My heart breaks for our country and world today. Racial inequality, deep seated mistrust, increasing violence and boiling hatred fill our headlines daily. I write this in the aftermath of the horrific white nationalist rally and car crash in Charlottesville. Followers of Jesus must denounce such evils clearly and in the strongest terms. (Read statement from our church’s president Gary Walter here.)
The church today is too often divided by the very inequalities and divisions the gospel came to obliterate. Churches are often grouped according to political allegiances, blue and red. We are divided into black churches and white churches, wealthy suburban churches and urban poor congregations — with very few managing to bring them together. Some churches empower women to pursue their God-given calling while others restrict them.
Yet, the story of Christianity is a story of a unifying, boundary-breaking movement taking root across very different cultures (Jews and Gentiles) and social groups (masters, slaves, freedman, men and women, etc.). The early church fellowships were a shockingly successful, revolutionary social experiment. In a highly status-driven Greco-Roman world the first churches would host regular meals that would bring to the same table unthinkable groupings (just like Jesus’ table fellowship).
Men and women, slaves and masters, educated and uneducated, wealthy and poor, day laborers and aristocratic elites, Jews and Gentiles — all together at the same table, breaking bread off the same loaf, and partaking of the one cup in a sacred meal called Eucharist. Paul had the audacity to suggest the unthinkable: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Boom. Drop the microphone and walk away. Certainly, an audible gasp filled the house church where these words were read aloud the first time! This is truly revolutionary stuff!
[Read a great piece on this at Jesus Creed: Who “Attended” those earliest Churches?”]
Perhaps no place is this radical social experiment more powerfully on display than in an oft neglected little letter tucked away near the back of our New Testament: Philemon. This is an explosive document that shows the way the gospel of Jesus could transform all relationships, breaking down all social barriers and inequalities, forming a new social bond, or family. This is good stuff; you better sit down for this next part.
The book of Philemon is a letter written by the Apostle Paul while in prison, to Philemon in regards to his slave, Onesimus. Apparently, Onesimus stole from his master then ran away to Rome where he met Paul and became a believer under his influence. This letter is a personal appeal by Paul to Philemon, a fellow brother in Christ (also likely Paul’s convert) to forgive and restore Onesimus who had become very dear to him. Paul urges Philemon to “do the right thing” in forgiving Onesimus and to set an example for the rest of church that met in his home.
The key is verse 16 : Paul invites Philemon to welcome his runaway slave back into his home (and the ekklesia that meets there) “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” Can you smell the aroma of social revolution in this verse?
Followers of Jesus today need to recapture the radical equality and unifying power experienced in the earliest churches planted by Paul. We need to revive and unleash the reconciling message embodied in the letter to Philemon, so we can once again further the radical social experiment called ekklesia. In Christ, regardless of our race, gender, or social status, we are to consider one another as equal brothers and sisters in the household of God. Period.
As we tap into the electrifying power of the Holy Spirit that sparked the original revolutionary movement called The Way, the watching world will once again accuse us of “turning the world upside down…proclaiming another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7).
Who’s with me? Join me in revisioning ekklesia, or church, for today’s deeply divided world.
“For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us…Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death.”