Spike Lee has inspired the title of this week’s sermon. The reading from Philemon offers a unique perspective on race relations today. Although it is short, Rev. Shockley considers the letter from Paul to Philemon to be the most personal historical document of the New Testament. This letter deals with the question of slavery. Today, slavery is considered in most places of the world to be a crime. Back in Paul’s time, it was a common practice. In order to properly understand this letter, we must understand who is writing it and who is receiving it.
Philemon was a Christian and the owner of a slave named Onesimus. Paul was a Roman citizen and Philemon’s friend. Under Roman law, a slave could seek asylum from a cruel master in one of two ways. The first was to seek sanctuary within a temple of a god and become a temple servant. They could also seek asylum with a Roman citizen who was considered the social superior of the master. Onesimus takes advantage of this law and seeks out Paul. In Paul’s letter, he says that he could order Philemon to release his slave but instead asks him to “do the right thing.” To make it more interesting, Paul has Onesimus deliver the letter to Philemon in person. We do not know how this ended. We can only guess what the outcome might be. It is incompatible for a Christian to also be a slave owner. As Paul told the Galatians, in Christ, there is no slave or free but we are all one. We talk about slavery on this Labor Day because the labor movement seeks to remove the vestiges of slavery and claim the full rights of every worker.