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Paul's perspective - Philemon 0

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 11th September 2005.

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One of the most well known Christians over the past fifty years is the Dutch author Corrie Ten Boom. She became well known largely through her best selling book, "The Hiding Place" which tells the very moving story of how she and her family risked everything to protect Jews during the Nazi occupation of Holland. The book then goes on to describe the horrors of Ravensbruck concentration camp where she and her family ended up, enduring terrible atrocities, and in which her sister had died. In one part of the book, Corrie describes a post-war meeting with a former guard from the concentration camp. She describes the meeting in the following way: "It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former SS man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing centre at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our jailers that I had met since that time. And suddenly it all came back- the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, my sisterís pained face. He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. ĎHow grateful I am for your message, Fraulein, he said. To think that, as you say, he has washed my sins away.í His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal of the need to forgive, kept my hand by my side."

Well I guess each one of us will be able to witness to the fact that breaks in any relationship are extremely painful. Whether it be in the home, at work or even in the church. And sometimes it appears that such broken relationships are beyond the pale of being repaired. The hurt is too painful, the rift too deep, the damage has been done. Both sides seem to be locked in a stalemate, and both are happy to keep it that way. And whilst many might try and get the warring parties together, it just seems it will never work.

Well thatís the situation we find ourselves in as we come to this remarkable letter from Paul to his dear friend Philemon tucked into the back pages of our Bibles. If you were here last week, youíll remember that Paul is writing from prison in Rome to his friend Philemon who lives in Colosse, which is in modern day Turkey. And heís writing on behalf of a slave called Onesimus whoíd runaway from Philemon his master and caused him a good deal of grief. Itís also very likely that Onesimus had taken some of Philemonís money or possessions. And it meant that Onesimus was a hunted man. But amazingly, Onesimus had found himself meeting Paul, perhaps by divine chance, or perhaps because Onesimus had sought him out. We donít know. But what we do know is that meeting Paul had totally transformed Onesimusí life. Heíd become a Christian and was now a very useful friend for Paul to have. But Paul knows that he must do what is right. Philemon is the rightful owner of Onesimus. So Paul writes a letter full of grace and tact and love to ask Philemon to receive Onesimus back, not just as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Because here we see that broken relationships can be restored through the saving grace of Jesus Christ. The gospel is powerful enough to bring even enemies together again in Christ.

And that actually is what the letter is all about. Itís about gospel partnership, joining together in love as brothers and sisters in Christ for the sake of the gospel. So this letter is not so much a charter for the abolition of slavery, as weíll see later on. Rather itís a manifesto of loving Christian partnership for the sake of the gospel. Itís about what happens when people put the gospel of Christ and the glory of God at the forefront of their thinking and practice. And what is the heartbeat of it all? Love. Transforming, selfless, and uniting love. A love which comes from being united to Jesus Christ and having faith in him. And itís those aspects of love that weíll consider as we turn to the second half of Philemon this evening in verses 8-25:

1) Transforming Love (Vv 8-11)

2) Selfless Love (Vv 12-16)

3) Uniting Love (Vv 17-25)

1) Transforming Love (Vv 8-11)

So first then letís look at transforming love. And we see this transforming love at work in Onesimusí life in verses 8-11: "Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul, an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus, I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me." Now all the way through this letter, Paul makes it clear that heís not going to force his friend Philemon to do anything he doesnít want to do. Heís not going to force Philemon to receive Onesimus back on friendly terms or force him to do any other favours for Paul. But Paul could have ordered Philemon if heíd wanted to. "I could be bold and order you," says Paul in verse 8. He could have brought down the full weight of his apostolic credentials on Philemon, as heíd done many times before. But this time itís different. Remember heís begun the letter not reminding Philemon that heís an apostle. Instead heís begun by reminding Philemon heís in prison. In fact Paul rubs it in by saying heís a prisoner or in chains four times in this brief letter. And even in verse 9 that heís an old man. No. This is no apostolic exorcet missile blasting through Philemonís defences. Rather itís a letter of love, an appeal to the heart, according to verse 9. In fact, if you read the letter carefully youíll find that Paul uses ĎIí or Ďmyí about 30 times. Itís a very personal appeal. But why? Why does Paul goes to such lengths for Onesimus? Why does Paul lay his own reputation and even his money on the line for this useless runaway slave?

