Preaching Philemon

When preaching Philemon we must get the story. I suspect one of the reasons that preaching lacks appeal is that we often miss the story. The fact is, we miss the message when we miss the story.

The letter is addressed to Philemon, a Christian in Colossae. The church meets at his house. Philemon has honor (honor was very important in the first century). And it is important to know – he is a slave owner.

The letter introduces us to Onesimus. His name means useless. He is a slave, a slave from Phiilemon’s house. And a runaway slave at that. While away he finds Paul, the one writing this letter with his own hand. And now he has become Christian.

Onesimus is sent back home with this letter. And the this letter is read out loud at church. “To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker – also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier – and to the church that meets in your home.”

Needless to say, this is an interesting situation. And quite a dilemma for Philemon. Our preaching should allow the story to be interesting and should present the obvious dilemma.

First century Christians did not dress up and sit in rows at church and we get the story better if we can picture that. Onesimus may be standing in front next to the reader. Philemon would be present. And in the room would have been some very strong feelings about a runaway slave who is now standing there in front of him.

Other slaves in the room might have been glad to see Onesimus, or afraid for him, or angry that his actions may make their lives more difficult. The free people in the room might think it important for Philemon to do whatever is necessary to maintain his honor. I suspect there are moments of awkward silence as well as times of anxious rustling. Everyone in the room knows this is a very real dilemma.

But there is something else in the room. Gospel enters with this letter. They gathered to hear it. They wanted to take it seriously. But that is easier said than done. Gospel complicates things when there is already tension in the house.

We want to be sure and notice Paul’s moves. He addresses Philemon as “dear friend and fellow worker.” He then says “I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do.” And then, “but I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” He then tosses this into the mix “I am an old man and now also a prisoner.” And then he pushes again. The intensity in the room was high. Everyone knows this is a very real dilemma.

Paul is no activist, this is no protest of slavery. It is much more than that. This is Gospel being delivered in a very real situation. Philemon is being asked to act according to the Gospel. Not because of guilt. Not because he was told to. This letter is written because the Gospel must be taken seriously. It is important for the church that Philemon gets this right. We do not usually refer to this letter as Gospel, but this is totally Gospel.

This is the message that in church, no one is more important than anyone else. In church, power does not define relationship. In the church, even the relationship between slave owner and runaway is shaped by the Gospel. Onesimus was a slave, but now he is Philemon’s brother. This Gospel makes a difference in real situations and real relationships. The church is the place where the kingdom of God is taking shape. The ways of the empire give way to the ways of the Kingdom. This becomes obvious to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

The question is in the room for Philemon and the rest of us. “How serious are you about the Gospel? How Christian are you? Are you Christian until it affects your honor? Until it affects your property?” Everyone in the congregation is asking themselves how serious they are about this Gospel they gather to hear about on Sundays.

Onesimus may mean useless, but he is called “useful” in v.11. A runaway slave is a major character in this letter because he is a major character in the church. Power and status fly out the window in the letter to Philemon.

This letter asks us all how serious we are about Gospel. It reminds us where the Kingdom takes root, in real places and real gatherings and real relationships like we find at Philemon’s house. When preaching Philemon we are calling listeners to welcome and forgive. Preaching Philemon will call us to respond to a very real dilemma.

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Preaching: a Corporate Act

Eugene Peterson shares an interesting journey about his preaching ministry and I suspect he is not the only one who has traveled this path. In As Kingfishers Catch Fire, he tells how he began his preaching ministry by viewing the people who gathered on Sundays as part of his plan to succeed. He confesses he was thinking competitively about other churches. Calculating how he could beat them at the numbers game. It sounds like he viewed people more like commodities than congregants.

One day he began to realize that “What I was doing from the pulpit each Sunday was not preaching… I was whipping up enthusiasm. I was explaining the nature of what we had to do… I was using the place of worship as a bully pulpit… I had a job to do – get a congregation up and running – and I was ready to use any means at hand to do it; appeal to the consumer instincts of people, use abstract principles to unify enthusiasm, shape goals by using catchy slogans, create publicity images that provided ego enhancement.”

If you have read Peterson before you are probably noticing this does not sound like him at all. Yet, from this point he begins to sound a little more familiar. He begins talking about a biblical imagination and an emerging narrative that viewed lives together as something more than we are individually. He talks about weeding out stereotypes that identified souls as problems to be fixed or resources to be exploited.

Peterson claims that something like a novel began to emerge where the people who worshipped together were involved with one another. The people were part of this whether they knew it or not, whether they wanted to be or not. The congregation was no longer a collection of individuals but a body with distinctive parts. Peterson tells how he began to embrace the congregation as they were rather than how he wanted them to be. The gathered people became integral to the sermon. Preaching became a corporate act. 

A Reading List of Sermons

Scot McKnight posted a reading list of sermons earlier today. He claims to read them for spiritual formation and for suggestions to improve his own preaching. Here are the works he claims to read from most;

Rudolf Bultmann, This World and Beyond

Karl Barth, God in Action and Deliverance to the Captives

Fred Craddock, Collected Sermons

Martin Luther King Jr., A Gift of Love

Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of the Gospel

Walter Brueggemann, Collected Sermons

William Willimon, Collected Sermons

Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way

Eugene Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire

C. K. Barrett, Classic Sermons

Charles Spurgeon, Sermons

So, I am curious, do you read sermons? What do you gain from reading sermons? Who do you enjoy reading?

