Today, the Church presents to us as our first scripture for Holy Mass an excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to Philemon- one of the shortest of the Apostle Paul’s New Testament epistles, as well as one of the most personal and poignant.
The Letter to Philemon is not addressed to a local church, but to an individual and the matter the Apostle addresses an issue that, has not only, theological, but also political, economic and cultural implications.
This issue is slavery. Slavery was the fuel in the tank of the economic engine of the ancient world and it was for the most part an unquestioned fact of existence. The slave system was not based on the idea that some people were to be considered less than human, and therefore eligible to be enslaved, but it was based on the rule of the powerful. If you were powerful enough to force a person into servitude, than so be it. If you were so weak as to be forced into servitude, the fault was either in the will of gods or in your own weakness.
What we learn from the Letter to Philemon is that a man by the name of Onesimus has attached himself to St. Paul and is likely a runaway slave from his master Philemon. Both Onesimus and Philemon are Christians and for St. Paul, this has changed their relationship- who they are in terms of their relationship with Jesus Christ has precedence, priority over the reality that Onesimus is Philemon’s slave.
St. Paul is inviting Philemon to consider this precedence, this priority in terms of what he will do to Onesimus if and when Onesimus returns to his master. Roman Law would have permitted Philemon a great deal of latitude in terms of punishing his slave for running away.
St. Paul testifies to Philemon, that as a Christian, Christ’s Law takes precedence over the demands of Roman Law in regards to how he should treat Onesimus.
Now you might find all this either interesting or irrelevant, but however you understand the Letter to Philemon, I invite you to consider the text as a revolutionary text, one that demonstrates the quiet, understated way that the Church’s faith undermined the Roman system of power.
The Church worships God in Christ who “took the form of a slave” and in doing so upset the designs of worldly power. The Romans, perhaps more perceptive than ourselves, knew this, and for this reason, persecuted the Church. The Church was from its beginning a movement that subverted politics, economics, and culture because it gave priority to Christ and precedence to his Law rather than to the plottings and intrigues of worldly power.
If the Church had presented itself to Roman culture as just a private club, the Romans would have likely paid little attention to her. But the Romans looked at the Crucified God the Christians worshipped and listened to the Gospel that insisted the meek will inherit the earth and knew that these Christians were determined to change the world- and this new world, the kingdom of Christ, meant an end to Roman domination.
As it was then so it is now. The Church identifies in culture what is beautiful, true and good and seeks relationship of these cultural realities as signs of Christ’s kingdom. That which is beautiful, good and true in culture the Church will assimilate into herself, making these cultural realities a part of who she is.
But those realities in culture that are opposed to Christ, the Church opposes, indeed must oppose. Christ’s purpose in regards to his Church (and it is his Church, not ours!) is not simply that we accommodate culture, giving divine sanction to its institutions and practices, but to transform culture from within. Christians exist to change the world.
The strategies for this transformation are different, and the most effective strategies the Church has employed have been like St. Paul’s- understated, with an emphasis on personal conversion to Christ, and works of mercy offered to all in need.
Eventually, the old slave system of the Roman Empire would collapse under the weight of Christian witness and the Empire of Rome would be transformed.
The Faith of the Church of seeks to draw the world into Christ, and as such there is a legitimate inclusivity that characterizes our religious aspirations. But there is an uncompromising exclusivity as well. All is not welcome in the Church because the Church knows her Lord and Savior and gives priority and precedence to him and to his will.
The Church who knows Christ stands with him, even if it means that it stands against the powers of the world.