A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold, on the 4th of September 2022.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

For the past few years, we have taken the opportunity in September to reflect on God’s Creation and how we may honour Him by the way we treat with his gift. So, my sermon this morning, and Rev Peter Balabanski’s at Evensong tonight, begin a calendar of events during this month where we will be invited to reflect upon our responsibilities to God’s created environment.

As I reflected upon how I might approach this theme this morning, I looked at today’s lectionary readings. You might be a little surprised to hear that I have chosen to focus on our reading from Paul’s epistle to Philemon as my text.

After the second and third letters of John, this Epistle is the third shortest book in the Bible; it was brief because it had a single, specific purpose, quite unlike Paul’s other letters which carried wider messages of theological import. Written in about 61CE, while Paul was in prison, it was addressed to Philemon who lived in Asia Minor and who had been converted by Paul some time previously. Most notably, for the theme of the letter, Philemon owned slaves – one of whom, Onesimus, appeared to have run away. Paul’s letter was a pastoral approach to Philemon to request his ‘forgiveness’ of Onesimus for what, in Roman law, was his crime of absconding – a crime punishable by death.

Scripture’s approaches to slavery in various books highlight how we need to read God’s word carefully, prayerfully moving beyond simplistic interpretations through to meaningful counsel for us in our contemporary circumstances. To do so, enables us not to feel called to believe that God’s word supported the enslavement of some people by others just because some biblical references seem to endorse this. The fact that the early editors who compiled what we call the New Testament – namely by the Councils of Hippo and Carthage in 393CE and 397CE respectively – selected this essentially pastoral piece of communication addressed to one person about another, begs the question of why did they do this? The generally accepted view of what may have been their rationale centres on these verses:

Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you. [vv15-16]

In other words Paul was inviting Philemon into a new understanding of fellowship in the power of the Holy Spirit; surely a message that travels well beyond the socio-legal frameworks of the ancient world, right into our own lives and times.

Incidentally, the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox church has it that just such a new spirit-filled relationship must indeed have come about between Philemon and Onesimus, for seven years later they were martyred side by side in Colossus, witnessing for Christ.

Such a message has obvious merit. But, in terms of our theme in this Creation month, I want to take an allegorical look at Paul’s epistle. I fully accept that my interpretation exceeds what Paul would ever have intended in his personal missive; but I think it legitimately resonates with the thinking of the early church elders in incorporating this highly specific letter into a scriptural canon intended to speak to the lives of believers through the centuries.

To start with we need to appreciate Paul’s play on words when he wrote the letter; listen to verse 11:

… Onesimus … formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful …

All standard translations into English miss the fullness of Paul’s literary device here; it becomes clear, however, if I also translate Onesimus’ name not just the other words in the text. The reading then becomes:

… [the man named] Useful … formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful …

It turns out that, from such scant records as we have of names used for slaves in the Roman times, that Onesimus was the third most common slave name. Indeed, many slave names were of similar utilitarian nature, reflecting not the personhood of the slave but their purpose-hood or value to their owners.

There was also a more subtle play on words when Paul wrote to Philemon. Listen to these lines from the reading:

I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. [v5]

I have … received much joy and encouragement from your love. [v7]

I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love. [v9]

The subtle play on words comes from an understanding of the very name Philemon. Its origin is φιλημα (philema) – deriving from the Greek word for love [φιλός – philos] – means      to kiss or hug. Philemon was almost certainly not the recipient’s real name, for Paul, in prison himself, would not have wanted to have endangered his correspondent by using his real identity … so he intentionally chose a love-based pseudonym. Doing so, Paul was holding in tension the ideas of love and usefulness; and thus, he was inviting Philemon to a deeper, spiritual level of understanding of his relationship with his useful slave.

Which brings me now to consider our relationship with the Creation in which God gifted the breath of life. Is Creation just to be useful to us, or to be something for us to hold in a loving relationship?

