Sunday, July 28, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "You've Got Mail"

Philemon 1-3

1 From Paul, who is a prisoner for the cause of Christ Jesus, and our brother Timothy. 

To Philemon our dearly loved coworker, 2 Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church that meets in your house. 

 3 May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (CEB)

“The Gospel Gone Viral: If the Bible Had Been Written Online,” Week One

The email could hardly have been more matter-of-fact.  From a person I had never met came a perfunctory email you would ordinarily see in the midst of a job search—which, being in the middle of our denomination’s search-and-call process, I for all intents and purposes was.  And after two searches for pastorates—one in seminary to fulfill my field education requirements, and one two years ago that culminated in bringing me here—I continue to remain amazed at how completely life-changing events and decisions are often spurred by a very simple interaction, an asking of, “Would you be open to X or to Y?”  This is what one such email to me said:

Dear Eric,

I'm currently gathering profiles for (a) congregation....the congregation is currently seeking a redevelopment pastor to engage the present congregation in new forms of ministry.  At one point, they were considering starting a new congregation.  After some very honest conversation, they have re-imagined their vision and are seeking to transform the current congregation, leaving open the possibility that transformation for them may still lead to a new worshiping community.  They are also seeking to expand their ministry in their neighborhood...

is this a challenge you might feel called to?  Please let me know your thoughts.  I would be happy to talk further, or submit your profile and see where the Spirit leads.

The email was signed from Sandy Messick, whom many of you know as our Disciples regional minister here in Washington state.  And the congregation she is describing in this email to me is us, in May of 2011.

It is an email that ended up changing my life, by bringing me from California back to the Pacific Northwest, and one that I hope has changed your lives for the better as well.

And when you get down to brass tacks, it all began not through an in-person appeal, or a handwritten letter, or even a telephone call: it began through an email.  And that has become the world in which we live.

This is a new sermon series designed to take us through the month of August, and it is a slightly different one from many of the sermon series we have had here in the past, which often revolve around a theme, a chapter of Scripture, or a book by a contemporary author.  This sermon series isn’t about a substance so much as it is about a style: the style of communication that has taken the world by storm within the past 15-20 years via the internet.  And I adamantly believe that online communication and social media represent a tremendous opportunity for us to offer the Good News of Jesus Christ to a lot of people.  Which is exactly the same way, I think, that the writers of the New Testament viewed their Gospels and Epistles.  With that supposition, we will be spending the next five weeks tackling how we might write the message today, with our modern-day tools, and we begin with perhaps the most basic: email and text messaging.

In choosing what I felt would be a sound Biblical parallel to email, I kept coming back to Paul’s letter to Philemon.  It is one of the letters that scholars believe Paul wrote from prison, whilst he was being incarcerated by Rome for preaching Christianity and generally being a pain in their neck about it.  This particular letter, which we will go through verse by verse over the first three weeks of this series, comes closest to being what we would think of as an email because it is an intensely personal appeal from Paul.  Many of Paul’s letters were written to entire churches and congregations: the church in Rome, the church in Corinth, the churches in Colossus, Ephesus, Thessaly, Galatia, and Philippi.  As such, they could be considered “open letters” for the public.

Philemon is different.  First, “Philemon” is himself a person, and not a place or a church.  Second, yes, Paul does add “and to the church in your house” to his greeting, in verse 2.  But if you think about how email works, you’ll recall that there is that sneaky “cc” function lying just below or next to the recipient line.  So, you can write an email to someone, but you can cc as many people as you want to it…and sometimes unintentionally, by accidentally hitting “reply all” instead of just “reply!”  (This totally hasn’t happened to me.  Like, ever.)  Paul is likely doing this on purpose, though, and we will get to why later on in this series.

But no, there is another reason why we can think of this letter to Philemon as a sort of “e-mail” from Paul rather than a formal letter, and that reason lies entirely in the first verse.  Usually, in his letters, Paul will identify himself through a series of titles marking him as an apostle and a follower of Jesus Christ.  But, as the New Testament scholar Ernest Saunders points out, in Philemon, Paul “forgoes his customary titles of apostle and servant of Christ and calls himself simply Christ’s prisoner.”

