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Paul's appeal - Philemon 0

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 4th September 2005.

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One of the things I love receiving is personal letters. Letters written to me personally are wonderful to receive as long as they are not bills or personalised junk mail, or letters from the bank. And personal letters are the best because they are written for you and you can learn so much about the person whoís written you the letter, even if itís bad news. For instance a while back, Debbie and I received a postcard from Debbieís sister who was helping on a childrenís activity holiday in Canada. It read: "Having a great time here on campÖ I have been trained in kayaking but on the last day [of training] I dislocated my shoulder. Spent the day in casualty, so I canít go kayaking for at least a month. So I took up mountain biking. Tried to ride but it was hard because my arm was in a sling and I crashed headlong into a tree and hurt my other shoulder. Spent another day in casualty. They thought it might be broken but fortunately it wasnít. Just bruised and scarred. However they did discover a break in my collar bone from an injury from a while a ago which I hadnít noticed. Apart from that, all is well!" Now very few of you will have met Debbieís sister. But you now know she is an out doors sort of person, she likes travelling, she likes working with children and she is very accident prone. And all of that youíve just got from one personal postcard.

Now over these next two evening services weíre going to be looking at a letter of Paul to a man called Philemon. And this is a gem of a letter tucked in the back of the Bible. And is it such a treasure because itís the only one of Paulís letters we have which is written to an individual about a personal matter. Letters such as 1 and 2 Timothy or Titus were written to individuals, but were about larger church matters, and were designed to be read for the whole church. But this letter is different. If you like itís a postcard from Paul about a very personal matter between him and Philemon.

So let me introduce you to some of the main characters. First, there is Paul. Paul the apostle who is at the present time in prison. Heís probably in a Roman prison, not pleasant at the best of times. And heís writing a letter to his friend Philemon. Now Philemon occurs only in this letter in the NT, but we can learn quite a lot about him just from this letter. The letter to Philemon was put in the same postbag as Paulís letter to the Christians at Colosse, and itís most likely that Philemon lived in Colosse. Paul loved Philemon very much and had been instrumental in Philemon becoming a Christian. The church in Colosse met in his house, as we read in verse 2 of our letter, and so itís probable that he was quite a rich man with a big house. And among his possessions was a slave called Onesimus. Now Onesimus was a bit of a scoundrel. He had escaped from Philemon, and done a runner. Itís most likely heíd taken some money or the family silver, and he had run away from Colosse, in present day Turkey, all the way to Rome. Rome was the place to go because there you could melt into the background and never be found. But for reasons we donít know, somehow Onesimus met Paul in prison. Maybe Onesimus had ended up in jail himself, or maybe heíd heard Paulís name mentioned in Philemonís house and thought heíd seek him out for help. We donít know. What we do know is that through Paul Onesimus became a Christian and helped Paul while he was in jail. Itís an amazing story. Onesimus was on the lowest rung of the ladder. He was a slave, which was bad enough anyway. He was a bad slave, useless, says Paul in the letter, which is even worse! And worst of all, he was a bad, runaway slave. In Roman law, he could have been killed for such an offence. But now heís been converted and his life has taken a U-turn of incredible proportions.

But Paul knows that however much he wants Onesimus with him, heís actually got to send him back to Philemon. Philemon is the one who owns Onesimus, and Onesimus must answer to Philemon. And so Paul writes a letter to ask Philemon to welcome him back, not just as one of his employees, but now as a brother in Christ. And it will stretch Philemonís Christian love to the limit. But this letter is much more than just a postcard from Paul in prison to an old friend. Because as we look over Philemonís shoulder at this little piece of personal post, we can learn some wonderful truths about what it means to be an authentic Christian living an authentic, sacrificial Christian life. And tonight weíre going to focus on the opening verses, 1-7. Because for many of us September is the start of new challenges. Perhaps youíve just to come to Hull as a student. Maybe youíre going up a year at school or college. Perhaps starting a new job. Maybe beginning new responsibilities in the church family. Whatever your life situation, the beginning of this new term is a great time to ask ourselves serious questions about our Christian lives as well. Just what will our priorities be for the coming term or year? What qualities are going to mark us as a church as we seek to serve the Lord this coming year? Well here are three challenges which come from three of the main characters in the letter. For we Christians must be marked by:

1) Total Dedication to Godís Cause (Vv 1-2)

2) Total Devotion to Godís People (Vv 4-7)

3) Total Dependence on Godís Grace (V 3)

1) Total Dedication to Godís Cause (Vv 1-2)

So our first challenge from the letter to Philemon is that we must be marked by total dedication to Godís cause. And we learn that from Paul himself in the opening verses. Verses 1-2: "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home." Now you may think what does a greeting have to teach us today? Surely itís just Paul saying hi to a few friends in Colosse. But notice how it is that Paul describes himself and the people to whom he is writing. He calls himself a prisoner of Christ, and he calls his readers fellow workers and fellow soldiers.

