- September 8, 2019
- 08:00 AM
Sermon for 8 September 2019 (Kickoff Sunday)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary
Texts: Philemon 1-22,25; Psalm 1; Luke 14.25-33
Title: Refresh My Heart in Christ
“Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love…yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ!” (Philemon 8,9,20).
Welcome, my dear friends, to the start of a new school year and a new program year here in the church. It is time to re-awaken from our summer slumber, and to launch out into another season of learning and listening and serving and growing together.
And we kickoff this new season together by listening for the voice of God in this letter of the apostle Paul to Philemon.
We just heard the whole thing – the entire letter, except for two short verses. And yes, the reading was a bit long, but Philemon tells a remarkable story and wonderful story.
A brief explanation of the background is this: Philemon was a disciple of the Lord who owned slaves. Now remember that slavery in those times was not like slavery in America. This was economic slavery, not racial or ethnic in any way, and at the time their economy relied heavily on slavery.
One of Philemon’s slaves was a man named Onesimus. His labor belonged to Philemon. But for reasons that are unclear, Philemon had run away – perhaps to the big city of Rome, where he heard Paul share the good news of the Lord’s resurrection and had become a believer himself.
Onesimus then became a friend and supporter of Paul. And now Paul is sending him back to Philemon. Again, we don’t know why, but it is very possible that Paul sends Onesimus back as a message-bearer with this very letter in his hand.
My friends, can you imagine the drama of that reunion when Onesimus returned home? What was going to happen? What was Philemon going to do?
In this short little letter, Paul is challenging Philemon to do something radically different, something counter-cultural – not out of guilt or out of a sense of obligation, but out of love.
Paul’s concern was always to do the right thing in God’s sight. This meant that Onesimus needed to go back to Philemon, who was his brother in Christ, and to make amends. And it also meant that Philemon had to ignore the law.
Legally, by right, Philemon could punish Onesimus for running away – and could punish him severely. But what do legal rights matter when you are dealing with a sister or a brother in Christ?
So Paul tells them both to do what is right for the sake of love, because now they are in the same family of God. And THAT fact matters more than any other, it matters far more than the law.
Paul says: Onesimus – go back to Philemon and apologize for what you have done. Philemon – receive Onesimus as a dearly loved brother in Christ.
And why? Why should they both do these things? Because all of the rules have changed now. Because now they are in Christ.
My friends, when we are teammates together in this Jesus movement, the rules of the game are entirely different. In Christ, we live by a different set of rules.
What was that shocking word we heard in the Gospel today? Jesus said, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14.33).
Give up all your possessions! How crazy is that? That’s not even really possible, is it? What could it mean? I cannot tell you precisely what this means, but I believe that it brings the same message. To be disciples is to live by a different set of rules, by an entirely different standard.
The pastor and writer Eberhard Arnold declared this back in 1924: “Forget [about] religion versus secularism. The [real] battle is mammon versus humanity.”
More often than not, people think of a struggle between faith and atheism, between religion and secularism. But that’s not where the real struggle is.
Eberhard Arnold was right. The REAL battle is the obsessive and compulsive worship of money versus the dignity of humanity. THIS is the battleground.
And THIS is why both the Lord Jesus and the apostle Paul call on us to live by a different standard. To let go of our obsessive need for possessions, and to no longer let money or economic interests or even the law to affect how we see and treat others in Christ.
So let’s try this out for a minute. Let’s practice this for a moment. That’s what we do here as the church, right? We practice!
Is there anyone here today who likes to debate and argue about politics? A show of hands? Anyone? Most of us are quite diligent to avoid talking about politics, because our society tells us that our different views are incompatible and irreconcilable. That these perspectives are the ones that most clearly define us.
But there is another way. There is a different standard.
I want you to turn to your neighbor (to someone with whom you did not travel here this morning) and say, “I do not care about your politics.”
And I will say it to all of you as well: I do not care about your politics! Nor do I care about who you root for in football! (That’s not entirely true, but I’m trying!) Because, no matter what, we are on the same team – on God’s team.
My friends, this is one clear sign that our citizenship is in heaven, in God’s realm, when we pass through all the controversies of this world like a knife going through a done cake. Nothing sticks to us! We come out clean and clear, because those things are no longer our primary concern.
Of course, we have our opinions and our politics – and our sports rooting interests! But in Christ, we are living by a different set of rules.
The great author J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about this, using the metaphor of exile. He said, “Certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole [human] nature at its best and least corrupted, [at] its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile’”.
Now, exile for us is not a reference to a physical place. We are not longing for a different piece of dry land that we can call home.
Our exile is from that different state of being, from that different kind of existence. Our true home is in God, where life is not fractured and broken apart by money or possessions or politics or any other such superficial concern.
And so, my friends, to echo the words of the apostle Paul, refresh my heart in Christ!
Are you ready to walk together in this way of Jesus? To practice together all the ways that God has called us to live by a different standard?
That is why we are here! So let’s make it happen … together. Amen!
Blessing of Students Beginning a New Year
Eternal God, your wisdom is beyond our understanding,
Yet it is revealed to us in the life and love of Jesus, your Son.
Bless these your children as they apply themselves to grow in knowledge.
Open their eyes that they may see your presence each day,
open their ears that they may hear your voice in new places,
open their minds that they may understand the mystery of your love,
and open their hearts to love you and those around them, each and every day.
Please, protect them and guide them, O Christ, for the sake of your love. Amen.