August 23, 2020 – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
A message from the Rev. Bob Smith
It is with caution but relief that we can gather in person to celebrate God’s love for us in worship. But it is a diminished worship – no singing, no children’s time, no hand-shaking and embracing as we pass the peace of God to one another. And there is the absence still of many of our community members who do not feel safe yet in such a public space.
So we do what we can in these strange times. And we offer these worship resources online, in the hope that they will help in some way to bridge our separateness, and connect us while there are still restrictions. May God be with us all.
Grace and peace to you,
Rev. Bob Smith
Book of Praise – 422 “Sing a new song unto the Lord”
- video with on-screen lyrics. The sung lyrics differ slightly from the hymnbook.
- Words (a paraphrasing of Psalm 98) and music by American composer Daniel L. Schutte (1947–)
- Recorded by the St. Louis Jesuits (of which Schutte is a founding member); on their album May We Praise You – Music from the St. Louis Jesuits – Vol. 2 (1997).
Prayers of Adoration and Confession, Lord’s prayer
Gracious God, you invite us all to come to you, those who are hesitant, those who are lost, those who are afraid, those who find it hard to love even ourselves. So gather us together around yourself, as the one who calls the last to be first, and the least respectable to places of honour. So may the focus of our gathering be the love which makes us one, which speaks life to us, and which calls us into service in the name of your Son, Jesus.
O God, you search us and know us. You know the secrets of our heart, even better than we do. You know how we have run away from your call, and yet you are ready always to receive us again, ready to use us again. Hear us now, we pray, as we make our confessions to you. In your mercy, O God, forgive us and heal our inclination to wander. Fashion us by your Spirit into vessels fit for your use, so that we may bear faithfully what you have entrusted to our care. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who taught us when we pray to say:
Our Father, in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those
who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours
now and forever. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon and the Peace
Friends in Christ, the mercy of God is from everlasting to everlasting, always more ready to forgive than we are even to ask. With open hearts, receive the forgiveness God offers in Christ, and be thankful.
The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
(And also with you.)
Philemon 8–21 <– this links to on-line text of the NRSV bible
While Christian Education Coordinator Laura Alary is on holidays, we’ll be featuring a few resources she has recommended. This week, it’s the “Godly Play” YouTube channel. She notes that “Godly Play” has a similar philosophy and style to the “Children and Worship” program we use at GCPC.
This week’s nobody from the Bible is Onesimus,
and his story is told in the form of a letter from Paul to Philemon,
which now bears Philemon’s name in our New Testament.
Onesimus gets no lines himself in the story,
not even his reaction to all that is happening around him —
he is at its centre,
but he a pawn in a game
of working out how we relate to one another as Christians.
His life hangs in the balance
for the sake of showing that belonging to God
has to affect the way in which we belong to one another —
that being “in Christ” changes everything.
The situation is this: Onesimus is a slave —
not a great life by any stretch of the imagination.
He belongs to Philemon,
and belonging is the word.
He is a piece of property.
He isn’t treated too badly,
but has absolutely no freedom to come or go,
or to make any decisions about his life.
His life is meaningless
except for his value in doing work for his owner.
We don’t know exactly what happened,
but at some point Onesimus gets fed up with life as a slave.
One day while Philemon is looking the other way,
Onesimus sees his chance and manages to take off.
Just for good measure,
and maybe to settle a thousand little scores from his years of servitude,
he pockets the household grocery money,
and makes clean his escape.
He heads from Colossae, where Philemon lives,
to Rome, a big bustling city
where he hopes he will be able to lose himself in the crowd.
While in Rome, he meets the missionary Paul,
and under Paul’s ministry the slave becomes a follower of Jesus.
The two strike up quite a friendship,
and Onesimus becomes a devoted and useful helper,
to the point that Paul wants to put him on contract
as a permanent part of his ministerial team.
One day, we imagine, as they’re talking,
Paul mentions the name Philemon, an old friend in Colossae.