Now this is the only time in all of Paulís thirteen letters in the NT that he begins by calling himself a prisoner of Christ Jesus. In almost every other case he calls himself an apostle or a servant. So why is that? And why is it that Paul says three other times in this little postcard that heís a prisoner? So in verse 9 he says that heís an old man and a prisoner of Christ Jesus. In verse 13 he says heís in chains for the gospel. And in verse 23 he calls Epaphras a fellow prisoner. Itís a lot of mentions in a letter so short. Well surely the answer is that Paul does not have to impress Philemon with his weighty apostolic credentials. Philemon knows full well that Paul carries the authority of Jesus himself. No, this is not going to be a letter where Paul commands Philemon to do anything. Rather itís a letter coming from a heart of love appealing to a heart of love. And the fact that Paul is in prison should be an added motivation to Philemon to act in a way which promotes the gospel. Serving Christ has cost Paul dearly. Philemon should put the gospel first too and welcome back his runaway slave, not as a cruel master, and Onesimus as a useless slave, but as loving brothers in Christ. And as weíll see next week, itís quite possible, reading between the lines, that Paul wants Philemon not just to receive Onesimus back, but then to send him back to Paul who is greater need in prison. The point is that when Paul calls on Philemon to do something costly to himself, Paul speaks from a position of strength. Paul knows what it is to pay the price in gospel ministry. Now it means prison, even though heís getting on in years. And in the time, prison would have been a very unpleasant experience. It would have been dark, cold, damp, infested with disease and vermin, with little if any food or water. That is what it meant for Paul to be dedicated to Christís cause. And such dedication breathes all the way through the latter, not just with Paul and his imprisonment, but also in the way he considers his friends.

So what does Paul call Philemon in verse 1? A fellow worker. Philemon had laboured together with Paul for the sake of the gospel. What does Paul call Archippus in verse 2? A fellow soldier. These two, had stood together in the front line of gospel ministry for Christís sake. What does Paul call Epaphras in verse 23? A fellow prisoner. Again someone who had taken a stand for Christ and paid the price with Paul. In fact it was Epaphras who had first taken the gospel to Philemonís home town of Colosse! And what about Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke in verse 24? Fellow workers. Can you see the picture Paul is painting? This little group of friends had given a great deal to the cause of Christ. They had all stood by Paul for better for worse, for richer for poorer, at great personal cost for the cause of Christ.

And as we begin a new term, a new course, a new job, or simply continuing in whatever we are doing, then itís a great challenge to us to display such dedication to Godís cause isnít it? Wouldnít you love to be known at the end of this coming year, or the end of your life as a soldier of Christ, a fellow worker in the gospel with the apostle Paul? Wouldnít you love to known as someone who was totally dedicated to Godís cause? Well let me let you into a little secret. One of my biggest fears in my Christian life is the fear of mediocrity. That is of being half hearted in my walk with God, in my service of him. Itís the danger of giving God the fags ends of my devotion to him. Just a little bit of dedication, but not too costly. Just a little bit of pain, but not too much. Just a little bit of inconvenience but not too inconvenient. After all, I donít want to be known as a fanatic do I? I donít want my Christian life to cost me too much do I? Itís the prayer which says: "Yes Lord I want to follow you, but not too wholeheartedly!" But Paul and his friends would not recognise that as authentic Christianity. What we read of here is men and women who gave their lives for the cause of Christ. Itís the very assumption behind this letter that the gospel and the glory of Christ comes first. Thatís is why Paul is writing to Philemon. Not simply to restore a broken relationship, but for the sake of the wider cause of Christ. Paul would echo the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who once wrote: "When Christ calls a man, he calls him to come and die." Die, that is, not necessarily literally, although Bonhoeffer himself gave his life for Christís sake at the hands of the Nazis in 1945. Itís more to die to self. Putting self second and Christ first.

