Paul sat down in his tiny cell after saying goodbye to his friend and marvelled at the irony of his present circumstance. He resented being in prison – who wouldn’t? – but this was the best prison he had ever been in. The cell was clean and his jailers were good to him. He had free access to visitors and the care packages they brought. The most amazing thing was that for the first time in his life he had had the service of a personal valet, Mr. Useful*, for close to a year. Useful was one of the people who had come to the faith and had offered to look after Paul. He had been trained as a domestic slave: he was a good cook, did Paul’s laundry and was invaluable in being the conduit between Paul and the outside world. So paradoxically, Paul had never lived so well than in captivity! He uttered a prayer of thanksgiving to the One who, while on earth, had no place to lay His head.
But Paul had to do something about his most recent discovery about Useful. He knew that Useful was a runaway slave and that he had stolen money from his master. But what were the chances, as he had discovered just the previous week, that Useful’s master was none other than Philemon, one of a group of people whose dramatic conversion in Colossae was still vivid in Paul’s memory? According to Roman law, receiving service from Useful amounted to being in possession of stolen property. Paul knew very well that the whole Roman economy, in fact Roman society itself, was based on slavery. Even a good and kind master might feel a duty to punish a runaway slave. In conversation, Paul and Useful had agreed that Useful had to go back and face his master. It was a difficult decision, because neither of them knew what fate would await him: there was no limit to the punishment meted out to a recaptured slave. The decision to return was a real test of moral courage as well as trust in the providence of God. Paul decided to ask Philemon to do something as difficult as a slave returning to his master: to voluntarily release Useful from slavery into Christian service, despite the scandal it would cause in his circle. Paul would have gone himself if it were not for his imprisonment.
Writing the letter was difficult. It was not simply a matter of being tactful. Paul had to get his thinking right. Did he have any spiritual ground to ask Philemon to do this, other than kindness or friendship? What was the real relationship between a slave and his master? It was clear in Roman law and custom: the master is the lord of the slave; he has absolute control over slaves and is entitled to absolute obedience. He owns them. But Jesus changed all of that. Paul remembered Useful and his friends, runaway slaves all, some seething with anger over their treatment, some beaten down by a script of worthlessness. Paul remembered telling them of Jesus, who also suffered at the hands of the powerful but was in fact the real Lord of the world, above any earthly master, above Caesar himself. The miracle of Easter confirmed that, as well as the implication for the future of the whole human race. Jesus as the world’s rightful Lord is worthy of service and obedience, but also love. This Lord is at the same time friend and advocate. Yes, he will remind Philemon that when we call Jesus Lord, which is a confession at every baptism, all human dominance becomes relative.
Two thousand years later, I sat in a worship service uneasily, and not for the first time. The liturgy is familiar yet strangely alien. Every reference to God, it seems, has been scrubbed clean of the language of power. Jesus is a friend, a lover, a companion, but never Lord. God is creative and caring, but not almighty. The word “Lord” has been meticulously scrubbed from prayer and hymns. What is at the heart of that?
People tell me that they find these references oppressive. Like “father” and masculine language, they remind them of people, sometimes priests and bishops, who applied the language of lordship to themselves and exercised dominance over them. I do not doubt that it can happen and has happened. Let me be clear that this kind of human arrogation is wrong and blasphemous. To the extant religious language contributed to that, I am all for enriching it with other biblical images of God like friend, mother, wisdom, comforter, saviour and hope. The wonderful beauty of One who is God emptying Himself to become a slave, and the powerful paradox, ought to be reflected in our songs and our prayers. But I also think that a lot is lost if we do not also rehearse within ourselves that there is One Lord and One God, and to this God belongs our future. God has the right to be heeded and, yes, obeyed.
Martin Luther posed a paradox about the freedom of the Christian. A Christian, he said, is the most free lord of all, and subject to no one. We borrow, as it were, the Lordship of Christ and are liberated from all human oppression. Sometimes we need to lean on that. Millions of people who are today enslaved, oppressed, persecuted and powerless need to hear and own their identity in Christ: they are princes and princesses of the universe. But Luther also said that a Christian is also the most dutiful servant of all and subject to everyone for Christ’s sake. Most times, especially for the privileged – the Philemons of today – we need to heed – no, submit – to each other precisely because Jesus is our Lord.
So I implore those of you who have power over liturgy to stay this language-cleansing of the authorized liturgy. I know that in most parishes it involves more than the priest. I am not directing you as a bishop, but pleading with you as an amateur theologian, to deal with misunderstanding about Lordship language in worship not by eliminating it but to teach about it. Teach about this paradox, this multi-faceted relationship we have with God who is incarnate in Jesus, the Lord who became a slave for us, so we can gladly confess with the apostles “Jesus is Lord.” It seems an appropriate thing to do in Eastertide, because if Jesus is not Lord, who is?
*”Useful” is a literal translation of “Onesimus.” The name of a slave was derived from his utility to a master.