Editor’s Note: This is the written draft of a sermon that I delivered at Kaleo Covenant Church. The alternate title I considered using was: “‘Who'” & ‘What’: When To Use Which, How & Why.” To set the mood, I walked out to one of my favorite songs, which I reference later in my introduction. Hope you enjoy it.
It’s September, a time for a new start. It’s back to school time, yes, but it’s also a time when our home lives and routines tend to engage again. Summer travel season is usually over by September. Football is on TV, it’s the start of a new financial quarter… et cetera.
September is my favorite time of year, in part because my birthday is in September, but also because I think it’s a time for optimism. I have a lot of great September memories of starting school, starting a new job, moving to a new place… I have such a history of hope that comes alive in September. Also, “September” by Earth Wind & Fire… that will always be my jam.
Part of the hope that I tend to carry when starting a new season is that it represents a new start. Especially if you’re starting up at a new school or a new job, you’re getting a chance to make a first impression all over again, which means that you’re no longer shackled to the baggage that you carried before. If, in your previous life, you were known as a jerk, or a screw-up, or a loner, or bossy, or any other persona that you would rather leave behind, September is a time when you can start anew, and become the person YOU want to be, instead of the person that others have known you to be.
WHO & WHAT
One of the reasons why I am grateful that I learned the English language as my primary language is that there are all kinds of ambiguity in our language in the way we use certain words. “What” and “who” are good examples. Both words are often used in describing a person’s identity, but “what” is supposed to describe the THINGS a person does, whereas “who” is supposed to describe who they are as a person. That is, the answer to the “who” question is an answer that should, on some level, involve relationship.
But in our society, we often get “who” and “what” mixed up. So for example, if I’m talking about a friend of mine named Joey* who works as a police officer, and you say “who is Joey,” I’ll probably respond, without thinking, “Joey is a cop.” But that’s not really an answer to who Joey is, it’s an answer to what he is — or more specifically, what he does for work. The problem is that in contemporary American society, we tend to derive our identity from what we do instead of who we are as people.
(Joey is not his real name, but I’m careful about using his name without his permission, because, like I said, he’s a cop.)
This who-versus-what thing is tricky to navigate, because what we do affects who we become!
In other words, there are certain activities, careers, or callings that are so important and so transformative that they go beyond being simply something that we do and they end up forming us in very important ways. By engaging in these activities, careers or callings, we end up becoming someone different than we would’ve been without it.
Being a cop is a great example. When I was training to become a 911 operator, I read a great book called Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, and in it, the author describes a behavioral phenomenon called hypervigilance, a biological state of constant heightened sensory alertness that officers are required to adopt when on the job. Over years of engaging in this heightened state of being, it takes a toll on the home life, because home is when the body needs time to recharge, so it means that many officers have little to offer when they’re at home, which means they end up finding their identity in the job. After awhile, their only friends are other people on the job, because those are the people who understand the reality of the work. After a while, being a cop isn’t just what you are, but it becomes a big part of who you are. And for some cops, it’s the only answer to the “who” question.
Another example… being a parent. I don’t know this firsthand, but I’ve heard over and over from so many people that becoming a parent changes you. Just the logistics of it, you end up hanging out with other parents. So many of the details of your life revolve around your kids. You’re taking them to doctors appointments, to and from school, sporting events, dance recitals, competitions, etc.
As a society, we’ve coined a word, “parenting,” as sort of an umbrella term to describe all of the decisions and activities that go into being an effective parent. But that word “parenting” sort of blurs the line between who you are and what you do. It sort of implies that they are one and the same.
But are they?
I submit that, though they are linked, what we do is very different from who we are.
God doesn’t love us because of what we do.
If He did, that would mean that we could earn His love. No, God loves us because of who we are, that we are heirs to a promise, that we are people created in God’s image and likeness, that we are daughters and sons of the Almighty, and that anything we do for Him should be an outflow of that loving relationship, and not a way to supernaturally purchase His love.
If love is transactional, it’s not love.
And if it sounds like I’m preaching and I haven’t even gotten into our main text yet, well… I am. But it’s only because you need to understand all of this before you can get into our main text, and one of the reasons why is that the key player in this text has a particular form of identity that is hard to understand in our modern American context. The guy in this text was a slave.
