Sunday, September 09, 2012

Sermon: Philemon 1-25 Love in Action

It’s the stuff of soap operas. Things are getting along fine, and then comes the drama. An old familiar face returns again, and sparks are about to fly. The viewer is left to guess what’s going to happen, as the regulars respond to the new situation. Is the new character out for revenge? Looking for money? Or coming to sort things out?

This year in the Brooke Hall, we’re going to take a look at some of the smaller sections of scripture - you could almost call them the one hit wonders - or rather, the one chapter wonders. A whole Bible book read through in a couple of minutes, very short compared to Psalms or Isaiah or even Romans. But it means that in our time together this evening, we’ll have grasped a whole book of the Bible!

Tonight, our Bible book comes in the form of a letter, written from the apostle Paul to Philemon (whichever way his name is pronounced!). The setting for the reading of the letter is just as shocking as anything you might find in Eastenders or Coronation Street - only this is real life. You’ll see from the first verse who the letter is written to - Philemon, Apphia (who may be Philemon’s wife), Archippus, and the church in their house. In these early days of the Christian faith, there were no church buildings, no memorial halls. Instead, the churches met in peoples’ homes, packed in as they heard the teaching and prayed and loved and served each other.

The letter comes from Paul to this house church carried by the one who will cause everyone to gasp for breath. One who was well known in those parts, but who hadn’t been seen for some time. One who was never expected to be seen again. One-simus. Onesimus.

Onesimus had been a slave, who used to work in Philemon’s house. That was, until he ran away (and it seems, may have stolen some of his master’s goods). Now, if you were Philemon, how would you react to this returning runaway? Would you throw your arms around him, or get the handcuffs out? What happens next?

Before you’re too hasty, Onesimus presents the letter, written from Paul to Philemon - the letter we have in front of us tonight. What does Paul say to Philemon? And what does a letter about a slave have to say to us, almost two centuries later?

Having gotten through the formal opening of the letter - the writer(s), who it’s to, Paul launches in with his thankful greeting. He highlights the things in Philemon’s life that he is thankful for: ‘I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.’

Philemon is known for his love for the saints and his faith toward the Lord Jesus. Philemon has been generous in demonstrating his love - because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through him. Obviously, he is wealthy (he has slaves), but he’s not selfish. Rather, he uses what he has for the good of other Christians, and especially those who are in need (just as we were thinking about this morning, in the work of the Barnabas Fund).

Now just as Paul highlights the impact Philemon has had on so many people, and just as he reminds Philemon of his faith and his love, so now, in the main body of the letter, Paul asks that he will demonstrate it in this particular case. You see, we’re called to be consistent Christians in every part of our lives, not just the bits that suit us, on a Sunday morning or evening, but in every aspect of all we do - our business, our home life, our work, rest and play. As we look at Paul’s appeal, we’ll see that so many of the same words and ideas come up again - love, sharing/partner, goodness, heart, refreshed.

You see, Paul could have come across heavy handed; could have given orders; but that’s now what he does. Rather, he appeals ‘for love’s sake’. He appeals for his child (in the Lord) to be accepted, welcomed back. On what basis? That of love.

Just as Philemon has been accepted through the good news of Jesus, leading to him being loving and generous, so Paul appeals for Philemon to show that same love in this case. You see, Onesimus himself has been transformed because of the good news.
It seems that when he ran away, he made it from Colossae (where Philemon lives - see Col 4:7-9 for the connection between Philemon and Colossians) the whole way to Rome, where he found Paul. While there with Paul, he became a Christian, and has been changed. Previously, he was useless - he was a runaway slave - but now, he is living up to his name: useful.

While Paul would like him to stay with him, ministering to his needs in prison, the right thing to do is send him back to his master - but with this appeal. You see, Paul says that he is not just welcoming back a slave, he’s now a ‘beloved brother’.

This is the transforming power of the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Too often we regard our faith as a private thing - it’s just between me and God; it doesn’t affect or influence any other area of our life. We’re not that bothered about other Christians, or about church.

The New Testament won’t allow us to be just Jesus and me. Rather, it’s all about Jesus and me and you and our brothers and sisters in the local church and in the worldwide church (and in the church at rest). Our relationships with each other should be transformed - so that we regard ourselves as brothers and sisters - beloved brothers and sisters.

And then Paul gets to the bottom line. The bill. Philemon might be thinking to himself - well, ok, but all this has cost me big - if he stole some money or goods, the damage he has done to me. But Paul says to receive Onesimus as if he was Paul - and to charge to Paul’s account anything owing. It might be a big debt or small, but Paul will sort it out - even as he reminds Philemon of the bigger debt he owes: ‘to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.’ You see, Paul brought Philemon to faith, his whole salvation (on a human level) is because of Paul’s preaching. When you compare the debt, Philemon owes even more!

The letter to Philemon is like a real life worked out example of the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35). When Philemon considers the huge debt and offence he has been forgiven by his Master; his own loss at the hands of Onesimus is like nothing.

It’s as we consider the grace with which Paul starts and ends his letter that we learn how to relate to our brothers and sisters in the church. With the love and grace we have received, so we should love each other.

It’s not always easy. It’s sometimes very costly. Yet we hear the command as well as the gentle appeal - this is the way, walk in it. Love one another, even as I have loved you.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 9th September 2012.

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