by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“This is a letter from Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and from Timothy our brother. It is written to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker and to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our companion in the struggle and to the church in your house: Grace and peace from Abba, God, and our Savior, Jesus, the Christ.” — Philemon 1-3.
A while back we, this church, decided to stop ordering pre-printed bulletins, the front and back covers, used by many churches in the United Church of Christ. We did so in part because we realized we could make the bulletins ourselves.
The front covers we now use tend to fall into four categories of artwork. We use original drawings, often created by Judy Smith. We use photographs, created by one Bonnie Scott Connolly.
We also use copyright cleared artwork, scanned in and enhanced by Cheri Willard and scanned in pictures from the history of this church. In 2014 the covers will more heavily reflect the history because of our 200th Anniversary Celebration.
As to the short essays found on the back of the printed covers, the denomination, the United Church of Christ, actually puts these writings on their website. Hence, Cheri just goes to that web page, downloads the piece and puts it on the back cover.
By way of confession, I don’t, myself, too often look at the back cover unless the essay is written by a friend, by someone I know. This week was an exception. I looked. And so you don’t have to look also (don’t want to do that in the middle of the sermon, right?), so you don’t have to look also I’ll tell you what it says. Or at least I’ll tell you the short version.
In the book Defining the Church for Our Time, Peter Schmiechen, President Emeritus of Lancaster Theological Seminary, discusses components that describe church. This is a quote from the essay: “The church is a community which embodies in structures and practices the new life of Christ and the Spirit.” (Slight pause.)
The author then lists, in groups, structures and practices common to most churches. The following are listed [as these are enumerated, the pastor counts them off one finger at a time]: worship, sacraments and spiritual life; music, art and symbols; proclamation inside and outside the church; creeds, catechism and teachings; education at all stages of life; call and nurture of leaders; marriage, family and inter-generational life; fellowship and care for one another; service and witness, inside and outside the church; stewardship; a physical presence in the world; governance which orders, sets apart the life of the church from the world; ecumenical relations among Christians and other religious groups— thirteen— I ran out of fingers. (Slight pause.)
That seems like a reasonable delineation of structures and practices. But I want to suggest is that structures and practices are the supporting walls of church, not the foundation of church.
So, what is the foundation? The essay says this, and I’ve already said it (quote): “…the new life of Christ and the Spirit.” (Slight pause.)
And these words are from the work known as Philemon: “This is a letter from Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and from Timothy our brother. It is written to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker and to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our companion in the struggle and to the church in your house: Grace and peace from Abba, God, and our Savior, Jesus, the Christ.” (Slight pause.)
So, what is the foundation the author acclaims on that back cover (quote:) “…the new life of Christ and the Spirit”? So, what did Paul mean by using the label (quote:) “…a prisoner for Christ Jesus”? Is that a foundation? (Slight pause.)
We, in fact, know Paul was imprisoned several times. But why? What offense warranted incarceration? (Slight pause.)
I have often said this. There are several things we need to understand about New Testament times in order to comprehend what is being said in the writings of that era.
One the key point is that Jesus and all the Apostles were Jews. Their understanding of Who God is was a Jewish understanding.
For the Jews God is One; they insisted there is but one God. But they lived in a polytheistic world, a world which thought in terms of there being many gods. Polytheism was the cultural understanding of the time; it was culturally normal to think in terms of many gods.
Hence, to say there is but one God was a radical proclamation for that time. Now, the Romans— polytheist but devout themselves— saw Judaism as an ancient religion.
Therefore, they thought the idea of One God was quaint and they did not think it should be held against the Jews. So, they allowed for Jewish belief because it was ancient.
That having been said, society today also does not understand this about New Testament times: most people, other than the Jews, thought of Caesar, the ruler of Rome, as a divine being. Caesar was one of the gods.
Given all that, this is a probable reason Paul is in chains: treason. After all, what is Paul proclaiming?
Paul is proclaiming the kinship of God and Jesus. Paul is proclaiming Jesus is the Christ. Paul is proclaiming that someone, other than Caesar, the Emperor, is divine and lives— a treasonous message, if there ever was one. (Slight pause.)
All that leads us to ask ‘what are our foundations as a church?’ And I think that is the very thing Paul is trying to highlight. You see, in our civilization today, slavery— the owning of another human being— is clearly immoral. It was not so in New Testament times. Slavery was not thought of as immoral.
So, while not directly requesting that Philemon, a slave holder, set free Onesimus, a slave, Paul suggests the ties that bind persons as brothers and sisters in Christ transforms and changes assumed cultural patterns. It’s assumed by the society slavery is moral. Paul says: ‘no.’ We are one in Christ. In short, belonging to God, belonging to Christ, affects the way in which we belong to each other.
You see, a premise that permeates this letter is the knowledge that Christians live in profound connection to Christ. One’s behavior must reflect that connection.
Why? Is Christ connected with God in a kindred way? Then we too are connected. And if we are connected through Christ, slavery of any kind cannot be condoned. This stand, which comes from the concept that we are connected with God, in relationship with God and, therefore, we should not enslave one another, is totally out of step with the time and place in which Paul lived, where slavery was a given.
But it is not at all out of step with the God of Covenant. Why? The love which God shows through Christ says the dignity and the integrity of each person counts, no exceptions. (Slight pause.)
And so, what is the foundation of church? Not its structures and practices. The foundation of the church is this: we are one in Christ. Or as Schmiechen has it, in the church we find (quote:) “…the new life of Christ and the Spirit.” Paul, on the other hand, puts it this way (quote): “Grace and peace from Abba, God, and our Savior, Jesus, the Christ.”
In short, once you strip away the cultural baggage of the society of the Roman Empire found in New Testament writings and then strip away the cultural baggage of Twenty-first Century society which surrounds us— which may be even harder to do— at that point we can see a clear common denominator: in Christ and through Christ we are loved by God.
Let me put this just one other way. Our relationship with God must not be based on cultural baggage. We really do need to be able to see one another. Our relationship with God must be based on the love God offers to each of us and to all of us. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Just like New Testament times, perhaps our biggest impediment to a relationship with God is the cultural blinders our times imposes on us. Our culture says, for instance, the poor cause their own poverty but the economic system in which we live carries absolutely no culpability in creating poverty. Really? Wow! There must be a whole lot of people who really want to live in poverty. Maybe they’re just lining up to volunteer— I’ll be in poverty. That sounds like a good idea! I don’t think so. What do you think? The idea that the poor cause their own poverty is, my friends, a definition of cultural blindness. Why? God wants you to be poor, right? Doesn’t make any sense at all.”
BENEDICTION: O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our striving for justice and truth, to confront one another in love, and to work together with mutual patience, acceptance and respect. Send us out, sure in Your grace and Your peace with surpasses understanding, to live faithfully. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.