Paul’s teaching that there is no longer slave or free is part of an early baptismal rite. Slavery in the Roman Empire, as in the American South, was brutal and afforded slaves no legal rights. In this respect, Paul’s appeal to Philemon to do his duty and receive his former slave Onesimus back as a brother was a radical claim that slavery had no place in a fellowship where being one in Christ transforms all social relationships.
An we commemorate Labor Day on this weekend, we will want to explore Paul’s understanding of the dignity of manual work. He tells us not to be conformed to self-serving and violent systems of exploitation but to be transformed by a mind oriented to our loving and self-giving God as seen in Jesus. For Paul, this meant working with his hands to support himself as a tentmaker. Our wealth does not consist in money and power but in relationships of “peace with justice, equity, working collaboratively and sharing power, respecting the individual while also keeping the needs of the community at the center, servant leadership, public engagement for the common good, and nurturing a culture of service.”
It’s hard for us to imagine the working-class tenements in the Roman cities where Paul planted his churches. People literally lived on top of each other in small one-room apartments and worked together in the shops below. They had migrated there from all over the empire—pushed out of their former villages because of the Roman practice of consolidating rural land into large estates. Paul’s message and the creation of caring and sharing churches that gathered weekly around a common meal was indeed good news to these people.
Paul was about ten years younger than Jesus, but they came from quite different social contexts. Jesus was from the village of Nazareth and spent most of his life in Galilee. Paul was born in the city of Tarsus and was most at home in the cities of the Roman Empire. Both were passionately Jewish. The young Paul was a zealot who persecuted followers of Jesus because he believed they were a threat to Judaism. This was turned on its head when Paul met the risen Christ on the Damascus road and he received the call to be an apostle to the gentiles.
This the first of a series of sermons on Paul who has been a controversial figure throughout church history. This is partially because of the radical way that he used the transformative way of Jesus to plant churches among the gentiles and his insistence that there can be no distinction between Jews and gentiles in his churches. Other things such as the teaching that women are to remain silent and that slaves are to obey their masters, were by later authors writing in Paul’s name. A central question therefore is, “Who is the real Paul?”