Jonathan Swift said, “Nothing is so great an instance of ill manners as flattery.” I don't think he can have got out much, actually because I can think of much worse examples of bad manners, and I'm sure you can, too. But he had a point. Flattery is not a good thing. If we flatter people all the time, they will never believe anything good that we say about them, even when it's true. And if we flatter them occasionally, they will think we must be after something and get suspicious of us. It's better to be sincere.
So what are we to make of the way Paul begins his short letter to Philemon? Is it sincere to say that he has received much joy and encouragement through Philemon's love and support? One would like to think so, and yet immediately Paul appeals to this friendship in order to ask a favour from Philemon on behalf of a man called Onesimus.
Onesimus is one of Philemon's slaves, who seems to have done something that has left Philemon seriously out of pocket. Whether he was clumsy and broke something valuable, or forgetful and lost something, or gullible and allowed someone to trick him, or whether he was downright dishonest we simply don't know. But whatever he did, it was bad enough for Onesimus to go absent without leave, which was an offence punishable by death. Perhaps Onesimus went to Rome knowing that Paul was there, and hoping to seek him out and get his help in placating Philemon, or perhaps he went there to get lost in the big city and came across Paul by chance. We don't know for sure. However, because Paul was under house arrest at the time, there is a strong likelihood that Onesimus sought him out.
If so, it was a shrewd move. Paul writes to Philemon on his behalf offering to pay back all of Onesimus' debts, which must have been a great relief to Onesimus. But the offer isn't quite as generous as it seems. There's a sting in the tail, for the letter hints that Philemon already owes such a great debt to Paul himself that he really ought not to take up the offer. Paul also hints that, as well as writing off the debt, Philemon ought to release Onesimus from slavery. And if that seems like a step too far, he must - from now on - treat Onesimus as his brother in Christ.
It's not clear whether Onesimus was already a Christian, or whether he has become a Christian since joining Paul in Rome. But they have become very close, and Paul now regards himself as Onesimus' spiritual father, which only underlines for Paul how inappropriate it is that Onesimus should be treated like Philemon's property – as if he were no more important than a piece of furniture or a domestic animal.
In the middle of the letter there is a play on words. Onesimus sounds like the Greek word for someone "useful", and that's why Onesimus was a common name for people who had been born into slavery. But Onesimus clearly has a reputation for being useless – either because he's clumsy, or forgetful, or easily duped, or not very bright. Now though, Paul says he is no longer useless and in fact has been extremely useful during his stay in Rome.
Part of Onesimus' usefulness comes about, of course, in delivering Paul's greetings to Philemon, and that means he has become useful to both of them. There is even a suggestion that he could be more useful to Philemon as a friend and brother in Christ than he ever was as a slave. And that shouldn't surprise us. No doubt many slaves were less careful and conscientious in the way they did their work than they might have been if they had been paid proper wages and allowed their freedom.
The letter reveals how difficult it was for the early Church to deal with the issue of slavery. Paul says openly that - as the founder of Philemon's church and his spiritual counsellor - he could have ordered him to forgive Onesimus and set him free. But that would have been a very dangerous and subversive thing to do, so instead he asks for a favour. However, he doesn't hesitate to make clear - as he also does elsewhere - that in the Church all people should be treated as equals, regardless of their status, their age, their race, their gender, or the way that the rest of the world treats them.
Although we have long ago got rid of institutional slavery, this letter still challenges us. It reminds us that this year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, a trade which helped to make Britain a wealthy nation at the expense of huge human misery and suffering.
And it reminds us, also, that exploitation is not a thing of the past. It still goes on today. A new film is about to be released, about a gang-master who employs Polish immigrants to work in the UK. It shows how people are still being exploited and that money still gets in the way of the kind of relationships which God wants us to have with one another.
Finally, the story of Onesimus reminds us of the need to treat one another as equals in our own congregation, and also as we mix with our neighbours and other members of the local community. It doesn't matter whether people are old or young, black or white, long established in the area or relative newcomers, living in posh houses or poor ones, and doing good jobs or humble ones. All of us are equal before God and whenever people come together in the Church we are all called to live as one in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Last week I heard about plans to launch a spaceship to probe a far distant asteroid. If it was launched in 2012, the spaceship would not reach its destination until 2019. But although the asteroid is far away now there is a very real chance that it will hit the earth in 2036, causing such a devastating explosion that all life will immediately be wiped out. Should we be worrying about this? The chances that we really are on a collision course with the asteroid are not very great - it may pass close by, but without actually hitting us. However, the impact of a collision would be so terrible that even a tiny risk is worth taking seriously. And it's not too late to change the cause of history, even if a collision seems inevitable . The scientists behind the plan have explained that if we take action soon enough, just bumping a one tonne spaceship into the asteroid would be enough to change its course and save our planet. The mission being planned at the moment isn't designed to do that, however. It would just be a fact-finding visit to take measurements and calculate how close to us the asteroid is really going to come.
Jeremiah has something similar in mind when he prophecies about the consequences of evil. Just as surely as an asteroid plunging towards earth, or a snowballing rolling down a mountainside and gathering yet more snow as it goes, the growing impact of evil can have devastating consequences for the life of a nation - and even for the life of an entire planet. But all is not lost. Jeremiah advises that if the nation turns from its evil ways, disaster can still be averted. And the sooner the nation amends its ways, the easier it will be to put things right with God.
The way Jeremiah talks about God, as if he were constantly planning to pluck up, break down and destroy nations, could make him sound vindictive and cruel. But this is not Jeremiah's meaning at all. Jeremiah means us to understand that, because God is holy, he simply cannot work with the wrong kind of material. If nations persist in doing evil God has no alternative but to abandon the project to help them, and start all over again with new material instead.
These thoughts come to Jeremiah after watching a potter at work. The potter skillfully works the clay but sometimes, despite the potter's skill and persistence, some small imperfection in the clay, or a slight change in the way the pot is shaping up on the wheel, mean that it becomes impossible to go on working on that particular piece and the potter has to give up, roll the clay back into a ball or lump, and start over again. And he wonders, could it be that God will have to do the same with wicked and disobedient nations?
Are we on a collision course with God's judgement in our country today and, if we are, what steps could we take to begin to avert disaster?
This is a very challenging and difficult passage. Jesus urges his listeners to think carefully about the demands of being one of his followers. There is no point in embarking on the journey if we are not prepared for a radical rethink of our values and the way we live.
Jesus doesn't usually explain his stories, preferring to leave it to the listeners to draw their own conclusions, so it may be Luke who has added the concluding words of explanation, 'Therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.' If anything, Jesus has suggested an even stronger level of commitment. His followers must be prepared to give up not only their possessions but also their lives for his sake.
It's the sort of sentiment which is normally considered to be extremist rather than mainstream, and by the time that Paul was writing to Philemon it was already being ignored or reinterpreted. Philemon seems happy to be a Christian who owns slaves, let alone other possessions, and Paul scarcely dares to rebuke him - though he does hint that owning slaves and caring about possessions both fall short of the ideal way for Christians to live.