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Sunday 8 September 2019

Building Bridges

Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33


By Ann Jack

Retired United Reformed minister


Context: a town centre congregation of mixed backgrounds and ages

Aim: to encourage us to think about relationships with all those around us


It is strange for us to read the familiar story of Philemon. It challenges us at so many levels with our sense of the injustice that Philemon’s slave Onesimus suffered. We think of his absence of human rights, and perhaps think about what it might mean if we were to experience a similar loss of rights. Yet, it is not this that Paul is concerned with. Paul doesn’t challenge the rights or wrongs of slavery. He wants to allow Philemon and Onesimus to be reconciled as brothers in Christ.

Paul wants Philemon to put aside his rights as a slave owner, and to accept a returned run-away slave, without exacting the normal punishment. Paul is asking a great deal of both Philemon and Onesimus. It would take considerable courage for a runaway slave to return to a place where punishment, perhaps even death, await. Philemon and Onesimus are both asked to look beyond the norms of society and to see a brother in Christ and to live together as brothers. It is a radical challenge.

One of the dangers of life in our times is that we can feel slavery is gone. Surely the abolitionists of the 19th century saw to that! But we are all too aware that there is modern slavery, perhaps not as socially acceptable as the slavery of old, but just as real. People have their identity documents taken and they live in fear and in poor conditions. They may be trapped in the sex industry, nail bars, construction sites, drug trafficking, even agriculture. The list of possibilities is endless, and in every case, there are the people who control the operation and benefit from the work of those who are enslaved.

The story of Onesimus, and Paul’s appeal to Philemon, is perhaps a reminder to us that we need to think carefully about the value of the goods that we purchase and, if something appears to be cheap, it may be cheaper than it should be at a price to a fellow human being. Our faith needs to impact all our decisions.

What is harder perhaps is for us is to link this call, to loving relationships rather than exploitation, with the harsh reality of Jesus’ own words. How can we love God if we hate our mother, our father, or those around us? Surely, we must start to practise love in our family unit, in our community, in our church, so that we can hope to learn to love God?

Yes, Jesus called his disciples to leave their homes, their families and their livelihoods to follow him and to be dependent upon God and the generosity of others for their living. They were to give up anything that might get in the way of their love of God and their commitment to building up God’s kingdom here on earth. There was an urgency about the work, something we sometimes lose sight of. Jesus’ disciples needed to be willing to go where they were needed, and he recognised the pressures and the missionary needs for the new community that he was building.

In our own time and in our own communities, as disciples of Jesus we are called to follow his example and to reach out to the most vulnerable. We can only do this if there is time and space, and energy for us to do this.

The urgency of the task for us is as real as it was for the first disciples. Around us we see that the poor, the vulnerable, the people who are different, have become the target of increasing numbers of hate crimes. It is as if the lid has been taken off some ‘Pandora’s box’ and released the worst of human nature.

Many attribute this change in behaviour to the rise in the use of social media. But whatever the cause, it makes the call to live loving and faithful lives, reaching out to our neighbours both near and far, even more important.

There is hope. There are many wonderful examples of Christians and those of other faiths and none working together to build bridges across communities in this country and across the world.

Perhaps our calling in this generation is to take a stand against the populist messages of hate and difference and help to build bridges across divisions and to reach out to the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised. It may not be popular, but it seems to offer us a way to be Jesus’ disciples today, making a difference in whatever way, however small, for the building of God’s kingdom of love and justice.

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