KNOWING A PERSON BY NAME
Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139, Philemon 1-21
September 6, 1998 by Tad Mitsui
I have a friend who made it big in business. He jets around the world these days. A few years ago, he and some of my old cronies invited us to a reunion in a Chinese restaurant in downtown Tokyo. After the dinner, we went on our separate ways by taxis and public transport; no sane person brings a car into downtown Tokyo. Muriel and I walked to our hotel with this businessman friend. He had his chauffeur and the Mercedes limo waiting for him, not in the restaurant parking lot but quite a few blocks away. I could kind of guess why my friend did not want to be seen with a chauffeur driven limo. He wanted to relive our good old innocent days, when none of us had money. When we needed a place to sit and talk, we went into restaurants and spent hours talking, pretending to have difficult time deciding what to order. We kept sipping glass after glass of water. In the end, we walked out pretending that there was nothing that interested us. We called ourselves "Waterman”s Club". We were poor, but we had lots of fun together.
The status symbols like clothes and cars can build barriers between people. A millionaire and a street person do not become friends easily. The letter of Paul to Philemon tells a unusual story of two Christians who broke a barrier between them. It is a letter Paul wrote to his good friend Philemon. He was a prominent leader of the church in Colossae. The letter was carried and hand delivered by Onesimus, who used to be Philemon”s slave. Onesimus, according to the letter, was a runaway slave, who managed to reach Rome from Turkey and became a member of Paul”s inner circle of friends. Paul was under house arrest waiting for a trial. Before he was executed, he sent Onesimus back to Philemon asking him to accept him back as a Christian brother.
If you know the status of slaves during those days, you realize how incredible this story is. Slaves did not have any place as a human being in society. They were regarded to be the same as domesticated animals, and were bought and sold like animals. An ancient Roman document has it that on one occasion an escaped slave, after being captured, pleaded with his master not to throw him into a crocodile pond as an entertainment for guests. Even as recently as the last century, the slave ships used to lose, on the average, a quarter of their cargo between West Africa and the U.S. Their cargo was African men, women, and children who were abducted and sold as slaves in the United States. Many died of disease and suffocation in the cargo hold. Also, the slaves were often thrown overboard during the storms to save the ships. We treat our cattle and pigs better than they used to treat slaves.
When a News paper reports about a traffic accident, it does not report the names of cows. They are just animals. So were the slaves. The price of a slave could have been cheaper than a prized horse. Today, we believe that the slavery is absolutely unacceptable. Slaves were people, not animals. But it took nearly two thousand more years from the time of the Bible for all of us to realize that the slavery is unacceptable. So, you see how amazing this letter is. How incredible it is to see Paul not only calling an escaped slave by name, but also calling him "my child". We know nothing about the friendship between Paul and Onesimus; how they met and how they became close friends. But the fact that Paul called him by his name alone, says a lot.
Paul didn”t have a grand scheme to abolish slavery as such. He was merely following the examples and teachings of Jesus. He accepted each person as a child of God just as Jesus did, ignoring the kind of things that normally created barriers between people. Jesus befriended the rich and the educated, attended their banquets and parties. He loved the company of children, too. Also he was a friend of social outcasts like sinners and prostitutes. He treated the untouchable like lepers and insane people just like he would the ordinary people. The lepers, in those days, were obliged to warn people that they were coming, so that the ordinary people had time to go inside of the house and lock the door. But Jesus talked to them and touched them as one human to another. Nothing came between Jesus and people.
Paul summarized Jesus” attitude towards people in the letter to the Galatians, "There is no longer Greek or Jews, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female. We are all one in Christ." You realize that even today in some countries you will be jailed for saying the same thing as Paul said. But Paul was merely following the examples of Jesus Christ.
When you follow the examples of Christ, and get to know people as persons by their names not as the adjectives like rich, poor, good, bad, healthy, sick, African, French, or English, all the barriers that divide people come down. You don”t have to start a revolution. The society will change when everybody gets to know and learns to love each other. I am not underestimating how difficult it is to ignore those barriers. There was an elderly woman in Vancouver who lived alone in a downtown rooming house, who became a good friend. I met her when I was delivering Christmas hampers. I always enjoyed visiting her. She kept saying that one of those days she should come to church. She had to keep me honest, she said. But she never came. Before I left Vancouver, she apologized for having never heard my sermon. She said, "I really wanted to come. I didn”t lie. But I had no clothes to wear to church." It was clothes that stood between the church and this woman who really wanted to come. I didn”t know whether I should cry or I should clobber her.
When you think of our church, you realize that even in our small congregation, you have so many nationalities and people of different back grounds. But those differences are not barriers for us, because we think of each other as just friends. Thank God for that. We are all one in Christ after all.