Thursday, July 18, 2013

Free Indeed!

Today is the fourth day in our 28th week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  2 Chronicles 15-16; 1 Kings 16; Philemon.

John Brown.  Harriet Tubman.  Frederick Douglass.  Henry Ward Beecher.  Sojourner Truth.  Harriet Beecher Stowe.  These people are synonymous with the abolitionist movement in the United States.  When you hear these names, you think of people who hated slavery and loved freedom, people who worked to see enslaved people in America set free from their bondage and oppression.  These people are heroes to us because they changed our society.

But what about Apostle Paul?  

Many criticize Paul because he had in his hands the ability to declare slavery as completely unchristian, and yet he didn't make such a bold move.  Yet, we have in the New Testament a little book called Philemon, in which he basically did just that--the only difference was that instead of mandating an abolition of slavery for Christians, he appealed to Christian slave owners on the basis of love.

From what we can glean from reading between the lines, Onesimus (a common slave-name which means "useful") was a slave belonging to a wealthy man named Philemon.  As was common in those days of house churches, a congregation met in the home of the wealthiest member who owned the largest home.  We aren't given the exact circumstance, but it's obvious that Onesimus ran away from Philemon, and somehow came into contact with Paul.  Spending time with the apostle, Onesimus finally received the Lord, and was changed from the inside out.  Then, Paul did what many believe to be unthinkable--he sent Onesimus back to his master!

You have to understand how common slavery was in Paul's day.  One-third of the people in the Roman Empire were enslaved.  People entered slavery by being the victims of Roman conquest--many whose lands were conquered by Rome were brought back as slaves.  People also entered slavery semi-voluntarily, selling themselves as slaves in order to pay their debts or to provide for their families when no other means remained.  Slavery was commonly accepted, and while there were certainly cruel masters, many enslaved people were beloved members of the household.  Paul's goal was not to overturn society, but to overturn people's hearts.  He did want to see Onesimus free--but this could best be accomplished not by mandating emancipation, but by appealing to Philemon on the basis of love.

I get a kick out of reading the book of Philemon, because I read how Paul passive-aggressively tries to force Philemon to free Onesimus.  Paul operates on the basis of social pressure and guilt.  He does it with good intentions, yet it cracks me up to see his methods.

Notice in verse two that this letter isn't simply a message to one person.  Paul wants the letter to be read in front of the entire congregation.  If Paul's desire here is granted, then how can Philemon possibly keep Onesimus as a slave?  How can he refuse Paul, who writes with such words, and publicly charges him to receive the young man as a brother, rather than as a slave?

I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and faith toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.I pray that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ. For I have great joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.

For this reason, although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right, I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus,10 appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I fathered him while I was in chains. 11 Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him back to you as a part of myself. 13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place. 14 But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will. 15 For perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave—as a dearly loved brother. He is especially so to me, but even more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

17 So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me. 18 And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, may I have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Since I am confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 
I maintain that Paul was an abolitionist.  But unlike many in American history, Paul didn't seek to undermine slavery through political or economic pressure.  He subverted the institution by sharing the Gospel, which would change people's hearts.  And a changed heart is better than a changed law any day.  A changed simply alters people's behavior, but a changed heart gets at the very root of the problem.  

John 8:36 (GWT) says, "If The Son therefore will set you freeyou will truly be the children of liberty.”  This means that you will do more than simply celebrate your own freedom.  Children of liberty will take the Messiah's job description on themselves.  They'll claim the same thing that Jesus did when He read from the Isaiah scroll in his hometown Nazareth:

16 He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. As usual, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day and stood up to read. 17 The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to Him, and unrolling the scroll, He found the place where it was written:
18 The Spirit of the Lord is on Me,
because He has anointed Me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent Me
to proclaim freedom to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free the oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
20 He then rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. And the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on Him.21 He began by saying to them, “Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled.”

Just as the scripture was fulfilled through Jesus, so it can also be fulfilled through all who follow him.  God has called us to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.  God has called us to work to set free those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.  Like Paul, each of us has to decide how we will go about this assignment.  For some, that may mean working to overturn unjust laws.  For others, it may simply mean creating an atmosphere of love, in which oppression simply cannot survive.

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