Well the answer is that something amazing has happened to Onesimus which has totally transformed his relationships with Paul and Philemon. What is it? It is that Onesimus has experienced the transforming love of God in his life. So have a look again at verses 10-11: "I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me." Onesimus has become a son of Paul. In other words, Onesimus has become a Christian through Paul. Now we might think well great! Surely thatís what Paul is good at. Convincing people to become Christians. But just consider what Onesimus was like. For a start he was a slave, which could be bad enough, but Onesimus was a useless slave, according to Paul. He was good for nothing. He was hopeless at his job. Heíd perhaps be the sort of slave to drop the posh crockery, or spill soup down your front, or trip over the cat. You know the sort of thing. A sort of Roman Manuel from Faulty Towers. In fact, bizarrely, the name Onesimus means useful. Maybe it was a cruel nickname or the like, because he certainly wasnít living up to his name! Which might explain why he did a runner. And the trouble is, if you ran away and then stole your masterís possessions, something thatís hinted at by Paul in verse 18, you could expect the most severe penalties. At the very least, if you were lucky, you would be branded with a large F on your forehead, which meant fugitive. Something youíd have to live with for the rest of your life. But if your master was harsh, then he was within his rights to kill you. So when one posh Roman businessman called Pedanius Secundus was murdered by one of his 400 slaves, the trial court ruled that all 400 slaves be put to death which is what happened. Thatís what faced Onesimus if he was caught. And to cap it all he was in Rome, a moral cess pool of everything vile and unhealthy. So humanly speaking, can you imagine a more unlikely convert than Onesimus? He was a useless, runaway slave likely to be executed and hiding out in the most depraved, hedonistic and idolatrous city in the ancient world.

But God stepped into Onesimusí life and saved him. Somehow Onesimus met Paul and Paul led him to Jesus Christ. Once spiritually dead, now alive. Once a slave, now a son of the King. Once a no hoper, now everything to live for. Once useless, now most useful to the apostle Paul, as his name really meant. What a transformation. And the only power that is strong enough to turn around a personís life from hopeless case, to a precious child of God who is useful in the kingdom of God, is the power of God himself. Only Godís transforming love can change lives like that.

Now I want to ask you this evening whether you believe that? Do you really believe that such hopeless cases can be saved? Maybe youíve been praying for a friend or relative or flat mate for months, or even years. And still there is absolutely no sign of them becoming Christians. Have you lost heart? Do you feel like giving up? And do you secretly believe that there is absolutely no chance of them ever becoming Christians? Well if so, and itís perfectly natural sometimes to feel discouraged, then look again at Onesimus. Surely one of things this story teaches us is that God changes lives. He brings about hope from hopeless situations. And if we are honest, we all know that in our own lives. For we too were once lost, hopeless, facing spiritual death. But God stepped into our lives and turned us around. And if can do it to us, if he can do it to Onesimus, then no-one is a lost cause. So donít give up. Keep praying. Keep trusting. Because no-one is too lost for God.

Let me tell about one man I met who I thought was a lost cause. His name was Ernie, and Ernie was about as lost as you could be. He had served as a soldier and had been on the beaches of Normandy at D Day in 1944. Miraculously he had survived, but after the war he had taken up a career as a burglar. And he became very good at it. He would tell all sorts of tales about how heíd pinched all sorts of thing from under the noses of unsuspecting people. Heíd done time in prison. And by the time I met him, he was nearing the end of his life, although he was still a very powerful man physically. He was old in years, pretty bitter, and the last thing he wanted to talk about was religion. So when I knocked on his door and offered him a video outlining the Christian message, his reaction was not, shall we say, encouraging. But amazingly he took the video and he invited me and a friend to come back the following week and talk. Well to cut a very long story short, which involved months of chatting, near physical assault, death threats and the like, Ernie gradually came to see what Jesus Christ was demanding of him. And wonderfully he gave his life to Christ. And he became someone who lived no longer for himself but for Jesus Christ.