So will you take up the challenge to resolve to dedicate yourself to the cause of Christ. If youíre a student, will you resolve to use these very precious years, not just for study, good though that is, but for the study of Godís Word, seeking to win your friends for Christ. Youíll never get an opportunity like this again in your life. Use it wisely. Perhaps for others, it will mean a reassessment of how we spend our time. Perhaps for some it will mean offering ourselves for more service in the church family. But for each of us, the key question is of the heart. Are our hearts dedicated to the Lord? Are we captivated by his love and glory? Is that the engine room of our lives? If not then we will never be dedicated to the cause of God. Listen to these words of Frances Havergal, a Victorian hymn writer who was prepared to devote her life wholly to the cause of Christ: "Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee, take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise. Take my love, my Lord, I pour at they feet its treasure store. Take myself and I will be, ever, only all for thee." Paul would agree with that prayer. And thatís the first challenge we learn from this letter this evening. Total dedication to Godís cause modelled by Paul and his friends.

2) Total Devotion to Godís People (Vv 4-7)

But thereís a second challenge that we learn from these verses, and that is the challenge of total devotion to Godís people. And we learn this from Philemon himself. Because Paul begins the main body of his letter by thanking God for Philemon and revealing what heís praying for him. And incidentally that is a great way to encourage someone. The best way to encourage someone is to go up to them and tell them that you thank God for their gifts and the way God has used them. Because then the person is encouraged, but God gets the glory. Heís the one who has used the personís gifts in his service. And so it is here in verses 4-7: "I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints." So what has Paul got be thankful for? Well he thanks God for Philemonís faith in the Lord Jesus and his love for all the saints. Philemon has faith in Jesus. That is heís trusted in Christ as his Lord and Saviour, he has recognised that Jesus is the King and he died on the cross and rose again for him. But heís also put that faith into practice. Heís begun to show practical love for fellow Christians. A genuine love for Christ will always show itself in a sacrificial love for fellow Christians.

And how has Philemon shown his love? Well Paul tells us in verse 7: "Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints." Philemonís faith in Christ has led to a love for the saints. Saints doesnít mean special people who we see in stain glass windows, or who get up early and wear itchy clothes and have cold baths. Rather itís Paulís short hand for Christians. Many Christian hearts have been refreshed by Philemon. What a lovely expression that is! What a way to be remembered! As someone who refreshed the hearts of the saints. Now we donít know how Philemon has done that, but I guess there are all sorts of ways he did it. Perhaps by using his home for gospel work. Paul asks in verse 22 if he can stay at Philemonís house when he is released from prison. Maybe Philemon had helped Paul and others financially or practically by putting them up before. Almost certainly Philemon had shown his love by caring for people spiritual needs as well. Perhaps by praying for them after a service in the house church. Perhaps by meeting up with one or two of the congregation to spur them on. Perhaps he simply took time to get to know each person in his church personally. Thatís the sort of devotion that Philemon would have shown. He loved refreshing peopleís hearts. He was prodigal with his time and money and heart. He loved giving himself to people. He loved refreshing the hearts of his brothers and sisters. In fact even his name means kind or loving. Loving by name and loving by nature.

And thatís why Paul prays the way he does in verse 6. Now for every translation you read, there is a different translation of this verse. Itís not very easy to get the right meaning. But unfortunately for us, the one thing I can guarantee it doesnít mean is what our versions lead us to think. That Paul is praying for Philemon to be a better evangelist. Paul is not praying that Philemon would be active in sharing his faith in that sense. Rather the word translated Ďsharing your faithí literally means fellowship, or generosity towards others. Paul is praying that Philemonís love which is based on his faith in Christ, that love or generosity toward other Christians, would be active as our versions put it. Now why does Paul pray this? So that Philemonís understanding of every good thing we have in Christ would grow. So Paul is praying that Philemonís generosity toward others may help him to understand the good things we have in Christ. Itís a great prayer to pray for ourselves isnít it? As Philemon is generous to others, Paul is praying that Philemon would understand how generous God has been to him. Itís a wonderful upward spiral of love and joy. The more you understand how youíve been loved, the more you love God and others.