Last Saturday, at an interfaith event, I heard Rachel Gillespie, of the Abraham Institute speak about a very interesting Judaic concept namely תיקון עולם  [Tikkun Olam – repair of the world]. While the origins of that concept in Jewish theology deal with the spiritual health of humanity, in her presentation Rachel focussed upon its environmental significance. In terms of repairing the earth, there is a widespread practice in Judaism of planting trees for happy occasions; the website Wellsprings of Wisdom: Nature Rabbi extends this practice calling it ‘a huge mitzvah’ or commandment.[1] Their website says this:

The Bible forbids chopping down fruit trees in a time of siege (Deut 20:19-20). In Jewish law (halakhah), this was expanded to a general principle known as Bal Taschit, do not wantonly destroy anything. You could call this the premier environmental mitzvah.

As we look at environmental issues facing us today, and picking up the reference to trees, let me reference some statistics by way of putting our situation in context:

  • In 1900, 75% of the planet was either forested or wild grassland; that is now down to 52%. 10m hectares of forest are cut down each year with only 5m being planted in replacement; with the world having lost 36% of its tree cover between 1990 and 2015.[2]
  • Forests and wild grasslands are home to the planet’s wildlife populations. These populations fell by 68% between 1970 and 2016.[3] Many species have either been driven to extinction or to the brink. The Orang-utan [literally ‘people of the forest’] have lost 80% of their habitat in the past twenty years and are at risk of only surviving in zoos by 2050.[4]  

To use the metaphors of our reading, we are Philemon – the loved one – the Bible tells us so:

For God so loved the world that He gave us his only Son [John 3:16]

We have been using God’s Creation to the point of abusing it. We may feel that the Bible authorises this; for we often hear quoted the words God spoke to Noah:

Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything [Gen 9:3]

So indeed, it did look like God intended the world would become our Onesimus – be useful to us; be a slave to our desires. We have taken devastating advantage of this. Not only did we domesticate many species, we industrialised them – including locking them in cages, while also chemically and genetically manipulating them to our ends. We truly enslaved them. While for the remaining animal species, we have largely abandoned them to a fate of threatened extinction. However, if we are going to seek some divine mandate in our relationship with other life in God’s Creation, we really should read on from Genesis 9:3. Verses 9 and 10 of that chapter say this:

 I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after youand with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. [Gen 9:9-10]

‘I now establish my covenant with you … and with every living creature’. How does our personal environmental theology interpret this? For some, it has meant choosing vegetarianism. That has not been the case with me; yet I am mindful of a person I quoted in my sermon at Evensong on August 7th as part of the Ethics series. On that occasion I quoted an Inuit who spoke this way about his response to having to kill to eat:[5]

The greatest peril of life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely in souls. All the creatures that we have to kill and eat, all those we have to strike down and destroy to make clothes for ourselves, have souls, like we have, souls that do not perish with the body …

By these moving words, the Inuit had moved from seeing other life as more than just being Onesimus – useful – to appreciating a deep need to be in loving relationship with it.

That early Christian whom Paul converted had come to believe in God the Creator and in his son Jesus; but this only meant he had followed the first great commandment – to love God. His true coming to faith required a next step, namely, to love God’s creation. In Philemon’s case that meant relating sacramentally with that person he had previously only regarded as useful, now regarding him as a brother in Christ, as one like himself.

In our time when the earth is under such stress, may our love of God the Creator move on to more than just reacting to ecological crises in terms of the environment’s use to us; may we seek Tikkun Olam – to repair the earth; but not just by physical measures we all need to take as we deal with the crises, but in spiritual ways as well. Paul wrote to Philemon:

So, if you consider me your partner, welcome Onesimus as you would welcome me. [v17]

Echoing these words, we might say: ‘If we consider Jesus our partner, let us welcome God’s gift of Creation as we would welcome Jesus.’ Not something just to be of use, but something with which to be in loving relationship.

[1] Tikkun Olam: Trees and the Environment | Wellsprings of Wisdom

[2] Deforestation and Forest Loss – Our World in Data

[3] World wildlife populations fall 68%, Australia contributes to decline – WWF-Australia

[4] Threats to Orangutans – Orangutan Conservancy

[5] www.blogs.ubc.ca/rudolphf/2016/11/07/inuit/