Sermon , Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18), Year C
This Faith is Meant to Love
Philemon 1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker – 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier – and to the church that meets in your home: 3 Grace and peace to you[a] 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 and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus – 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,[b] 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 favour 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 for ever – 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. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back – not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 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.
I don’t think there is a more personal snapshot of Paul anywhere else in the New Testament. The more you read it, the more you are impressed by Paul, and even more by the power of the gospel to transform people and their relationships.
It is Paul’s shortest letter, comprising only 335 Greek words. But it is a little letter that reveals rare insights into Paul’s abilities as a Christian leader and friend. It also gives you and me gospel direction in working at our relationships. It shows us what it is to be church. It shows us that this gospel we love is for love. Faith is for love.
Philemon is a man of means who lives in the city of Colossae. He became a Christian through Paul’s ministry (19b) and hosts a church in his home (2).
One of his slaves, also from Colossae, named Onesimus (which means “Useful”), has ran away. But this runaway slave encountered Paul in prison in Ephesus and became a Christian through Paul’s witness (10). This man named “Useful” becomes a ‘very useful’ helper to Paul in prison, but is now not so useful to his rightful owner.
So useful is ‘Useful’ that Paul would have loved Onesimus to stay with him in prison (11, 13) But Paul chooses to send this runaway slave back Philemon (12). Paul is obligated to do the right thing here, even at cost to himself. Everyone in the ancient world was obligated to send a runaway slave back to his/her owner.
Now, to us who do not live with slavery and ‘people being owned’, at least not here and not obviously or legally in Australia, this all sounds rather mundane. But it is not for these Christians in their time!
In their world, almost everybody could become a slave. About 35% to 40% of the population was indeed enslaved. As the property of their masters, slaves were considered animated tools and could be bought and sold at their master’s discretion. Slaves were often abused; they could be expelled from the master’s house when they were old or sick. That made them extremely vulnerable to corruption, ill health and injustice.
Most important for understanding the urgency of Paul’s letter to Philemon is the information that a master had the right to kill a slave when he or she was caught for running away.
So, Paul does what he can from prison in Ephesus. He provides a letter that would go with the runaway slave and another ‘fellow worker’ Tychicus (Colossians 4:7-9) back to Philemon.
This letter has always raised the thorny issue of slavery. Here, Paul does not suggest that Philemon, the slave owner, should free his runaway slave. Some think Paul should have done this.
But Paul is not interested in overthrowing the social structure. He is showing that the gospel of Jesus transforms the whole social structure. It is only because of the love and acceptance of Jesus Christ for sinners that a slave and master have a transformed relationship beyond ownership and slavery. Even these two men from such different sides of the tracks can relate as equal brothers in the love of Jesus.
So, based on the good news of God’s grace for sinners in Jesus, of whom they have all partaken, Paul calls on Philemon to forgive Onesimus and receive him back as a brother (15-18), and then return him again to Paul (13-14, 20-21). This would return everything to its rightful place and further the gospel and maintain loving relationships.
Paul uses all the skill and deft touch in the world to do this. He does not back away from the wrongdoing by Onesimus. And yet, he does not try and manipulate or “guilt” Philemon into doing things his way, even though as a brother in Christ and a man of authority in the church, he could do so.
“…although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.
“I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love”. See how Paul is after love not control? Control and power over others etc might resolve the conflict but will not bring a return to freely shared Christian love. Paul is after love between us, not control by some over others. If only Robert Magabe had been after this in Zimbabwe all these years!
This is our encouragement and calling today – to ‘prefer to relate to each other in love’ – the love of Jesus who loves us all.
And this means making some choices. You actually have to choose to live in the love you have received. It is not up to everyone else to love you no matter what you do or say. It is not control and power to make people act the way you want that leads to genuine love. Only the good news of God’s grace in Jesus transforms us into people of love. I see here that this love is to be done and said in real time among real people in real situations like this one.
We need this letter. So often we Christian don’t always let the love we have received from the Lord Jesus be lived. We tend to withhold it, miss it, misunderstand it or just leave it somewhere else when it comes to relating to people. You probably have a thousand good self-justifications for not doing this self-giving; self-sacrificing loving of Jesus with people most days! I know I do!
But despite our excuses, our weaknesses, our pain, our wounds, our trouble with trusting Jesus and our short memories, this acceptance and love is possible.
It is possible because this kind of love does not come from within but from Jesus. That is where Paul got it. Remember that day on the road to Damascus?
Jesus broke into Pharisee Paul’s “rightful” antagonism of Christians to transform him into a man who would write a letter like this for a man down the pecking order in life, deserving of nothing good when it comes to the world or his boss. He writes to the boss too. Both the runaway and the boss are led into the love of Jesus’ so they can learn love and stay in that love.
This is for us who run away from God out of fear of loving that might end up hurting or pride that loves self far too much and does not let others love self.
Jesus has written you a letter. He shows it to a holy and just God who cannot abide your misplaced fear or pride or unwillingness to love and be loved.
The letter is signed not in ink but in blood. It is written on your heart, not on paper. It is written on your heart as you gather here with fellow runaways who are invited back home by the Servant King who became a slave and prisoner, so we don’t have to remain a slave to our idols or be imprisoned by them.
I have never met a runaway slave or a runaway prisoner, but I have met a lot of people running way from things – from responsibility for their family, from hurt caused by years of put downs from people who should have known better, from violent partners, from the pain of divorce; from the shame of past regret, from the scrutiny of a good hard look at who you are and how you are called to be; from the possibility that God is love.
Friend, you have a love available to you this morning that does not come from you, but from the one who created you and paid for you with the high price of a Son made slave and killed.
You have a love available that is forgiving, empowering, sustaining you in any running away from any conflict or any pain. It is the loving Holy Spirit who calls you home to Jesus’ love for all the unlovely things about you.
The Holy Spirit, “The Advocate” speaks to you to call you back like Paul:
“….although I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love” (v 8-9).
Hear this love. Live this love in real time among your people. This love is meant to be lived.
As we live it here and there, love returns to relationships and we grow into it more. Love done like this opens us up more and more to the love of our heavenly Father and Saviour and Advocate and we grow.
We get to name each other beautiful names like “dear friend and fellow worker”, “My son; my daughter”, “Partner”.
Friends, I am praying that our partnership in the faith may be effective in deepening our understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. And that our love gives many great joy and encouragement, because we refresh each other’s hearts and those of all the Lord’s people.