Sermon on Philemon and Slavery and Freedom - September 8th, 2019

Political debate today – Presidential candidates and others:

Financial reparations to those who are descendants of slaves here in the USA.

1619 project of the NY Times, talking about how African slaves came to this continent in the area now known as Virginia before the Mayflower landed in what is now Massachusetts.

The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times to correct the record, reframing the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the center of the national narrative.

No question that the enslavement of our sisters and brothers from the African continent, AND FROM OTHER PLACES around the world is a blight upon the human race, one for which we should be rightfully repentant.

I am reminded of that wonderful musical 1776 – and perhaps one of the most powerful songs in the entire musical, sung by Edward Rutledge:

Molasses to rum to slaves

The founding fathers are debating the language of Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and whether ALL are created equal – or just white people are created equal.

Molasses to rum to slaves
Oh, what a beautiful waltz
You dance with us, we dance with you
In molasses and rum and slaves

Who sails the ships out of Boston?
Laden with bibles and rum
Who drinks a toast
To the Ivory Coast?
"Hail Africa, the slavers have come!"
New England with bibles and rum

And it's off with the rum and the bibles
Take on the slaves, clink clink!
Then hail and farewell to the smell
Of the African coast!

Molasses to rum to slaves
'Tisn't morals, 'tis money that saves
Shall we dance to the sound
Of the profitable pound?
In molasses and rum and slaves

Rutledge goes on for a bit, including re-enacting a slave auction, until John Hancock yells out: For the Love of God! Mr. Rutledge, please!

Rutledge ends with these words:

Molasses to rum to slaves
Who sail the ships back to Boston
Laden with gold? See it gleam!

Whose fortunes are made
In the Triangle Trade?
Hail slavery: the New England dream!

Mr. Adams, I give you a toast!
Hail Boston
Hail Charleston
Who stinketh the most?

Sadly, we know that in order for the Declaration to pass and Independence to be declared, slavery was maintained in this country for almost 100 more years.

And if we are truthful – the plight of people who are not white in this country (not just African descent) – has not been equal to those whose skin tone is like mine.

Which brings me to today’s 2nd lesson – the letter from St. Paul to his brother in Christ – actual spiritual son in Christ: PHILEMON.

Onesimus was a runaway slave, who was owned by Philemon.  He ran away and lived with Paul, and according to the letter, ministered to Paul in many ways during Paul’s imprisonment, and was strengthened in the Christian faith by Paul.

Scholars believe that Paul understands the situation well.  

We don’t know if Onesimus was an indentured servant to Philemon – who owed some kind of debt to the man, and thus sold himself into servanthood to pay off the debt for himself or his family.  

We don’t know if Onesimus was sold into slavery, as many were in the Roman world – especially because they were of a different ethnic background or from a different country.

The names: Philemon and Onesimus, would lead us to believe that they are both of Greek origin.

Whatever the case, Onesimus was a slave, and Philemon was his master.

Paul knows this.  And so now, he writes to the master about his slave.

Boldly, Paul is sending this letter to Philemon.

And who is the mailman?


Paul, in his words here – acknowledges that Philemon holds the power over Onesimus, and that “he was useless to you” in the past – whatever that might mean.

Which leads one to wonder,

Is Paul acknowledging that slavery is not only being practiced in the Roman world in which he engaged in ministry – but is correct?

Is Paul giving his OK for one to own another?

Remember, this is the same Paul who writes in Romans the 13th chapter:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore those who resist the authorities resist what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

One might assume that, because slavery was legal in the time of Paul’s life, he, if not actually approved of it, certainly didn’t advocate against it.

This passage from Romans has caused GREAT problems for the Christian church down through the ages.  It has justified MANY things that human institutions and governments have done that are, quite frankly 


And, to be honest, sometimes the Christian church has been complicit in this non-Christlike behavior.

So let’s unpack what St. Paul is saying in Romans, before we get back to his message to Philemon, and whether Paul was an advocate for slavery.

Andrew Nygren, in his Commentary on Romans writes:

“That does not say that all the authorities do, will agree with God’s will.  

There are good and bad authorities, God-fearing and godless governments.  

There are some authorities that use their powers in harmony with God’s will, and other that misuse their powers and tramp the will of God under their feet.  

But Paul is not now talking about such distinctions.  

He is speaking of that which all authorities have in common, namely, that they are instituted by God.  

That there are governments in the world is not an arbitrary invention of humans; it is a fact ordained by God.  

Thus it is God who grants power to the governments.  

It does not at all follow that the actions of the governments are ethically approved.”

