Every now and again, I find myself agreeing with my undergraduate and seminary professors that we would all do well to read Greek. It an agreement which usually passes from my mind fairly quickly, possibly by the time I encounter my next aorist participle that I stare at uncomprehendingly. While I love things old and classic, foreign languages are not one of my gifts. When seminary professors would remark that we would be speaking Hebrew and Greek in heaven (they are the blessed languages after all), I would be the wise “you know what” in the back of the class remarking that I would be condemned to an eternity of pantomiming. I do, however, understand their point. Sometimes “things” are lost in translation. It can be a sense; it can be an idiom; and it can be an intertwining, such as we have this week.
The letter to Philemon is the shortest book in the Bible. If you are new to St. Alban’s, you may have heard it mentioned around here. Our human trafficking ministry was originally known as “Onesimus’ Heart.” It seemed appropriate to those involved in the beginning for us to turn for God in this letter for guidance. The subject is clearly slavery. Better still, the outcome is fantastic. Onesimus, we think, goes from being a slave to being a brother in Christ. He goes from being a man who would run from those who would enslave and punish him to being a man now truly useful, as his name suggests, for the spread of the Gospel in Colosse. Our hope in the beginning was that those whom we rescued would not only help law enforcement put away the bad guys, but that they would also help us reach more slaves and so begin to turn the tide in the fight against the evil of slavery.
That all being said, I wanted to focus this week on the chiasmus of verse 5, as I think it reminds us grammatically of a theological and transformation truth of which we should always be reminded. It is that truth upon which Paul will ask Philemon to accept his slave without punishment. It is that truth upon which Paul will base his instruction to Onesimus to return to his former owner. And it is that truth which should always ground our own ministries to those in our daily life and work.
What is a chiasmus? Simply put, a chiasmus is a grammatical device in which clauses or words are related to each other through reversal structures, the sum of which combine to make a larger point. Such a description seems very complicated. It is hard to define these devices, but you are familiar with them. Webster gives the example from Goldsmith “to stop too fearful, and too faint to go.” My classics professor resorted to Ovid to give an example, “I flee those who chase me, and I chase those who flee me.” Shakespeare lovers among us might remember Macbeth, “fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Politicians might remember “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” Those of us with smaller children might even sing one from time to time, “I am stuck on Band-Aid, and Band-Aid’s stuck on me.” I see a nod or three. Many of you recognize some of those more familiar in the world.
The one in the letter today occurs in verse 5. Translated literally, the verse should read “the love and the faith which you have for the Lord and unto all the saints.” What should a disciple have? Faith in the Lord and love toward all the saints. Remember, love in the ANE was not some emotion. Love in Scripture can best be described as a commitment rather than a simple emotion. Emotions can come and go; a commitment, however, endures. Our love is meant to reflect dimly the love, hesed, of our Lord. God is steadfast in His commitment to us. No matter how much we try to sever that love He has for us, He is still committed to redeeming us. Marriage vows do not ask us to have warm, fuzzy feelings to our prospective bride or groom. Instead, we vow to remain committed “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health . . . until we are parted by death.” As disciples of Christ, you and I are called to be committed to those others who claim Christ is Lord.
Does that mean I have to like every single other Christian? I suppose we do not have to like everyone, but we are required by God to be committed to everyone’s well-being. Jesus teaches that hating is the same as killing, so we definitely never allowed to hate. But being committed to someone’s well-being is certainly possible. We should want everyone to be in right relationship with God. That means we want everyone to know that they have been redeemed through the atoning work of Christ and offered a place of honor at the Great Wedding Feast He is preparing. Better still, we want everyone to know we are not alone in this journey we call life. Certainly Jesus is with us even to the end of the age. But you and I are united by our faith in Christ with brothers and sisters who span time and place, language and race, and every other manner in which we might think to distinguish ourselves from others. All those who claim Christ as Lord are first-born sons and first-born daughters. There are no second or third or fourth borns. There are no middle children. We are all the same because we all serve the same Lord! We are all, to use Paul’s language this morning, His prisoner, bound in chains of love. We know that nothing, no scheme or plot will ever remove us from the saving hand of Christ.
