I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 4th, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is Philemon 1-21.
A few months ago I had one of those paradigm shifting moments that make you question something that had, before, always seemed so obvious. I was reading a book called The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, by Dan Egan, which chronicles both the history of the lakes and the challenges that they have faced through the years due to agricultural runoff and pollution and the threat of invasive species. As someone who has grown up with a deep love for the Great Lakes, it was both fascinating and sobering to take a deeper dive, if you will, into the singular natural wonder that is practically in our backyard.
But back to the paradigm shift. Many of us can easily picture the Great Lakes on a map, and we know that there are five of them—Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario. But early in the book, Egan writes, “they might be called the Great Lakes, but the five inland seas are essentially one giant slow-motion river flowing west to east, with each lake dumping like a bucket into the next until all the water is gathered in the St. Lawrence River and tumbles seaward.”
One giant river.
That just blew my mind, even though when you actually look at a map, it makes perfect sense—all of the lakes are connected to one another by smaller rivers and straits and waterways, the most final and dramatic of which is Niagara falls, as the system that began in Lake Superior tumbles down into lake Ontario and on towards the ocean. One giant river.
Egan’s point was that what happens in one lake, for better or worse, ultimately happens in all of the lakes, given enough time—and that even though we see them as massive and immovable entities, they are in fact a broad and delicate network of relationships, larger and more complex than the human eye can perceive, a single flow of interdependent life.
It makes sense, though, that we would tend to see the lakes as separate bodies, ascribing to each its own personality and landscape. Separating everything out, giving things a name and a discernible boundary, is how we make sense of the vastness of the landscape around us. This is as true for people as it is for lakes. We make distinctions, we give each other names and we assess one another’s basic qualities because it helps us navigate a world that would otherwise feel overwhelming. And just as we can easily picture a map of the Great Lakes in our mind’s eye, each of us, somewhere within ourselves, carries a sort of emotional map upon which we locate the people and places we know—those that feel like home, and those that, perhaps, we’d rather not revisit.
But here’s the thing—once the paradigm shifts, it’s hard to go backwards. Now, no matter how many times I see a map of the Great Lakes, I will know that they are actually just one giant river. And while I will always have a particular affection for this piece of the shoreline of Lake Superior or that little town along the shore of Lake Michigan, I cannot unsee their essential unity now that I have seen it.
And as for all of the people located on that inner map I carry, especially the ones whose company I’d rather avoid, well, it’s the same thing. I cannot, as a follower of Jesus, forget the fact that we are, essentially, one body.
This fundamental unity is something that is absolutely essential for understanding what St. Paul is up to in today’s epistle, the letter to Philemon. To summarize the letter: Paul is sending this letter to Philemon, a wealthy householder and church leader, asking him to receive back into his home a man named Onesimus, an enslaved person who at some point fled Philemon’s house and came to stay with Paul while he was under house arrest. Onesimus has come to faith in Christ, and so Paul requests that Philemon now receive Onesimus back no longer as a slave but as a beloved brother. It is a very pragmatic and human letter in many ways, one of the most personal that we have of Paul’s writings. It’s also a complex letter, given its ambiguity on the insitution of 1st century Roman slavery and whether Paul is condoning it or not.
But the essential takeaway for us is not just that Paul was a nice guy trying to do a nice thing in an imperfect world. It is not just that Philemon, we hope, received Onesimus back with a more socially enlightened perspective. No, it is far more radical than that.
The essential takeaway, the underlying argument that Paul is making about the nature of Christian life–the argument that is in fact woven throughout most of his writings–is that in Christ, we are fundamentally ONE. And that the categories that we use to distinguish ourselves from one another, to create order, to map out the world that we can see, are ultimately knit together in the Kingdom of God. And so when Paul says of Onesimus, “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you,” he is not speaking poetically, like a slogan on a Hallmark card. He is speaking quite literally, because in Christ we are one body. And when he says “welcome him as you would welcome me” he is not speaking metaphorically, but literally, because in Christ we are one body.
One giant body. All connected to each other.
And so Paul doesn’t need Philemon to just “do the right thing” legally or ethically by choosing to welcome Onesimus as a brother. He needs him to understand the stakes of his choice. It is not just whether Philemon, too, will choose to be a nice guy doing a charitable thing. The question is whether Philemon actually believes that the Body of Christ is a real and living thing, and whether he actually plans to live as though it is—whether he plans to reorder his understanding of other people, whether he is willing to dissolve the boundaries between his interests and theirs, to live as though they are indeed the limbs and the organs of his own body. Is he willing?
Are we willing?
When you look into the face of a person, especially one whom you struggle to love, struggle to live alongside, can you look into their face and see a glimpse of your own looking back? Can you choose, in that moment—even in the hurt and in the confusion and resentment—to remember that the same blood and breath and water flows through each of us—that we are not separate bodies encased within rocky shorelines, but one flowing stream, one giant river, tumbling forward together?
Paul hopes that we do. He hopes that we remember Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one—that we open our eyes and see that we already are one, that we always were.
Nobody knows for sure what Philemon decided to do—whether he welcomed Onesimus as a beloved brother. Though I like to think that the fact that the letter survived through the centuries suggests that he did—that the letter was, perhaps, the precursor to a moment of sheer grace.
I imagine a treasured family story lovingly passed down in the household of Philemon about the day when two men, so very different, separated by time and station and circumstance, saw one another as if for the first time, and fell into one another’s arms and wept tears of joy and regret and forgiveness. Tears welling up from some hidden place their souls. Tears that mingled and fell onto the earth, pooling together, indistinguishable from one another, as if they flowed from the same body.
Flowed, like one giant river.