And Paul Achtemeier states:

“Is the Christian under obligation to support whatever policies the governing authorities may deem appropriate, whether those policies are for the good of the people or simply for the purpose of keeping those governing authorities in power?  Is that what these verses mean? . . . 

Does Paul here place on Christians the obligation to obey all edicts of whatever government happens to hold civil power over them?”

Achtemeier shares several stories out of human history where the government does obviously UNGODLY things.

Then Achtemeier explains several things about Paul’s theology in relation to government.

Having been the champion of freedom from the law because of the Gospel of grace in Jesus Christ, Paul is stating: THAT freedom doesn’t release us from civil law – which God instituted for our good, for our safety, to bring order out of chaos.  Say, stopping at a red light, etc.

Achtemeier also states that “A government that claims for itself the total and absolute devotion which a creature can give only to its Creator (to God), ceases in the moment it makes that claim to be an agent of divine order.”

In other words, a government that sets itself up as God or says, You have to obey us in everything because we are ordained of God, and calls on us to follow with devotion that belongs to God – is NO LONGER A GOVERNMENT THAT IS ORDAINED OF GOD, BUT, AS HE SAYS, “AN IDOLATROUS OPPONENT OF THE LIVING GOD.”

He goes on to ask:

The fundamental problem remains: How does one decide at what point a government has passed from the ranks of God’s servants to the ranks of God’s opponents?

And Achtemeier says that on this question, Paul’s message is silent.

He then tells us that we must discern – based upon the WHOLE of Scripture, what is the message that is “of God” or the way God desires for the world to be and how we treat each other – to determine if one particular government is “doing God’s will.”

And that is what the church is called to do.

So we look at what Jesus says, and even what Paul says, to find out how to interpret this letter to Philemon.

Jesus says in Matthew 20:25:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom.”

And we read in 

Galatians 3:27 & 28 – St. Paul saying– 

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor it there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

So we have it here, with this little letter.

Paul writes to Philemon, the slave owner, asking and encouraging him to receive his former slave Onesimus, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ.

He says that, given that Paul is the spiritual Father of Philemon, he could command him to do this.  

But he appeals to him, on the basis of love – not just the love that Paul has for Philemon (and even for Onesimus) but the LOVE THAT CHRIST JESUS HAS FOR EACH OF THEM, AND IN FACT ALL OF US.

Paul does not advocate slavery.  It is antithetical to his nature and his theology.  Paul advocates harmony. Unity. Because of what Christ Jesus has done for us.

And he instructs Philemon – WELCOME HIM AS YOU WOULD WELCOME ME.  If you have been wronged by what he has done – let my past actions on your behalf be payment for it.

What love Paul has for these two men.  And what instruction he gives to us today about how we are to relate to each other.

And not just that, but how we are to relate to everyone – regardless of their background, their heritage, their past.

As sisters and brothers in the faith, followers of Jesus, those who have let God down by our sins, and yet been rescued by the death and resurrection of Jesus – we are called to be servants of each other, showing hospitality, care, compassion, and love for each other.

And sometimes, yes sometimes, we are called to seek change in the governmental situation – not for our own benefit, but for those who are the voiceless and powerless.

Remember the dictum of the prophets:

Care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger in your land.

Be a voice for the powerless.

And of Jesus:

You wanna be great? Serve each other.

I want to finish today by sharing some powerful and wise words from theologian John Piper – who writes on Paul’s message on being subject to the governing authority.

He writes:

One of the crucial issues before the church in America today is: 

Shall we be American with a pinch of religious flavoring? 

Or: Shall we be Christ's people with a pinch of American flavoring? 

I think the issue is crucial because there are many in our churches (many of us) who have not seriously and earnestly asked themselves: 

Am I more American than I am Christian?

Are there not impulses in our society which define us in the world as Americans and which influence us daily, 

but which are incompatible with the Christ-life and the cross-life? 

Are we not constantly being shaped by forces in our culture which make it almost impossible for the world to see any difference in our values? 

If we are ever going to appear to the world as aliens and exiles on the earth, (counter cultural, if you will)

then we are going to have to go back and renew the declaration of allegiance by which we became Christians, namely, Jesus is Lord

And we are going to have to wake up to the fact that this is a cultural and political statement. 

It is a radical declaration of independence from our culture and of absolute allegiance to a foreign king, Jesus. 

Therefore, the point of my message today is to call us to submit to Christ alone as king; 

and whatever other submission to humans we render, 

to do it within the limits of the lordship of Christ and always for the sake of his glory.


Paul Milholland