All in the Family



A sermon preached by
Joseph Welker, Jr.

All in the Family

Philemon 1-25

September 9, 2007

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk
of Kildaire, Presbyterian family. While effort is made to give credit for work
done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not
given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered.
Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the
emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from
proper grammar and punctuation.

I wonder if Paul knew what a difficult and awkward position he was putting
Philemon in when he wrote this cover letter to him and the church family that
met in his home. I wonder if you know what a difficult and tense position you
would have been put in back then if you heard a knock on the door and there is
Onesimus, your runaway slave – a criminal on the run– who likely had stolen
silver and money from you- a useless and irresponsible slave- there he is…
standing before you with this letter in his hand from Paul.

Put yourself in Philemon’s position before you read this as a warm and fuzzy
letter full of love and grace. This would be a difficult letter, I imagine for
Paul to write and for Philemon to hear. It is likely that Paul had introduced
both Philemon and Onesimus to the story of Jesus Christ and to the faith they
both now professed.

What Paul was about to ask Philemon to do is asking a lot. Normally a runaway
slave was punished and beaten, if they were lucky-or even put to death. Running
away was a capital offense. No one, not even Paul, was arguing with Philemon
what he had the legal right to do. Legally, as they say, Philemon would have
been well within his rights to have Onesimus charged, beaten and executed. And
while some people may have talked, you know what the response would have been,
"Well, it was legal."

So hear how this letter filled with love and compassion is asking Philemon to
do something very difficult- not just drop the charges against Onesimus… not
just shrug your shoulders and say, "Oh, it’s okay"… but Paul is arguing here for
full reconciliation-asking him to welcome him fully back into the family – sort
of like the prodigal son was welcomed home.

For you see, to Paul-this was not a legal or even moral or ethical matter-it
was a family matter. It was all in the family.

And the only way Paul knew to help one Christian find reconciliation with
another Christian was on the basis of a set of family values that went far
beyond those in your immediate biological family. The only way to deal with this
kind of conflict and controversy was to look beyond the legal and social customs
and culture and to see one another as part of the same family of faith. This is
a family letter.

You may or may not understand, not everyone liked this family letter. I have
been told that early on for about the first 400 years, the leaders of the
church, the family of the church, were not very impressed with this particular
epistle. In fact, the church leaders debated quite a bit in the first 400 years
about whether it should even be in the Bible. Should this be one of the Holy
Scriptures? The Word of God to us?

The reason we kept it (it looks like) was because it was such a personal and
intimate letter from the apostle. The way, my family, has kept my mother’s
recipe for sausage balls. We still have the card in her own handwriting. Every
Christmas Anna and I bring out the recipe and I think of my mom making those
sausage balls. The sausage balls are okay and we always have more than we need
(they make a couple of hundred sausage balls)-but the important thing, you see
is not the sausage balls or even the recipe. It is because the recipe is
connected to the memory of my Mother… and Anna’s grandmother.

The reason it seems that we kept this letter from Paul is because it had that
kind of memory for the first Christians. Then, about the year 400, all of a
sudden the content of this letter becomes very important for the body of Christ.
There’s a focus, we know from the writings we have around, on this little letter
that was never present in the Church before. What do you think happened to make
this old letter suddenly the most important scripture they were talking about?
It had to do with the institution of slavery.

Christians had been living
comfortably with the institution of slavery for 400 years, which is a long time.
Think about living with an institution or tradition for that long. Then there
began to be a movement in the church, amongst Christians who began to suggest
that it was not right for Christians to own slaves. Now, think about that-for
400 years the Christian family had been living just fine with one way of
thinking and now others are beginning to question that. Some of those
Christians, some of those liberal, radical Christians, began to forcibly take
slaves from other Christians and set them free! Talk about moving from preaching
to meddling. How would you like it if someone took a piece of your property and
then set them free?

When that happened, one particular scholar, John of Chrysostom, suddenly
found in this letter to Philemon, this letter about the slave Onesimus, he
suddenly found this slave language. He used it, interestingly, not to advocate
that Christians free slaves… but rather as a way to admonish those who were
taking slaves and releasing them. He found (as others would find in 19th century
America) in Philemon an argument for the institution of slavery. Paul didn’t
forbid slavery, he simply said treat them well.

Other people in the church started reading Philemon and studied it and it
wasn’t long before they used the same letter to say, "No, Paul is telling us
here that it is not right for Christians to live with slaves." He is sending
this slave, Onesimus, back to his owner Philemon, and he is saying to him
something like this:
Treat him like family. He is my child and your brother
in Christ.

Christians are never able to be completely comfortable with slavery again. It
existed, but from this point on, it was destined to fail. It existed, not only
in our own national history-but it still exists in the world today.

