Sunday, September 4, 2016

Sermon: "Equality and Submissiveness" (Philemon 1-25)

I saw a billboard the other day. Its message comes from a group of atheists, and points out how the Bible speaks in favor of slavery.
The billboard is right.
In Colossians it does say: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything…” Similar messages appear in Ephesians and Titus.

But the Bible also speaks against slavery.
In Galatians, it says: “in Christ there is no longer slave or free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.”
And Philemon, which is today’s scripture, builds on the idea that there is no longer slave or free by insisting that a certain slave owner welcome back his runaway slave, but not as a slave; the letter to Philemon insists that he welcome him back as a brother, as a family member; in other words, welcome him back the same way the prodigal son’s father welcomed him back, with open arms and a loving embrace. No conditions, and no punishment for running away.  In other words, he should no longer be treated as a slave.

Now how are we as Christians – as people of the book – supposed to make sense of these contradictions? Do these contradictions completely undermine the authority of scripture in our lives? Atheists point out biblical commands for slaves to obey their masters as proof that the Bible is a poor guide to morality and that religion is a sham. I don’t think anyone here would support slavery in any form, but what do we do with Biblical passages that do support slavery?
Back in the day, slaveholders often quoted the Bible to support their views that slavery should be allowed to exist. Meanwhile, abolitionists and civil rights leaders quoted the Bible to demand equal treatment and equal rights.
How do we make sense of this?
Once upon a time, I used to get frustrated by contradictions like these; but now, I actually love that there are these contradictions in the Bible.
The reason I think it is good to have contradictions is that these contradictions do not allow anyone to be lazy with their faith.
So many people today do want to be lazy. They don’t want to have to think. They don’t want to have to figure things out. They just want some person or some book to tell them what to think.
And they look for churches where the pastor will say, “believe this, believe that, don’t question it, don’t think about it. It’s all black and white.”
And they like that, because they don’t have to think.
It makes for a very easy faith to follow… Being a Christian is easy… as long as you don’t actually open up your Bible and start reading it. If you do open up your Bible and start reading, all sorts of complications start to arise, and then you have to start figuring things out, you have to start thinking.
There are so many examples where the Bible says one thing in one spot, and another thing in another spot,… it’s almost as if the Bible actually wants you to think for yourself!

Ephesians, Colossians, and Titus – those books of the Bible that tell slaves to be submissive to their masters – those same books also tell wives to be submissive to their husbands.
But Galatians – the book that says there is no longer slave or free – also says there is no longer male or female… for all are one in Christ Jesus.

There is a reason why these particular contradictions exist.
The apostle Paul (believe it or not) was one radical dude. He had some ideas that were out there.
From the moment he met Christ in a blinding flash of light, he was dedicated to preaching the gospel. And, as we know, the gospel is always a liberating word, a word of freedom, a word of wholeness to all those whose lives are broken and fragmented.
So it makes sense that, in Galatians, he would argue that there is no longer slave nor free.
And it makes sense that, in Philemon, he would instruct a friend of his to welcome back his slave as he would welcome a brother, to welcome back this slave as if he were welcoming Paul himself, to treat him with respect and honor and love.
In fact, Paul doesn’t call him “the slave.” Paul uses his name. Onesimus. A slave is property, and doesn’t deserve to be called by name. But Paul refers to him as “my child Onesimus” and “your brother Onesimus.”
Not “the slave.”
That was radical love.

Meanwhile, those other books that command slaves to be submissive and obedient – Ephesians, Colossians, and Titus – they also claim to have been written by Paul.
But they weren’t really.
It was common in ancient times for students and followers to write using their teacher’s name. After all, they were simply putting to paper the thoughts and teachings of their teacher, so it made sense to attach their teacher’s name to what they wrote instead of their own.
But as I said, Paul was one radical dude, and these followers of his… as much as they admired Paul… they just couldn’t accept all of his teachings. Some of them were just too radical.
And among those things that were too radical for them to accept were the equality of slaves and women. Society just was not ready for such crazy, wild, radical ideas like those.
So in their writings, even though they were writing in Paul’s name, they commanded submissiveness and obedience.
So that’s how, in this case, we have different parts of the Bible commanding different things, even though they all bear the name of the apostle Paul.
But how can the Bible – “God’s word” – have contradictions?
Actually, not only can the Bible have conflicting ideas, but the Bible must have conflicting ideas.  That’s the only way it can be, for a gospel that is about freedom and liberation. In a gospel of freedom and liberation, there is always the freedom of choice. A person who just wants to be told what to believe, so that they don’t have to think for themselves, they are giving up that freedom of choice. They are enslaving themselves to a doctrine.
But the Bible gives us the choice. In the book of that bears his name, Joshua stood before the people and gave them a choice. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” he said, “whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
You’ve gotta have the freedom to choose. If Colin Kaepernick can’t choose to sit, then exercising the freedom to stand doesn’t mean a thing. Without a choice, there’s no thinking involved. Being able to choose allows you to think about why you are standing, or sitting.
In reading about equality and submissiveness, we are given a choice: we can choose either the radical equality that Paul the apostle wrote about, or we can choose submissive inequality that some of his followers talked about.
But to make an good choice, we need to think. We need to pray. We need to study.
Here are a few things that I’ve learned in my own times of prayer and study…
One thing is that radical equality was practically unheard of in ancient times.  Slavery was a given. Women submitting to their husbands was a given. One wasn’t even supposed to speak to or address a slave or a woman, except through the owner/master/husband. If you want to tell something to a woman, you tell it to her husband, and he tells it to her. If you want to tell something to a slave, you tell it to the owner, and he tells it to the slave. You don’t speak directly.
Yet Jesus and Paul did just that. They broke with convention, and spoke directly to women and to slaves. In doing so, they treated them as equals.
Another thing I’ve learned is that Paul wrote his letter to Philemon while he himself was in prison. It’s not surprising that someone who proclaimed such radical ideas would end up behind bars.
Now maybe, if you were a follower of Paul, you might not be as willing to go to prison as he was… so maybe, in conveying Paul’s thoughts, you might leave out or change some of his more radical ideas. Telling slaves and women to be submissive was not radical. It was the status quo. But speak of equality? That is radical. Maybe you’d want to tone that down a little bit…
Something else I have observed as a result of my study of the Bible: Although there are contradictions, there are – at the same time – certain trends that appear. For example, there is a trend – a movement – from exclusivity to inclusivity. Early on in the Old Testament, there are prohibitions against people from Moab, people from Uz, people from any foreign nation, and people who were sexually different. One by one, in later scriptures, these prohibitions are challenged.
In the New Testament, we see a movement that begins small, and spreads outward to include more and more people. There is a geographical movement that starts in Jerusalem, spreads to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.
The direction of this movement seems clear. We would miss that if all we had was one, simple, black-and-white “DO THIS.”
Martin Luther King Jr talked about the moral arc of the universe, and how it bends toward justice. From the time of the earliest scriptures until now, thousands of years have passed. Because scripture does not present a simple, black-and-white answer to everything, we can see that arc bending, and we can plot out its trajectory to today and follow its path. It may have passed through submissiveness and inequality, but it bends in scripture and continues to bend today toward equality and justice and freedom.
But you still have that choice.
Does the Bible command submissiveness? Yes. And there are people, even today, who will quote the Bible in support of their views on submissiveness.
But the Bible also commands equality.
Which command you follow is up to you.
You have that choice. You have that freedom.
But after study and prayer, after considering that the most basic, central command in scripture is to “love God and love one’s neighbor,” after studying and contemplating the moral arc and seeing how it bends… I can only choose equality.

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