Day 350: Titus and Philemon: Living into Identity

There are two books contained within our reading for today, both written by Paul.  Titus is one of the Pastoral Epistles yet, containing a great deal of similar information as 1 Timothy.  Philemon is another one of Paul’s Prison Epistles, written to a man named Philemon, as well as Apphia and Archippus about a slave named Onesimus.

Titus:

The book of Titus was written by Paul to Titus, a leader in the Church whom he left on the island of Crete  to teach the Cretan people, spread the Gospel, and build up the church.  As I was reading this, I got the impression that this may not have been where Titus wanted to end up, and that the task was rather difficult for him because of the nature and culture of the people of Crete.  According to one of their own, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”  This, no doubt, made Titus’ job a bit more difficult as he sought to build up the church and disciple people of God.  For Paul, the qualifications for Elders that he lays out here are not that different from those that he lays out for Timothy, yet  think they become all the more important within this context because of the difficulty in finding such people and the necessity to have them as leaders in the church.

As I’m reading this it also draws into my mind some of the issue that the contemporary church is facing as well.  There have been no shortage of reports about church leaders that are not meeting these qualifications and those that are, in their service, committing awful crimes against others both in and out of the church.  Pastors, Elders, and other leaders seem to be caught all the time in affairs and in sexual sin, yet it seems like the church continues to remain silent on these issues.  In other places, Pastors have watered down the Gospel so much that Jesus is hardly mentioned for fear that it might offend someone.  The ideas of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are running rampant in the church, making the Gospel seem irrelevant and the Word of God meaningless.  Paul speaks to us here as much as He is speaking to Titus: “teach what accords with sound doctrine.”  Moreover, he gives rather specific directions for the Christ-like living, something that is a necessity for the community of faith.

I have tended to say this at just about every mention of Christian living, but I don’t think that it can be emphasized enough.  While is seems that Paul is laying down the law for how people are to live in accordance with their faith in Jesus Christ, this is not a “law” in respect to a set of rules that need to be followed for one to earn their own salvation.  In fact, as Paul has said time and again, that it is out of the freedom that we find in Christ Jesus, the fact that we are no longer a slave to the law and sin, that we choose to live out our lives in a way that is godly and Christ-like.  Paul’s urging in Romans 12 is a testament to this, that because of the mercy that we are shown by God in Christ Jesus, we present ourselves as a living sacrifice to God, being transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit, that we may live out Christ’s love and spread the Good News of the Gospel everywhere  we go.

Philemon:

The book of Philemon is a rather unique book in the New Testament because of the context in which it was written.  Being only one chapter long, Paul is writing to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, a name that means “useful,” because of his recent conversion.  Onesimus was apparently a slave of Philemon, something that was a common practice back then (whether we condone slavery or not is really not the issue here), and had left his service to Philemon after stealing some things.  Paul writes in the understanding the what Onesimus did was very wrong, yet in the time away from Philemon, he had come to faith.  Now Paul is writing on behalf of Onesimus to ask Philemon’s forgiveness.  Onesimus is returning to Philemon because it was right for him to do that as he was still technically the slave of Philemon.  Yet Paul is arguing for a deeper understanding of Onesimus as a brother in Christ rather than just another servant.  Moreover, Paul willingly pays whatever debt is owed to Philemon for the crime done against him.

A great deal of the theology of this letter comes from Paul’s other writing about equality and oneness in Christ Jesus.  Paul writes in several different places that there is no distinction between slave and free, male and female, etc.  Keeping in mind that there was a rather different understanding of slavery and even servitude back in this day, Paul is advocating for a deeper understanding of a person’s identity in Christ Jesus superseding that of any other identity that a person has.  This has been important to the Church in every age and context, but has become even more important in the last 200 years with the struggles against slavery, inhumane treatment of the people and the poor, this notion of equality in Christ Jesus has become an even bigger and important topic.  From Oscar Romeo to Martin Luther King Jr. the book of Philemon has become an important book in the conversation and understanding of our identity and equality in Christ Jesus.