Actual slavery, and virtual slavery. I’ve read that there are 27 million
children, women and men who are slaves right now in our world. That is three
times the population of the state of North Carolina. Imagine that. Of course,
there are other types of slavery. There are economic slaves. Migrant workers can
tell you about living in slave like conditions. Relationally, some are enslaved
to relationships of abuse. Through addiction. The slavery of children in our
world-both in labor and the sex industry. Christians need to be speaking a word
against those things that enslave people… or treat them like objects or cogs in
an economic machine… rather than people. The letter to Philemon asks that much
of us.

For Paul, you see, wants us to view such matters not so much in legal or
political terms… but as Christians, these are family matters.

When Onesimus knocks on the door with this letter in hand, Paul is asking
Philemon to receive him not as the world defined him– a slave… but receive my
son as a brother… as a member of the family. Treat him as you would your own son
or daughter, brother or sister… for that is what he is to you.

My friend Richard Boyce, who preached at my installation, has taken several
trips to Guatemala. He has taught in the seminary there. He has stayed with the
same congregation there, in a part of rural Guatemala for at least 6-8 weeks
over the last 7-8 years. Richard was reflecting upon his experience in Guatemala
and he said,
"You know what the problem is about going to Guatemala? The
problem with going to Guatemala is that once you’ve done that and lived with
those people, you can never be quite comfortable with buying bananas again. I
can’t go in and buy banana’s in the grocery story without thinking of those
people down there in that village trying to make their living in that way."

Those of us who went on the first trip to meet friends in Pala, Guatemala
know exactly what Richard is saying. For me it is not so much the bananas as the
coffee. You cannot have spent time on a rainy mountainside planting coffee
plants with new Guatemalan friends and come home and look at coffee the same
You cannot spend time in worship and share meals and play with the
children and think of Pala as some abstract place. You cannot see a hurricane
hit Central America and not worry about the floods that may hurt our friends in
Pala. Why do you think that people who went on that trip have been so committed
to raising funds for micro loans and scholarships? These people are family to
them… and as we join them in partnership, they are family to all of us. We want
to help them-not to make a political statement, but because they are part of our

The Christian faith-when you practice it and let it sink in-has a way of
making the world a smaller place and a way of transforming all of our

It’s why you often hear me talk about the Kirk being a family of faith. To
me, you are more than church members-like members of a club or members of a
team… you are part of a family where our family tree finds its roots in Jesus
Christ-the head of the family. When we say this is a family church-I’m not
thinking this is a church only for people who have children… I’m thinking this
is a church that if you are single, divorced, widowed, young or old-no matter
what your objective status-you are now part of our family. We are family to each

One reason I am glad for our new Wednesday night live program is that this is
an opportunity for the family to gather together for a meal and fellowship.
Families need to eat together and spend time together.

When someone joins the Kirk I so long for them to become involved. I want
them to get to know members of their new congregational family. I long for them
to find a home here and I am so grateful for the family members of the Kirk who
reach out to invite people to be a part of their family.

My niece Christy has been blessed to join a church family like that. Christy
and I were raised (generations later) in the same church. Like many young
people, she left home, went away to college, then to law school and a year or so
ago, began a new job in Tampa. She is a single, young adult in her late 20s.
When she left law school, she left friends who were like family to her, behind.
As she was settling into her new home and life, I recommended she attend my
friend John’s church in Tampa. I was a little worried to be honest. John pastors
a 2000 member church. It’s easy to get lost there. I know it to be a church,
like most mainline churches-where single people are few and married/with
children seem to be the norm.

But I am glad to tell you that my niece Christy found a family there. And it
was not a single’s ministry that did it. It was KK Cooper. KK is a woman, I
guess in her 60s-very active in the church and in Presbyterian women. KK invited
Christy out to lunch with a couple of her friends… KK invited Christy to join
her at a Presbyterian Women gathering-introducing her to other friends. KK,
treated her like family. And within six months of joining, guess what. My niece
Christy was speaking to a Presbyterian Women gathering about her faith journey.
I don’t think Christy had ever done such a thing before. And I wonder how she
did it. Well, perhaps by then, she knew these weren’t strangers-these were
members of her family. And what a blessing.

Paul would have us look at each other in just that way.

By the way, you know what happened to Onesimus, the runaway, criminal slave
whom Paul sent back to Philemon? We can’t be sure. We don’t have the letter back
to Paul. Perhaps Philemon beat him or executed him. We don’t know. But what we
do know is that one writer, famous in the church, named Ignatius, starts to
report in his history, about 20 years after that, that there was a bishop who
was particularly well known amongst his people because of his pastoral care. His
name was Onesimus.



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