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September 09, 2007

Sunday Sermon

An interesting set of readings from the Common Worship Lectionary for today, one's I found very thought provoking and meriting some further reading and thought. The Lection is:

Deuteronomy 30 15 - end
Philemon 1 - 21
Luke 14 25 - 33

The result of my musings is in the extended post below for those who care to take a read of the sermon that I am preaching at the Parish Eucharist this morning.

Parish Eucharist
9th September 2007

+ May the Lord our God speak through me, and may you receive his gospel in grace. Amen

“I appeal to you for my son Onesimus.”

I want you to imagine yourselves at home, nicely tucked up in bed. It is still dark, dawn is an hour or so off yet, but the sky outside is already lighter to the east. Suddenly, the door is smashed in, a number of armed men burst into your home charging in they attack you, seize your children and your wife, dragging them from their beds, beating them if they struggle. Outside you are all sorted into groups. Those too young to travel or work are killed as are those considered to old. Those injured and requiring too much attention join the pile of corpses and the remainder are now fitted with iron collars, the iron heated to be bent and beaten closed on your neck, stripped naked and chained to each other before being herded into boats and a life of slavery. And no, I am not describing the actions of Europeans in Africa, but of a raiding party that hit this area in 401 AD …..

The life of a slave was harsh and usually brutalised no matter who the slave owner was. If you were lucky you spoke the language of your Master, if you were not, as was the case with those taken in 401 – you didn’t. So you faced beatings for not understanding what he wanted, and more beatings for being too slow to learn. You went hungry and naked and you lived with that iron collar for the rest of your life – which you probably hoped would be short.

As a slave you were permitted to own nothing under the Celtic peoples, but the Romans had a marginally less harsh view. Under them there were three ways you could become a slave. You could be captured in war, you could be born a slave, or, if you were unable to find work or to pay a debt you could sell yourself. Under the Celts you were a slave for life, under the Romans it was possible to buy your freedom. Onesimus must have hoped that Paul would help him do that, or give him the wherewithal to do so. He probably did not want to be sent back to his owner still a slave and without the means to obtain his freedom, yet that is what he did. Paul sent him back, no longer just a slave, but, as he says:

“No longer as a slave, but as a dear brother. He is very dear to me, but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.”

The entire economy of Rome and all other major powers in Paul’s time rested on a plentiful supply of slaves. Slaves formed the industrial machinery that allowed the building of magnificent structures, cleaned the streets, kept the aqueducts flowing, kept the sewers unblocked, kept the food production in being in the absence of machines. So Paul is making a radical statement here – every slave is a brother in Christ of those who are their Masters. Earth shaking stuff, the sort of idea that causes economies to collapse in ruins. You may well imagine how it was received by Philemon, the owner of the runaway whom in Paul’s own, and probably Philemon’s words as well, was formerly useless to you …

But consider a moment, Onesimus did return. No doubt Paul had to do quite a bit of persuading, but the runaway returned to his Master, voluntarily placing himself at Philemon’s mercy. Again, under the law, his master could have him flogged or put to death, sold or hired him out for some work that would have finished him off. We don’t know the rest of the story, but it is difficult to see how Philemon could have done anything less than Paul asked of him.

Paul uses the imagery of being a “prisoner” and of the slave frequently in describing his relationship with Christ. In this letter he describes himself as “a prisoner of Christ”. It is an image we need to consider carefully for it accords with the last sentence of today’s Gospel.

“Any of you who does not give up everything he has, cannot be my disciple.”

Now comes the difference in the imagery of Paul’s descriptions – he is a prisoner by his own surrender. He is a slave by his own giving of himself to God. He has surrendered all that he has and all that he is, to Christ. It is the ultimate act of faith and trust, in Christ we are all slaves for everything that we possess comes from God, we have it in trust for God. Consider the imagery of the three men entrusted with a portion of their Master’s treasure. One puts it to work and does well, returning the principle and interest on demand, the second isn’t quite so successful but is still rewarded, the third has made no use of the treasure entrusted to him and is punished for it. This is the sort of slave/master relationship that Paul envisages in giving our all to God. In return for our surrender we are fed, clothed and given all that we need for our service to him.

It takes a huge amount of trust and faith to make the kind of surrender that Onesimus evidently made in returning to his master, but the obligation placed upon the Master in those circumstances was equally heavy. In Christ alone we know that we may place all our trust in his protection and his willingness to forgive and to comfort those who make the effort. No one can ever find it easy to surrender that completely – I know that I am far to much of a control freak to ever be comfortable, yet, I know too that it is the only way. I cannot retain control of wealth, family and all the trappings – and still fully serve Christ as my master. In that I am no different to anyone else. It is only in fully surrendering my all – and that is my person such as it is worth, that I can truly be a disciple.

And here is another element - the slave is dependent upon the master for food, for clothing, for shelter and for every other need - and the master, if he is a compasionate one, provides these. Our Lord is the most compassionate Master we will ever encounter.

Today’s Gospel presents us with a hard choice. There is no easy option. Like Paul and Onesimus we can surrender ourselves to our Master Christ, or we can, as did the majority of those who heard Christ’s words for themselves, we can walk away. On the one hand we can accept Christ’s chains of love and the collar of the slave of Christ – or we can choose the freedom that acknowledges no master. As Paul and many others across the ages have discovered, Christ is a gentle master, one who cares for everyone who does surrender to his overlordship and provides everything they need. And their greatest reward is knowing that they have served him fully and well.

So as we prepare ourselves to celebrate this Eucharist, let us consider how much we have given of ourselves to God. Are we able to say, everything I have is your Lord, make me your servant? Or are we still, like the runaway Onesimus was, afraid to give ourselves into his control? Have we the courage to turn and walk towards that surrender and to follow where he leads, or do we still insist on keeping control to ourselves?

Christ will not break down your door and drag you from your home as did the Irish slavers’ in the 5th century, nor will he pursue you if you run away. But he will welcome you with loving arms if you offer yourself to him as a free and willing gift, surrendering your life and work to his service, whatever and wherever that may take you.

The image of the slave is a powerful one, yet, in becoming slaves to Christ we are not surrendering to humiliation, beatings, abuse, but to joy and grace in his service.

“My yoke is easy; and my burden is light.”


Posted by The Gray Monk at September 9, 2007 11:54 AM

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Good word. You've taken the heart of the Philemon and Onesimous story and put it in the context of the freedom we have as slaves of Christ. Very well done - and encouraging. Lyn

Posted by: Lyn at September 11, 2007 11:26 PM