Sunday, August 4, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "The Tweet of Paul to Philemon"

Philemon 4-9
Philemon, I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers 5 because I’ve heard of your love and faithfulness, which you have both for the Lord Jesus and for all God’s people. 6 I pray that your partnership in the faith might become effective by an understanding of all that is good among us in Christ. 7 I have great joy and encouragement because of your love, since the hearts of God’s people are refreshed by your actions, my brother. 8 Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to command you to do the right thing, 9 I would rather appeal to you through love. (CEB)

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

As a 23-year-old unpaid intern in the chaplain department of California Pacific Medical Center, I split most of my time between two wards: the inpatient psychiatric ward, and the dialysis and kidney disease ward (with the occasional field trip up to the transplant floors).  My stories from the psych ward are for another sermon entirely, but here’s the thing about a dialysis ward:

It is not like any other hospital room.  You’re in a chair in a giant room, and everyone else is sitting in a chair just like yours around in a circle.  There is no privacy, no curtains, no walls, no doors.  You’re in the open, in the round, and prone.  You’re at the mercy of a machine to do things your body used to be able to do for itself.  Your movements are tethered to the necessity of always being near a treatment center.  And it is little wonder, then, that a transplant is often the preferred course to a lifetime of dialysis.

But transplants come with their own array of challenges—namely, finding a perfect match donor (and even then, nothing is guaranteed).  But after three years of living with kidney disease, a man’s illness was becoming worse and worse, and he knew it: he needed a new kidney.  As for what happened next…well, I’ll let the folks at Twitter tell this particular tale:

Not knowing what else to do, he turned to Twitter and wrote: “(Expletive), I need a kidney.”

Within a few days, 19 people offered to find out if they might be a match.  One of the people who replied was an acquaintance…who hadn’t seen (this man) in years.  After seeing the tweet, e researched the procedure, talked to people who had been through it before, and then decided to get tasted to see if he would be a match.

When the match came back positive, he decided to donate his kidney.  After the procedure, he sent a get-well-soon message back to (his acquaintance)—on Twitter.

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 is not 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 these five Sundays tackling how we might write the message today, with our modern-day tools, and we began last week with perhaps the most basic: email and text messaging.  This week, we graduate to the more advanced class of learning about this newfangled thing that people call Twitter, where people tweet at each other, but that has nothing to do with birds…or with that Angry Birds game you hear that all of those same young whippersnappers are playing nowadays!  (Seriously, whatever happened to Yahtzee?)

Last week, I talked about how this letter of Paul to Philemon was the closest thing we have in Scripture to an email—to a piece of personal and informal correspondence from Paul.  And in comparison to most of the rest of his letters, which were written and designed for public consumption, in the manner that open letters or letters to the editor are today, the letter to Philemon definitely reads as something more intimate.

Verses 4-8 are no exception, because after the greeting that makes up verses 1-3, Paul launches into a very heartfelt, very encouraging tribute to Philemon’s own character and work as a Christian.  Okay, so maybe Paul is buttering Philemon up for the major, major request that is to follow—and that we will get to next week in this series.  But considering how much of a crank Paul comes across as in other letters—my personal favorite being his exclamation in Galatians that he wished those who opposed his view on circumcision would castrate themselves—I’m inclined to believe that there is a groundswell of genuine, acute affection for Philemon.

And I say this in part because of a Greek word that appears in verse 6 in this passage—a Greek word that many of you have probably heard of: koinonia.  Koinonia is one of those New Testament words for which there is no good English translation, and that is partly due to the shortcomings of the English language itself: it tends not to be able to differentiate between the different forms of love very easily—it just calls every kind of love “love.”

Biblical Greek, by contrast, has a plethora of terms for the different sorts of love: there’s “philo,” the sort of camaraderie and brotherly love that the city of Philadelphia gets its name from.  There’s “eros,” or erotic love.  There’s “caritas,” or selfless love or compassion, from which we get our English word “charity.”  And then there’s “agape,” or an overwhelming sense of communal love.  It’s the big love, it’s the God-level love, the love that is meant to awe us.

