September 9, 2001
Proper 18
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from the Revised Common Lectionary

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14: 25-33

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a Sermon on the Gospel Reading

There's No Saying "No"
Philemon 1-21

"There's just no saying, 'no' to him!"

Do you know anyone like that?

Personally, I have become somewhat skilled at saying "no" when it is necessary. Not because I am so disciplined or so smart, but because I had to learn how to say "no" in order to survive. I was a chronic "yes" sayer in the earliest years of my ministry and it brought about a serious struggle with "burn out."

But -- there are some people who make it really difficult to say "no."  They can make you feel like you are turning your mother away if you say "no" to their request. I have a friend like that. When he calls asking me to serve on some committee or do some favor, my resolve turns to mush. I actually hung up on him not so very long ago in the middle of his pitch. He called right back and was stunned.

"You hung up on me!" he exclaimed, "Why?"

"Because," I replied, "I find it almost impossible to say no to you and right now my life is swamped as it is."


As you think through the people in your life, chances are you know someone who is as hard to say "no" to as my friend is.

BUT -- no matter how good any of these people may be, the champion "yes" extractor of all time is the person who wrote our epistle reading for today. Namely, the Apostle Paul.

The "yes" Paul is seeking however, is a "yes" that brings freedom and joy to everyone involved. This "yes" breaks down barriers, creates new and fulfilling relationships, and tells the world that the good news of Jesus Christ is for real!

Given the culture and background to this story, Paul's request of Philemon is nothing short of astonishing. Let's take a brief look at the situation this brief letter addresses.


Paul's letter to Philemon is occasioned by what can only be called a confirmation of the fact that it is a small world indeed! Paul is in prison, probably in Rome, and Philemon is a well to do salve owner who has become a Christian. Philemon and his wife Apphia host the church in their home.

One of Philemon's slaves, Onesimus has fled his master and Paul's letter seems to indicate that he had stolen from his master. Onesimus is in the worst possible position. Runaway slaves had absolutely no rights under Roman law and were extremely vulnerable to abuse and even death. Forced into the streets and hiding, runaway slaves were left to fend for themselves by whatever means they could manage. Those who were caught were imprisoned without hope of every being released.

Remarkably, Onesimus winds up coming into contact with Paul, who is close to Philemon. Philemon, his household and Paul along with Timothy have given birth to the church which meets in Philemon's home. Under the ministry of the aging apostle, Onesimus becomes a Christian. His new relationship with Christ means that he must make right his relationship with Philemon.

Under normal circumstances Onesimus would be on his way back to Philemon and his future would be quite grim. In this case, however, he is on his way back to Philemon with a letter in hand from the beloved Apostle Paul who founded the church Philemon hosts in his home. What an astonishing letter it is!

One can only imagine the scene when the runaway Onesimus came back to the household of Philemon and Apphia. Can you see him approaching from a distance? Perhaps clutching the latter in his dusty hands as his heart pounds within his heavy chest? He approaches his former master with head hung low and reaches out to hand him the letter.


Philemon is stunned. The letter is from his beloved Paul who sits in a Roman prison. After a brief word of praise for the exemplary life of love for his fellow Christians and faith in Christ, Paul appeals to Philemon for the freedom of Onesimus.  "I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment."

You could have knocked Philemon down with a feather. I can see Philemon looking up from the letter as Onesimus looks tentatively at his former master for a clue as to how he might react.

"There's no saying no to his man," Philemon must have thought to himself. Paul wants Philemon to voluntarily release Onesimus to him as a personal aide, but his request comes through like an iron fist - but an iron fist wrapped in kid gloves. When you look closely, Paul borders on the comical as he says in effect:

"I could simply command you to do this  and count on your obedience."

"But I would rather it be voluntary on your part - I Paul - now an old man - to say nothing of being in prison - ask you to do this thing."

"Onesimus is now a beloved brother to me and to you and maybe this is why all of this took place to begin with - that is - this is probably all in God's good design."

"If Onesimus owes you anything or has done you any wrong - charge it off to me - I will repay you - and I won't mention the fact that you owe me your own spiritual life."\

"Confident that you will do even more than I ask, I thank you in advance. And as hard as it is for me with my visual handicap, I am signing this with my own hand."

Onesimus is not sure where it comes from, but he takes heart at the smile on Philemon's face. The smile is not so much for Onesimus as it is for his beloved old Apostle who sits in a Roman cell waiting for Onesimus to be returned to his service.

Having been set free from slavery in the household of Philemon, Onesimus would have the freedom to choose servanthood once again - this time to the Apostle Paul in a Roman prison. Would he actually return to Paul given the chance - or would he take his freedom and run.  We do not have any hard evidence that Onesimus returned to Paul, although legend has it that he became bishop of Ephesus in the sub-apostolic church.

The letter to Philemon is one of those wonderful examples of how great meaning is found is small places. This little new Testament book has several important spiritual lessons.

[1] In Christ the walls between slave and free are done away with

It is in his letter to the Galatians that Paul writes, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." [3:28]

Although Paul does not directly attack the institution of slavery, he is much more concerned to show that in the Christian community, all barriers and distinctions have been put away in favor of our oneness in Christ. It is as though the issue of status is dismissed. A convention of the world, status has no place in the Christian community where the one who is greatest becomes a servant. Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." [Mark 9:35]

[2] In Christ new relationships are formed

Paul asks for more than freedom for Onesimus so that he can become an aide to the Apostle. He is addressing a basic and fundamental change in identity that comes when one becomes a Christian. Onesimus is a child to Paul and a brother to Philemon because of what Christ has done for them all.  In Christ we are bound together in new familial relationships that will persist beyond the limits of mortal life. "...he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever."

