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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

What Kind of Love?

Summer B, Separate summer sermons, mostly from Lectionary, preached September 4, 2022, at the 930am worship


Trivia question… How many books of the Bible only have 1 chapter?

FIVE – Obadiah, Philemon, II John, III John, and Jude

Today, we are going to read one of those five, Philemon, all the way through! How often do we get to hear one whole book of the Bible in worship? You could really impress some people on Monday. This afternoon, in about 20 minutes, read the other four and tomorrow you could brag you read 5 whole books of the Bible this weekend.

Okay, let’s pray, and hear Paul’s letter to Philemon…


Scripture Philemon

1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To our beloved coworker Philemon, 2 to our[a] sister Apphia, to our fellow soldier Archippus, and to the church in your[b] house:

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

4 I thank my God always when I mention you[c] in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the partnership of your faith may become effective as you comprehend all the good that we[d] share in Christ.[e] 7 I have[f] indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

8 For this reason, though I am more than bold enough in Christ to command you to do the right thing, 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.[g] 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[h] to[i] you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.[j] 13 I wanted to keep him with me so that he might minister 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 for the long term, 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. 18 If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to me.

19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I’ll say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.[k] 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

22 One thing more: prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you,[l] 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my coworkers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.[m]

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God)


The Smithsonian National Museum of American History opened a new exhibit this Spring called, “Discovery and Revelation.” It lifts up the odd, historical relationship between science and faith over the last 400 years. After a visit out to see one of our own in a hospital over in Virginia, Jill and I met a friend in DC to see the exhibit.

There’s an EEG net, sensors that lay on the head and capture brain activity. It's been used to show activity in a “normal” brain compared to that of a meditating monk or praying nun. There’s a recording from the Apollo astronauts who landed on the moon as they read the Genesis 1 story of creation over the airways. There’s a portrait and exhibit about Henrietta Lacks, a black female patient in 1951 at Johns Hopkins for cervical cancer. She died, but the hospital kept some of her cells without her or her family’s consent or knowledge, and found they continued to replicate, even to this day. They’ve been used for research and profit by the medical and drug companies over the last 70 years with lots of good done to fight cancer, and no compensation to the family.

One item caught my eye, especially as we emerged from two tough pandemic years. It’s one of the oldest displays in the exhibit, a pair of pamphlets for and against smallpox inoculation. It reminded me of the voices in our own time who were so strongly for or against COVID precautions or vaccines.

See, in the 1720s, there was a smallpox epidemic in Boston. In that time, most people, including physicians, politicians, and preachers assumed the pandemic was God’s curse, and there was nothing to do except pray for God’s forgiveness and healing.

A slave had been inoculated against smallpox in Africa before he was captured and shipped to America. Think about that. African preventative medicine was ahead of European/American knowledge. This slave was sold into the house of Rev. Cotton Mather, a puritan minister in Boston. He learned from this slave about the practice of inoculation back in Africa. Mather noticed how other enslaved persons who had been inoculated in Africa were proving to be less affected and less likely to die from the smallpox breakout.

So he preached on the benefits of inoculation. He asked his own congregation and other clergy and politicians to support inoculating everyone, to stop the spread and save lives. That was one of the pamphlets.

Many in his congregation and community attacked Mather for equating slaves with Euro-Americans, for betraying the faith, for interfering was God. That was the other pamphlet. The resistance didn’t stop with words. When Mather inoculated his own son, who almost died from smallpox, someone threw a firebomb through his window.

Mather was no saint. He owned slaves and often used the Bible to justify owning slaves. But on this point, Mather took the risk of publicly advocating for inoculation, and he suffered the blowback of being against traditional beliefs or popular opinions of his culture and congregation. Why? Why would he stand opposite the culture, tradition, colleagues, and risk ridicule and rejection? Maybe for love, and not some shallow sentimental love, but a deep love that forces us to accept hard truths and take hard risks, like the love of a son, and the love of others around him who were sick or dying.

We don’t know the original name of the enslaved person. Whatever his African name was, it was lost. When the boat landed, and he was dragged to the selling post and marketed for sale, he was given a slave name, Onesimus, the same name as the slave in Paul’s letter today. Despite all that had been done to him, he still chose to share what he knew and experienced about smallpox inoculation. Why? Perhaps for love, and not some “I scratch your back and you scratch mine” kind of arrangement. His status did not change from sharing. This was a deep, heavy love that loves an enemy, that forgives 70 times 7, and gives one's self away even for those who don’t ask for it, don’t want it, and don’t deserve it.

What kind of love does it take to go against popular opinions and traditional beliefs? What kind of love does it take to stand opposite friends and family for the good of strangers? What kind of love does it take to hear something new and accept it, even if it goes against what we’ve been told before? What kind of love does it take to risk everything speaking and working for a glimmer of peace and wholeness in our world that others can’t or don’t want to see? What kind of love does it take to heal your enemy, to do the right thing for those who actively defend doing the wrong thing to you in return?

Paul writes to Philemon about Onesimus. To Paul, Onesimus is brother, a son, his own heart. Paul loves Onesimus. Paul considers for a moment the power of the relationship between himself and Philemon, one of trust and love and encouragement. He even toys with the idea of commanding Philemon to forgive Onesimus, to erase his debt and to consider him no longer a slave but a brother. But Paul knows, love isn’t love if it's forced. Philemon will need to decide what kind of love he is willing to practice. Paul is hoping he has learned a deeper love from Paul and from Jesus, and will freely give that kind of love to Onesimus. But we don’t know. The letter leaves us wondering, Paul asking for that kind of love, and waiting to hear if Philemon gave it.

To God be all glory and honor, now and forever more, amen.



Now, blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night this moment and forever more. Amen.

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