Do you really believe that God can change lives like that? Because thatís one of the fundamental truths of this letter. That God changes lives through the power of his gospel and his love. Heís done it before, and heíll do it again. And if you think that you are too far removed from God for him ever to have anything to do with you, then think again. No-one is too lost for God. No-one is too sinful for God. No-one is too far gone for God. You too can come to Christ for forgiveness and a fresh start even tonight. Because God is in the business of changing lives. Believe it. Because thatís the power of transforming love.

2) Selfless Love (Vv 12-16)

And it was that confidence and conviction in the transforming power of Godís love that led Paul to give his all to standing up for Onesimus with selfless love, which is our next point. Selfless love. Because whilst Paul is deeply committed to Onesimus, he also knows what it is that must be done. And his own selfless love means heíll put his wishes second to the needs of others. Have a look at what Paul says in verses 12-14: "I am sending him, who is my very heart, back to you. 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. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favour you do will be spontaneous and not forced." Now see how much Paul loves Onesimus in these verses. He says he would have liked to have kept him because heís been useful to Paul in prison. Heís helped Paul. Now in days when no-one really cared for prisoners in Roman prisons, the inmates would be largely dependant on their friends and family for support. Theyíd bring them food and clothing and water. And here Onesimus has been very helpful to Paul. In verse 16, Paul says that Onesimus is very dear to him. And in verse 14 he actually says that Onesimus is his very heart! Itís very strong language, and itís a word Paul uses three times in the letter to get across his intense love. In fact, literally what Paul writes is that Onesimus is Paulís "guts", because the word means your inner parts, your kidneys or guts. Now for us, weíd say that the seat of the emotions is the heart. We love people with all our heart. But in Greek thinking your emotions were right down in the pit of your stomach. So if you were a loved up Greek teenaged boy, youíd express your undying affection for your girlfriend by saying: "I love you with all my guts!" Just a word of wisdom to the boys in Mark 2. Donít try that after the service, because the girls will give you a slap. But it worked for Greek teenagers! And for Paul it expresses a very deep and intense love for Onesimus. He is his very heart!

So can you see then how very costly it would have been for Paul to part with Onesimus. I guess if I were Paul Iíd have been tempted to keep him. A useful, loving friend in prison, someone to pray with, to share with, to laugh with, someone to plan with. Youíd desperately want to hang on to him wouldnít you? But Paul does not put his own needs above the needs of others. He is selflessly loving. He does what is right both for Onesimus and for Philemon, and more importantly for the gospel and Godís glory. So have a look at verse 14: "But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favour you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good, 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 man and as a brother in the Lord." Itís only fair that Onesimus should return because Philemon is the rightful owner. And Onesimus will be very useful to Philemon, not just as a slave but as a brother in Christ. And it takes selfless love to make such a costly decision for the sake of others.

Now that selfless love is a mark of this letter. If you remember Philemon practised it, as Paul rejoiced in verse 7 that he refreshed the hearts of the saints. And Paul himself practised it. And it begs the question whether such selfless love is the mark of you or I if we profess to follow Jesus Christ, the one who modelled selfless love to the fullest degree. Itís very easy to love when it doesnít cost us anything. Far more difficult when it costs us a great deal. And perhaps one of the barriers to such costly selfless love is that we tend to want something in return. So we have people round for tea, and then wait expectantly for the return invite. And weíre willing to share our possessions and houses, as long as they arenít broken in the meantime, or the carpet ruined! But selfless, Christ-like love loves without conditions. It loves without an expectation of such love being returned. It loves because it loves.

Itís the sort of love I read about this week which was expressed by one woman who had recently gained some new neighbours next door. The only problem was that these neighbours were the worst imaginable. They were loud, abusive, and vulgar, and to cap it all they vandalised her brand new patio which she had lovingly constructed. By her own admission, she could not bring herself to love such people, although she knew the Bibleís commands. But she decided she would commit herself to praying specifically about this situation, these people and her own attitude. And gradually her own heart changed. She decided to immerse herself in loving them. She baked cakes for them, she invited the woman of the house over for coffee, she babysat their kids, she lent them things, with no expectation of any favour in return. And gradually her heart towards them changed. She began to understand their pressures, and their problems. And when they left, she actually stood and wept! Now that is supernatural divine love. It comes from the Spirit of God himself and is selfless. Never expecting anything in returning. But sharing the love of Christ with those in need. And if that lady could love her enemies in such a profound way, how much more should we love those in our own church family. No-one says itís easy. But itís a genuine mark of a mature Christian. Selfless love.

