Philemon 1-21

Class Distinctions

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Philemon 1-21

Class Distinctions

Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Here’s the sermon in a nutshell: We live in a world filled with all manner of class distinctions; yet, there are to be no class distinctions in the Church of Jesus Christ.

Our point of reference is a runaway slave named Onesimus. Onesimus fled from his master, Philemon, in Colossae to hide out on the streets of Rome. Paul had led Philemon to Christ, so it’s possible that Onesimus knew Paul, at least by sight. Regardless, when he got to Rome he sought out Paul and became Paul’s personal servant by his own free will.

This created a dilemma for Paul. It’s what we would call today an “approach-avoidance complex.” He wanted to keep Onesimus with him, but he had a moral obligation to send him back, knowing that Philemon had every right to punish Onesimus, even have him put to death.

So, Paul wrote this letter for Onesimus to take with him. He addressed it not only to Philemon, but to two other individuals by name – “the beloved Apphia” and a man named Archippus, whom Paul refers to as “our fellow soldier.” Who are Apphia and Archippus? We’re not sure, but perhaps they are Philemon’s wife and his minister.

In addition to Apphia and Archippus, Paul addressed the letter to the congregation that met in Philemon’s home. He wants the whole church to weigh in on the matter. In fact, the way he puts it sounds like something you’d hear in a court of law: “I am referring his case to you.”

He points out how helpful Onesimus has been to him and urges Philemon not to punish him for running away. But he doesn’t stop there. He appeals to Philemon to regard Onesimus as more than a slave, but as a brother in Christ.

Paul doesn’t challenge the status quo. Onesimus will continue to be a slave and Philemon will continue to be his master. The difference is this: Onesimus will now serve Philemon as if he were serving Christ; and Philemon will treat Onesimus not as a piece of property, but as a man of integrity and equal worth in the sight of God. This echoes what Paul wrote to the Colossians:

“Servants, obey … your masters according to the flesh …
work heartily, as for the Lord,
and not for men …” (Colossians 3:22)

Masters, give to your servants that which is just and equal,
knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 4:1)

Here’s the sum of it all: We live in a world marked by class distinctions; not so the Church of Jesus Christ. In the sight of God, we are one and the same. As Paul told the Galatians,

“There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free man,
there is neither male nor female;
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
(Galatians 3:28)

I taught World Religions at our local community college for a couple of semesters. When we got to the study of Hinduism, we took a close look at the caste system – The Brahmins at the top, the Sudras near the bottom.

Hindus believe in reincarnation. If you do well as a Sudra – a common laborer – you might come back as a Vaisya, a skilled laborer or technician. If you screw up royally, you might come back as a slug.

This led to the question, whether or not we operate under a caste system in the United States today. We still have an upper class, middle class and lower class. But we also have the freedom of upward mobility. We like to think if you’ve got the innate gifts and abilities, and if you’re willing to work hard enough, you can move up and improve your station in life.

Aldous Huxley didn’t see it that way. In his book, Brave New World, he pictured society moving toward even more clearly defined tiers, from the Alpha Pluses at the top to the Delta Minuses at the bottom, with varying degrees of Betas and Gammas in between.

You get a taste of this in the Masterpiece Theatre series, Downton Abbey. You’ve got your lords and ladies at the top and, beneath them, a whole array of valets, chamber maids and footmen, the butler, the chauffer, the cook, the gardeners, and other domestic servants. Each has a well-defined place in the pecking order of the household. And, while the servants may aspire to move up a notch or two within their ranks, they will never, ever cross into the world of the nobility.

Of course, Downton Abbey is set in England in the early 20th Century. Class distinction in our day and age is not so clearly defined. In some ways it has to do with wealth and privilege; in countless other ways it’s more a matter of mindset, principles and values. Some of the tell-tale signs of class distinction include …

• The books you read
• The forms of entertainment that appeal to you
• The foods you eat
• The company you keep

To paraphrase Paul in the 12th chapter of 1st Corinthians,

There are varieties of people,
but it is the same Spirit that inspires each and every one.
If everyone went to the opera,
Who would stay at home to watch Duck Dynasty?
If everyone ate fresh-steamed broccoli and carrots,
Who would buy Hamburger Helper or go to McDonalds?
If everyone listened to Beethoven and classical music,
Who would listen to Snoop Dogg and Gangsta Rap?

Class distinction is not necessarily a bad thing. Larry the Cable Guy probably wouldn’t feel at home at the ballet, and I’m pretty sure Julie Andrews would feel out of place at a professional wrestling match. You get the picture.

On our recent road trip with Tate, we stopped at truck stops along the way for diesel fuel. We discovered there’s a world of difference between the convenience store at the front for everyday motorists and the driver’s lounge at the back for the men who drive the big 18-wheelers.

So, yes – the world we live in is filled with all manner of class distinctions. It’s a reality of life, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. God loves high brows and red necks just the same.

