In Tony Kushner's script and Steven Spielberg's movie, Lincoln, Congressional Representative Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, was part of a concerted radical strategy to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed and thus abolish slavery in the United States in 1865. The radicals of the day were afraid of losing moderate votes, so they strategized to avoid inflammatory questions about complete racial equality (namely the full-enfranchisement of voting rights for African-Americans). To secure those much needed moderate and conservative voters, they withheld that position from the public discussion. With the poetic license of the movie's author and director, they key moment from the Congressional Record was captured on film.
Stevens is challenged on the floor of the House of Representatives to answer the accusation of Representative George Pendleton. Pendleton claims that supporters of the Thirteenth Amendment actually believe in equality of African-Americans, slaves and free, in all things, including voting. Stevens responds with sarcastic vigor and thunders at his accuser, "Even you, Mr. Pendleton, deserve quality under the law." And then he turns to the entire House, "Therefore, again, and again, and again I say, 'I do not hold in equality in all things, only equality under the law.'" The House erupts with cheers and jeers. But the betrayal of the compromise was clear. It fell short of equality.
Disciples of Jesus in all denominations cheer and jeer as well, when friends and allies stop short of full inclusion and fall short of justice for queer persons, their families, congregations, and pastors. My denomination, The United Methodist Church, is fighting about whether LGBTQ+ people should have full rights, responsibilities and respect in our congregations. As long as homosexuality is defined in our United Methodist Church law as incompatible with Christian teaching, elected church representatives will concoct demeaning definitions of same-gender loving people, establish harmful, unjust policies, and develop practices of enforcement to sustain them. There is no equality as long as it remains.
Into this long and protracted struggle, especially in our unique historical context in the United States, ancient and biblical Philemon has given me vision and courage. Despite the book's brevity, twenty-five verses on a single page in most Bibles, this letter is a profoundly human gift of scripture.
When Paul is imprisoned in Ephesus, he is held in custody with Onesimus who becomes more than just another prisoner to Paul. He becomes Paul's spiritual companion during their shared incarceration which shapes and forms them both. After Onesimus is released from jail, he elects to stay with Paul in prison. After his incarceration is fulfilled, Paul sends Onesimus home to Philemon.
Now, Philemon was the former master of enslaved Onesimus. When Onesimus ran away from him, Philemon angrily just moved on. It's no surprise that upon release from prison, Onesimus was afraid to return to that environment. It was safer for him to stay in prison with Paul. So, Paul writes a letter to be carried, delivered, and presented to Philemon as a means of re-introduction between Onesimus, the early Christian community in Colossae, and most importantly, Philemon.
This original letter is relevant today because it brings to the center one who has been marginalized. Disenfranchised and erased Onesimus stands bravely, freely, and willingly before Philemon and the Colossian congregation as Timothy reads the letter in public meeting. Onesimus stands as emissary with the letter. He watches the faces in the congregation who are cheering or jeering his return, his life, his faith. This is not Joseph of the Multi-colored Coat standing alone in prison, sensing the presence of the Holy in quiet, lonely isolation. This is not Paul and Silas in jail in Philippi, energized by their activism, arrest, and singing. No, this is Onesimus, the former prisoner, the x-runaway, the disciple of Jesus Christ, lead character in his own proclamation of the gospel.
Here, my friends, is the Gospel in Paul's answer to inequality. Onesimus is the answer. Onesimus in the flesh. "No longer a slave, but brother." That's the Christian answer to inequality. Onesimus. Once in Christ no longer invisible, separated, second-class, diminished, or criminalized!
In Christ, each one of us becomes a sibling of Christ in the household of God. In baptism, we are named as Beloved Children of God, siblings to one another. In conversion and confirmation, we claim Christ as our own and are claimed as Christ's very own. Not equality in all things, equality in this! Equality in Christ! Freedom and liberation in this Beloved Community!
Once again, the letter to Philemon is instructive. You see, equality in Christ is not about the charity, patronage or inclusiveness of Paul. Equality in Christ is not about the transformation, conversion, repentance of Philemon. Equality in Christ is about the mutual participation of the particular person, gifts, graces, call, mission, and ministry of Onesimus. When we see Christ in ourselves, we rise. When we see Christ in ourselves, we stand not just for our lives and loves, but freely, boldly for Christ, for the Gospel.
As Galatians 3:28 interprets, "In Christ there is no division, Jew and non-Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, among us all are equal." With, in, and through baptism in Christ, you, my friends, are equal to one another within this Christian community. We are no longer under a custodian or a disciplinarian, we're equal.
Such radical equality and recognition of it, demands much of everyone in the church. Philemon again, the person, is a perfect test case. As we have seen, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon so that Philemon might freely recognize Onesimus by voluntarily fulfilling his own baptismal commitment. Christians cannot be equal and unequal to one another at the same time. Philemon is directed by Paul to live in a completely new kind of relationship with Onesimus in all aspects of their lives. The former habits of their relationship, the power imbalances of it, must now change in the house - yeah, who makes coffee; in the congregation - where do they sit; in the economics of the market, and in the politics of the square. Philemon may no longer treat Onesimus like a slave - ever - anywhere.
That's the challenge for the church of the twenty-first century with its LGBTQ+ disciples and members and family. It's the challenge for my United Methodist denomination. Will the people called Methodist freely recognize the equality granted by Christ to LGBTQ+ disciples and voluntarily fulfill their baptismal covenant to them? Will they remove the "incompatibility clause"? Not equality in all things, but equality in the gospel.
As of old, it is still today, with this radical good news. This gospel, it's so radical that the church at large has yet refused to truly pay it attention. What about you? May the Gospel lead you to equality with your LGBTQ+ siblings in the church. May equality of relationship with Christ lead you in your congregation and denomination to equality in church law for LGBTQ+ persons. You see, that's what makes the church whole. That's the mission of the church, and that's the witness of the church. Because it's the Gospel. Equality in this.
Would you pray with me as I sing these words from the Iona Community in Scotland?
Take, O take me as I am. Summon out what I shall be.
Set your seal upon my heart and live in me.
Take, O take us as we are. Summon out what we shall be.
Set your seal upon our hearts and live in us.