Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Potter's Wheel Still Turns!

I know that writing a sermon is supposed to be hard work. Hours of toil discerning what God is saying to God's people in this particular passage, and so on. And sometimes it's like that for me, honestly.

Not tonight. This one was fun. Comments and constructive criticism welcome.

Jeremiah 18:1-11
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Luke 14:25-33
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Philemon 1-21
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love-and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother-especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

This is the Word of the Lord.

The tiny book of Philemon is something of an enigma. While even the most skeptical scholars agree that Paul, indeed, wrote this letter, no one seems to have a grasp on what it’s all about. There are no immediately apparent Christological truths, no sweeping theological statements or doctrinal principals. There is only a letter, written on behalf of a slave, directed to a slave owner and the church which meets in his house.

I’ve heard arguments from people saying that the slave, Onesimus, had been sent to Paul to help him in his captivity; we see this being done in other places in the New Testament, so that isn’t impossible, but I tend to side with those who believe Onesimus to be a runaway slave.

For one thing, Onesimus being an escaped slave helps to explain Paul’s tone in this letter. A counselor I know once told me that the letter to Philemon is an example of “good” manipulation.” I’m not sure there’s any such thing as manipulating someone in a “good” way, but there’s very little question that Paul is exerting emotional and psychological pressure on Philemon throughout this letter. If Onesimus is an escaped slave, then what Paul is arguing is literally a life and death matter.

Living, as we do, in the twenty-first century Western world, the idea of slavery is not only repugnant, but a bit of a mystery as well. Even though slavery still exists today, and we may well be aware of it, it isn’t part of our everyday thinking.

In the ancient world, though, slavery was a way of life. The wealthier people owned slaves, and the poorest of the poor often had no choice but to sell themselves into slavery in order to avoid starving to death. One could hope for eventual freedom; in fact, it was a requirement of Jewish Law that slaves be regularly freed. Sometimes slaves in Rome won their freedom, and sometimes they were able to purchase that freedom. But while they were slaves, make no mistake, they were nothing more than property. They could be bought and sold with the ease of cattle; they could be beaten, starved, worked to death or even crucified with no fear of legal regulation or reprisals for the owners.

Who can blame Onesimus for running away, if that is what he did? Who wouldn’t want to escape the oppression of slavery, the humiliation of being the property of another person? And I hate to say it out loud, but I kind of have a problem with Paul sending Onesimus back to Philemon! Why would he put this man, who he calls “my child, my own heart” back to a man who has every legal right, and frankly every societal obligation, to nail him to a cross in his courtyard?

Now, what follows is going to sound a lot like a rabbit trail, but bear with me, because it’s the only way I can think of to get to the answer.

Our Old Testament reading, from the book of Jeremiah, speaks about the nation of Israel, as the covenant people of God, as clay in the potter’s hand. It’s a warning to them, but one of the things I find most interesting is that the potter, when he sees the vessel he’s making spoiled, doesn’t throw out the clay. Rather, he starts over. He reforms the clay. He makes it new.

If the parallel to the Old Testament covenant people are the New Testament covenant people, then the clay thrown on the potter’s wheel is the Church. God began forming this clay during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Our reading today is rightly included in what are called the “hard sayings” of Jesus: the things that are difficult to hear, difficult to comprehend, frightening to preach, nearly impossible to follow. Count the cost, because once we decide to follow Jesus, it’s all or it’s nothing. Perhaps the part that speaks loudest to those of us who populate the richest country in the world are his words about possessions: we have none. Everything belongs to God, or nothing does.

And perhaps it is no surprise that, even though the Gospel of Luke was most likely written following Paul’s death, these seem to be the words resonating most within Paul’s spirit as he writes these words to his friend Philemon. John Dominic Crossan asked, concerning the letter to Philemon, “Can Philemon, a Christian, own Onesimus, a Christian?”

Roman law aside, if the answer to Crossan’s question is “no,” then couldn’t Paul have been justified in simply keeping Onesimus there with him? He obviously enjoyed his company, and definitely needed his help. Onesimus, whose name means “useful,” was of much more use to the Apostle than he could ever be to the affluent Philemon.

Yet to keep Onesimus from Philemon would have been robbery. I don’t mean that Paul was stealing Onesimus from Philemon, no, this kind of robbery would have been much more serious. Much more deeply damaging to Philemon’s spiritual health and well-being. Philemon needed to own the knowledge that what he thought he owned, the rights he thought he had, the power he assumed to wield, all of these were nothing in the light and truth of the risen Christ.

Yes, Philemon had rights. Yes, he had the full weight of societal conventions and socially accepted practice and the Roman legal system on his side. Yes, he was merely functioning in the same way everyone else functioned, and had functioned for as long as anyone could remember. But Christ has risen, the potter’s wheel is spinning, and none of that matters anymore.

This is why Paul can write, in the book of Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is why Paul can write to Philemon and ask him to welcome Onesimus as if he were welcoming Paul: to treat Onesimus, in effect, not as a slave but as a beloved and revered and respected Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ! To not merely forgive Onesimus, not merely to free him (though that is an obvious expectation), but to welcome and love him as an equal member of the Body of Christ!

The potter’s wheel is still turning.

Now, understand that the point of Scripture isn’t to make us feel guilty for what we have, not directly. Rather, we are called on to change our attitudes going forward. The point of what Jesus says in our Gospel reading, and the point that Paul is making, forcefully, to Philemon and to us, is that no matter what name is on the bill of sale, whoever signs the deed, no matter which name is on the checking account, we really own none of it. It belongs to God, and we are merely caretakers.

The potter’s wheel is still turning.

Whatever our particular section of society tells us we should think or do, however our circle of influence expects us to act… whoever they tell us to regard above all others and despise more than everyone else, whichever group we’re told we are superior to, the Potter is continuing to wet the clay, forming we who are the people of the New Covenant in to an ever more excellent vessel – the Body of Christ.


  1. I am smiling broad and bright! :-) :D

  2. John, thank you. As long as the Potter's wheel still spins, perhaps there's hope for me yet.

  3. WOW!!! You have no idea how utterly and completely blessed I am by this oh my gosh...thank you, thank you, thank you and thank God there is still a preacher who gets 'it'!!!!!
    I can only 'ditto' Mr.Krabbs comment as well and say thank you Jesus as long as that wheel still spins there is definitely hope for me!!!
    Love and blessings to you and yours