Onesimus’ face goes white.
“You know Philemon?
He’s a friend of yours?”
“Yes.” answers Paul,
“In fact, I led him to faith in Christ.
Do you know him too?
What’s the big deal?”
“Well, there’s a little detail about my past
that maybe I should tell you.”
And the whole story of Onesimus’ enslavement and escape comes out.
This makes things a bit awkward.
He is still rightfully Philemon’s property.
If he is caught,
the penalty is anything that the owner wants, including his life.
By a horrible co-incidence — or is the hand of God in this? —
his mentor turns out to be a friend of his owner.
And the interesting wrinkle to the relationship of these three men
is that they are all now followers of Christ.
Unfortunately for Onesimus,
Paul is one of those sticklers for doing the right thing.
And so he sends Onesimus back to Philemon, the man he has wronged,
and with him sends a letter,
which is what is preserved for us in the Bible.
The letter is a plea from Paul
for Philemon to forgive his slave,
and receive him back now as a brother in Christ,
and as a neat little twist,
the poor slave at the centre of this issue
gets to deliver the letter.
Let’s note the terrible position Onesimus finds himself in.
Philemon, his owner, has every right to throttle him if he shows up,
but Paul expects the slave to walk right up and knock on the door,
and on the strength of a letter from an old friend,
be shown forgiveness and compassion.
Just imagine what’s going on in his head,
as he sets out on this journey:
“Why am I doing this?
Am I some kind of idiot?
I’m free — but now I’m going back to where I was a slave,
where I could legally be put to death,
to see if I can go free again.
What’s wrong with this picture?”
Poor Onesimus — he is a pawn in this game.
The great Paul is in one corner, sending him back to set things right.
Paul’s friend Philemon in the opposite corner
gets to make the big decision
and have the book named after him.
And there are important principles at stake.
But it is Onesimus whose life hangs in the balance,
the one with no power at all,
who has to go back voluntarily to a place of great danger,
to make a point,
to do things the right way,
to appeal to someone for mercy on the basis of a shared faith.
But off he goes, letter in hand, back to Philemon.
It’s a carefully worded letter,
and Paul is the picture of diplomacy in it.
He must realize how delicate the situation is
because he refrains from openly pulling apostolic rank on Philemon.
Paul may be a person of honour and tact,
but at the same time he is not above using some arm-twisting.
Here’s how his argument goes:
“You know, Philemon, that as an apostle,
I could order you to set Onesimus free,
but I’m not going to do that.
I could lay a heavy burden on you,
but instead, I’ll just let your conscience be your guide.
Now if there are any outstanding debts around this little incident,
just charge them to my account,
but I won’t mention,” (even though he does),
“all that you own me as one of my spiritual children.
So, over to you, Philemon.
I’m counting on you,
and I just know you’ll do all I ask and more.”
You could call this moral blackmail —
it is Paul at his manipulative best.
There is a bit of restraint here, but not much.
So Onesimus delivers the letter,
but the problem for us is that the letter is all we have.
This is where the story ends for us,
so we are left wondering what happens on Philemon’s doorstep.
Onesimus quaking in his boots.
“That rat has his nerve coming back here.”
Onesimus thinking he’ll be lucky if his master even reads the letter
before killing him.
Philemon reading and wondering whether he has any choice at all
after Paul’s not-so-subtle arm-twisting
And Onesimus stands there at the doorstep, waiting,
cap in hand,
his life hanging in the balance
wondering whether his next breath will be his last
or he will receive the embrace of a brother in faith.
And that, for us, is where the movie ends.
So what meaning can we take from this for our lives today?
First, there is what Paul asks his friend to do on an ethical level.
You see, we all have obligations as members of our society —
honesty, decency, non-violence, fairness
paying our bills, cheering for the Leafs and Raptors.
What Paul says to Philemon is that there are higher,
(and sometimes conflicting)
obligations that we have as children of God.