Now, the thing you gotta understand here is that slavery in the New Testament was a very different institution than what we think of as slavery as 21st century Americans. When we heard the words “slave” or “slavery” today, we automatically think of the brutal slavery and indoctrination of Africans that undergirded the founding of our nation. Because I’m not a historian, I can’t go in too much depth here, but from what I understand, the main difference between the slavery of the Roman empire and the slavery of America was that in the New Testament, slavery wasn’t tied to race, but to war or economic conditions. In America, slaves were considered subhuman (and then, over time, ratified to a whole 3/5th human). Africans who were brought to this content were seen as nothing more than chattel, good for nothing except brutal labor — which was why it was illegal for slaves to be educated, which is a partial explanation for how HBCUs started.
But in the New Testament, slavery was much more like indentured servitude. Not only were certain slaves educated and skilled, but they also had the opportunity to own property and amass wealth, with the possibility of earning their freedom. In other words, though slavery was a part of the economic system of the day, it was nowhere near as inhumane as what we’ve seen in historical depictions like Roots and 12 Years A Slave.
So with all of that in mind… let’s (finally!) get to the text of the day, from the book of Philemon, one of Paul’s shortest letters:
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:
3 Grace and peace to you[a] from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanksgiving and Prayer
4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement,because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
Paul’s Plea for Onesimus
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,[b] 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 forcedbut 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.
If you read between the lines a little bit, you can sense the outlines of a story, involving three main people:
- Paul, the apostle, who was in jail as he wrote this
- Philemon, the recipient of the letter, who was a wealthy Roman citizen, and
- Onesimus, a Roman slave who belonged to Philemon.
What happened was this.
First, being an apostle at all, Paul came and helped to establish a church in the Roman city of Colossae, and Philemon ended up being the de facto leader of that particular church, and one reason why was that he’d proven to be someone that Paul depended on as a helper. But also, he was wealthy enough to have a large enough home that the rest of the people could use to gather in worship and prayer.
Because Philemon was wealthy, he had slaves, and one of them was Onesimus. At some point, Onesimus took off from Philemon, and possibly stole some stuff on the way out. We don’t know exactly what or why, because the text doesn’t say. But it’s reasonable to assume that if Onesimus was a slave and ran off, he and Philemon probably didn’t have that great a relationship.
But then later, somehow Onesimus ran into Paul, and they struck a friendship. Because of his relationship with Paul, Onesimus became a believer in Christ, and then, became a great helper to Paul, to such an extent that Paul refers to Onesimus as being like a son. That relationship proves to be indispensable to Paul during his numerous and/or lengthy spells of unjust imprisonment for preaching the gospel.
Nevertheless, Paul instead writes to ask Philemon to receive Onesimus — now a changed man — back into his household, on the condition that, because of his relationship to Paul, and most importantly — to Christ — Philemon and the rest of the church treat Onesimus not like a slave, but like a brother in Christ.
And even though, on the surface, this letter seems like a bit of harmless housekeeping between friends, there are some powerful lessons implicit in these verses, which help to explain why this letter was included in the Biblical canon.
Appeals should be done on the basis of love.
It’s interesting that Paul, when making his request, mentions that he’s trying to appeal on the basis of love. It seems a little awkward to me that he even had to say that, but maybe some of this can be chalked up to the the way that sometimes you can’t tell a person’s tone when you only have their written word (and as far as we know, the Koine version of Greek that Paul was using didn’t have emojis). To me, it seems like what Paul is trying to do here is model a form of effective conflict management.
And lest you think there’s no conflict, remember — Philemon previously only knew Onesimus as a slave who’d stolen something from him. If I had an employee of mine who had stolen something from me, disappeared, and then reappeared weeks or months later claiming to be a changed man, I’d be giving him some major side-eye. To be honest, I’m not even sure that a letter like this would be enough proof for me.
But the way Paul went about this set an important leadership precedent, and I wish more people would do this. Too often in our culture, we do things out of fear of reprisal or enforcement. But how much easier would it be to follow your company’s policy if you knew your boss loved you and had your back, no matter what? I’ve seen plenty of situations, both in the church and in business, where someone gets into a new position of leadership and thinks the only way they’re going to be effective is if they coerce people into submission. But in this situation, Paul is essentially saying, look, I have the right to make you do this because I helped to create the church community you have. But I don’t want to do that. If I want you to respond out of love, then I should initiate out of love.
God has final say on our identity.
Remember the “what” question versus the “who” question? Paul had to deal with this conundrum when deciding what to do with Onesimus. Because for Paul, who Onesimus was… was obvious. He was a loyal, trusted servant, like a son, and someone who had stuck by him while he was in prison. Sure, he’d made some mistakes, but he was a new creation.
