"The lines we draw are invitations to cross over and that crossing over, as any nomadic subject knows, constitutes who we are." (Judith Butler)

Posts tagged ‘Paul’

The Usefulness of the Gospel

22 March 2015
Ballard Vale United Church, Andover, MA

[The sermon was preached as part of the Lenten series “The Doctrine of the Incarceration.”]

How many of you upon hearing Philemon this morning wondered, “What in the world is going on, why is this in the Bible, and what it’s supposed to mean for us?” One of my favorite things in teaching is to encourage students to linger for a while in the bewilderment rather than trying to move directly to the “one right interpretation” (so if you’re hoping that I’ll tell you what this letter really means, it’s not going to happen, so let’s get that disappointment out of the way). Especially with texts held as sacred, we can both expect and desire a coherent message that is immediately and clearly meaningful for our lives. But I would contend that meaning is made, that what is meaningful is not always self-evident but becomes meaningful in the process of trying to figure things out. After all, our lives are continually unfolding processes of working to figure things out, figuring out how to makes sense of and live in the world around us.

And that’s where we might start with Philemon: in this text, Paul and Timothy write to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the assembly that gathers in their house as a matter of working out the dynamics of what it means to live in Christ. We might say that the prevailing question centers on what difference faith in Christ makes for living together. How are relationships and practices informed by the gospel? But here’s where I want to be careful. It is far too easy and far too common to jump immediately to the conclusion that Paul presents a glorious vision of equality and oneness in Christ. Maybe. Maybe that’s the idea in theory. But we might want to ask further about how that plays out in practice.

So what is actually happening in this letter? What’s at stake “in practice”? Honestly, it’s not entirely clear. We know that Paul and Timothy send a letter to a group of people who meet together in a house, presumably for some kind of worship. We know that some man named Onesimos has been with Paul during a time of separation from Philemon and that some kind of relationship of affection and usefulness has developed between Paul and Onesimos during that time. But who is this Onesimos? What’s he doing with Paul? And why does Philemon care?

Onesimos is apparently a slave since Paul abjures Philemon to welcome Onesimos back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave” (v16, CEB). Onēsimos in Greek means “useful.” Calling someone by describing her or his functionality was a common practice for naming slaves. Paul even makes a pun of the name, saying that Onesimos “was useless to you before, but now he is useful to both of us” (v11). We’ll come back to this issue of how Paul and Philemon relate to Onesimos, but we should keep in mind the fundamental idea that Onesimos’s very name signifies that he is someone to be used, that he is valuable not on his own terms but as far as he is beneficial to another.



The Freedom of Faith

30 June 2013
Galatians 5:1–25
First UMC, Coon Rapids, Iowa

You may have noticed that the Galatians reading this morning was more than what was printed in the bulletin. That was a mistake on my part, and though it was longer than it was supposed to be, I’m glad it happened because we had the chance to hear what surely sounds weird to our modern sensibilities. If you’ll bear with me and embrace confusion for a while, it’s my hope that there might be something gained by diving headfirst into the weird. The language the apostle Paul uses from the start is familiar enough to us: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Freedom—check. That’s a word that resonates in the context of our revolutionary, democratic history. But then Paul starts talking about circumcision, and what to us is quite an odd discussion takes off: “Listen! [Paul knew that people would be falling asleep in the pews.] Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.”

You know how people say that you should never bring up religion or politics in conversation? Well maybe we should add genitalia to that list because circumcision seems a strange, uncomfortable topic for polite company. And yet, this was an important and serious issue for the earliest communities in Christ. From the time of Abraham, circumcision was taken as a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people. For the Jewish followers of Jesus, this would have been standard practice. But here Paul is addressing people from the Roman province of Galatia in Asia Minor, which is in modern-day Turkey. For non-Jews in the audience, perhaps the majority, the males would not typically have been circumcised and the idea of being required to do so might have been a deal breaker.

It sounds funny, but when we get nervous about having to stand up in front of the church and speak or make cookies or join a committee or whatever it is that a “good member” should do, we might remember our Galatian friends who were understandably nervous about whether a surgical procedure would be required to join the community. Some insisted upon the circumcision of all male believers (yes, this is one of those male-only issues, but in this case, that might not be such a bad thing for women!). “It’s in the rules,” such people surely argued. Others didn’t think circumcision should be a barrier to inclusion in the community of faith. That’s the assertion Paul makes, and his retort is especially awesome. Yes, Paul shares some profound insights, but we know he’s really serious when he declares, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” Well okay then! Talk about a flare for dramatics!

I’m giving you this lighthearted history lesson for a few reasons. At the most basic level, it’s helpful to understand the historical context more fully in order to grasp what kind of teaching is being put forward. But more than that, I want us to allow ourselves to be surprised by the bible, to be confused, amused, annoyed, astounded, inspired—whatever arises when we really pay attention. It’s not all stuffy and impenetrable. The bible offers us glimpses of real-world issues with which people of faith have wrestled over the centuries. And, as we can find within the pages of our sacred texts themselves, the questions and concerns shift over time. Circumcision was one of the major topics of debate for the earliest followers of Christ. But if someone were to raise the same issue at a United Methodist conference today, I imagine there would be many dumbfounded, even irritated looks. We have our own sets of concerns about bodies and practices of faith that arise out of the multifarious ways people experience God and the world today.

If there is to be value in finding ourselves strangers to these ancient debates, it’s in learning from the processes by which earnest people of faith have been wrangling with vexing questions—sometimes the same, sometimes changing—for millennia. What wisdom might we glean from voices across the ages? Paul offers an elegant response that is at once clear and challenging: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision—[we might insert a contemporary issue]—counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” The only thing that counts is faith working through love.


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