Jonathan Edwards and Preaching to Culture

In Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, Tim Keller shares much of what he has learned about preaching. One of my favorite parts is found in the footnotes. In case you do not read footnotes, you might want to read the following about Jonathan Edwards. Namely that he changed his preaching style when he moved to Stockbridge, MA in 1751.

Yes, the author of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” became gentler when he began preaching to the Mohican and Mohawk Indians on the edge of the frontier. According to Keller, his sermons became briefer and more compressed. He began to use more images and metaphors. Not only that, he started to choose images he hoped would resonate with the Indians. This is evident in his sermon “Warring with the Devil.” From the text in Luke 11 he depicts the strong man as Satan who is fully armed and a powerful warrior who has taken us captive. “Sin is therefore imaged as the state of being in thrall of an armed enemy.”

And then Edwards introduces grace and salvation. These of course come through Christ “A greater armed man, who can liberate us.” We are told that Edwards did not often discuss warfare, yet, “The Indian warrior culture provided his rhetorical opportunity.”

As much as I like these highlights from “Warring with the Devil,” I like what Keller tells about Edward’s first sermon to the Indians even more. In “The Things that Belong to True Religion” he does not begin with detailed exegesis, he does not add a treatise on doctrine or give multiple bible proofs. “He does something he had never done before – he begins with an extended story, the story of Cornelius… a racial outsider, a ‘heathen warrior,’ who finds faith in Christ.”

Edwards goes on to outline human history as the spreading of the gospel. From a family to a nation to Europeans like Cornelius. He talks about his own people, the English, who once worshipped idols but now follow Jesus. “Now, Edwards argues, the gospel is spreading from the Europeans to the Indians.” This is brilliant. Edwards identifies with the Indians. Even more, “This account puts the hearers themselves squarely in the middle of the great story of the world and of what God is doing in it.” Edwards shows his listeners that they are part of God’s plan.

A Soundtrack for the Seasons of a Human Life

When preaching the psalms, we are reminded that old Israel sang about things that matter. These songs travel through seasons of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, of blessing and suffering, of joy and grief, of forgiveness and resentment. These songs travel through the intense feelings that humans have experienced. The psalms are like a soundtrack for the seasons of human life.

But this is no Gaither sing-a-long.  These songs and prayers have a lot of rough edges.  Many are likely written by David. A guy who worked fields of livestock. A guy who kept lookout for lions and bears and was willing to battle them to protect the flock. A guy who carried a slingshot into a creekbed one day and met a giant on the other side. A guy who entered the battlefield without armor. A guy who hid in wilderness caves while there was a bounty on his life. A guy with experiences to match his imagination. These are songs with rough edges, prayers that are blatantly honest. And they always bring us into the company of God.

We might be tempted to preach around the rough edges and make the psalms sound more religious. Walter Brueggemann helps us to allow the psalms speak in all of their messiness. In The Message of the Psalms he suggests the themes of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. He suggests the flow of human life is located either in the actual experience of one of these categories or in the movement from one to another.

Brueggemann proposes that psalms of orientation address satisfied seasons of life that prompt thankfulness for experienced blessings. He proposes psalms of disorientation are laments during seasons of doubt, hurt, alienation, and suffering. These express rage and resentment and self-pity and hatred. He proposes psalms of new orientation as songs that are sung when surprised by new gifts of God, when joy breaks through despair, when light breaks into darkness.

Preach the psalms because we need lyrics that push us beyond rational thinking. We need melodies that dismantle things that seem so certain. We need tunes and tones that call us back to our homeland. Preach the psalms because we do not want to neglect such a gathering of composers and instrumentalists, of artists and lyricists, of poets and praying people that bring us back to the reality that God is interested in the seasons of human life.

That You May Believe

Next weekend I will be in conversation with preachers about preaching the Gospels. Here are some things that we may highlight from the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John tells us there are so many stories about Jesus they cannot possibly fit in one book. In fact, John goes on to say the world could not possibly contain the books that would be written. Obviously, John wants us to know there is much that could be said about Jesus. He also wants us to know that the stories we find in this Gospel are written that we might believe.

This is emphasized from the very first chapter. There when Jesus meets Nathaniel, the episode ends with Jesus saying “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” Right away we hear the emphasis on belief and we get that John is not writing about Jesus’s skills of identifying who sits under what tree. As we near the end of the Gospel Jesus says to Thomas “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

In between these episodes, the chapters are full of sayings and signs and other stories that encourage us to believe. After all, John wants us to know that “These are written that you may believe… and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Enough Gospel to Go Around

Later this month I will have the opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching (and am looking forward to it). Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one emphasis of our conversation.

Luke’s Gospel wants us to be sure to know there is enough gospel to go around. There are no quotas or limits. We do not have to budget gospel or worry that it will run out. In the gospel, Jesus is throwing good news around as if there is an endless supply. One of the questions Luke seems to ask is “How are things different now that Jesus has arrived?” and Luke’s Gospel seems to answer that question with “Let me tell you…”

Early in the Gospel Jesus preaches a sermon. (It is not well received. Perhaps it is good for us to discover here that not all sermons are well received. Perhaps we should evaluate our definition of success). In this sermon Jesus tells us how things are now different. There will be good news and freedom and recovery of sight and favor. The recipients include the poor and prisoners and blind and oppressed. We are supposed to catch on to the notion that there is enough gospel to go around. And this is only the beginning. Luke will give us multiple pictures of what that looks like.