Windsor Community United Methodist Church
Friday, December 06, 2013
Mike Turgeon “Love Letters from Paul: Philemon” June 6, 2010
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.
I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
I Paul’s influence.
Other than Jesus himself, there may be no more controversial Biblical person than Paul the Apostle,. The bookends of Paul’s life and body of work are breath-taking when you think about it.
In the space of less than 20 years, he traveled the treacherous road from murderer to martyr. We find much of this journey chronicled in the Book of Acts.
Paul went from being the executioner of the follower’s of Jesus to their most influential leader. In the 9th chapter of Acts we encounter Paul as Saul, the Pharisee.
“Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Acts 9:1-3
In the very next verse, verse 4, Saul has his life-altering encounter with Christ on the Road to Damascus.
We tend to invest a lot of credibility in those who do 180 degree turn-arounds, don’t we?
Yeah, sometimes we get fooled, but repentance is the first step toward true authenticity. Paul’s credentials as a saved soul are impeccable.
Paul will always have his detractors, of course. There are legions of women who consider him a sexist pig for his very pointed comment concerning women covering their heads in church.
But if you strip away all emotional baggage attached to Paul, it is hard not to agree that without Paul there is likely no Christianity.
For about 15 years after Jesus’ death, roughly 33 to 48 AD, the message and meaning of Jesus’ mission was passed along by word of mouth. We believe that Paul began his evangelistic outreach a couple of years after Jesus died, but he didn’t write anything down until about a dozen years later. And he was the first to write about who Jesus was and what he accomplished.
And in one form or another, the Good News comes through in every one of Paul’s letters to the churches that he started. That message was radical back then: through the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, you are loved beyond imagining.
This concept that Jesus is able to change you is a direct interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life from Paul. We believe that Paul was led to this teaching about Jesus by a divine act of inspiration. This message that love is Lord of heaven and earth upset the apple cart back then, even among Paul’s own people, the Jews and the Pharisees.
This lesson as we see it carried forward in this Letter to Philemon is still a disturbing message. People still don’t want to hear it. Jesus loves me and therefore I must act lovingly? I don’t want to hear that. I want my pet peeves and my grudges. Shoot, I spend most of my day plotting revenge. That’s how I’ve learned to be. Don’t go messin’ with my tapes that tell me how to survive in a cruel world.
We want to believe that we have no need of anyone, ever, let alone some savior we have to submit to.
Just so with Paul, he found that his message of salvation in Jesus Christ landed him and his friends in jail on numerous occasions, today being one of them. Yes, Paul was a Jew, and even of the ruling class of the Jewish community, the Pharisees. And politically, maybe most importantly, Paul was a Roman citizen, and this status tended to get him out of a few jams, but not always, not this time.
II Paul walks his talk.
So, Paul is in prison here, we’re not sure where. At some point, he was aided by a runaway slave named Onesimus. The slave's master, Philemon, was one of Paul’s fellow followers of Jesus. Paul told Onesimus, the slave, to return to his master; and he encouraged Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a ‘brother in Christ.’
Wow! You talk about walking the talk. What Paul is proposing is crazy, explosive.
The idea that slave owners and slaves enjoy the same status in anything would not have computed, believe me. If you thought the concept‘all men are created equal’ was radical in 1860, imagine just 60, the year sixty.
But Paul is proposing something even more preposterous than that. Paul is saying that you and I, in our relationship to Christ, are like the slave and the slave owner; and guess what? We’re not the owner.
That is what Paul has been reflecting on in jail. He has plenty of time to ponder his situation. He’s been thinking about his freedom, but not the way you’d expect. By owning his enslavement to Christ, Paul is recognizing that acting in the service of God is the way of perfect freedom.
By acting out God’s will for his life, Paul keeps finding himself in jail. Acting out God’s will for your life may not be as dangerous as Paul’s situation, but to the powers that be in the kingdom of man on earth, the Gospel of love is offensive. But we are called to live in the kingdom of God on earth.
Without Paul acting Christ-like and telling us about it, would we even be here today?
Paul was not perfect, and that’s not what Jesus is asking of us, either. Paul was persistent. As a murderous enforcer, as a dogged evangelist, as a writer of love letters. That is precisely how these letters of his read.
III Paul’s letters.
Biblical scholars generally agree that of the 14 letters, or epistles of Paul, only 7 of them can really be attributed to Paul himself; the other 7 were probably written by his followers.
