Wow! You are You!
Updated: Sep 9, 2019
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Philemon 1-21
I’ve talked a little bit about the Enneagram with you before. It’s a tool that helps you determine your core motivations and fears—similar to the Meyers Briggs. A personality test, you might call it, though I’d prefer not to. Like I said, I think it’s a tool, not a test.
It’s been extremely helpful as a pastoral tool in my ministry. It’s taught me that different people are wired differently, motivated by different things, afraid of different things. I know that must sound really obvious, but I don’t think it is. Actually, I think our default is to assume that people are similar to us, that they want the same things, that they’re driven by the same things.
It’s why couples fight. Why parents get exasperated by their children. Why siblings drive each other crazy. By assuming that people are similar to who we are, we set ourselves up for frustration.
I mention all of this because I was thinking of a friend of mine—also a student of the enneagram—who had this really delightful way of acknowledging these core ways that we’re different from one another: “Wow!” She’d exclaim. “You are you!”
When her husband had researched and booked restaurants for every single meal of their two-week vacation. “Wow. You are you!”
When one day a friend expressed an interest in going camping for the first time in her life and the next day bought hundreds of dollars worth of camping gear: “Wow. You are you!”
When my wife did the dishes and stacked all of them high like one of those Jenga towers that’s one block away from tumbling. “Wow. You are you!”
When, instead of drying them and putting them away, I reorganized all of those dishes in the rack—just to make a point: “Wow. I am me!”
When I read Paul’s letter to Philemon, I think to myself: “Wow, Paul! You are you!”
I’m going to say something that might be a little controversial for some of you: I like Paul. I know, I know—he says some hard stuff sometimes. He’s famous for telling women to be quiet in church, for mandating that slaves obey their masters. And he kind of comes off like a jerk sometimes. I know.
But I think Paul gets a bad rap. I think he gets a bad rap for two reasons: first, he has been badly misread. People who like to read the Bible literally tend to skip over the mysteries of faith and look for rules to grab onto. No one writes more beautifully about the Body of Christ than Paul. He talks about it in Romans, in his first letter to the Corinthians, in so many places. Through the Body of Christ, he says, we belong to each other. It’s poetic, metaphorical. And a bit abstract, right? What does it mean to belong to one another, really?
It’s much more straightforward when Paul writes, “Men committed shameless acts with men.” Much easier to make into a clear mandate against homosexuality. Nevermind that Paul was writing in a very specific way to a very specific context. Never mind that the passages before and after that verse give much more nuance, broadening its meaning. Nevermind that Paul also writes:
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
The second reason I think Paul gets a bad rap is because we are so much closer to him than we are to anyone else in the Bible. He’s so relatable, so accessible. His letters are first person. We’re hearing his actual voice.
I mean, look at our reading from Jeremiah today.
“I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.”
Look at Jesus!
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
They’re both saying some rough stuff. But we all kind of dismiss the harshness of the prophets because their stories are so distant and feel so curated—which they are. The story of Jeremiah has been told and retold, reworded and redacted throughout the centuries. And since Jesus is our savior, we—rightfully—dig into the gospels more than any of the rest of our scriptures, dig into the nuance, the context, the depth of all that Jesus says.
But someone else is telling their stories. Paul is telling his own story. We really get to know him. And anyone who has been in a close relationship with another person—which is all of us—knows that when you’re so close to another person, not only do you notice what’s lovely about them, you also start to notice what’s incredibly annoying about them. Loving and accepting all of who they are is part of what it means to be in deep relationship. That’s grace.
I’m not sure we always extend that grace to Paul.
But when I read Philemon, this tiny little book in the New Testament, I see Paul being so very Paul. And it’s a good thing.
First off, Paul knows who he is. He is aware of his gifts, and he steps into them confidently. He is aware of his authority, and he uses it wisely. “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty,” he says to Philemon, “yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” Paul was basically the Michael Curry of his time. Like our Presiding Bishop, he was charismatic. People wanted to follow him. The early Christian community gave him power. But instead of making decrees and commands, he uses his authority to call people to love.
Second, Paul can see outside his misfortunes. He is writing this letter to Philemon from prison. A lot of his letters were written in prison, because the Romans were constantly locking him up for living his faith. He had reason to despair, to give up, but man that guy was faithful. He trusted that God would guide him. Our reading today chops it off, but Paul closes his letter with, “Prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” Our faith, together, he says, will set me free.
Finally, Paul calls the people around him to their best selves. He asks Philemon to forgive his slave Onesimus who betrayed him somehow. Maybe he stole something and then ran away. We don’t know. But Paul asks him to take him back, not as a slave, but as a beloved brother.
(And just a side note: I know that Paul’s acceptance of slavery is problematic. But I have a feeling that slavery then was a lot like white supremacy is today: such an enmeshed part of our society that it’s hard to see outside of it.)
What Paul is asking of Philemon is no small thing. To forgive Onesimus, to set him free, meant asking Philemon to sacrifice both pride and profit. Paul is asking him to be guided by his values as a Christ-follower, to make a decision on faith and love rather than on respectability and financial gain.
Paul was Paul. Human like any of us. With shortcomings and some shortsighted views—some of which still haunt us to this day. But he was faithful. He longed for others to experience the deep love and peace that he experienced. He built the early church—with help from a lot of women, I might point out. But he was convicted, and people followed him.
We don’t always extend grace to Paul, and I’m not sure we always extend that same grace to ourselves. Do you know your own gifts? Claim them? Live fully into them? Are you able to see past your own misfortunes into the hope God has given you? And do you step up and call the people around you to their best selves? Do you call out injustice when you see it? Like Paul did?
A different translation of our Psalm today says:
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
Which is to say, Wow! You are you. Because God made you that way. Just like he made Paul that way. And that is a very good thing.