Sermons : Sisters and Brothers in Christ

By Anna Pinckney Straight on September 5, 2010 | News by the same author

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Sisters and Brothers in Christ
A sermon preached by
Anna Pinckney Straight
University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill
September 5, 2010


Philemon 1:1-25 NRSV

1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, 2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

4 When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. 7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love--and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother--especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

22 One thing more--prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. 23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.



It is a little book that packs a big punch.  A short letter with a long reach.  If you aren't sure where to find it, don't worry, you aren't alone.  Philemon.  It's right there after Titus.  Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and then Hebrews.

It's the shortest of Paul's writings included in the Canon,[1] and one of the few opportunities we have to read an entire book of the Bible on a Sunday morning.  Start to finish.  Just a little something you can brag about at the water cooler on Tuesday....

Something else about this text that isn't what we hear every day, there is general agreement about the origin and integrity of this letter.  The vast majority of Biblical scholars agree that this letter was written entirely by Paul and that there haven't been any substantial changes, edits, deletions, or additions over time.

And so, these three hundred plus words are an honest glimpse into Paul, early Christian life and theology.

Maybe even more so because Paul wrote this as a personal letter.  A letter to Philemon.  Paul understood that it would have been read aloud-to groups, congregations, families of faith, and house churches.

On the personal level, this letter is about a legal matter between Philemon and Onesimus.

We don't have all of the facts.  What we do know is that Onesimus is owned by Philemon.  Onesimus is a slave, and he has run away from his master.  And after becoming a Christian, spending time with Paul, he cannot continue to live as a runaway slave.   Paul cannot cheat Philemon and continue to allow Onesimus to serve him, knowing what he knows.

And so, in accordance with the Roman law of the time, and despite the command in Deuteronomy dictating that runaway slaves should be allowed to live in the land where they choose[2], Paul and Onesimus agree that he must return to his owner.

But he will not go alone.  He will go with Paul's words.  Paul's pleading.

Paul will plead Onesimus' case to Philemon, whom he already knows as a brother in faith.

In this letter, Paul pleads Onesimus' case.  We don't know what the offense was.  Onesimus might have stolen from his master or he might have been protesting freedom that was promised and then not given.  Paul doesn't insist, he pleads.  He encourages. 

What does it take for a slave living in freedom to return to his master?

Is it EVER something you can ask of another person? 

What might have been different in our nation's history if Paul had condemned openly and completely in this letter?  What might have been...

But that's not what Paul does.  There are some that think it is a cop-out that he avoids the major legal question.  There are many who think that instead of issuing a blow to one un-faithful practice of the day Paul is welcoming an entirely new ethic for all times.  All people of faith.

What the text does tell us is that Onesimus is now a Christian.  Redeemed.  Saved.  Transformed. When we are disciples of Christ we do things that may not, to others, to other times, or maybe even any time, make sense. 

Paul asks a lot of Onesimus.  Paul asks just as much of Philemon.

After the preliminaries of the letter are offered, he writes this,

17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.

Paul is asking Philemon to set aside what would have been his due and his right when Onesimus is returned.  Philemon would have been within his rights to return Onesimus to slavery, and possibly even to punish him.  Paul encourages Philemon to set these aside.

Or if he won't set them aside, to charge them to Paul's account.  To allow Paul to pay the price, accept the punishment.

Why would Paul do such a thing?  He was not the runaway slave.  He had not owned or committed the offense.

What made Paul think he could do such a thing, to interfere in a personal matter, a private affair?  That Philemon would read and consider what he had to say and not just throw the parchment in the trash?

Because they are family.  Connected by faith, just as some are connected by blood.

My brother. I appeal to you on the basis of love.  My child.  Father.  No longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother. Yes, brother,

And herein is Paul's point, our own teaching in these words.  What makes this letter about a personal issue also a community issue, in the year in which it was written and just as much in 2010.

We are not merely fellow believers, here in this place.  We are not just companions on a journey of faith.  Presbyterians.  Christians.  Our faith binds us together as Children of God.  Brother and Sisters in Christ.

And that change everything.

Not just us.  Our relationships, too.

The way we are church and the way we live in the world. 

It places the demands of the gospel ahead of all other demands. Jesus tells us that if we love him, accept his love, we are held to a higher standard.  Beyond law.  Beyond reasonable and customary.  The standard of love and grace, with one another, and then, out in the world.

