Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sermon: Philemon 1-25 Love's Appeal

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?

Tonight, we’re going to cover one whole book of the Bible. While it may not be possible to cover all 150 Psalms in one sermon, or even Isaiah’s 66 chapters, we are going to cover a Bible book in one sermon, in one night. And 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 to meet in. 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 throw the handcuffs on his arms? 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 thousand years later?

We might think that the opening verses are just the formal fluff, and we need to jump in to verse 4, where we get the meat of the letter. But don’t rush over the first verses. Do you see how Paul describes himself? In every other letter, Paul describes himself as an apostle. But not here. He’s simply ‘a prisoner of Christ Jesus.’ He’s not using the apostle card. He reminds Philemon that he’s writing from prison.

And then in verse 3, he offers grace and peace. The undeserved favour of God, and the peace of God. Things that Philemon didn’t deserve, but has received. Keep that in the back of your mind as we read on.

Paul continues with a thankful greeting. When you’re giving feedback, you’re meant to say something positive, then something to work on, then another positive thing. It seems as if Paul had been on that course! He highlights the things in Philemon’s life that he is thankful for: ‘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.’ (4-5)

Philemon is known for his love for the saints and his faith in the Lord Jesus. If we were to get a letter from Paul, would he highlight our faith and love?

Paul then prays for Philemon in verse 6 - maybe this is the challenge, the thing to work on: ‘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.’

Paul is quite clear that our faith is not to be a private thing - it’s to be shared, actively. There’s a little book on evangelism called ‘how to give away your faith.’ And that’s the idea here - to share it, to give it to others to also own it as their own. And did you notice what comes when we’re active in sharing our faith? We will ‘have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.’

When we are sharing our faith, telling others, then we get questions, we have to think about the faith, learn more ourselves, and in the process, we grow too!

Back to the positive! And in Philemon’s case, it again centres on his encouraging qualities, as we see in verse 7: ‘Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.’ (7)

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.

So Paul highlights the impact Philemon has had on so many people - through his faith and love. He does that, because now he goes on to ask that he demonstrate this 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 relationships, 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.

Paul has something to ask, in this appeal. He recognises that he could have come across heavy handed; could have given orders; but that’s not what he does. Look at verse 8: ‘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.’ Do you see? He’s not giving orders, although he could. He’s appealing on the basis of love. He appeals for his son (in the Lord) to be accepted, and welcomed back. On what basis? That of love

Just as Philemon has been accepted through the grace of God and the Lord Jesus, leading to him being loving and generous, so Paul appeals for Philemon to show that same love and grace 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, somehow, 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, helping him while he’s 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 ‘dear 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 - dear brothers and sisters in the Lord.

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 he owes. It might be a big debt or small, but Paul will sort it out he will pay it back.

Now, as he reads the letter, Philemon might think - that’s good, I’ll not have lost anything... until he reads the next line. Paul reminds Philemon of the even bigger debt that Philemon owes: ‘not to mention that you owe me your very 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 if Paul is writing firmly with tongue in cheek, getting his point across. ‘I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.’ (20-21)

You’ve refreshed other peoples’ hearts - now refresh mine, in the way you treat your returning slave. Apply the gospel to this situation, as you have done to other parts of your life. Let this reconciliation show others how serious you are about following Jesus.

Maybe as I’m speaking, you’re thinking of someone you need to be reconciled to. Someone, maybe in this congregation. How might the gospel lead to reconciliation?

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. Jesus says: Love one another, even as I have loved you.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 29th April 2018.

No comments:

Post a Comment