Thankful for True Freedom
It seems we humans never tire of talking about Freedom. But what is freedom? During a dark time in human history, slavery of one form or another was the norm in human societies. Our nation, The United States, fought a war with ourselves over this blight on human history.
Sadly, human slavery still exists. The evil of “human trafficking” makes my heart break when I learn that my hometown, Atlanta, is a hub for the buying and selling of people to this day! The broken lives of children and young men and women gripped in the darkness of that sin-sick world invite us to take seriously the desperate needs of those who are trapped in that slavery. Our society is broken, but the wrong definition of what true freedom is will only make the problems worse!
I sometimes wonder if our problem with this seemingly endless parade of grievances and counter-grievances lies in the wrong definition of freedom. You see, freedom isn’t the ability to choose. No, the ability to choose, or free will, only makes freedom possible. When you exercise your ability to choose wrongly, you enslave yourself to your passions. So freedom is always about choosing wisely. Choosing poorly always leads to addiction and death. We are only truly free when we choose well. So, how do we learn how to choose? Yep, that’s the Million Dollar question!
Look at our lesson today in Philemon 1:1-25:
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may promote the knowledge of all the good that is ours in Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you – I, Paul, an ambassador and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus – I appeal to you for my child, Onesimos, whose father I have become in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will.
Today we read the whole “book” of Philemon. What an amazing letter this is from St. Paul to St. Philemon about St. Onesimos. The Apostle writes to the spiritual son, who is a wealthy man and a slave owner, about a runaway slave who would later become a bishop and a saint himself! Hollywood couldn’t tell as good a story!
Look how St. Paul appeals to his spiritual son, Philemon. He says that he could command Philemon to do the right thing, but that wouldn’t be as spiritually profitable for any of them. Rather, St. Paul appeals to Philemon to receive Onesimos back as St. Paul’s “son” in the Lord, making Philemon and Onesimos spiritual brothers! Paul even insists that he would rather have kept Onesimos with him while he was in prison but doesn’t want to do anything without Philemon’s consent. Amazing grace and maximum room for action and repentance! Philemon is now on the hook to exercise his ability to choose! His choice will reveal his true heart condition. But that’s what moments like that do for us; they reveal our true selves to us AND give us the power to either repent or slip further into the slavery of our passions.
Let’s unpack the implications of Paul’s letter to Philemon:
First. Paul deals with reality. We can easily read back into history the current morality of our age and miss the point here. St. Paul isn’t condoning slavery at all. It was the growth of the Christian faith in the Roman Empire that mitigated the harsh realities of slavery in that culture, eventually leading to its abolishment. But Paul isn’t going to pretend either that this accepted cultural situation didn’t exist. Paul will use this very reality to confront both Philemon and Onesimos with radically different perspectives of the Faith of Christ on relationships between people with different power dynamics. Hiding from reality keeps you weak and unable to choose well. Face reality. It’s the first step.
Next, Paul puts the onus on Philemon to actively press out the implications of his claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ. He does this by insisting that Philemon deal with the reality of the change that has now come to our relationships because we follow Jesus. Paul makes it clear that, as Philemon’s spiritual father, he could demand obedience. But Paul takes another route in insisting that the right exercise of our ability to choose is more beneficial to everyone involved than mere power. Paul insists that Philemon deal with Onesimos as a fellow brother in Christ. That reality trumps all other social constructs! When we allow the Truth to form us, we allow the Holy Spirit to strengthen our will to choose freedom over the easy path!
Finally, Paul insists that Onesimus go back to Philemon. Not as a slave to slave-owner, but as brother to brother. This invites Onesimus to exercise his ability to choose to see Philemon in a different light as well. All involved are invited, out of love and fatherly desire to deal with the new life in Christ, to confront this radically changed situation. Life is filled with these confrontations with the hard work of actually LIVING out our theology. At those moments, we are invited by God to put the faith into practice and make the hard choice to live free or merely fall back on the passive going along with the status quo!
Every person we remember today in the Church calendar is an invitation to us to choose the real freedom of being a follower of Jesus Christ. We remember St. Phiemon, a man who was a wealthy man of his day. He is converted to Christianity along with his wife, St. Apphia, and they become true apostles spreading the Faith in the area where they lived. The Christian Faith so transformed these people’s lives that it affected everything about them. their wealth became a resource to use for God’s glory. Their relationship as husband and wife became an example of godly marriage to society. Their home became a place where the Faithful could gather, pray, worship, and become one new “family” in Christ. And even their runaway slave, Onesimus, became a believer. Eventually, Onesimus, the former slave, was restored by St. Paul to Philemon and became a bishop in the Church. This whole story of transformation, redemption, and restoration calls us to a radically new understanding of what freedom is and a challenge to be courageous enough to allow this radical definition to make us eternally unsatisfied with anything less!
Today, do you understand freedom as merely your ability to choose, or are you ready to confront this reality that, if you are going to be free as God created you to be free, you are going to have to exercise your ability to choose based on wisdom and not simply your desires? Living a Normal Orthodox Life means learning to choose well!
P.S. We praise Christ’s Apostles as bright stars illumining the ends of the world, glorious Philemon, Onesimos, Archippus, and with them, wise Apphia, crying: Pray unceasingly on behalf of us all.