It is not enough for us just to be obedient to the law,
satisfying all of the same expectations as others around us.
As followers of Jesus, we live by higher laws,
and are called to be faithful to them.
In the Sermon on the Mount,
Jesus says over and over.
“You have heard it said… but I say.
You know all the rules —
now I am going to raise the standards,
and you are going to have to learn to love,
to care, to serve, to forgive,
like you’ve never done before.
That’s what it means if you want to follow me.”
And you can be sure Philemon discovers how hard it can be at times
to live up to our higher calling as Christians.
Paul is asking him to set aside his rights,
and exercise instead costly love.
Being a follower of Jesus changes everything
in terms of how we respond to others,
and Paul would say, particularly to others who share our faith.
And here’s a place where Jesus may be asking us to raise the bar
even higher than Paul is suggesting.
If it is right for us to treat one another
according to higher standards as Christians,
then couldn’t we say that to be a light in the world,
we could apply those same higher standards
to how we treat everyone?
What are the ethical demands of our faith?
Paul invites Philemon and us to think differently
about how we live in relationship with others.
A second thing that we could think about in this story
is how it models for us the story of sin and redemption —
of falling short, and yet being offered new life —
and just how much we are like Onesimus, standing on that doorstep,
because we come before God on the same terms.
We come before the almighty,
seeking the mercy of the one who holds all the power.
We have wronged God through our sin,
yet come on the basis of repentance, seeking mercy.
we are accepted and welcomed into the fold.
But the similarity is not just our sin,
and our need for mercy.
We also have a letter in our hand.
Christ the intercessor, the mediator,
pleads on our behalf like Paul pleaded for Onesimus.
I’ll bet in our story,
that however Philemon might have felt
like he wanted to wring the neck of his slave,
a letter like the one he received
would at least give him pause to think again.
And when someone who confesses Jesus as Lord
comes to whatever judgement awaits us,
what God sees standing there on the doorstep
is not us, as much as Jesus vouching for us,
and answering for any wrong we have done.
“Receive him as you would receive me,” says Paul,
and Jesus says the same thing on our behalf.
And a third thing we could wonder about
from the perspective of our 21st century ethics, is:
Why doesn’t Paul simply argue that slavery is wrong,
and that it is unthinkable
for one human being to own another?
His argument is that Philemon receive Onesimus as a brother in the faith.
Nothing really about the moral question of slavery.
Paul seems to accept it as a given in his argument,
and for years afterward,
this book was used for centuries to justify slavery —
even though that was not Paul’s point.
Slavery may have been so much a part of that society
that Paul could not imagine life without it.
What he could imagine though
was the obligation between two brothers in the faith
taking precedence over the slave/master relationship.
It might have been helpful,
and many modern slaves might have been spared a terrible life,
if Paul had said,
“This whole practice is morally wrong,”
but he didn’t.
The point here is that as Christians we live in an imperfect world,
and we are called to do our best.
The societies we live in,
the companies we work for,
the governments who rule us,
the economic systems that shape our lives,
even the churches of which we are a part,
are flawed and sometimes even evil.
Every generation wakes up to another injustice
that we all thought was just the way things have to be.
We work in the world we live in,
with the tools at our disposal,
with the eyes that we have been given,
and we are called to do our best in faith.
Sometimes the moral ambiguities place us in dilemmas
where it’s hard even to discern the right thing,
let alone do it,
and we need to approach those decisions with
humility and in prayer.
The story of Onesimus calls us seek God’s help,
to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,”
in making the moral choices that confront us,
in trying to be faithful as children of God
in the world today.
And the other thing it calls us to do
is always to be applying God’s higher standards
to the world we live in,
so that we may be able to see the sin in ourselves and in our society,
and to do what we can to set it right.
Onesimus has a pretty passive role in the story,
but his plight is at the centre of it.