And yet, in the eyes of the state, Onesimus’ “what” was pretty clear — he was a fugitive, and a slave. But at no point did Paul ever let Onesimus’ “what” dictate his “who.” In other words, Paul could’ve looked down on Onesimus, he could’ve treated him the same way every other slave was treated. But Paul worked from a different playbook, so to speak. He understood that in Christ, the artificial divisions between slave and free had been obliterated, and that Onesimus was just as worthy of mercy and grace as himself.
Again, what a powerful lesson. Because, even in the church, sometimes we are tempted to treat the people who are rich and influential one way, and everyone else another way.
Or sometimes we have a tendency to lionize those of us with more prominent forms of ministry, and even though we’re trying to be encouraging, what we end up doing sometimes is encouraging our leaders to get their identity from their work.
I’ve struggled with this a LOT. For most of my adult life, I’ve served people in church by leading the worship music. For me, being a worship leader was both the WHAT and the WHO. And when I left my first long-term worship leading position in 2011, for the first time I had to ask myself, “well, who am I if I’m not leading worship?” It took me a long time to get back to the place where I remembered that before I’m a worship leader, or a speaker, or a writer, or before I do anything else, I am Jelani, and I am loved, by my parents, by my wife, and by God.
And whether I ever have kids, or don’t, whether I ever reach my creative goals, or don’t, whether I make it into the upper echelon of cultural influence, or don’t… my identity is secure. It doesn’t come from the church budget, or how many downloads of my album I’ve sold, or how many people I get to perform in front of.
The final say on my identity comes from God, and no one else.
Sometimes God calls us to work within the system.
This, perhaps more than any other, is the lesson that is the hardest for me to digest. Because my bias as an African-American is to read this story and think, “well, why does Onesimus even need to go back? Why can’t he just stay with Paul? And why is Paul okay with slavery?”
This is why I have to remember that slavery was different then. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was EASY to be a slave. But slavery was much more of a financial and class designation, and less of a dehumanized condition. And even though the text doesn’t say this, I think Paul felt a certain level of conviction to send Onesimus back to honor the fact that he was essentially Philemon’s employee, and he hadn’t left in good standing.
And there is Biblical precedence for this. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, the 13th chapter is all about how God has set earthly authorities in place, and we are to honor them because it’s part of God’s plan for earthly authorities to exist.
But that’s a hard thing to live out, especially when you know that said earthly authorities are human, and sometimes they screw up. Sometimes those authorities are selfish, or lazy, or racist. Sometimes those authorities, even though they’re supposed to be there to protect you, depending on who you are, they make take advantage of you. They might brutalize you because they think you’re someone that you’re not.
And we don’t know exactly what Paul said to Onesimus before he left, but I bet it was similar to what he said to the rest of the Colossian church — “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work.” Or maybe he told him what he told his disciple Timothy, “don’t let anyone look down on you because you’re young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.”
Truth is, God gives all of us different opportunities to follow His leading. Sometimes He calls us to protest, and to take a stand against injustice. But sometimes, maybe even more often than not, He calls us to operate within the systems that exist, within our own spheres of influence and extend His love and grace into the spaces where we work, play, or learn.
Where do you find yourself in this story?
Maybe you identify with Paul, and you’re tasked with asking someone to do something, and instead of just ordering them to do it because you can, your challenge is to soften your approach and operate out of love rather than purely from a place of authority. Or maybe you have to make the hard choice of letting someone go because they’re needed elsewhere, even though you may feel like you have a right to hold onto them.
Maybe you identify with Onesimus. Maybe you’ve made some mistakes in the past, but now you have a relationship with Christ, and you’re trying to figure out how to make a fresh start and live the kind of life you want to live, instead of reverting back to old habits. Or maybe you’re already becoming the kind of person you should be, but you’re having a hard time convincing the people who still remember the old you. Or maybe you just need help learning to disentangle your identity from your responsibility, so you can mindful of both what you are and who you are.
Maybe you’re more like Philemon, and your challenge is to give someone a second chance and believe that things will be different, even though you haven’t seen any proof. Or perhaps your challenge is to learn how to bring the values of God’s upside down kingdom into your household or workplace, by treating everyone with loving warmth and respect, as brothers and sisters instead of being shackled by the hierarchies of class and culture.
Regardless, today is the first Sunday in September, and now you have in front of you a chance to set the standard for the whole rest of your year, and maybe even further.
I pray that God gives each of us the courage to follow the path He’s laid out for us, not only calling us to join Him in His work, but equipping us in the process.