October 19, 2016 Length: 9:46
"This is how the Church address politics every Sunday. Not by endorsing or opposing candidates, but by dealing with the spiritual roots of all the issues that affect all citizens. We locate the heart, then work our way out from there."
The year is 2016. 62 years ago, a United States Senator named Lyndon Johnson pushed through an amendment to the Internal Revenue Service, prohibiting tax-exempt organizations such as churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates. That amendment survives today. A church cannot endorse or oppose a political candidate, but it says nothing about a church addressing politics, which is good, because a church addresses politics every Sunday, every time it assembles together.
How, precisely, does it do that? Let’s turn to holy Scripture, specifically to a book in the New Testament that contains only one chapter of 25 verses. In fewer than just 500 words, the book tackles one of the most explosive, one of the most devastating political topics of all time: slavery. Let’s remember: slavery is a system in which principles of property law are applied to human beings, allowing them to be classified as property, to be owned, bought, and sold accordingly, and who cannot withdraw freely from that system.
It may be fair to say that no civilization anywhere in the world in recorded history has not practiced in some way the exploitation of persons by other persons, of groups by other groups, of the powerless by the powerful. Certainly, in the United States, no other political issue has haunted our memories and imaginations as much as slavery, which brings us back to one New Testament book of one chapter, 25 verses, fewer than 500 words.
The book is not addressed to a local congregation or a group of believers, but to a person. It’s a personal letter, written in a personal tone, to a personal friend, and it’s about that personal friend’s relationship with another person. The letter is by the Apostle Paul, his personal friend who receives the letter is Philemon, and the personal tone is on display when the letter opens.
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints. I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother.
Personal, right? Warm. Here’s the backstory. Philemon was like many good men who bought into a bad system. He wasn’t a monster, just a Roman citizen who participated in Roman political realities, including slavery. Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus, who escaped. Escaping was illegal, of course, because Roman law was written by slaveholders and not by slaves. Onesimus becomes a fugitive who travels for a bit until he stumbles upon the Apostle Paul and his merry band of missionaries. Paul listens to Onesimus and understands the problem. On the one hand, he had written Romans 13, describing the importance of honoring the authority of the government; but on the other hand, he now has two Christians estranged from each other because one who had power was mistreating one who had none.
What does Paul do? He sends Onesimus back to the very place from which he fled, but sends him back with a letter, a personal letter, for Philemon. Can you imagine that long walk home for Onesimus? What will he face when he arrives? Will Philemon, his owner—or will he not—exercise his legal rights over his escaped slave? It could mean punishment; it could mean leniency. The letter Onesimus carried in his sweaty palms around the year 60 AD is the one you and I get to read in our Bibles today, and that letter from Paul to Philemon, displaying a lovely blend of tender affection and good logic, basically asks Philemon, the slaveholder, to cut it out.
But listen to how Paul pulls it off. He reminds Philemon of his authority as founder and leader of Philemon’s own church. Then he shows what it looks like for those in authority to lay aside their power for the good of those who have none. Paul writes: “Although I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required”—there’s the authority—“for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you for my child Onesimus”—there’s the laying-aside. After setting that stage, Paul gets to the heart.
I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. Receive him back, not as a servant, but more than a servant. Receive him as a beloved brother.
Now, what will happen if the slaveholder Philemon lays aside the power he has over his slave Onesimus and receives him back not as a servant but as a beloved brother? The end of slavery. Paul is fully aware of the political reality of slavery, yet he cuts to the spiritual root of that reality. Philemon, you follow the same Jesus I do. You know the same parable of the prodigal son that I do. Philemon, be the father; be the father who receives back his wayward son who wandered away, and receive him back, not as a servant, but as a member of the family. Do it with joy in our common Christ, who has set us all free.
Did it work? Philemon went on to become a bishop over the area known today as Gaza, while Onesimus was indeed received as a brother and went on to become a bishop over the exalted see of Ephesus. Notice what has just happened. Over the course of 25 verses and 500 words in the book of Philemon, Paul dissolves the difficult political reality of slavery, and not once in the entire letter did he ever mention the word. Instead, he addressed a political reality by digging to its spiritual root. He avoided surface discussions where there may have been a furious difference of opinion.
He followed his own advice that he gave in a different letter to a different personal friend named Timothy. “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies. You know that they breed quarrels.” And instead Paul spoke to the heart of the matter, where he knew that he and Philemon would find common ground. “My dear friend, treat your returning brother in Christ the way Christ treated you.”
The word “politics” comes from a Greek word that means “of, for, or relating to citizens.” This is how the Church addresses politics every Sunday, not by endorsing or opposing candidates, but by dealing with the spiritual roots that affect all citizens. We locate the heart, then work our way out from there.
Pious Christians may disagree on how best to change the world, but they will not disagree that the world needs changing. If they have the maturity, they can argue about political matters, even robustly, but they know that when people feel the urge to avoid each other, they’ve let it go too far. Tending our spiritual roots in the bond of love—that’s the most important thing.
You remember in the Gospel passage, Christ amazes Peter and the other disciples with a great haul of fish onto the boat. “But from now on,” the Lord tells Peter, “you will be catching men.” “Keep first things first,” he tells the disciples. “Keep first things first.” The affairs of this world will come and go, but the souls of human beings last forever. Every political issue is, at its heart, a spiritual matter.