This sermon was given on Sunday September 4th at the Lutheran Church of the Cross in Nisswa.
From Saul to Paul: A Long journey
The Lutheran Church of The Cross, Nisswa MN
The Rev. Dr. George H. Martin
September 4, 2016
(Philemon, and Luke 14: 25-33)
Today’s sermon is about your name and the common name we all share. It’s a sermon based on the letter to Philemon, the one letter in the New Testament we read in its entirety at one sitting when it appears once every three years. It’s only 25 verses long.
The letter sent to Philemon was one the Paul wrote while he was in prison, or as he said at one point in the letter, while he was in chains. One Pauline scholar even has a book about Paul titled “Chained in Christ.” I dare say Paul would have a hard time seeking a call as a pastor to most churches because a background check would reveal the number of times he was arrested.
In that world, in the first century, when you were arrested and placed in jail, it meant you were awaiting a trial. But you could wait a long time in a dark damp cell that was more likely some underground set of caves in which the prisoners found their hands or legs attached to iron fetters and chains set in stone. Whatever food and water you might have would most likely come from a visitor, or a fellow prisoner who shared what they had. And we know from this letter that Philemon had sent his slave Onesimus to assist Paul.
Two things about Oneseimus as a slave. It never says that he was a runaway slave. Exaclty the opposite. It seems Philemon wanted to help Paul and had done so.
Second: We can’t expect Paul in this letter to make a political stand against an economy that depended on slaves. It just was the way it was in that world. It was true in every part of Paul’s world. As N. T. Wright, the scholar says, slavery was like electricity in our world. We all just take it for granted. But what Paul said about Onesimus becoming like a brother to him, and then suggesting the Philemon see him as a brother. That’s an amazing statement.
Now, about some names. We have to learn about the meaning of Paul’s name. There’s the meaning of the name Onesimus. And there’s the name we all have in common. And there is your particular name.
My full name is George Harvey Martin. The name “Martin” is my surname. Some people actually get the name “Martin” as their first name. Anyone like that come to mind here? Of course. Martin Luther. My first name George, in Greek, means farmer. It’s Jorge in Spanish, and I really like the Italian version, “Georgio.”
I’m named after my two grandfathers. What about you? How about if for about a minute you turn to someone near you, maybe someone who doesn’t know your name. Tell each other what your name is, maybe what it means in some language, and why you were given that name, if you possibly know.
Now about the meaning of Onesimus. In Greek it means “Useful.” What we need to understand is that slaves always had a name from their previous life—unless, of course, as often happened, they were born into slavery. All slaves were given their name by their owner. The owner of a newly purchased slave might look at him and say, “From now on your name is “Tertius.” You’re my third slave. Your number three. That’s all.”
And Onesimus. His name meant “Useful.” Maybe Philimon saw something positive in him and knew he had some particular skills, and told him, “I like what you know and can do. I’m going to call you Useful, your name is Onesimus from now on.” Or maybe his name was a joke. That he was a klutz who dropped and spilled things. We don’t know.
What you can be sure is that no self-respecting Roman citizen would ever name a child Tertius or Onesimus. And neither would in that first century would they name their child Paulus.
Paulos was the Latin name of Paul. I’ll tell you what it means in a minute. I think we can assume that Paul wasn’t his given birth name. He most likely had a Jewish name. One source for this is the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which tells us his name was Saul. Never once in any of the letters, though, did Paul mention that his previous name was Saul, but he did refer to his proud heritage as “…a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews…” (Phil 3:5) But he didn’t keep or use that name once he was called—his words were “called through God’s grace” Gal. 1:15)—to proclaim Jesus Messiah among the Gentiles. His name was Paulos.
For years I never knew what that name meant. Most of us don’t. You will now. It’s the Latin word for “small” or “humble.” Those who knew Paul might have told you that “small” was the better definition. A late second century document described Paul as a short bowlegged man.
What’s really significant in the context of this sermon is that Paul is a slave name in the 1st century.
Taking on a new name in the course of making a decision to follow Jesus actually continues in our day. I was privileged to attend the ordination of an Armenian Orthodox priest in 2010. I don’t remember the name that priest was given by his parents, and if you were to ask him, I’m willing to bet, he wouldn’t tell you what it was. You see, when the Armenian Archbishop laid hands on him and made him a priest, he gave him his new name. As he knelt there the Archbishop gave him his stole to wear. They placed a chasuble over him, and then he had him stand and face the congregation. And the Archbishop said, Please greet and welcome your new priest. And for the first time the priest, his family, and his congregation learned his new name. Please welcome “Father Gregor” he said, named after Gregory the Great one of the early church fathers.
At baptism each of us gets our name. The Pastor asks “Please name this child.” And if you are well coached you give their first and middle name if there be such. When I got to baptize my last grandchild, I said please name this child, and my daughter Kate said “Spencer George.” She didn’t add his last name, or what is called his surname, which is Martin-Jones. That’s name tied him to each side of his family. At his baptism, though, Spencer received another last name. Just as each of you did when you were baptized. You see each us of became a member, at baptism, of the Christian family. And your new last name became “Christian.”
I know you don’t like that Gospel reading where Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children…” and the list goes on. It’s really not a very good translation of the Greek word “miseo.” Eugene Peterson in the translation called “The Message” did much better.
Jesus turned and told them, “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple. (Luke 14.26 The Message)
Let me connect this to Paul’s core message to Philemon to Onesimus. You see Onesimus is different. He has received Christ, and he isn’t the same person anymore. Thus Paul is telling his owner Philemon, who is Paul’s friend, that Philemon should see Onesimus as his brother in Christ.
What if Philemon had said to Paul, well I can’t see him as my brother. But if you want him, I’ll set him free and you can have him? That would have been a defeat for Paul, and for Philemon. Paul’s issue is the reconciliation of all, and in this instance of Philemon and Onesimus in the context of Jesus, Lord and Messiah.
Over and over in this short letter of 25 verses we find not one, but eleven times some version of the phrase “in our Lord Jesus Christ.” In “Kyrios Iesous Christos” is the Greek.
And Paul literally meant “in” as Located in, found in, discovered in, residing in, attached to, and we might even say using that language of cartology “geographically placed at this particular point on this map.”
Paul once said, in describing in Galatians his call to proclaim Jesus as Messiah that early on in this ministry he “…was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.” Let me repeat to you the key phrase. They are the churches of Judea that are in Christ. Paul isn’t saying you find these churches in Judea. Go looking for them there. No, go looking for the Churches of Judea that are found to be living in and with Christ.
Send them a letter, but not to Judea per se, but to their real address which is “in Christ.”
And you and I with our common last name. What is it? It’s “Christian.” Where are we to be found. Right here. You and I are in the right place, along with all the others, who called Jesus Lord and Savior. In “Kyrios Iesous Chistos”. Maybe you might say those words to yourself as you open your hand this morning to receive the body and blood of Christ. As you reaffirm that this is your family.