Keep in mind as well that there is a fairly standard formula for letter-writing in the Greco-Roman culture of the New Testament: you are supposed to offer a greeting in a certain style, move to the body, and sign off in a certain style.  It’s a little like that five-paragraph method of essay-writing, if any of you remember that from high school—you’re supposed to begin with an introduction, make your point in the three body paragraphs, and bring everything full circle in the conclusion.

Now, Paul certainly does adhere to this custom of always beginning with a greeting, naming who sent the letter (Paul and Timothy), the recipients (Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus), and the phrase “grace and peace.”  But he skips the honorifics for himself.  Some scholars have argued that this is because Paul, being imprisoned, saw anew the need to present himself humbly, as a prisoner of Christ (not just of the state), rather than an exalted apostle and church planter.

But in Colossians, another “prison letter” (Paul admits he is imprisoned in Colossians 4:3), Paul does use his usual honorifics of being an apostle…which leads me to wonder if maybe, just maybe, this is Paul writing in a slightly more casual manner—that this simple greeting, such as it is, is Paul’s way of writing in all lowercase letters, or without punctuation, or the myriad of other crimes against grammar that we might associate with email and online communication today!

And what if it is?  As we continue through Philemon, we will see just how emotional and life-changing this letter is—literally, a man’s freedom hangs in the balance with this letter.  And yet, with the stakes so high, Paul errs on the side of informality in his heartfelt greeting to Philemon!

This should tell us, then, that it is more than okay for us to sometimes drop the formalities of our evangelism if it helps us to get our point across, if it helps us to communicate with the other person in a more heartfelt, more meaningful manner.

And contrast that to how often we use communication for the mundane and everyday, often without even thinking twice about it.  We shorten “hello” to “hi,” we wave to people instead of shaking hands—or, as we whippersnappers like to do now, bump fists.

Email and text messages are no different than any of this.  They simply use a technology that many of us already know and take for granted, but that many of us also don’t want or don’t see any use for.  And that is a big part of my motivation behind this sermon series, to say that there is a HUGE use for new ways of communicating, even if maybe they scare us just a little bit!

Letter-writing was especially rare in Paul’s time simply because the literacy rate was so low—perhaps as low as 10%.  Now, at least in the industrialized world, we have literacy rates of 95% or higher.  We have a church that, thanks to the Protestant reformation, encourages the reading of Scripture in our own native tongues.  What would we be as a church, as an heir to the revolutionary belief that everyone should be able to read Scripture, if we arbitrarily drew the line and said, “I don’t want to have anything to do with this newfangled contraption, even if it could be useful to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ to someone?”

Paul’s letter from prison to Philemon represents one such attempt, I think—not in terms of using a new technology, per se—not unless the ballpoint pen was invented much earlier than we thought—but in terms of presenting what he had to say in a more down-to-earth, casual manner.

And to be sure, I’m not endorsing the atrocities and crimes against grammar that do take place nowadays in email and texting.  All I am saying is that we have been gifted with a new method of talking, the likes of which the world has never seen before.  I can type words into a keyboard here in Washington, click “send,” and a colleague in Florida reads those words within seconds.

If such a phenomenon had taken place in ancient Israel, they would have called it a miracle.

But today?  We simply call it all part of a day’s work.

And part of a day’s work for your—and now my—regional minister in May of 2011 was to type off a quick email to a young, smartass then-seminary student in Berkeley, California to ask him a preposterous question: would you consider dropping everything to come and pastor this church?

One email was all it took to begin the process of fundamentally and dramatically alter the arcs of both of our lives, ultimately, I pray, for the better.  One email, from one person, on one day.

One day.  Imagine what the kingdom could look like tomorrow.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 28, 2013


  1. Eric, I am glad that you responded to that email and that the Spirit led you to come to Longview to be in ministry and to be part of our clergy and congregations in the Northwest. You are a gift to Longview and all of the rest of us! Thanks be to God!

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Marvin! I am so glad to be ministering here as well!