Over the years I have written several "book" or "booklets" and many, many, many newsletter and bulletin articles. Because the book market seeks writings to meet specific needs at specific times, my material has never been accepted. I have a tendency to write what is on my mind and so I am left with self publishing. So, with the encouragement from my wife and others, I am beginning this blog in order to put my "ramblings" "out there"! I hope you enjoy!
Please note that while my intentions are to use good grammar, because of the way in which some of the material presented here is presented (orally) the grammar and syntax might not always be the best English. Also note that good theology is not always presented in the best English so there may be times when the proper grammar rules are purposely broken.
Sunday, September 4, 2016
On Being a Slave - September 4, 2016 - Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18) - Text: Philemon 1:1-21
Our lessons for this morning remind us of the difficulty of being Christians. God’s commands are good, even meet, right and salutary. And yet, His commands really are more than just commands, they are statements of instruction for our well-being. Both the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel lesson remind us that no matter how God instructs us for our own good, we tend to disobey and do things our own way. Perhaps that is why our Epistle lesson is the account of Paul’s letter on behalf of the runaway slave Onesimus. At the same time, in giving instruction concerning the conversion of this slave, Paul has some powerful words for us concerning our own nature and our relationship with our Lord.
I do not want to re-fight the Civil War this morning, but our text leads us back to two questions that I am sure were asked in the days of the Civil War. Is slavery a good thing or a bad thing? And does the Bible condemn slavery? Prayerfully we will be able to answer those questions and get a better understanding of our own nature and relationship with our Lord by the time we are finished this morning. My prayer then, is that first and foremost we might connect Paul’s words of address to this issue to our own spiritual well-being and need. I want to begin by asking you not to take anything that I say out of context, because if you stop at any point you may think that I am saying something that I am not saying. I want to begin by quoting from the Kretzmann commentary which says, “the apostle establishes the principle that the Gospel does not invalidate human ordinances that are not in themselves against the Moral Law.” In other words, slavery is not against the Moral Law, that is the Ten Commandments, but that is not where we need to stop when discussing the issue of slavery.
In our country we have a rather limited view of slavery. When we hear the word slavery we immediately think of the slavery of Africans that were brought to America before the Civil War. We forget that in Biblical times slavery included those people that were defeated in war, as well as slavery of one’s own people. Slavery included other nations making the Israelites slaves. The Israelites making other nations slaves. The Israelites making other Israelites slaves and on and on. Slavery was a rather broad topic. You might also remember that the Moral Law made certain stipulations for dealing with slaves. But, that does not answer the original question, “Is slavery a good thing or a bad thing?”
The background of our text is that Paul was in prison for preaching the Gospel. Paul, who had been putting Christians in prison for being Christians, who was now an Apostle for Jesus, was now himself in prison for preaching that Jesus Christ is Lord. Yet, while he was in prison, he was able to continue to have visitors and to preach the good news of salvation.
While in prison, Onesimus, a runaway slave, came to Paul. He heard the message of salvation that Paul was preaching. The Holy Spirit worked through the Word of the Lord that he heard and he believed the message of salvation. And he wanted to make amends, thus he came to Paul to seek his help. In the process he and Paul had become friends and he had become very helpful for Paul, probably running errands and doing things that Paul could not do because he was in prison.
Our text is the letter that Paul is writing to pave the way for Onesimus to return to his master. You may have noticed that I am still dodging our initial questions, “Is slavery a good thing or a bad thing?” and “does the Bible condemn slavery?”
Again, our text is the letter that Paul wrote for Onesimus. Paul begins his letter to Onesimus’ owner and master, Philemon, by pointing out Onesimus’ conversion. He is no longer a heathen, but a fellow believer. He is now a brother in the faith. He is a brother to Paul as well as to his master, Philemon.
As a solution to the trouble that Onesimus has caused, Paul offers himself to be in debt. His solution is to be a type of Christ. Notice I did not say he was trying to be Christ, but rather he is being a type of Christ. Just as Christ gives His life for ours, Paul offers to give his life for Onesimus. In a minute we will talk a little more about what this says to us about slavery in general and our own slavery.
