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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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.

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.”

When Gospel Enters Darkness

Next month, July 29, I will have opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching. If this conversation goes as planned, we will be leaving with at least four sermons in some stage of development and ideas for a sermon series connected to each of those sermons.

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 of the emphases we will talk about that day.

The Gospel is not content with safe territory. In fact, Gospel seems to be drawn toward darkness. On account of that, we acknowledge risk when we carry the Gospel with us. To bring Gospel into darkness is to enter a battleground. While it might be paranoia to expect an evil spirit behind every tree, it is naïve to ignore the reality that there is more going on than the eye can see. The Gospel of Mark takes us into that territory. To be in the Gospel of Mark is to be saturated with powers and darkness and the question “who rules the realm?” The Gospel may be the story of the Son of God but humans and powers of darkness are woven into the story.

We might wish for something like “Ten Ways to Slay a Demon.” Instead, we find a story. And this story reminds us that every step of kingdom work is a step into heavily defended territory.

Thank You Dr. Dennis Kinlaw

Dr. Dennis Kinlaw was a college president, an Old Testament professor, a chancellor, an author, the founder of a society. But many of us will remember him as a preacher. In the religious arena I was raised in, holiness preachers were giants. Dr. Kinlaw was considered a giant among giants. When he preached you were sure of two things; he was serious about the biblical text AND he loved the listener. I remember sitting in a college classroom when our professor looked out at young preachers and said “we want to shape you into preachers like Dennis Kinlaw.”

Kinlaw would not have said anything quite like that. In his Preaching in the Spirit he says “it is part of the miraculous work of God that he uses the likes of you and me, not to mention the likes of our sermons…” Kinlaw goes so far as to say “the greatest problem in preaching is not the preparation of the sermon but the preparation of the preacher.”

I once heard Kinlaw preach a sermon that included an active conversation between members of the Trinity. I am not sure how often he used that as a homiletic tool but he includes another of these conversations in Preaching. “There are some days when I know I have not acted as I ought… I can almost hear the heavenly Father ask Jesus, ‘Son, how did that Kinlaw guy do today?’ I hear the Son respond, ‘Well, Father, he did not do so well today.’ I quake as I hear the Father say, ‘Shall we give up on him?’” Kinlaw goes on, “I see Jesus lift two scarred hands to the Father and say, ‘No, Father. We have a substantial investment in him.’” Kinlaw claims to have a love affair with those scars.

Kinlaw provides excellent counsel when he says things like “I am a Wesleyan in theology, but I need to be very careful that when I read the Bible my concern is not to find what Wesley taught, but to discover the Word of God. If Wesley opens windows on the Word of God… three cheers for Wesley; but the important thing is that the Word of God comes alive for me, so that I can share it with others.”

It is holy week as I write this. I am reminded of Kinlaw’s conversation about the followers of Jesus following the crucifixion. Jesus had died and had been buried. Disciples were feeling some strong feelings. Ad then, on Sunday, some strange stories were being told. And “As the shadows lengthened into night, those who knew him best sought out one another; when they had found each other, they locked the doors…” Then “the miracle occurred… He was there, the Living Lord in their midst… Death had not really contained Him. He was alive!

Of this we can be certain; Kinlaw would want us to continue telling these strange stories.

Preaching Politics and Revelation (Not in that Order)

I am convinced that every four years (every presidential election) we should be preaching from the New Testament book of Revelation. It is obvious the church needs the perspective Revelation provides during this part of the political cycle. Revelation is written for the church. We know this from chapters 2-3. However, for many, chapters 2-3 appear out of context with the rest of the letter. These chapters firmly establish themselves on earth, in specific places that can be located on a map. Yet, the rest of the book is a bit more difficult to locate.

Many consider this a problem that complicates things. I suspect the opposite is actually true. These are not just random places but cities that are home to local churches. Churches that receive specific instruction and affirmation. It is likely Revelation wants us to recognize that the only way to navigate the cosmic mysteries and realities of Revelation is through the church. It is likely Revelation wants us to recognize that the only way to navigate politics is through the church.

So I find myself asking, why aren’t we preaching more Revelation? Revelation begins with Jesus. In fact a picture of Jesus like we have never seen before. And then, Revelation takes us to church. This is important for the Gospel is not for individuals. The Gospel is for a people. The Gospel is always an act of community, never a private exercise, always a political exercise.

It is no accident Revelation takes us to church right after meeting Jesus. One cannot have Christ without the church. We may want to. After meeting Jesus we may think we are ready to go straight to where the seven headed dragon is defeated or to the city where there is no night. But before any other cosmic scene, Revelation takes us to church. This is important because the only way to navigate any of the cosmic mysteries is through the church.

Seven congregations are addressed. No two of them are the same. Affirmations are different. Instruction is different. Each one is defined by its relationship with Jesus. A different sermon is preached to each one. Yet, in each of these churches, they are expected to listen. Listening becomes a theological activity. In a year where we are hearing a lot of words being spoken, the church is where we should be hearing a perspective that is not being preached anywhere else.

Each congregation is significant. Revelation gives details about local congregations because these matter to God. God is interested. His Son is walking among the lampstands. His Spirit is speaking to the Churches. These things matter right here, right now, this place, these people. It is not a fictitious group of saints but real people from real congregations who sing along with the rest of creation in chapter 5 and who receive the mark of the Lamb in chapter 14.

It is emphasized to the churches that earth’s politics are not enough. Rome falls short, Caesar is not in control. Even more, Satan is not in control and his beasts fall short. From the outset, Revelation is clear that Jesus is in control and tells us He can be found among the churches. Clearly, the church has an important role in eternal affairs. Clearly, we should be preaching this very perspective.

It is true, chapters 2-3 may appear out of place in Revelation. They appear so earthy compared to the cosmic out of this world stuff that comes before and after. This is exactly the point. The local church is set smack in the middle of a story with cosmic importance. The local church is set smack in the middle of a political story. The church plays a significant role in this story. Revelation wants us to know there is always more than meets the eye and the only way to see clearly is through the church. Preach it.

Preaching from Judges

To preach from Judges is to enter dangerous territory. How should one preach from Judges? How does one navigate treacherous terrain where “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17.6; 21.25). How does one take a congregation into bloody battlefields where people are actively sinning against God? Who can know who will come out alive?

It is noteworthy the period of Judges comes after the Lord has rescued His people from slavery. After the Lord has guided them into the promised land. After the people insisted “We will serve the Lord.” Still, the people abandoned the Lord to serve the gods of the land. The text tells us the people “did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel” (Judges 2.10). And so “the Lord raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them” (Judges 2.16).

What are we to do with this theological narrative history of military heroes called judges? How do these stories influence our picture of God? Some questions are easier to avoid. It is easy to picture God as a creative genius or a sacrificial giver. It is something else to read Judges. What are we to do with a text that tells us that Jael hammered a tent peg through Sisera’s temple while he slept? Sure, Sisera was the enemy but do we expect his death to become part of a worship song in the next chapter? Still people will want to know how to worship the God portrayed in Judges.

We are to enter these texts even when we do not know what will happen on the other side. Sidestepping certain texts because they are uncomfortable is a sure way to miss out on some surprising themes. These stories should not be read as an end in themselves. Though they make us uncomfortable, we read them as part of the biblical storyline. We like to categorize things like justice, judgment, punishment, grace, hope, and worship. The bible isn’t interested in such categories. It throws them all into the same story where the waters get murky but they are all part of God making things right.