And it is that faith in Christ which informs and intertwines our commitments to others. Think about our healing service today. We will pray for healing for all those in need. True, some will come forward for anointing, but we will be praying for all in need of Christ’s healing touch. We will pray for our brothers and sisters in Nzara, Swaziland, and Brechin. Even though we may not ever meet those brothers and sister on this side of the grave, we will ask God to care for them, to comfort them, to provide for their needs (their daily bread), and to send His Spirit to bless them. We will pray for our brothers and sisters in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will pray for their protection, not because we know them, but because we know that our Lord will use their faithfulness to increase His kingdom. We will pray for our politicians, not because we are in the opposing party and want them to switch sides. No, we will pray that God will give them right answers for the welfare of our land, our state, or our city. We will lift up our soldiers, again not because we know them all, but because we recognize the sacrifices they make. We will pray for those whom we serve, those for whom we should be serving but do not yet recognize we should be serving, those who are addicted, even those who root for the wrong NFL team today, not necessarily because we like them or agree with them on everything. We pray for them because our faith is intertwined with that commitment we call love. Our faith impels us to support them in their time of trial. And we know that our prayers can, to use the language of the Psalm today, cause God to change His mind and act to bless those whose needs we know.
And here is the rub, as written by Paul: we cannot have true love without faith in Christ. Neither can we claim Christ as Lord through faith and not have love toward all the saints. One cannot claim to be a “Christian” and sit idly by as the world impacts those around us. One cannot claim to be a Christian and not be motivated to commit to the saints around us. There is no “me, myself, and the Bible” Christianity. Even the hermits in the early Church discerned their callings in community. Their intercessions were part of the work of the body, and both the individuals and the bodies recognized them as such!
It is a warning which ought to give us all a spiritual wedgie of sorts. We can all identify in our lives those times when we have ignored our callings. As Episcopalians, we joke about “Episcopal vacation.” How many of our brothers and sisters place golf, or sleeping, or camping, or whatever else above God between Memorial Day and Labor Day? Our response oftentimes is not one of caring for their relationship with their Father in heaven but one of humor. How many of our brothers and sisters, well brothers mostly, place the NFL above God for the next five months? How many of us will cross the street to avoid the homeless, cover our ears to mute the cries for help, cover our eyes so that we cannot see the need around us? How many of us joyfully give God our leftovers of time or talents or treasures; yet we claim to want nothing more than for Him to save us a position of honor at that Feast He has planned? We excel, sometimes, in relating to God on our terms. Paul reminds us this day of our Lord’s terms: If you believe in Me, you will love all, you will commit yourself to the well-being of all.
In truth, Paul’s letter and request set up an amazing opportunity of reconciliation. Imagine in the ANE a slave willingly returning to a slave owner and that slave owner willingly sparing the slave! It would have been an incomprehensible miracle in the life of the community of believers. But they would have understood its significance and been able to speak of it to those not yet a member of their faith community. “You think rising from the dead is cool? You should have seen what happened between this slave and his owner!” We in the church like to think in modern America that we are some sort of association. We come together when our schedules commit, and God should be proud of us for giving Him some time. In truth, you and I are all slaves of the Lord. As we continue to grow in faith, our eyes and our hearts and our wills are being remade, transformed, as He would have us. The end result is that faith in Him creates commitment to those around us in each one of us. Anything else is not really of Him.
Sitting here today, brothers and sisters, some of us may have heard the Holy Spirit convict us of our attempts to separate faith in Christ from love of the saints. If so, I do not intend us to go away sad or despondent. In fact, the contrary is possible! He went willingly to the cross knowing we would do this. Such was His love for each one of us, however, that He went willingly, committed to us when we least deserved such loyalty from HIm. And even better, all He asks is that we repent and ask for the grace to better love Him and serve others in this life. Who knows? Maybe it will be your repentance and transformed heart that will cause this community of faith to say to those around us “You think rising from the dead was impressive? You should see what He did in his/her/my life!”