Philemon 1-21

September 4, 2022

Michael Swartz

When I think of the current war in Ukraine, and the Russian invasion under Putin, there is a backstory.  The Soviet Union was an Ally in WWII.

Former British prime minister Winston Churchill in a speech in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, stressed the necessity for the United States and Britain to act as the guardians of peace and stability against the menace of Soviet communism, which had lowered an “iron curtain”

“We will bury you!” is a phrase that was used by Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev while addressing Western ambassadors at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow on November 18, 156.

Sputnik 1 was the first artificial Earth satellite. It was launched into an elliptical low Earth orbit by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957 as part of the Soviet space program.  I listened to the little beep beeps it transmitted on a crystal radio in bed as a child at the time.

The Berlin Wall was a guarded concrete barrier that physically and ideologically divided Berlin and encircling and separating West Berlin from East German territory. Construction of the wall was commenced by the German Democratic Republic on 13 August 1961.

The wall was destroyed in 1989.  This was during the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev a Russian and Soviet politician who served as the last leader of the Soviet Union

“Those were the days my friend, we’d thought they’d never end.”  Until they did.

The status quo seems inevitable and permanent until it changes.

Empires have policies and laws that can and do change life circumstances radically for persons and communities and do so fairly quickly – in the course of a single lifetime.  Empires change much more quickly than cultures.

Here is my fantasy backstory about the Apostle Paul – think of it as a novel rather than specifically as history.

Jerusalem and Judea were under the control of the Persian Empire from about the time of Ezra, say 450 bce.  Jerusalem was a “satrap,” or political unit.  Then Alexander the Great swept through the area about 350 bce.  While the Jewish peoples had experienced significant religious autonomy under the Persians, the Greeks felt it was their duty to Hellenize their empire, and that was not well received.  There was a rebellion led by a group called the Maccabees, so named for Judas Maccabaeus.  (The December holy days of Hanukah were founded in this period and recall the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem after the desecration by the Greeks.)  This was a period of revolutionary churning, recorded in the books of Maccabees (and Josephus), and being a small nation/cultural/religious group the Jews realized that they would be part of some empire, and formed an alliance with the Romans, who at least seemed fairer and let folks practice their own traditional religions.  So the Jews sent emissaries to Rome and an alliance was made.  This was the basis of the Hasmonean dynasty.  Which was in place at the time of Jesus and Paul.

During this churning revolutionary period the Jews pushed through Samaria and won some battles and captured some cities up north in Galilee, led by Antiochus in about 100 bce.  To solidify their gains Antiochus expelled the Greeks and relocated some devout families from Judea to the area to join a remnant of Jewish folk in the cities/villages.  Jesus family settled near Nazareth; Paul’s family even further north.  (This would explain the Christmas tradition that Jesus’ family had roots in Bethlehem and how they routinely travelled down to Jerusalem with neighbors for religious holy days.)

So Paul’s family was up north, devout settlers.  And then later the city was over run in battle and in addition to looting treasure, a way to make wars pay for themselves at that time was to take captives and sell them into slavery, and the more highly educated and literate brought a higher price; slaves were not only for manual labor.  50 bce?  In my novel Paul’s father was a well educated rabbi, who spoke Greek in addition to Aramaic and Hebrew.

Paul’s father was sold to a family in Tarsus, located where the coastline turns a corner to the west, in what is today Turkey.  Tarsus was a university city – one of the big three of the time, along with Athens and Alexandria.  Now in the Roman Empire an owner was responsible/liable for the needs/necessities of their slaves, and it was common for slaves who had done a decent job to be freed when they reached what we would today call retirement age.  Thereby the owner could avoid medical fees and taking care of an aging slave who was no longer productive.  And the previous owner could look handsome and generous.

If the owner was a Roman citizen the freed slave became a Roman citizen, and could confer that to their offspring.  Paul was vocal about his Roman citizenship – it was a privilege.  Roman citizenship was not common among Jews.  And Paul grew up in Tarsus, a highly charged intellectual center, and he would have been exposed not only to his roots as a child of the promise to Abraham, but also to the philosophy of the Greeks, and the laws of the Romans.  The administration/engineering of the empire was Roman, but the language, culture and philosophy was Hellenistic.

My novel would show that Paul’s gift was to bridge the gap between rabbinic tradition and Hellenistic philosophical categories.  His letters are in Greek.  And Paul moves back and forth between the ideas of the Hebrew scripture, Greek culture and Roman law.  And does so almost seamlessly.

My novel would also show that for Paul things could change radically and quickly.  Imagine going from settled in a little town in northern Galilee, then a captive of war, then sold in a slave market, growing up in a rich household, given freedom and granted citizenship in the world’s greatest empire.  And if this did not all happen in Paul’s personal lifetime, it happened in the particular history of his family and was part of kitchen table conversations in his home.

And as a citizen of the Roman Empire there was a promised equality as peers.

Consider:  Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed…. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.  (Galatians 3)

(Of course, in my novel, there is also reversal and irony.  Most of Paul’s adult life was when Claudius was emperor in Rome, and the status of freedmen was ascendant as officers and important civil servants. By the time Paul got to Rome for his trial as he had demanded as the right of a Roman citizen, Claudius was dead and Nero was emperor.  And after the fire in Rome, and Nero was accused of just fiddle-ing, Nero decided to blame/scapegoat the Christians and Paul was executed.  The status quo seems permanent until it is not anymore.)

What is the sermon here?

  • Circumstances change – God is eternal. So we have radical conversion, consider the Road to Damascus where Saul becomes Paul.  Jesus goes from hanging on a cross to the right hand of God.  We Americans like the idea of possible upward mobility.  The Christian scriptures are filled with accounts of people whose life was radically transformed by the power of God in Jesus Christ; the least, the last and the lost saved by God.  Our situation can get radically better by the power of God.
  • Slavery is not always and everywhere the same. Bad as it was, in the Roman Empire one could go from slave to freedman in a moment of manumission.  And although many looked down their nose at freedmen – as upstarts – like some look down their nose at first generation college graduates – it was imperial law.  Slavery in the ancient world was circumstantial.  American slavery was more pernicious as racially justified and one could never escape the destiny of being a slave, and marked by the color of skin.  And some theologians, white ones, claimed that race was an order created by God.  If the period of Emperor Claudius ever became a musical like Hamilton, I can imagine the line “freedmen; we get the job done!”
  • Philemon became a bishop; a rule of thumb is that if you get named in the New Testament you were an important leader in the church. So Philemon was a key example of how your situation could change quickly by the power of God:  The last will be first and the first will be last.


We get caught in the notion that how it is is how it will always be.  As a child and young adult I could not imagine the world without the Cold War.  And then it was gone, and previously soviet countries were joining NATO and the European Union.  And under President Bill Clinton we reaped the “peace dividend.”

Just like learning to play one of the 76 trombones requires more than the “think method” of learning music the first step on the journey from where we are to where we want to be is to imagine that it is possible.  And our faith tells that it is possible by the power of God.  It does not have to be this way.

Our God is a god of possibility and wants good for every person.  God does not put a permanent stain on anyone that marks them forever.  Ours is a God of circumstance not fate.

Amen and amen.

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