Readings– Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
One of my favorite images of God at work is the image from Jeremiah of a potter, shaping clay. The image works for me because many times throughout my life I have been shaped by those loving, powerful hands, shaped and re-shaped, again and again.
The Psalmist builds on that image, God knowing us through and through.
Lord, you have searched me out and know me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar… you press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me.
God knows what kind of clay we are, and God knows how to best shape, and re-shape us, even when we get out of kilter.
While I find the gospel reading from St. Luke a bit extreme, it, too, is about being re-shaped by the loving, powerful hands of God to be followers, disciples, of Jesus. And do we really know the costs of following Jesus versus the rewards? That is a tough one as I consider what my life would be like without God’s guidance.
Now let’s turn to the tiny letter of St. Paul to Philemon; it is a story of Philemon’s re-shaping by God, assisted by St. Paul, and also it is the re-shaping of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave.
As a runaway young slave, Onesimus found his way to St. Paul in Rome. How we do not know. In the course of caring for St. Paul, while he was serving house arrest, St. Paul wrote to Philemon. A bit of context, in the Roman Empire at that time it is estimated that there were 60 million slaves. The danger of revolt was always a possibility. If an individual slave ran away, the lightest punishment was being branded on the forehead with an “F” for a fugitive. Depending on the owner’s will, the returned runaway slave could be crucified. So, St. Paul sending Onesimus back to Philemon was dangerous. In fact, if the Roman Empire discovered that the early Church promoted emancipation, the Church would have been crushed without mercy. The Church would have been wiped out. Instead, St. Paul invited Philemon to receive Onesimus back as “a brother in Christ”.
As St. Paul wrote in Galatians —
In Christ, there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave or free, male nor female.
So, the master was to treat the slave as Christ would treat him, and the slave was to serve his master as he would serve Christ. Their relationship “in Christ” was totally transformed, totally re-shaped, like a potter transforming a lump of clay on the potter’s wheel.
Clearly, this letter at first appears to be a private letter to Philemon, yet it was sent to Archippus and the church gathered in his home. It states, “I am sending this case to you”, to the entire congregation. In all probability, Philemon and the congregation acceded to St. Paul’s request and sent Onesimus back to Rome to care for the ailing apostle.
However, the story of this letter does not end there. Fast forward fifty years or so when St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, was being transported to Rome for his execution. Along the way, he visited congregations and wrote numerous letters to others, many of which have survived to our own day. One of the letters was sent to a congregation in the ancient city of Ephesus. The bishop had heard good things about them, and, in particular, about their bishop. The congregation is the one credited with preserving the letters of St. Paul that now make up much of our New Testament. The Bishop of Ephesus, that St. Ignatius referenced, was a man named, Onesimus. This tiny letter that shaped his life, and the life of the Church, was included in the collection.
This letter of St. Paul is the story of God’s loving and powerful hands shaping clay set on a potter’s wheel. There is no doubt about it, God was at work on Philemon, on Onesimus, and on the early Church. There is no doubt about it, God’s loving and strong hands continue to shape the lives of individuals and of the Church in our own day.
Returning to the words of the Psalmist–
You knit me together in my mother’s womb… You lay your hand upon me… I will thank you for I am marvelously made, your works are wonderful, I know it well.