Experiencing Authentic Ecclesia: “Slave and/or Sibling?”
Lidgerwood Presbyterian Church
Set free, O Lord, any tension or anxiety which may keep us from fulfilling Your vision of what we can be. Fill us with the strength of Christ, the power of Your Holy Spirit, and the faithfulness of all true saints, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
When I asked my friend if she was planning to attend church, she just shook her head. “I haven’t gone in a long time,” she said.
“Besides, it’s too late for me. I’ve probably already broken all seven commandments.”
What’s wrong with that answer? [TEN, not seven Commandments; it is NEVER “too late” (remember the thief on the cross next to Jesus?); WORKS righteousness is wrong (“saved by grace thru faith”); she was a slave to sin when she could be a child of God, a sister in Christ!]
Our last two months were spent in the New Testament book of Colossians, Paul’s Epistle to the Christian Community in Colossae, and in that letter we met a runaway slave named Onesimus. In today’s passage we are reading the one-page letter from Paul and Timothy to Onesimus’ master, a man named Philemon.
And, just to help us be aware, note that Philemon’s name means “Affectionate One” and his slave’s name, Onesimus, means “Useful”.
Listen with me to God’s Word from Paul’s Letter to Philemon. Philemon 1-25 ….—-
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker — … 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man (or does this mean “a church elder”?) and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me ….. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. (NIV)
The meat of this epistle starts in verse 8 (where it says, “Therefore ….”), but the first seven verses are vital to its content. Why? Wherever there’s a “therefore” we have to ask what the “therefore” is there for. The “Therefore” links the opening seven verses to the reason for the letter. The opening of the letter states Paul’s love for Philemon and his trust in him as a church leader and as a brother in Christ. Because the opening seven verses are true, Paul has the right to make a request of his Brother. So he does.
As an interesting side note, who remembers what Philemon’s name means? Can anyone parse the root word from the rest of the name? “Philemon” means “Affectionate One” (“phile” is the same root as in “pluviophile” which means “lover of rain”, a “bibliophile” loves books, etc). Paul appeals to this “Affectionate One’s” sense of forgiveness as he treats his slave who has runaway….
Onesimus was Philemon’s SLAVE. What is a slave? A piece of human property, with the job of doing what he’s told by his master. When a slave runs away, he is guilty of theft (he has stolen from his master), and the punishment could be severe. But,
Onesimus was also Paul’s spiritual SON. Being a spiritual son means that Onesimus had become a Christian under Paul’s personal tutelage. Therefore, Paul has a stake in Onesimus’ fate here.
In verse 8, Paul says that he could give orders (as an Apostle, with apostolic authority Paul’s directives carried some weight). But, he says, that he appeals to the affectionate One’s basis of love. As “an old man” (or, I believe the better understanding is “as church leader” – the word is “presb[e]uteros”, from which our denomination gets its name, Presbyterians), he appeals for mercy and grace for his “son” Onesimus. This is where Paul tells a joke. Look at verse 11: “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” Did you get the joke? [CS Lewis, in three of the seven Chronicles of Narnia books, has a character that is introduced like this: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” A cousin of the Pevensie children who have been to the fantastic land of Narnia, Eustace mocks the Pevensies for their faith in Aslan and in the Narnia stories; so he gets nicknamed “Useless Scrubb”. That’s the joke here, too. “Onesimus” is a name that means “Useful”; but when he ran away Philemon calls him “Useless”; so now Paul says, “He is not only not ‘Useless’, he is ‘Useful’ to us all!”]
And here’s the kicker. Paul appeals to Philemon as a spiritual BROTHER, and he wants Philemon to see Onesimus as a BROTHER s well as a slave.
Paul does not say, ignore the wrong that’s been done to you. He does not say, pretend it’s all OK. And he does not abolish the institution of slavery! He does say, “Treat this slave as if he were your brother – because now he is!” (Some of you might remember that he said the same thing in his Epistle to the Colossians.)
Where is God’s hand at work in this story? At verse 15 Paul turns up the intention of the conversation. He recognizes that it was wrong what Onesimus did. He willingly chose to steal from Philemon by running away. But Paul’s eyes are on God and he sees the hands of God working through all of this. “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you [notice the passive voice, yes Onesimus ran away on his own accord, but perhaps it was God who took him from you] for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” Was God’s sovereignty and providence behind this inconvenient and criminal activity?
When we are in the middle of suffering, any kind of suffering (from a stubbed toe to another two decades unjustly going back to prison, from losing a nickel bet to losing your home to foreclosure, from missing the green light to missing your loved one), when we are in the middle of suffering it is really difficult to see anything other than the pain. But might God use that “temporal” suffering to bring about an eternal consequence?
How did this change the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus? They became Siblings! Co-heirs with Christ! Children of God!
Where is God’s hand at work in OUR story? God can do that with us, too. The very last line of the letter says, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” Paul writes this letter to one man, Philemon, “the Affectionate One”. But in this final sentence he uses a plural pronoun. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all-y’all’s spirit.
Paul writes this letter not only to his friend, colleague, brother in Christ, but he writes it to the entire Church. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is OURS also, to teach the same lesson of love, and to produce the same spirit of obedience.
“I haven’t gone in a long time,” she said. “Besides, it’s too late for me. I’ve probably already broken all seven commandments.”
Noooo. We are more than just slaves to sin – we are siblings in the Spirit, children of God, saved by grace through faith!
Experiencing Authentic Ecclesia means becoming a people who believe like that!!
We are a Church on the very verge of truly experiencing all of that – and we are blessed, privileged to be in on the ground floor! Let’s join Philemon and Onesimus and be that kind of church together.
We serve a risen Savior, He’s in the world today;
we know that He is living, whatever Eustace may say;
we see His hand of mercy, we hear His voice of cheer,
and just the time we need Him He’s always near.
He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with us, and He talks with us along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
Let’s forsake our lives of sin, invite Him in our heart! Amen.
Ackley, Alfred H.; “He Lives!”; 1933
Carson, H.M.; Colossians and Philemon; Tyndale new testament Commentaries; 1984; Pp. 102-112.
Lewis, C.S.; Book 3 in the Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”; 1954; P. 1.