People come to the church for lots of reasons. Some come because they’ve had a great spiritual awakening, others because they know something is missing in their lives and are trying to find it. Some come because of the programs it offers for the kids. Others are here for the music or because they like the people or they want to learn more about the Bible. I’ve known people who’ve come to church because they thought it would be a good place to network and meet people who can help further their career. Some are here because their parents bring them and they don’t have any choice.
But whatever brought you here, if you pay attention you’ll notice that the church isn’t like any other group of people. That’s not just because we worship God and study the Bible and do other things we don’t do elsewhere. You’ll notice that when we’re at our best there’s something different about the way we relate to other people.
Church can be more than you bargained for. It was for Philemon.
Philemon was a wealthy member of the church in Colossae. In those days before church buildings, the church met in his house. Being a well to do landowner of the first century, he owned slaves. The slaves were the ones who got the house ready for church, prepared the food the church members would share, and cleaned up after everyone left. Slaves often joined with masters when they gathered to worship, and they heard how Jesus came to break down walls that divide people. He came with good news for the poor and the slaves that they are as beloved in God’s sight as their masters. They probably heard Paul speak those words he wrote to the Galatians that “there is no longer slave or free… for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
One of Philemon’s slaves named Onesimus took to heart the message of Jesus he heard proclaimed in his master’s house. Onesimus believed all that talk he heard about freedom, and he ran away. Somehow, we don’t know how, he made his way to Paul and assisted the apostle in his work. When Paul was in jail, Onesimus cared for his needs and provided for him. Onesimus became like a son to Paul.
Paul loved Onesimus and valued his help, but he was uncomfortable that Onesimus had run away from his master. And Paul was also uncomfortable that his own relationship with Philemon was hurting because he was harboring his friend’s fugitive slave. So Paul sent Onesimus back to his master with this letter appealing to Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a runaway slave who had broken the law, but to receive him as a brother in Christ. According to the law, Philemon could have punished Onesimus severely. He could have flogged him or even killed him for running away. But Paul reminded Philemon how Christ has transformed all of our relationships, including the relationship between a master and a slave.
In some ways this is a troubling letter. People have criticized Paul because he didn’t ask, even demand, that Philemon set Onesimus and all of his slaves free. Jesus said in his first sermon in Nazareth that he had come to proclaim release to the captives and let the oppressed go free. But White slave owners in the American South before the Civil War pointed to Paul’s letter to Philemon to justify the institution of slavery.
The gospel Paul preached has the seeds that eventually undermined slavery and led Christians to become some of the most ardent abolitionists who fought to do away with it, but for all his wisdom, Paul was still a man of his times. What Paul was asking Philemon to do was radical for the time. He was asking him to receive his escaped slave as a fellow member of Christ’s church and an equal before God.
We have two reminders of that unity that we keep in the front of the sanctuary where we see them every week. The first is the Lord’s table. When we come up to the Lord’s table and partake of the sacrament, we’re side by side with people who may be our best friends or whom we may not even know, but by taking that plate of bread and that cup of juice, we’re making a statement that we’re sinners and we need God’s forgiveness. That’s completely different from what we’re taught to do in most other areas of our life, where we’re taught to put our best foot forward and show how good we are. We’re making a statement for all to see that we can’t do it on our own, that we share our need for God with everyone else who takes communion with us.
The other reminder is the baptismal font. Whenever we baptize someone, we’re welcoming that person into our community of faith as one of us. We promise we’ll teach them what it means to follow Jesus and to give their life to him. Baptism, a person’s entry into this community, doesn’t depend on how much someone has accomplished or how much they know about theology. Our baptism shows us that God loves us before we have done one thing to deserve that love, just as a child’s parents love her before she’s done anything to deserve it.
That bond we have with others in Christ can be jarring, especially when we leave the beauty and comfort of the sanctuary. Between my stints as an interim pastor when we lived in Pittsburgh, Carol and I worshiped at an urban church that has people from many different races and economic classes. It was kind of a stretch for us who were both reared in white suburban congregations and served as pastors in churches like the ones where we grew up. But we liked the idea that when we worshiped there we worshiped with a wide variety of people, a visible reminder of the diversity of Christ’s church.
One evening we went to the movies, and as we were leaving the theater, we passed a man standing by the door begging for money. We generally observe the advice of people who work with the urban poor and don’t give to beggars because that doesn’t get to the root of whatever problems they might have. We give to organizations like the Rescue Mission that set up structures to deal with the underlying issues of poverty and that know enough about the population that they can tell the difference between people who are in genuine need and scam artists.
But after we walked past this beggar, we stopped dead in our tracks. “That’s So and So,” Carol said. “He’s the worship leader at the church’s 8:00 service. How can we walk past him? We go to the same church!”
Most congregations don’t have the kind of diversity of the church in Colossae where slave owners worshiped along with slaves, or even the diversity of that urban congregation where a street beggar leads worship with bank executives and college professors. That’s mainly because of the way housing patterns are these days. It’s still true that 11:00 a.m. Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, both by economic class and by race. But one of the great strengths of the church is the way it can nudge us to live beyond that separation and let Christ join us with people who are very different.
A lot of that happens in partnerships with organizations that work with people whose life circumstances are different from that of many of us. That’s why the mission outreach that Eastminster does is so important, not just to the people who receive your kindness, but to the church. When you share knitted scarves and hats with children in need, you’re reminded of the bonds we have with people who live right here in our community whom we may not encounter. When you support missionaries like Sue Ann Randall, you build those ties with the church around the world.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s vitally important to tend to the bonds here at home. We start to learn how Christ changes the world as we notice how he changes the way we relate to those who worship with us. It’s in our Bible study groups, our Sunday school classes, the friendships we make and nurture here that we find the strength and the love to be able to reach out beyond ourselves to others. We gratefully receive from one another the support and encouragement and love we need to be faithful disciples of Jesus.
Whatever it is that causes us to join the church, once we’re part of it, it changes the way we relate to each other. Sometimes that’s a challenge. You’re not necessarily going to like everybody in the church. You’re not going to have a lot in common with everybody. But church is a place where a slave owner was expected to receive his runaway slave as a brother. Perhaps most challenging of all, it’s a place where we listen to, respect and encourage the people who worship with us week in and week out. It can be more than you bargained for, but when Jesus binds us to himself, he binds us with his church. When Jesus comes into your life, he brings his family with him, so we’re bound together with all kinds of people, whether we like it or not because, after all, it’s not your church or mine. It’s Jesus’ church, and he welcomes whomever he wants – including you and me.