God's Story, Our Story: A Love that Reconciles

Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: Philemon

A picture paints a thousand words.  A single photograph can tell a powerful story.  Take this photograph, for example. Have you ever seen it?  Do you know the story behind it?

It’s a photograph from the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.  The two black men are American runners John Carlos (left) and Tommie Smith (right) who won the gold and bronze in the 200 meter race.  1968 was a tragic year in the Civil Rights Movement as both Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated.  Carlos and Smith took the podium barefoot, a symbol of solidarity with African Americans who were experiencing poverty and oppression.  The black gloves and raised fists were a gesture of the Black Panther movement.  And the white badge on their shirts, next to “USA”, read “Olympic Project for Human Rights,” which represented a movement of athletes around the world who were standing up for equality and justice for all people everywhere.

It was a bold and courageous act.  What Carlos and Smith did in this moment with the world watching.  This symbolic gesture of protest and defiance in the face of injustice.  And they paid for it.  Smith and Carlos were immediately suspended from the American Olympic Team and expelled from Olympic Village.  They would not be allowed to race again.  At home, these men and their families faced heavy repercussions and received multiple death threats.

But what about the white man in the photo?  The man who won the silver medal?  Who is he?  And is he part of the story?  While pictures can reveal, they can also deceive.  Most people don’t know that there is more to this story.  And I’m going to tell you about it in a little while. 

But first, let’s talk about Philemon, the shortest of all of the Apostle’s Paul’s letters.  Only twenty-five verses and 335 words make up this very personal and often overlooked letter.      

It’s written by Paul while he is in prison under house arrest (either in Rome or Ephesus) toward the end of his life.  Paul lists Timothy as a co-author, but it is most likely that Timothy served as the scribe.  And its addressed to a man named Philemon, a friend of Paul’s and leader of a house church in Colossae.  Paul also includes some other names in the greeting—Apphia (who may have been Philemon’s wife) and Archippus (who may have been his son).  It’s also written to the entire house church (50 or 60 people)—an important point to which we’ll return later.

Paul’s primary purpose in writing the letter is to appeal to Philemon to welcome back Onesimus, Philemon’s slave who had run away.  We’re not sure exactly why Onesimus escaped his Master’s house, but he went to Paul and Paul led him to Christ and became a spiritual father to Onesimus.  Paul then directs Onesimus to return home to Philemon, and he sends this letter with him.

We might wonder: what does a letter about a slave being urged to return to his master have to say to us today?  Especially in the wake of the tragedies that have happened over the past couple weeks and the racial tensions that are so high in our country right now.

One of the things that may frustrate us about the Bible, especially the writings of Paul, is that the Bible doesn’t seem to explicitly condemn slavery and racism.  In some of his other letters, like Ephesians and Colossians, Paul has a section under household instructions where he directs masters and slaves in how to behave in a Christ-like manner.  And here in Philemon, Paul tells a runaway slave to go back to his master and appeals to Philemon to welcome him back with forgiveness and compassion.  But Paul doesn’t outright say that slavery is wrong and that Onesimus should be set free.

Does that bother anyone else?  Every time I read Paul, I want to him to go further, to say more.  “Just say it’s wrong and not what God intends for humanity,” I find myself getting all riled up.  “Name it for the evil and injustice that it is!” Too many people, for too long, have used the Bible to justify oppression and injustice.  What’s that haunting line in Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird?  Something like this: “The Bible in one man’s hand is as dangerous as a bottle of whiskey in the hand of another man.”  When in reality the God we see in Jesus, and the God we find in the narrative arch of Scripture, is a God who liberates and heals and makes things right—a God of justice.

So wonder with me…might Paul’s message and example in Philemon be more radical that it might appear?  Might there be more to this picture than we immediately see?

For starters, did you notice that Paul never refers to Philemon, not even once, as Onesimus’ “Master?”   And the only time he refers to Onesimus as a “slave” is when he is directly calling Philemon to treat Onesimus as more than a slave: Receive him back, Paul says, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v.16).

Paul is actually making a radical appeal to Philemon—a countercultural move—in his request that Philemon receive Onesimus back no longer as a slave but as a beloved brother, an equal, in Christ.  Paul’s point is that the gospel—which is all about the reconciling love of Christ—radically transforms and redefines all of our relationships.  So that whatever would divide us or rank us in tiers of importance—race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual-orientation, or whatever other labels we come up with—all of it is overcome and redefined by the cross of Christ.  Listen to what Paul writes in other letters:

“But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.  He abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. – Eph.2:13-16

“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.” – Col.1:19-20

“In that renewal there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, Barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all in all!” Col.3:11

The love of God that is embodied in the person and work of Jesus Christ is a love that reconciles, heals, forgives, and makes new.  It is a reconciling love that makes a new humanity—one family of God, the single body of Christ—all because of God’s grace given freely to us.  A grace given freely but not cheaply—it came with an incredible cost.

And so Paul appeals to Philemon, as he appeals to us today, to practice this kind of love that is ours in Christ.  Haven’t we heard Paul say this over and over, in every letter that we’ve read over the past couple months?  The primary virtue of living out our identity in Christ, as a new creation, is that of practicing Christ-like love.  And Christ-like love is a love that always gets into action around seeking reconciliation.

It is on the basis of this love, then, that Paul appeals to Philemon.  Paul could have used his apostolic authority and commanded Philemon to do this.  Paul has played that card before.  But he doesn’t.  As Philemon’s brother in Christ, fellow worker in the gospel, he simply appeals to Philemon on the basis of love.   A love that Paul has witnessed in Philemon’s life—a fruit of the Spirit made evident.  On the basis of that love, because Onesimus is your brother in Christ, embrace him.  Forgive him.  Welcome him as you would welcome me, and not as a slave but as an equal.

Friends, this is where the rubber hits the road when it comes to the gospel.  It’s one thing to talk about it; it’s another thing to actually practice this kind of love—a love that advocates for others and stands with those who are weak and vulnerable.  Philemon is being challenged to move his grasp of the gospel from the head to the heart to the hands—to actually live it out in his real, everyday life.

But this message is not just for Philemon.  It’s for the whole church.  That’s why Paul wants it read in the community, even includes the whole church in the address.  The calling of the church, the body of Christ, is to demonstrate the reconciling love of God in Christ for the whole world to see.  Paul calls the entire community—not just Philemon—to embrace their brother Onesimus.  Because this work of reconciliation is never the work of just one person but always the work of the whole community.  The church is to be a sign and a foretaste of God’s kingdom—a kingdom that gives the world a picture of what it means to forgive, heal and embrace.

Paul takes it one step even further.  Not only is the church call to be a sign and foretaste of God’s reconciling love in Christ; the church is called to be God’s instrument of reconciliation in the world.  “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away, everything has become new!  All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us….” (2 Cor. 5:17-20)

There are some powerful verses in Philemon—more than we might initially suspect.  But it’s the picture of Paul’s example that I find most compelling.  In writing this letter, Paul is demonstrating what it means to be an ambassador of Christ—he is advocating on the behalf of Onesimus, who was in a position of vulnerability and had no power or privilege.  Even though it came with a cost—Paul tells Philemon he will cover whatever the debt is (seems there was a financial cost).  And he calls Philemon to be an advocate for Onesimus among the community—Paul is demonstrating for us what it looks like to be instruments of reconciliation.

What’s getting stirred up in you today as you hear this?  Where are you feeling resistance?  Maybe even shame?  God calls us out of shame and into the light, to join him in his reconciling work.  And it begins with each of us.  Looking at our own hearts.  Our own relationships.  And it begins with us looking at our church—are we demonstrating together the reconciling love of Christ?  And how might God be calling us to be an instrument of reconciliation in our community?  Might we give the world a different picture than what they’re seeing in the news?

Because a picture paints a thousand words.  A single photograph can tell a powerful story.  You remember this photograph we began with?  And the white man in the photo?  What’s his story?  Is he part of the story?

His name is Peter Norman.  He was an unknown Australian sprinter who seemingly came out of nowhere and ended up taking the silver medal in the 200 meter race.  The final heat was an amazing race.  But what happened on the podium was even more amazing.  This is the part of the story you don’t immediately see in the picture.

In 1968, it wasn’t only the U.S. who was experiencing racial injustice.  Apartheid was happening in Australia—one nearly as bad as South Africa.  There was tension and protests in the streets of Australia following heavy apartheid restrictions on non-white immigration and discriminatory laws against aboriginal people.

The two Americans asked Norman if he believed in human rights.  Norman said he did.  They asked him if he believed in God.  Norman was part of the Salvation Army, and he said he had a strong belief in God.  “We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat, and he said, ‘I’ll stand with you’” remember Carlos.  “I expected to see fear in Norma’s eyes, but instead we saw love.”

When Norman heard they were going to make this gesture of defiance on the podium, with their badges and black gloves, he asked if they had another badge.  They didn’t, but he scrambled and found one to borrow from another athlete.

Then, together—as one—the three of them walked out to the podium.  When the Star Spangled Banner started to play and be sung, the crowd was so moved by the picture of what they saw from these three men that the song faded and the stadium hushed into silence.

I shared with you the cost of this act for the two Americans.  But there was also a cost for Norman.  Even though he would remain for years one of the fastest sprinters in his country, the Australian Olympic Team refused to let him race ever again in the Olympics.  This act essentially cost him his career.  His entire family was ostracized and made outcasts in their own country.  No one would hire him, and he finally found a job as a butcher, but was injured and contracted gangrene, which led to depression and alcoholism.

For years, the authorities in his country promised to treat him and his family differently if he would only condemn his co-athletes, Carlos and Smith, and their disobedient gesture at the 1968 Olympics.  They even promised him he could compete in the Olympics again.

But Norman wouldn’t do it.  He wouldn’t condemn these men or what they had all done. He stood his ground.

Norman died suddenly from a heart attack in 2006, without his country ever apologizing for the way they had treated him. An official apology would come in 2012, but it was too late.  At his funeral, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Norman’s friends since that moment in 1968, were his pall bearers, sending him off as a hero.

“He paid the price with his choice, “explained Tommie Smith.  “It wasn’t just a simple gesture to help us, it was HIS fight.  He was a white man, a white Australian man among two men of color, standing up in the moment of victory, all in the name of the same thing.”

Norman made his choice.  A courageous choice.  A choice that demanded sacrifice.  And he never regretted it.  What choices are in front of us today?  Individually?  As a church?  A community and nation?

When asked why he made this choice, here is what Norman said in his own words:

“I couldn’t see why a black man couldn’t drink the same water from a water fountain, take the same bus or go to the same school as a white man.

There was a social injustice that I couldn’t do anything for from where I was, but I certainly hated it.

It has been said that sharing my silver medal with that incident on the victory dais detracted from my performance.

On the contrary.

I have to confess, I was rather proud to be part of it”.

A picture paints a thousand words.  A single photograph can tell a powerful story.

Let us be a picture of God’s kingdom for all the world to see.



*The story of Carlos, Smith and Norman was taken from this article by Ricardo Gazzaniga: http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/the-white-man-in-that-photo/

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