Baptism and Freedom
Philemon 1:8-17

8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9 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. 10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 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; 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 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.
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.

Some of you may remember the international peacemaker from the Philippines we had here last fall. His name was Rev. Jerome Baris, and when he came to speak at Stone House, I wanted to show him some of the history of our area. So in the afternoon, we went out to Historic Jamestown. Rev. Baris loved it, especially the glass-blowing. I remember him running from side to side, to capture the best photo of the orange glass glowing straight out of the furnace.

But before we got to the glass blowing, we spent some time in the museum at Jamestown. And there, I noticed a part of the exhibit I never noticed before. It was on slavery in Jamestowne. It was fascinating. I didn’t know that for the first couple decades in Jamestown, slaves from Africa were seen more like indentured servants. Some spent their whole lives in slavery, but others became free.

But around the time of Bacon’s Rebellion, all that changed. There was a fear of white servants and black slaves working and uprising together. So to divide them, slavery became drawn on racial terms. And one of the most striking features of it was a new law that Virginia put in place. If your mother was African, you would forever be a slave. And nothing could change that. Not money. Not work. Not even faith. The law even wrote down: “Baptism does not bring freedom.”

That phrase stuck with me. “Baptism does not bring freedom.” Those who wrote it were Christians, or at least claimed to be. But as a pastor standing there in the museum that day, all I could do was stand there in horror. I was horrified at what terrible theology they were using. They were twisting their faith to justify, racism, oppression, evil, and slavery. “Baptism does not bring about freedom?” Then what did Christ come here for?

The apostle Paul has some pretty strong statements on baptism and freedom and new life. In Romans he writes:
3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life…we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin.

In our first scripture reading for today from Galatians he tells the new church community there:
27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

And here, in Philemon, he is confronting the very structure of slavery in the ancient world. Philemon is a short letter. It is only 25 verses long. And if you are like me, it is very easy to read Paul’s other letters and pass this one by. But it is worth our notice. Because here is one of the first instances of this early church directly confronting the system of slavery in the ancient world.

In Paul’s time, slavery is everywhere. There is not even a second thought about it. If you are wealthy you own at least one slave. In this world, people are put into tiers and boxes and labels. And slaves are one of those labels and boxes people have simply never questioned.

Philemon is one of those wealthy people of the ancient world. And like anyone else with money and land, he owns slaves. But he has also just become a Christian. While in Ephesus, he meets Paul, and hears about God’s love and salvation in Christ. And after hearing it, he becomes one of the founding members of the new church in Colossae, where we get Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

One of his slaves is named Onesimus. And sometime ago, Onesimus escaped slavery and ran away to Ephesus, where he too met Paul. And in that time with Paul, he learned about God’s great love for all people, even him a slave. And Paul now sees Onesimus as far more than a label, far more than a box, far more than a slave. The one who came to free us from sin and the powers of this world also came to free Onesimus. Paul sees this and knows this, even to the point of calling this slave (a nobody in the ancient world) a brother and a son.

And in this letter, he is now urging Philemon and all Christians to do the same. We are no longer meant to divide people into slave or free, but as all people freed by God through the power of Christ. The waters of baptism remind us how God freed us from Egypt, how God brought order through chaos, how God gives us all ew life, regardless of where we come from or what label we once previously held. And so Paul urges Philemon to view Onesimus no longer as a slave, no longer as a box, no longer as someone who should be ruled by the powers and institutions of this world, but as “a beloved brother.” “Welcome him,” Paul says, “as you would welcome me.”

Part of this is Onesimus’ own new faith. As a new Christian, he has been baptized and pronounced free from all sin and evil. But this freedom, God wants for all people. In baptism, we are claimed to live as God has always wanted us to live, free and good lives, full of beauty, love, and dignity. God doesn’t want that just for us who are inside these doors. God wants it for all people.

To a world that has never questioned slavery and powers of corruption, indignity, and oppression, Paul has a very strange and new message. Christ has come to bring about a new way. A way for all people, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. God doesn’t want us to be captive to anything but God’s great love.

And that message is still for us today. When Christ was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, he didn’t go into that water because he needed to repent and be forgiven of his sins. He is God’s Son. Jesus went into that river so that we could follow, so that we could join in his life. So that we could join that dying to sin and evil and captivity, and be led into new life of true freedom and joy.

“Baptism doesn’t bring freedom?” The gospel claims the exact opposite.

Now we still know that powers of captivity are alive in our world today. There still is slavery throughout our world, even hidden throughout our own country. And there are other systems that enslave and imprison people.

There are also smaller acts which imprison us as individuals. Addiction. Sin. The way we hurt others and keep away from God’s love. Our world desperately still needs freedom, still needs the grace and new life of Christ, still needs the radical message of Paul to Philemon. All people are made to be brothers and sisters, free and loving. Christ is at work to make this happen. And we are called to join in.

In remembering this good news, I invite you to come forward to one of these two tables up front. Grab one of the squares and write on it one or multiple ways that people are still in captivyt today. This may be something like slavery, racism, classism, unjust laws or mistreatment because of gender. Or it may be something you know that you take part in. Personal sin that has kept you or someone else from new life in Christ.

Whatever it is, know that Christ’s love is stronger than it. And so take it to this baptismal font, which shares the waters of Christ’s baptism. Remember the promises God made to you and to all of us in these waters, promises to be heirs with Christ to be forgiven and led into eternal life. And as you dunk the cards into the water, watch as the water washes away all that enslaves us.

Today, we are called by Christ, in these waters, to be free. Amen.