On his behalf Paul appeals to a brother in the faith
to forgive the past and receive him.
As such he is a model for each of us
as we pray for mercy and not justice
when we stand before God.
And he illustrates how tough it can be to be a Christian in the world,
to make impossible decisions,
and to seek a good which can be really quite elusive.
Just one final note.
We don’t really know,
but there is a hint about how this story ends.
It is not conclusive, but other documents from this period
speak of a person named Onesimus as the bishop of Ephesus,
which if it is our friend on Philemon’s doorstep,
would mean that he had been spared,
and released to work in the church.
For the sake of ending on a hopeful note,
let’s assume that the two are the same person,
that Paul’s persuasive letter-writing style did its job,
that Philemon did the right thing,
and received Onesimus back,
no longer as a slave, but a beloved brother in the faith,
and set him free to be a servant of Christ
and a minister of the gospel.
that is the freedom granted to each of us
by a God of grace
who wants only to enlist us
in proclaiming God’s love for the world.
- “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”. Words (1923) by American songwriter Thomas Chisholm (1866–1960). Music (1923) by his friend, American composer William M. Runyan (1870–1957). Both in the public domain.
- This arrangement by American composer Mark Hayes (1953–) © 2018 Hope Publishing Company; used by permission of One License, license number 722141-A.
- Video recording © copyright 2020 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church.
Listen to more music
We remind everyone that we must continue to pay our bills; in the absence of Sunday worship, you may sign up for pre-authorized remittance (PAR), donate online via our CanadaHelps page, or drop off your offering envelope in the mailbox at the church. Do not leave a cash donation unattended in the mailbox; instead, please call the office (416.261.4037) to ensure someone will be there to receive it. The building will be checked daily for mail and phone messages. If you are not comfortable leaving an envelope, you are welcome to contact the office (once again, 416.261.4037) and someone will pick up your offering.
Prayers of Thanksgiving and Hope
Gracious and caring God, you have promised to hear when we pray in the name of your son, so in confidence and trust, we bring our prayers for the world.
Creator of us all, lead us and all people into ways of justice and peace, so that we may respect one another in freedom and truth. Awaken in us a sense of wonder for the earth and all that is in it, and teach us to care for its resources wisely.
God of the nations, we pray for all those who govern the world’s peoples, and particularly for our own country and its leaders at every level. Watch over them and bless them, we pray, and guide them in their exercise of power and in the way they develop their policies. Work through them to promote those actions that help to build the sort of kingdom your son came to establish, where the vulnerable are cared for, those in need provided for, the powerless protected, and those who are divided reconciled. Work in us to help us see the gifts of your Spirit present in those quite different from ourselves, and help us to work together that day when all your people will be gathered around your table in joy and peace.
God of hope, comfort and restore all who suffer in body, mind or spirit, that they may know the power of your healing love. Make us willing agents of your compassion, and strengthen us as we share in helping to make people whole.
God of the church, enliven us in this congregation, and all your people in every congregation gathered in worship today, that we may be salt and light for the world. Breathe fresh life into your people, and give us power to reveal Christ in word and action.
God who sets us free to know your abundance and to live in your way in the world, grant that we may minister in your name with your love in our hearts, your truth in our minds, and your strength in our wills. Help us to see the life we have from you not as an achievement to be held, but as a blessing to be given away to others, so that your church would continue to be built up and your name be glorified, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Book of Praise – 644 “May the mind of Christ my Saviour”
- video with on-screen words; some differences to those in the hymnbook, including a complete additional sixth verse
- words (1925) by English religious educator Kate B. Wilkinson (1859–1928); music (1925; tune: St. Leonards) by English composer A. C. Barham-Gould (1891–1953)
Commissioning and Benediction
Go in peace
to be set free into the fullness of life which is God’s gift.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with you all, now and forever. Amen.
© Copyright 2020 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church
Updated: August 26, 2020 – added musical meditation video and descriptive text