Christianity 201

August 2, 2018

Stuck in a Moment

by Clarke Dixon

Feeling stuck? Like things will never change? Could be your health, family dynamics, marriage, or work. You have given up on expecting a miracle. You have settled into a new normal and it is not a good normal. You are “stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it” to borrow a line from U2. It feels like the likelihood of things changing is zero.

The apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon speaks of a situation where change hardly seemed possible. Slavery was a societal norm which was not going away anytime soon. It was just the way things were. This could work out okay for some who had good masters. It could be miserable for those who didn’t. Society itself was stuck in a moment and couldn’t get out of it. Paul’s letter to Philemon does not give any hope of change happening soon. Slavery will continue in the empire. In fact Paul didn’t just send a letter to Philemon about slavery, he sent back a slave, Onesimus, who had run away from Philemon. We might think “poor slave”, sent back to the same old, back to being stuck in a moment that he can’t get out of.

What do we think Paul would write in the letter which accompanies Onesimus? Might he say something like “be sure to make an example of your runaway so that no others will sin against you like he did?” Or, “be sure that justice is served”? Let’s read what Paul has to say to Philemon about his runaway slave:

8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 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.

17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. Philemon 1:8-21 (NIV emphasis added)

Fact is, while slavery continued, there were great changes happening behind the scenes. There was great hope for Onesimus, not because the institution of slavery was changing within the Roman empire, but because people and relationships were being changed within the God’s Kingdom.

Among Christians relationships were changing due to a wiping away of class distinctions:

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Galatians 3:26-29 (NIV)

While Roman society kept plugging along as it was, the Christian Church was a different kind of community. Slaves were children of God in Christ as much as anyone else. No matter one’s identity and status within the empire, all were brothers and sisters in God’s Kingdom.

Relationships were changing in another way.  There was a wiping away of personal offense. Philemon was not explicitly asked to forgive Onesimus, but it is implied. The Christian community was a forgiven people who were learning to forgive. Onesimus may have been stuck as a slave thanks to Roman societal norms, but his future never looked brighter thanks to the big changes the Gospel of Jesus was bringing to his world.

So what has this to do with the moment we might be stuck in? When we are stuck in a sticky spot and are not counting on a change anytime soon, we can focus on the things that are changing. Our health may not change, but our relationship with God, and others, can deepen. You might feel stuck, and that no one around will ever change, but you can.

It would seem that Paul prayed the Serenity Prayer long before it was written. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things that cannot change. . . ” Society was stuck with slavery. ” . . . the courage to change the things I can . . .”. The Church was a community made of up changed and changing people thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit. “. . . and the wisdom to know the difference”. Paul had the wisdom to leave the sins of the empire alone. But he did what he could to see great changes for both Philemon and Onesimus.

When we seem to be stuck in a moment we cannot get out of, God grant us the serenity to accept the things that are not going to change, and the courage to join with God in the change He is brings, especially in us through His Holy Spirit.


Listen or download the 34 minute sermon on which this is based: Click here.

Read Clarke Dixon’s blog, Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon.