Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Trinity: The shortest letter.  Preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 4 September 2022 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson. (Philemon: v 1 – 21; Luke Ch 14: v 25 – 33)

In our hymn books the hymn “All things bright and beautiful” has one less verse than in the old book. The verse that has been omitted runs like this:

“The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high or lowly,
and ordered their estate.”

Mrs. Alexander, who wrote the words of this and many other hymns, lived from 1818 – 1895 and so was a real Victorian. To her and to the people of that era it seemed that God ordered the destinies of people. The rich and the poor were not only made by God and loved by him, they were also set in a particular economic position, so they thought. No doubt the idea had its appeal; there would always be some who were poor, and the rich, if they perceived their wealth to be bestowed upon them by God, might well use it for the benefit of those in real need. And indeed that did happen. Various good works were undertaken, missionary societies were founded; churches were built where new housing had sprung up. Christians who were wealthy did some conspicuous good. But times have changed and we no longer feel that we can ascribe either the wealth of the rich or the poverty of the poor to God’s will and decision.

Various results flow from this good and bad. There is less of an appeal to people to be benefactors. Instead our day has seen the rise of crowd funding and lots of individuals giving a little each to produce a large total. People today are less ready to accept things as they are and may instead work for change either by bringing Christian insights to bear or getting involved in politics.

We can find such tensions in the New Testament. Our epistle today consists of the little letter St Paul wrote to Philemon – a gem of a letter full of personal touches and showing St. Paul diffidently refraining from giving orders but hoping for a particular result and doing all that he can to influence it. It is remarkable that this very personal note was included in the New Testament at all. You might wonder where to find it. Roughly speaking the letters of St. Paul are in order of length with Roman first and so Philemon, the shortest, last. There are, of course letters from others and the Revelation of St. John so Philemon is not the last book of the NT but it is placed last in order of St. Paul’s letters.

Philemon was a prominent Christian, very probably a member of the church at Colossae. Slavery was universal in the Roman empire and one of Philemon’s slaves was named Onesimus. He had run away from his master and possibly had taken some money or some other valuable item with him. Somehow he had come into contact with St. Paul and had become a Christian and in addition had become a helpful companion for St. Paul. Now it was time for the situation to be regularised. St. Paul hoped that Onesimus and Philemon could be reconciled and that the slave’s very serious offence of running away might be forgiven. Even better perhaps Philemon might send him back to St. Paul so that he could continue his helpful assistance.

But there was no certainty about any of this. Masters had absolute power over their slaves and running away was viewed very seriously. If Onesimus had also stolen anything then he was in serious trouble. St. Paul can only write as eloquently as possible to invoke Philemon’s agreement to be merciful.

Regretfully we have no idea what was the result of St. Paul’s intervention. All returns to obscurity again after the shaft of light of St. Paul’s letter. The only slight clue we have is that Ignatius writing at the beginning of the 2nd Century wrote of someone named Onesimus who had become bishop of Ephesus during the second half of the 1st century. Was he the Onesimus of St. Paul’s letter? We don’t know.

To us slavery seems abhorrent and unchristian but it is easy to be wise with hindsight. The Christian church at the time of St. Paul was tiny and had a negligible influence on a society in which slavery was embedded. But it did have an effect at a personal level and that is where St. Paul sets out to make his influence felt. It is in the lives of 2 Christians, Philemon the Christian master and Onesimus the Christian slave that changes can take place. And when that sort of change had taken place in the lives of many people then it came to be seen that the enslavement of another human being was wrong. Then the pressure to change the law became irresistible so that the African tribes who sold their enemies into slavery found the trade no longer possible and those who transported their human cargo found the market had become unacceptable and those who had owned other human beings found that the practice was despised.

As Christians our task is clear. We need to work away at the personal level bringing reconciliation between people, helping them to live as good neighbours. As matters are put right at that level so society as a whole will change for the better and come to accept more radical changes in the ways in which people are treated.

So in a very real sense St. Pauls’ words to Philemon urging Christian treatment of his runaway slave Onesimus paved the way for the eventual abolition of slavery.

May our words and actions driven by our faith at a personal level have such far-reaching consequences as well.