The reality of new relationships which are formed because of Christian faith is one of the areas where we are most tested as a community. Real faith results in real change in relationships. We are family! (Look up on net)

[3] In Christ freedom is rooted in forgiveness

Paul expresses the heart of Christian faith when he says to Philemon regarding Onesimus, "If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account... I will repay it." What a powerful expression of the meaning of the cross. In God's amazing defeat of sin, Christ says on our behalf to God, "If she, if he, has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account."

Freedom in Christ is no cheap grace - it is the sin defeating, death defying power of divine love which forgives and renews the believing heart.


Reflection on the Texts

The texts in both Deuteronomy and Luke deal with the issue of choices. The life of faith is a choice we must make. This was literally a matter of life and death for the people of Israel.   

NOTE: We are experimenting with linking the lessons to Bible Gateway over the next few weeks. You need to be online to use this function, but when you click on the lessons (and some texts referred to in the notes) you will go to the passage at the Bible gateway site. The text will be in RSV, but you can read the text in several different versions when you are at the Bible Gateway site. If you explore the different versions, there are footnotes and other helps that may enhance your study along with our notes and sermon suggestions.

Let us know if this is helpful for your study.  It takes a bit of time, but if it helps we will continue the practice. If we do not hear from you - we will not continue the links.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

This text is the background to Jesus' parable which is addressed to the Pharisees and lawyers. We approach God in humility knowing that grace alone can make us worthy. The example of Christ who makes himself nothing and takes on the form of a servant is the model for Christian community. "And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name..." [Phil. 2:8-9]  In other words, the way up with God is down. By exalting ourselves, Proverbs warns and Jesus will reiterate, we are in danger of bringing about our own, "put down."

Luke 14: 25-33

This incident is Luke's fourth mention of the difficulty between Jesus and the religious leaders over the sabbath. (See:  6:1-5, 6:11; and 13:10-17) On this occasion, Jesus brings up the possible objection first, the Pharisees and "experts" do not answer and Jesus moves ahead with the man's healing. Again Jesus grabs the initiative and shames his host and guests with their evident hypocrisy.

Jesus remained in control of the dialogue throughout the portion of the dinner-conversation Luke records. It may be that the silence of the other guests was intended - this is more of a grand jury appearance than it is a real conversation among equals. They are there to judge and Jesus is there to continue to press the authentic meaning of the Kingdom of God. Jesus words, "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." are not simply words of formal teaching - but words that describe his own life. He, as noted above, took upon himself the "lowest place" and was exalted by God.

Humility leads to "passive exaltation," it is not something we achieve or gain for ourselves but something that is conferred upon us by a gracious God.

Finally, Jesus suggests that to be blessed by God, they should invite and welcome those who otherwise would have no chance of invitation of the blessings of a feast.  For those who give this kind of grace to those who can not repay, so also God will give to those who could not deserve divine favor, the reward of heavenly blessings.

Philemon 1-21

James E. Kiefer considers the letter to Philemon a classic in biblical humor. "As you read the letter, stay loose. It is by all odds the funniest chapter in the New Testament. Note how Paul says, 'Of course I wouldn't twist your arm or anything!' to the accompaniment of splintering bone." [On his page at: ]


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship   

Leader:    Let us affirm that we love the Lord.
People:  We love the Lord who hears every prayer.  
Leader:   God is forever waiting to hear our cries,
People:  And we can call upon the Lord as long as we live!
Leader:   We will serve the Lord all the days of our lives,
People:  God's praise will always be in our hearts and on our lips!

A Prayer of Confession
O God of grace and mercy, we confess that we are too often stuck in our wayward ways.  You have offered us love and we choose the disappointment of the world. You speak to us of forgiveness and new life and we stop our ears.  Your patience and love toward us are beyond our ability to understand.  And yet, because of your Son Jesus Christ, we are assured of your steadfast love as we come humbly seeking forgiveness and new life.  Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

The love and mercy of our God is available to cleanse and restore all who humbly turn to the Lord.  Brothers and sisters in Christ, because of the wonderful grace of God, you are forgiven.  Rejoice in the Good News. Amen.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

Thank you Lord for all the ways you have come to us and given us faith and hope in the face of difficulties that have plagued us. Our hearts are filled with gratitude today as we ponder the incredible extent of your love for us.

How is it possible that you should surrender your very own son for the like of us?  No human heart can imagine a sacrifice like this.  It is a love we can not describe with words, but a joy we can sense in our hearts and sing with our tongues.  We can only pray that you will enlarge our hearts by the work of your Holy Spirit until we are fully shaped by your love and given to the sharing of that love with others.

Come into the midst of your people even now, O Lord and touch every heart with your Spirit, lighten every burden with the power of your touch. Call forth praise from our lips and the world shall know indeed that you are God and there is no other god before you. We are created to know and love You forever.

May we go from this place today with a fresh understanding of just how wonderful your grace is and commit ourselves to following more closely the example of your Son.

All praise and honor, all blessing and glory we give to you this day.


A Prayer of Dedication

We give thanks to you, O God, for the wondrous gift of your love and grace.
You have loved us with a deep love, long before we could love you in return.
You offered the gift of life everlasting when we were undeserving.  The gifts we
present to you today are but meager tokens of the love we feel for you.  O Lord,
please grow your love in our hearts so that we can perfectly worship you and
worthily magnify your holy name.  Amen