3) Uniting Love (Vv 17-25)

But the third aspect of love that we find in this passage is uniting love. Letís read again from verse 15: "Perhaps the reason Onesimus was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good- 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 man and as a brother in the Lord." Well this is mind blowing stuff! This runaway useless slave is now to be treated as a brother. How extraordinary! And what is more Paul goes on in verse 17: "So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me." Philemon should welcome back Onesimus as if he were welcoming back the great apostle himself. Fancy that! The worthless scoundrel of a man who according to Roman law should have been killed off months ago, now to be welcomed back into the arms of the man he robbed, and as a brother. Itís about as strange as me walking up to the gates of Buckingham Palace and saying to the gatekeeper, "Yes don't worry my man, my sister Liz the Queen sent me and youíre to welcome me as you would her!" Itís ridiculous. But Paul is confident Philemon will do just that. Because the very basis of Paulís request on behalf of Onesimus is the fact that Philemon is a loving Christian man. And in fact, Paul is confident that Philemon will do even more than Paul has asked. If you read between the lines of this letter you get the feeling that Paul would love it if Philemon were to send Onesimus back to Paul. But why should Philemon accept Onesimus? Why should he treat him as a brother? Well because Christian love is uniting love.

You see back in the other letter in this postal despatch, the letter to the main Colossian church, what we call Colossians, Paul had written that among Godís people there were neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free. Now thatís not to say that these people were not in the Colossian church. Rather Paul is saying that these old boundaries have been broken down among Godís people. We are all Godís people together. The gospel transcends all divisions between people. It doesnít matter whether youíre male or female, slave or free, a Jew or a gentile. If youíve trusted in Christ then we are all Godís people together. And so people once divided are brought together. And the letter to Philemon is a worked out example of that. Here are Paulís doctrines put into practice. And heís asking Philemon to act according to his loving Christian profession of faith. To put animosity aside and to forgive. And itís only the gospel of Jesus Christ that can bring down such barriers. Only the love of Christ can melt frozen relationships, heal deep hurts, bring enemies together. And whilst this letter is not a treatise on the slave trade, yet it shows how Christians must relate to one another despite their apparent social differences. For there is something far more important at stake. Itís about relating to each other as brother and sister in Christ. And that partnership is vital for the spreading of the good news of Jesus. And itís no surprise therefore that one writer can say of the letter to Philemon: "What this letter does is to bring us into an atmosphere in which the institution [of slavery] could only wilt and die." Paul set the foundations in place which Christians in the following centuries would work out in practice.

So if thatís how God views people, then what right do we have to keep the boundaries intact. What right do we have to put up the barriers to people who are of different social backgrounds, different skins colours, different accents, different cultures. The gospel tears down such barriers only for us to put them back up again, even in our churches. Even among Christians there are racial prejudices, social snubbing, cultural snobbery. Itís a far cry from Christian uniting love. Maybe there are people within the church family we need to forgive or apologise to. Itís very hard to be gospel partners when there are unspoken barriers between us. Letís swallow our pride and seek to love and serve one another in the service of the king. Because when you know youíve been forgiven so much, why should we hold grudges against anyone else. Forgiven much, so forgive much.

And that is why Paul ends the way he does in verse 25. He wants us to know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. He wants us to experience that sustaining grace every day in our lives. And that is the only way we will be able to conduct ourselves as a loving Christian community. And as we share bread and wine tonight in remembrance of what Jesus did for us on the cross, we remember that we too were once unforgiven, slaves in our sin, hating and being hated, facing the spiritual death penalty. But now if we have received Christís rescue we can be brought home, forgiven washed clean. And itís all a mark of Godís amazing grace. And it means we too are in position to forgive those whoíve wronged us, however painful that may be.

Do you think Corrie Ten Boom found it easy staring at the face of one who had caused so much pain? Certainly she did not. She goes on: "I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. ĎJesus I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.í As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me." Only the love of Christ can do that. Transforming, selfless and uniting love.

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