This changes everything.  It means that when it comes to life's deepest questions, our most intense concerns, we turn to family.

  • When is the right time to call in hospice? 
  • What do you do when your marriage that is floundering?
  • What is marriage, anyway, and what should the church be saying about it?
  • How do you tell your child that they cannot participate in activities that require Sunday participation, the day that is set aside for God, and teach them it as a gift rather than a rule?
  • What do you do when the hours are increasing and the pay is decreasing, or the job on which you depended is no longer there?

What does God say about these things?  Where do we turn in the Bible for guidance?  That's what the family of faith can struggle with, together, together and with God as we discern the path before us, preferable to finding God in hindsight.

Family are the ones you can talk to about these things...  family.  The ones who know your quirks, understand where your buttons are and how they got there.  And love you.

How do we build these kinds of relationships?  How do we learn to lean on the web of faith that creates these bonds?

It starts with getting to know one another.  Names.  Joys.  Hopes.  Concerns. 

You heard Bob say that it will be Dottie Barron's 90th birthday this Wednesday, and that Marvin and Marjorie Maddox are celebrating their 40th anniversary.  Did you know that Bob and Marla Dunham, as of tomorrow, September 6, will also have been married for 40 years?  That Ben Baxley started the 1st grade two weeks ago?  That Pat Hobb's great grandson, Maxwell, will be baptized in England next week?

We start learning to be vulnerable and open with one another and with the Will and Word of God by getting to know each other. 

For these are the relationships which God uses to change us and, if you follow this path, the world in which we live. 

What might be affect by a new way of living out relationships?

  • Pay discrepancy[3]
  • Labor exploitation
  • Dialogue vs. Monologue
  • Justice or punishment

When we live as a family of faith, everything, every relationship will be changed.


The Reverend Michael Kirby writes:[4]

If we are willing to put the demands of the gospel first-that we love and honor God and love and honor our neighbors and love and honor ourselves-all of our relationships will be transformed, will be changed. Or more correctly, as Paul seems to point out, they will reveal that we are already changed. In the loving embrace of God, we have already been changed... then we will see it ...and claim it...that we have been made brothers and sisters in Christ with all of God's children in this room, in this city, in this nation, in this world.

We are not merely fellow believers, here in this place.  We are not just companions on a journey of faith.  Presbyterians.  Christians.  Our faith binds us together as Children of God.  Brother and Sisters in Christ.  We are a family.  And that changes everything, everywhere. Thanks be to God.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. 

[1] 2nd and 3rd John are shorter...

[2] Deuteronomy 23: 15-16.

"Slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them. They shall reside with you, in your midst, in any place they choose in any one of your towns, wherever they please; you shall not oppress them."

[3] The most emailed article from the New York Times this weekend deals with pay discrepancy and its connection to our ongoing recession and economic health as a nation.  It includes this information: In the late 1970s, the richest 1 percent of American families took in about 9 percent of the nation's total income; by 2007, the top 1 percent took in 23.5 percent of total income.

How to End the Great Recession, Robert B. Reich., published September 2, 2010  Accessed September 4, 2010.

[4] Michael Kirby. Paper #1: Philemon 1-21(22). The Well, 2010, Davidson, NC.

Topic TagsTags: Philemon

About the Author

Anna Pinckney Straight,


Phone: (919) 929-2102, ext. 12


Born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina (with UNC-CH grads for parents), Anna Pinckney Straight was the sixth generation of her family to join Second Presbyterian Church. After graduating from Agnes Scott College in 1993, Anna journeyed north to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York City, receiving her Master of Divinity degree in 1996.Her first congregation was in Arthurdale, West Virginia, and then in 2001 she moved to Greencastle, Pennsylvania, a small town just north of Maryland. Both of these calls were as solo Pastors.In 2006, on a whim, she replied to an advertisement for an associate pastor position at here University Presbyterian Church, and was terrified to find out that she might, in fact, be called to return south. Terrified, that is, until she traveled to Chapel Hill and met with the search committee, when she wisely began to celebrate the wisdom of this wonderful call. In November of 2006 Anna moved to Chapel Hill with her family (husband, daughter, dogs, cats, and fish). She completed her Doctor of Ministry degree at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and graduated in May of 2007.At UPC Anna works in the general area of pastoral care. She visits, welcomes new members, works with the Deacons, helps lead the Stephen Ministry program, and preaches approximately once a month.


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