The question is what makes the church any different? The answer is Jesus Christ. He is the Lord and Savior of our lives. As importantly, he is the model for how we are to live out our lives in faith. Seated at the right hand of God the Father, he left his lofty throne and became as one of us. Paul writes,

“… (he) didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,
being made in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death,
yes, the death of the cross.”
(Philippians 2:5-8)

If you put this in terms of class distinctions, can you think of anyone with higher class distinction than Jesus? Yet, he humbled himself and took his place on the lowest rung of the ladder. He would have us do the same. He told his disciples,

“You know that they who are recognized as rulers over the nations
lord it over them,
and their great ones exercise authority over them.
But it shall not be so among you,
but whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant.
Whoever of you wants to become first among you,
shall be bondservant of all.
For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve,
and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

(Mark 10:42-45)

If you read the gospels carefully, you’ll find that Jesus’ life was devoid of class distinctions. He ate with wealthy tax collectors as well as common, everyday sinners. He befriended Roman officials as well as synagogue leaders. He healed the servant of a Roman Centurion (Matthew 8:5), the son of a Jewish father (Mark 9:17) and the daughter of a Syro-Phoenecian woman (Mark 7:25). He walked among temple leaders as well as lepers. He made a place for children, as well as adults.

Jesus had no use for class distinctions; fittingly, his most scorching words were directed to those who did. He told his disciples,

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk in long robes,
and to get greetings in the marketplaces,
and the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts:
those who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers.
These will receive greater condemnation.”

(Mark 12:38-40)

He told the chief priests and the elders, “Most certainly I tell you that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering into God’s Kingdom before you.” (Matthew 21:31)

As for class distinctions in the church, here’s what James had to say:

“For if a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing,
comes into your synagogue,
and a poor man in filthy clothing also comes in;
and you pay special attention to him who wears the fine clothing,
and say, ‘Sit here in a good place’;
and you tell the poor man, ‘Stand there,’ or ‘Sit by my footstool’;
haven’t you shown partiality among yourselves,
and become judges with evil thoughts?”
(James 2:2-4, 8-9)

Paul hit the nail on the head when he admonished the Philippians,

“… make my joy full, by being like-minded,
having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind;
doing nothing through rivalry or through conceit,
but in humility, each counting others better than himself…”
(Philippians 2:2-3)

Peter summed it up when he went to the home of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. It broke the rules of everything he’d been taught to enter the home of a Gentile, yet here he was. He said,

“Truly I perceive that God doesn’t show favoritism;
but in every nation he who fears him
and works righteousness is acceptable to him.”
(Acts 10:34-35)

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We had an unlikely couple join the church a few years ago. They actually came to the church midweek looking for work. They ran a small cleaning business out of the trunk of their car, cleaning offices after work, and they came to the door to solicit our business. I told them we couldn’t afford a custodial service but we’d love to have them come and worship with us. Long story, short, they came and joined. For their contribution, they pledged to clean the church once a week for free. Sweet.

I say they were an unlikely couple because the congregation, as a whole, was upper middle class. This couple lived from hand to mouth. Their work clothes and Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes were one and the same. But they were good people, and this came to light one Sunday in a surprising and rather dramatic way.

The year was 1981, the year thousands of Cuban refugees were sent to Fort Chafee. Our Missions Committee went to Fort Chafee to see about sponsoring one of the refugees. They came back with a favorable report and said all they needed was for a family to step forward to host the refugee. That’s when the project stalled. Agreeing to sponsor a refugee was one thing; having him live in your home was out of the question.

A couple of weeks went by, and it looked like the idea was going to die on the vine. Then, after church, this couple met me at the door and asked if they could speak to me in private. We stepped into the church office and closed the door. A few minutes later they came out, got in their car and drove away.

One of the elders was standing in the wings and saw the whole thing. As they walked out the door, he came up to me and asked, “Were they hitting you up for money?” I said, “No, they said if no one objected, they would like to invite the Cuban refugee to stay in their home.”

The world we live in is filled with all manner of class distinctions. When you come to church, leave them at the door.

The story of Onesimus comes with a footnote. About fifty years after Paul wrote this letter to Philemon, Ignatius, one of the early Christian martyrs, wrote to the church at Ephesus praising their beloved bishop, Onesimus. Scholars are not one-hundred percent sure that this was the same runaway slave referred to in the letter, but then scholars are seldom one-hundred percent sure of anything. This much we know: Colossae is not far from Ephesus, and how many men have you ever heard of named Onesimus?

So, consider the possibility that, in God’s mercy, Philemon and the church at Colossae made a place for Onesimus when he returned and, in time, Philemon set him free to become the person God had destined him to be – an esteemed leader of the church.

And, if that’s the case, just think of the possibilities of what God can accomplish through us if we’re willing to lay aside all distinctions and regard each individual who walks through these doors as a brother or sister in Christ, working together for the glory of his kingdom.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2013, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.