Sunday, September 4, 2022 | Trey Comstock
You wouldn’t believe the sheer amount of history that gets lost. NASA is in the middle of trying to send a rocket back to the Moon this week using the Space Launch System (SLS). It’s the most powerful rocket that we’ve built since the Saturn V designed in the late 1960s. One might logically ask, if we want to go back to the Moon, why don’t we just build another Saturn V? This feels particularly cogent given that Monday’s scheduled launched had to be scrubbed because of growing pains with the new rocket system. We solved this problem in the late 60s, why reinvent the wheel? There are two answers to this question. One is that technology, material science, and NASA budgets have all changed drastically since in the intervening years meaning that we can do a lot more with a lot less this time around.
The other reason that we didn’t just build another Saturn V is that we literally can’t. They threw away the master copy of the plans by accident, and they came from an era a few decades ahead of digital backups. NASA had one main copy. It got tossed in the garbage heap. We have one still launchable Saturn V. It sits under a custom-built barn at Space Center Houston. That’s all there will ever be. The possibility to build another has been lost to history.
A similar thing happened to a few decades worth of American music. On June 1, 2008, a huge fire broke out in the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood. It took at least one theme park ride, many thousands of films, and, as revealed by in 2019, over 100,000 master tapes from the Universal Music Group. Master tapes are considered the originals that are used to make later copies. They represent what was recorded in the studio by the artists themselves to be reused and remastered over time. By their nature, in the predigital world, Universal only had one set of these, and so, for artists like Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Coltrane, and Neil Young, these originals are gone and can never be remade. We have unlimited copies of later copies, but we can’t go back to what actually happened in the studio. It’s been lost to history.
These are two relatively modern examples, but this is a tale as old as time. The Library of Alexandria burned and a huge percentage of the ancient world’s knowledge went him it. Two successive world wars destroyed innumerable priceless buildings and works of art scattering even more, which may never be reclaimed. The Roman Empire fell, and their infrastructure sat abandoned to be raided for building material or molder to dust. We lose way more testimonies to history than we retain.
This brings us to the delightfully odd Letter to Philemon. It stands singular among the entire corpus of Scripture. It is a letter from one man, Paul, to another man, Philemon, about a third man, Onesimus. The New Testament contains other personal correspondence, Titus, 1 Timothy, and 2 Timothy. These are sent to Paul’s know collaborators and contain advice that seem meant to be generalized. Philemon is specifically to Philemon, who is not a well-known figure, with a specific request about another person who is himself not well known. It’s an early church interoffice memo preserved for all time. Paul must have written a lot over the years that we can’t have all of it. For instance, his letters to the Corinthians imply that there is certainly one letter that he wrote to them that we don’t have. The New Testament can feel like a lot, but the 27 books must barely scratch the surface of the letters, notes, and sermons that the early leadership of the church produced. Given how little we have and how much history gets lost every day, how on earth did this borderline business memo make it? We have nothing that Jesus himself wrote, but we have the Letter to Philemon.
I don’t have a time machine and, thus, can’t give you a definitive answer, but I have a theory. Maybe, we have Philemon because the letter worked. Paul asks Philemon to consider Onesimus his brother and not his slave. This wasn’t how society worked. Slaves were property who could be sold or killed at the will of their masters. This is how God’s Kingdom works. We are all equal in the eyes of God and are meant to treat all humans with equal love and consideration. What if this letter gets preserved because the people of the early church remembered a moment, when they saw something extraordinary happen, when a slave owner set free a slave because God had changed how they saw the world? It’s not a miraculous healing or a raising from the dead, but it would represent its own kind of miracle, where the Gospel led someone to step so far outside the expected norms of their society for the sake of a brother in Christ. Romans would not see Philemon and Onesimus as potential siblings. God did. Perhaps, Philemon did too making this letter successful and worth keeping.
I know that this version of the story pushes into the bounds of faithful speculation, but I like it nonetheless. From Paul’s thorough buttering up of Philemon in the first part of the letter, we know that he was a strong man of God and the leader of a house church. He had means and used them to provide space for God’s people in a world that could be fairly hostile to Christ followers. Paul, in gently hard selling Philemon, testifies to the great Christian potential in this man. It’s perfectly possible that he did what Paul asked.
And if so, what a testimony to the reality of God and the transforming potential of Grace. It could alter the social fabric of society and bring slave and slave owner into true and equal fellowship. Rome was broken and unfair in a plethora of ways from slavery to male sexual immorality to treating women as property to conquering and subjugating the known world. This letter, I believe, shows us the Gospel breaking through this brokenness and doing something powerful in the lives of these two men. If the Good News of Christ could do this there, it too can heal the brokenness in our own world – one relationship at a time. Our problems may look different than those of the Roman Empire, but we sure do have them – racism, hate, inequality, broken homes, severed families, war. God’s grace can transform them all if we, like Philemon, let God in to do the work in us and in the world.