Monday, August 29, 2016

Philemon Elias Neau September 4, 2016


Proper 18C


 “. . .  no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” 

Christian faith is fundamentally subversive. Jesus stands in final judgment over against every human institution, calling us to give God the glory, and not to glorify ourselves and our own works. 

This sermon has three parts: first about the Epistle to Philemon, second about slavery particularly in early America, and third about a Christian response to that slavery.

Every 3 years on Labor Day weekend we hear the whole Epistle to Philemon. The epistle appears to recognize slavery as a part of the culture, but it fundamentally subverts the institution of slavery and calls us to live in God’s freedom, to live not for ourselves, but for God.

The letter appears to begin as a personal letter to Philemon, but it is also addressed to “Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house.” Philemon was an individual but he was part of a community – “the church in your house.” We are individuals, and we live in a society. We are born alone, but we are born into a family, into a network of relationships.  At baptism we are born again into the spiritual body of Jesus Christ, “the blessed company of all faithful people.”

St. Paul begins with thanks to God for Philemon’s life and ministry.  “When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. . . .I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.”

St. Paul sets Philemon up, and then moves to the ask.  “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.”   Onesimus is the Greek word for “useful.”  It was a common slave name. Onesimus – useful. This Onesimus apparently ran away from Philemon in Colossae and got to Paul in Rome.  Colossae was a town in the mountains of southwestern Turkey, where they grew cherries and made wool cloth.

Playing on Onesimus’ name, St.  Paul says, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.” He suggests, “perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 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.” He ends, “Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”

 Philemon is neatly boxed in. He has to choose between his personal economic interest as a slave owner and his spiritual life as a member, with Onesimus, and Apphia, Archippus, and the church in your house, of the spiritual body of Jesus Christ, “the blessed company of all faithful people.” The tradition is that he sent Onesimus back to Paul. Ignatius of Antioch wrote about 100 AD of a Bishop Onesimus of Ephesus not far from Colossae.

Second – slavery in America. Based on the teaching of the Epistle to Philemon, the early American settlers believed that baptism made slaves free. The population of colonial America grew rapidly. It more than doubled every 20 years. Not counting native Americans, a population of fewer than 27,000 in 1640 grew to over 2,700,000 by 1780.  Until about 1640 whites and Africans were treated alike. Pay back your passage in 7 years and you were free. After 1640 skin color mattered. Africans and their children were to be slaves forever – or for 225 years. But people continued to believe that baptism made slaves free. Slave owners refused to allow Church of England missionaries to preach to their slaves. Finally in the early 1700’s when the colonial population approached a quarter million people – white and black – colonial legislatures passed acts declaring that baptism did not make slaves free. Black slaves began to be baptized, to evangelize one another, to form churches. Some, mostly house slaves, some of whom had some white ancestors, would be brought to church by their masters.

Slave revolts brought increasingly violent reprisals. The General Assembly of North Carolina in 1830 passed a law making it a crime to teach a slave to read or write. No Bible reading for blacks in this state – no reading of Philemon, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother”  Slaves have been legally free for 150 years, but we are still dealing with the results of bad decisions made almost 400 years ago. This is the 120th anniversary of Plessy v. Ferguson – legal segregation – and the 62nd anniversary of Brown v Board of Education. We’ve come ways; we have some way to go. The Epistle to Philemon offers us both inspiration and instruction in the way.

I close with a story of a church response to slavery, the story of Elias Neau, born 1662, died 1722.  He was born in southwestern France, a French Protestant. He fled to New York and at age 30 was captured by a French privateer and made a galley slave. After a year pulling a heavy oar he spent 4 years in a Marseilles prison. Released in 1698 he returned to New York and five years later was licensed by New York Governor Viscount Cornbury, Queen Anne’s cousin, to teach blacks, young and old. The Church of England Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts began to pay him as a missionary in 1704.  The rector of Trinity Church, New York, New England born William Vesey, first opposed him. Vesey wanted the money for his own assistant, but Neau’s experience as a galley slave gave him the public relations edge,  and Vesey’s opposition became support. Neau continued for over 20 years, teaching all who came to him, praying with them, preparing them for baptism.   His work continues at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem.

“no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother”

 Christian faith is fundamentally subversive. Jesus stands in final judgment over against every human institution, calling us to give God the glory, and not to glorify ourselves and our own works. 

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