Now again letís take a step back and ask ourselves if this is us. As we embark on a new term, is this what marks us as a church or as individual Christians. Wouldnít it be fantastic to be known as a church and as individuals who refresh the hearts of the saints. For each of us it will apply differently. But why not consider getting to know a few more people these coming months. Why not make it your aim to befriend 2 or 3 people you donít know. Chat with people after the service, find out gently how things are going spiritually. In our Homegroups, letís learn to love one another practically. A set of meals for those who are ill or stressed. A commitment to pray and encourage. There are thousands of ways to refresh the hearts of the saints. Perhaps what often hinders us is a reluctance to get involved, perhaps because its too much of a commitment, or because we donít want the help when we need it! But by definition, as a Christian, we are involved. Because Jesus himself commands us to love another. And when we are in need, we must admit our need for help.

By way of illustration, let me share with you a story I heard a while ago which I find very challenging on this command to love one another. It concerns a man called Uwe Holmer who was a pastor in East Germany both before and after the communist government fell. After the communists lost power, Erich Honecker, the former communist dictator was hospitalised for treatment for cancer. At the time there was no one man who was more hated in the whole of East Germany. He and his wife were strongly anti Christian and they had especially caused many Christians in the country to suffer directly or indirectly from their regime. When he was released from hospital, Honecker and his wife were effectively homeless. They had nowhere to go, everyone hated them. But one man stepped in and offered them accommodation. That man was Uwe Holmer. He and his family had suffered under the communists. Eight of his children had applied for further education and been refused, simply because they were Christians, even though they were among the brightest in the country. But Pastor Holmer took this despised and hated couple into his own home and sheltered them. Now if that is the sort of love that a Christian shows to his enemy, how much more should we love our fellow believers. Will you take up the challenge and be someone who refreshes the hearts of the saints? For the godly Christian is marked by total devotion to Godís people.

3) Total Dependence on Godís Grace (V 3)

But thereís one final challenge that we receive from these verses and that is total dependence on Godís grace. And this comes from God himself, who is the third character in these first seven verses. Because having received those challenges to be people who are totally dedicated to Godís cause and totally devoted to Godís people, we might well wonder how on earth we are going to manage it. Well the answer lies in verse 3: "Grace to you and peace from our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." And then at the end of the letter in verse 25: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit." These are precisely the sort of verses that it is very easy to skip over when studying the Bible. But actually they remind us of a very important truth. That we must be totally dependant on the grace of God throughout our Christian lives. And itís something that Paul himself clearly thought was very important. Because without exception, at the beginning of every single letter that Paul writes, he says, literally: "May grace be unto you." At the end of every single letter without exception, he says: "May grace be with you." So at the beginning and end of every single letter that Paul writes in the New Testament there is a prayer that his readers might know the grace of God at work in their lives. So what does he mean?

Well grace is the free and undeserved gift of God that God shows to us fully and finally in Jesus Christ. But we experience that grace daily as we are dependant on him. It is God who keeps us going in the Christian life by grace. We donít deserve it. Itís a gift. Itís God who gives us life and breath and health, again, nothing we deserve but his gracious gift. And itís only by God grace that we are able to serve him and love one another sacrificially and courageously. So Godís grace can be with us at work facing tough relationships, in the doctorís surgery facing an unwanted test result, in the classroom facing jibes from fellow students, in the home facing a demanding child. God promises us his grace in all situations. But if we try to do anything in our own strength, then we will fail. No, we need to be dependant on Godís grace to sustain us today and always. We will need to be people of prayer who constantly throw ourselves into the gracious hands of God.

But as we finish, there is a warning for us in this letter of being self dependant people, not grace dependant people. Because in verse 24, Paul mentions as one of his closest friends, a man called Demas. Heíd no doubt served with Paul, as Paul calls him a fellow worker. But just a matter of a few years later, Paul laments in 2 Timothy 4 that Demas has deserted him because he loved this world. Demas had sold out and left Paul in the lurch. And friends, that is what happens when you stop living by grace, and begin to live by self. You move away from Christ until you give up the faith altogether and desert Godís servants. And if it can happen to one of Paulís inner circle, then it can happen to us. Rather the antidote to such a spiritual shipwreck is to be totally dependant on Godís grace. Never seek to live the Christian life on your own. You cannot do it. Rather resolve again tonight to be totally dependant on the grace of God. For itís the only way weíll stay dedicated to Godís cause, and the only way weíll remain devoted to Godís people.

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