And the human expression of agape is koinonia—a communion and a fellowship in something far bigger than ourselves.  We mere mortals may not be fully capable of agape, but we are capable of participating in koinonia, which is what Paul is saying about Philemon in verse 6: “partnership in the faith” is one way we translate “koinonia,” but to be honest, I don’t entirely care for that translation, because I think we—perhaps unconsciously—tend to think of a partnership as a two-person endeavor: two people or entities partner together, kind of in the way that we might say that two spouses are one another’s partners.  But koinonia is meant to have a potentially infinite number of partners and potential partners.  What Paul is saying here is that Philemon’s work as a Christian has a lot more partners than might first meet the modern eye.

So, what on earth does this have to do with Twitter and tweeting and people tweeting like birds?

Twitter, more than perhaps any other form of 21st century social media, has made people accessible to one another.  For all the worry—some of it justified—that social media has turned us into a cave-like people content to interact purely through 1’s and 0’s rather than with ink and paper and face-to-face contact, Twitter has allowed interaction with people you would have otherwise never known existed, or people you would otherwise have never had a chance at getting the ear of.  If you have an internet connection and an ability to put your thoughts down in 140 characters or less (often very difficult, I’ll grant you), it can be a tremendous tool for good.

Here’s how it works: You create an account, just like with email or Facebook.  You can then choose accounts of other people or organizations to follow…and the possibilities are almost limitless.  You can follow your friends and family (just like on Facebook), but you can also follow your favorite celebrities, athletes, news organizations, sports teams, humanitarian organizations, political leaders, you name it.  You can even follow this church or me on Twitter! (I’m shameless, I know.  First step in solving a problem is admitting that you have one.) 

The aggregate effect of all of this, though, has been a completely brand new way to deliver news: you can create a list of news organizations, and they will post links to their stories on Twitter as they get filed, which has made Twitter one of the quickest ways to receive the news today.  When the Tsaranev brothers were terrorizing Boston earlier this year, the news that one had been killed and the other apprehended was broken on Twitter.  When the 9.0 earthquake—and subsequent tsunami—struck Japan in the spring of 2011, Japanese government officials utilized Twitter to notify each other where rescue attempts needed to be made.  And, on a far more micro level, one someone breaks the news that they need a kidney donor, well…nearly 20 people almost immediately and selflessly step forward.

If that isn’t a sort of koinonia, of a communion that comes with belonging to a fellowship far bigger than ourselves, then I’m honestly not sure what is.

And so imagine if Paul had access to Twitter today: or if Philemon, in all his work as a Christian leader, did as well—what their partnership or fellowship in the Gospel might look like now.  After all, the letter to Philemon is Paul’s shortest letter by a considerable amount—to the extent that you can boil one of them down to a Tweet, this is it: “Hi, Philemon. Love your work. Sending Onesimus back to you. He’s your brother, not your slave. Lovies, Paul.”  It’s practically a telegram (you remember those, right?).  It’s just online instead of wired.

Think about how new ways of communicating can increase the koinonia of the church.  We are the heirs to the work of Philemon, and our tradition has had a great history of taking advantage at every turn of new tools to preach the Gospel.  A big reason why Martin Luther’s Reformation took off like it did was because the printing press had just been invented.  A big reason why the 1950s was a heyday for preachers was because television had just become widely accessible.

And so who are we, as heirs to the koinonia, to the wide partnership practiced by Paul and by Philemon, to dismiss out of hand new ways to spread the Good News?  Who are we to say we can only do one thing or offer the message of Jesus Christ in only one way?  Who are we to try to try and narrow our communication of a limitless, boundless, fenceless God?

It is easy to say that God does not fit into a box.  And it is easy to say because it is true.  But it is harder to say that our communication of that God does not also fit into a box.  And it is harder to say because we refuse to allow it to be true.  But it was true for Paul, and for Philemon.  It was true for the Apostles, and ultimately, for Jesus Christ itself.  Let it be true for us again.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 4, 2013

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