The theological ‘ground zero’ for Paul’s letters is Christ crucified and Christ risen. There is remarkably little else about the life of Jesus in Paul’s letters. So, why are we still reading Paul’s letters and using them as teaching tools after all these years?
I see two reasons, the way Paul acted and the way Paul wrote.
Paul acted with complete commitment to Jesus and with complete surrender to him. For Paul, it seems, there was no neutral gear, only backward and forward. When Paul finally found forward gear after his shattering ‘call from Christ’ there would be no stopping him.
It comes through in his letters; and that is the second reason we are still responding to Paul.
Paul is a master of the art of rhetoric. Rhetoric is the use of words to communicate effectively. Rhetoric is one of the ancient arts of discourse, using language to instruct and persuade. It is Paul’s rhetorical ability that allows these lessons to stand the test of time. And that is communication at its best.
How do we effectively communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
A couple of weeks ago, 4 of us attended a workshop on healthy communication. Organizations, whether they be families, or churches, or workplaces, those that cultivate positive messages and deliver them in positive ways, have the best chance of reaching their goals and accomplishing their mission.
Now, we are only here for one reason, right? And that is...Making disciples of Jesus Christ.
And, as I quoted Bill Rust a couple of weeks ago over there at one of our United Methodist churches in Walnut Creek, “...in order to make disciples of Jesus Christ, the first disciple you must make is yourself.”
This is what Paul is doing through this letter to Philemon, putting into practice the principles that he is preaching.
Now, if communication is so important, why do we do it so badly? Well, we probably learned bad habits. Ways that maybe helped us survive childhood, perhaps, but now as adults they only seem to bring negativity.
The workshop was 5 hours and we spent at least 4 hours talking about bad ways to communicate. Like:
If there is conflict, say, it is not talked about at all. Or we whine or yammer to a sympathetic ear. It’s vague, it’s confusing.
Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase: “lots of people think,” or “other people are saying.” Or how about 3-way communication? This is also anonymous. “would you tell Bill for me to...?”
Gossip and rumor.
Now, there may be some ‘feel-good’ aspects to these, but at what and who’s cost and to whose reputation?
Secrets are powerful, but they will never build up, they will only tear down.
Now, I’m sure most of us are well-versed in one or all of these ways of communicating poorly. And, yes, we have a long way to go to healthy ways. But a simple rule of thumb for good communication is that it is:
Direct. Goes to the right place
Two-way. Reporting and listening.
Transparent. Not meant to manipulate.
We must practice effective communication if we want to effectively communicate the Gospel. And, we must be all in.
IV Paul’s personal appeal.
Paul was all in as he writes in his letter to Philemon. This letter is the only one written directly to a single person, the rest being written to churches.
Paul is pretty much calling in all his chips here. Perhaps that is the advantage of being an ‘old man,’ as he puts it. Maybe he feels he has nothing to lose, because he has ‘lost’ himself to Christ.
'If Onesimus owes you anything...charge it to my account...for he is my child.' 'I could command you...but instead I appeal to you in love.'
Paul places whatever credentials he has accumulated in Christ behind his plea to his fellow follower, Philemon. He is acting to reconcile the un-reconcilable--slave and slave-owner. What restoration and healing is possible for these two? That is how we are commanded to think in our servant role--offer love to a world divided, offer grace in the face of grace-less-ness.
Where is God's grace in the midst of a terrifying world? It lies within you.
The way of a follower leads to some different ways. a different:
Perspective--a Jesus worldview
Converting to a Jesus worldview, not converting Jesus into ours. Philemon’s ‘loss’ of Onesimus as slave is counted as gain of a brother in the Jesus worldview. In the Jesus worldview, we lose ourself yet count it as gain for eternity with Christ.
The way of a follower leads to a different:
Relationship with the world--radical hospitality
Being welcoming to any person as brother and sister is to welcome Christ himself.
The way of a follower leads to a different:
Objective--build bridges, not walls
In accepting Christ, personal transformation is possible. When we serve as Christ’s slave, we tear down the walls of master and slave, white collar and blue collar, management and labor, liberal and conservative, plaintiff and defendant. In Christ we are all one. And when we are one in Christ, the only question that remains is, “how, then, shall we live?”
We don’t end up hearing what happens with Philemon and Onesimus. Will Onesimus find a place of welcome? Will Philemon have a change of heart? We must L\look to our own hearts for these answers.