You might also notice in this letter the fact that Paul is acting as a mediator for Onesimus. Paul is writing as the go-between for Philemon and Onesimus. In this way he is also a type of Christ. Just as Christ is our Mediator, our go-between for us and God the Father. As our Mediator, Jesus offers His life, His suffering, His death and His resurrection for us, in our place. Jesus gives Himself for us so that we might stand before the Father in His holiness and purity.
As we contemplate slavery, right or wrong, we want to direct our attention to our own slavery, that is that we are slaves, not to another person, but to sin. We are all very much like Onesimus, that is we are all slaves to sin. And yes, although we do not like that word, slavery, and would rather shy away from using that word and perhaps use another word, maybe, servant, that is the word that our text uses, slavery. We are slaves to sin. We are conceived and born in sin, “surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). We are slaves to sin and our desire is to sin (every inclination of man’s heart is evil all the time). We are slaves to sin and, interestingly enough, this slavery is not something we rebel against. We like being slaves to sin. But this slavery is a condemning slavery. This slavery is a bad slavery. Thankfully, this slavery is one from which Christ has come to free us.
Yet, the fact of the matter remains, at least for us as human beings, we must be slaves to something. Our nature is that we must be slaves. While our first option is to be slaves to sin, our second option is to be slaves to Christ. To be a slave to Christ is a good thing. To be a slave to Christ is a right thing. It is unnatural, but it is the only thing that will save us.
By God’s grace, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace, we have a desire to be slaves to Christ. This desire does not come from inside of us, but it comes from outside of us, it comes as a response to the fact that Christ is our Mediator between us and God. Again, as I said earlier, Paul was a type of Christ in his being a mediator for Onesimus. Christ is our Mediator. He stands before the Father in heaven offering His life for ours. The Father looks at us and by faith, instead of seeing us as sinful human beings, He sees us wearing Jesus’ white robes of righteousness.
What does God through Paul tells us this morning concerning slavery? He reminds us that we are to become slaves to Christ. We are people who have to have something in our lives. If Christ were not in our lives we would fill that void with something else, and most probably that something else would be sin.
How do we become slaves to Christ instead of slaves to sin? This becoming a slave to Christ is not something we can do in and of ourselves. We become slaves to Christ by first and foremost being given to by Christ. We are given to by Christ by being where He comes to give His good gifts and blessings, in other words, by making regular and diligently, daily and weekly, use of the means that He has of giving us His good gifts and blessings, that is by being in the Word and making use of the means of grace, the Word, the Bible and the Sacraments, Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and confession and absolution. As we are given to by God, He moves in us and stirs in us to give ourselves to Christ. We give ourselves to Christ, not because of some inner motivation, but because the Holy Spirit works this response of faith in us, working through the outward means of grace.
One result of our becoming slaves to Christ is that He stirs in us to respond to His good gifts and blessings. We respond by giving ourselves first to the Lord and also by giving of our time, talents and treasures. In this way we have become slaves to the Lord.
Now, getting back to our original questions, “Is slavery a good thing or a bad thing?” and “does the Bible condemn slavery?” The Bible does not say, “thou shalt not have slaves.” In this way, the Bible does not condemn slavery. I would say, not according to the Biblical understanding of slavery, which includes an understanding of our sinful nature, yet I would believe that according to how it was practiced in the United States, and is still practiced around the world even today, it would be condemned. I want to quote another commentator, Lenski says: “This epistle is the Biblical answer to the question of slavery. Here we have no law of outward compulsion to forbid slavery but a gospel spirit of love which so changes the heart that slavery automatically withers and becomes impossible.” In other words, although the Bible does not say, “thou shalt not have slaves,” as Christians, we would be convinced by the Gospel that slavery is impossible.
Yet, the struggle remains for us and our relationship with the Lord. We are of a nature that we must be slaves. We must be slaves either to idolatry or to God. We cannot free ourselves from our slavery to sin. Paul’s words are our prayer for ourselves to our dear Father in heaven. His prayer is that the Holy Spirit will give us faith through the means of grace and that, having been given faith, God the Father will free us from our slavery to sin and make us slaves to Christ, even brothers of Jesus. My prayer for you is that the Lord will so fill you with His Holy Spirit that you will be moved to be slaves to Him, first by being given the gifts He has to give and second by responding with giving Him first yourself and then by giving from all that He has given to you. Ultimately I pray that your response may be to live your life in such a way that it says, to God be the glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.