to how artfully Paul negotiates this delicate situation.

Paul is fully aware that he is an authority figure to Philemon and company, to the members of this house-church. He could easily order them to do the right thing by virtue of his status as an apostle of Christ, and he would know with some certainty that they would obey him. But he doesn’t do that. He makes a request. He makes it graciously. He shows trust in them, in their faith and love. He simply states the fact that, now that Onesimus is a fellow believer, he is a brother in Christ over and above any other relationship that existed in the past. Rather than playing the heavy, Paul reminds Philemon of the debt every one of us owes to God… and he leaves it at that. He says, “Do me this big favor, friend… I know you well enough to know you will… You’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written.” By the sounds of it, Paul apparently thinks Philemon and family will not only welcome Onesimus back with open arms; they will probably give him his freedom as well.

Paul is trusting here that Philemon and his household are capable of taking a fresh look at themselves and their relationships through the lens of their faith. Paul is talking about the kind of thing that happens when our faith comes home. He is talking about how people behave when they allow their lives and their relationships to be transformed by their faith. On this Rally Day, I wonder how those of us who are entrusted with the task of teaching might allow our faith to come home to that relationship. Talk to a good teacher… or better still, ask a student to tell you about a good teacher, and you will invariably hear things like, “She really cares about her students,” or, “He always makes time for us.” The teachers who make a lasting impact are the ones who transcend their role, who are not simply dispensers of knowledge, but are, in fact, whole human beings with and for their students. Those of us entrusted with teaching on matters of faith find our teaching is transformed when our love and faith in the Master Jesus brims over to others.

What would it be like, if our love and faith in God were able to brim over into all parts of our lives? What would it be like for us as mothers, children, fathers, siblings? What would it be like for us as employers or employees? What would it be like for us as members or chairs of committees, or matriarchs and patriarchs of the church? What would it be like, if all our relationships, partnerships, marriages, memberships were transformed by that love and faith, brimming over into every nook and cranny of our day-to-day existence?

As Paul wrote to Philemon, Apphia and Archippus, with greetings and news and requests for gestures of mutual support, so we in our modern day Presbyterian Church reach out to one another. Sometimes we even do so by writing letters. You may not know that each week our Wonderful Executive Presbyter sends a reflection in a newsletter to all the churches in the Presbytery. I would like to share some of her words with you, from this past Thursday’s edition. She writes:

Dear Friends in Christ

It’s here! September is back! As congregations begin another year of church school, prepare for the Fall activities and look forward to Advent, it is a good time to ask the questions, “What is it that we are doing and why are we doing it?” It is really easy to be busy with activities and sometimes lose the spiritual significance of our activities. Believe me, I know this! I have experienced this!

I invite you to focus on your spiritual life together as congregations and individuals. Where do you hear God’s still, small voice? Then, where do we hear God’s still, small voice together as a larger community of faith?

I believe God is calling us all to a time of discernment throughout the church. And, we are called to discern together. How do we do this? What is required of us? For the next couple of weeks, I would like to focus on discernment and then look forward to seeing you at our next Presbytery Assembly!

Grace and peace,

Wonderful Exec

What is it that we are doing, and why are we doing it? Where do we hear God’s still small voice, both as a congregation and as a part of the larger community of faith? How do we bring our faith out of the sanctuary and into our homes and community? How will our lives be transformed as our faith in Jesus Christ and our love of one another brim over into all our relationships? These are all excellent questions as we begin our time together, pastor and congregation, getting to know one another. These are all excellent questions for us this morning, as we gather around this table, joyfully trusting that God has sustenance for us, that we will be fed, body and spirit, in this church that is our home. Amen.


Iris said...

Nice job, Mags! You know, I don't believe that I've ever heard a sermon on Philemon. Thanks!

Diane said...

(I've just heard one sermon on Philemon). particularly liked your questions at the end.