Someone said of Philemon, that if it were the only book of the Bible you got to read, it would give you a good snapshot of what Christianity is all about.
The photo of Steve Smith begging for the forgiveness of the Australian people after the ball-tampering incident makes me cringe. I don’t want to be reminded of it. Our cricket captain betrayed us and had to wear the shame of being a cheat. It has not been easy for Australia to forgive. Cricket is, after all, something of a national religion and the shame rubs off on us too. Steve Smith knew that he had to let his bat redeem him and he did, the other week in the Ashes series. I suspect he has won back most Australian hearts. But we made him earn it. We’re slow to welcome back a sinner. There is not much grace here, and I don’t think Cameron Bancroft or Dave Warner have won our hearts back just yet.
You don’t have to be around church for long to notice that Christians are pretty good at betraying trust too. We sin against one another, we offend, we say something we didn’t mean, worse, we say something hurtful we did mean. Before you know it, we are not talking. We become alienated. The relationship is broken. It is not just a Christian thing, it is a human thing. It dates back to Adam and Eve in the Garden, alienating themselves from God and from each other. Making Reconciliation the great human need.
I suspect we all have someone we don’t sit near in church, or that we avoid at family functions. Maybe it’s even someone we’re married to, sleep next to! but really don’t get on with well. No matter how young or old we are, we seem to find someone to whinge about or criticise.
Reconciliation is about a return to right relationships. The letter to Philemon is a Master Class in it.
Philemon is a letter about a runaway slave. Philemon’s slave. But there is a surprise: The slave turns up on Philemon’s doorstep with this letter! And all eyes are on Philemon to see if he would accept this slave back again, for this will be no easy relationship to reconcile. Let me introduce you to the main characters one by one:
His part in this story is to show us risky repentance. Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, but did a runner for some reason and left town. The name Onesimus actually means ‘Useful’ – but verse11 says he had become ‘useless’ instead! Now, somehow, he wound up meeting Paul, the Apostle Paul, the writer of this letter. Paul is in jail for his faith in another city. Now, maybe Onesimus sought him out? Or maybe he got arrested and met Paul as a fellow prisoner? Who knows? Philemon 10
I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. (NIV)
Onesimus met Paul and became a Christian through him. See verse 12
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. (NIV)
They had become close friends – but Paul knew Onesimus had to fix up his past and return to his owner. And as it turns out Paul knows his owner. He is a Christian, so Onesimus is able to head home with a letter of appeal in his pocket, from Paul himself. But here is the catch. Heading home is super risky for Onesimus.
This was the Roman Empire – and the Romans were obsessed with finding and punishing runaway slaves. Their slave system would collapse if you could get away with escaping. So they would hire professional slave-catchers to hunt down strays to make examples of them. They would whip them, brand them with a hot iron, even kill them. Sometimes a metal collar would be riveted around their neck. This photo of one says: "I have run away. Catch me. If you take me back to my master Zoninus, you'll be rewarded."
Now we hate slavery, so we are in Onesimus’ corner here. We think it a no-brainer that Philemon should accept him back. But not so fast! Imagine Philemon chatting to his mates down at the markets. “You did what?” “You didn’t have him branded?” “You didn’t break his bones?” “The other slaves will hear about Philemon! They will rise up! And you will be to blame! We’ll come after you!!”
It was seriously risky for Onesimus to go back. To make it worse, Paul says, verse 18:
If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. (NIV)
It looks like Onesimus may well have stolen from his master as he left! This is like taking yourself to the Police station and handing yourself in for a crime. You can only expect the full force of the law to come down on you! But Onesimus has not only broken the law, he has wronged someone who is now a fellow Christian. He needs to not only right a wrong, but to mend a relationship. Go back he did.
And if you and I have been gripped by Christ and His gospel. We too should take the risk and right our wrongs, mend our relationships and go back and say ‘I’m sorry’ I remember learning to do this when I was about 19. This may sound like a small incident but it was so hard to swallow my pride and put it right. One of my best teachers in primary school had been Mrs Garrett and she made a big difference in my life. She lived near the school as did her elderly father. A couple of years after I’d left primary school she contacted me and a mate and asked if we could do some paid gardening for her father. We agreed and went to see him. He showed us what needed doing and he paid us in advance, but it was a stinking hot day so he said we should come back another time and do the work. We never went back. Not quite runaway slaves, but just as guilty. Years went by and I was growing as a Christian, and God convicted me of this sin. He wouldn’t leave my conscience alone. I had to right the wrong and I had to restore the relationship with Mrs Garrett. I figured she would still live in the same house so I knocked on the door and I was really nervous. She recognized me straight away and I asked after her father, but he had died. So I gave her back the money he had given my mate and I, and some extra for interest. I apologized and admitted to betraying her trust. In the end it went well, but knocking on that door took years and years to do.
Is there some risky repentance you need to do? Someone at home? Someone at church? Where? Who? And when will you act?
Philemon our second character. He models scandalous reconciliation.
Now, we’re probably already biased against Philemon because he was a slave-owner, right? He has a slave! Can he seriously be a Christian? We’re Australians and we back the little guy, the underdog, so we’re more sympathetic to runaway Onesimus here!
So let me say a couple of quick things about slavery to help us really understand this little letter. Paul and the other New Testament authors were more interested in other things than abolishing slavery. Firstly, they want the gospel of Jesus to go out, that’s the big priority! Changing hearts is more powerful than changing laws. They could go to prison for overthrowing slavery or for preaching Jesus, the one who breaks slavery to sin and hell. For them it was a no-brainer! The New Testament does subtly undermines it anyway, subvert slavery.
For example God teaches the equality of all people: We just saw that in Colossians 3:11
Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (NIV)
We’re brothers and sisters now. And 1Cor 7:21 says to gain your freedom if you can:
Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. (NIV)
The ingredients to undo slavery are found in the Bible and in time it was Christians who overthrew slavery in various countries. Slave trading is a sin. 1Timothy 1:10 says that. Christian masters are to treat slaves well – we saw that in Colossians the other week. Many slaves did ok. They were cooks and farm managers, teachers and even doctors. They were given a home and food for their family. There were terrible situations, but it was not all bad.
When the early Christians read Philemon, they would see the scandal even if we don’t. Welcoming back a runaway slave without nasty punishments was just not done. This was a big ask. But ask Paul did, hence this letter.
So who is Philemon? In verse 1 he is on Paul’s team. He is his dear friend, and a fellow worker in the gospel. In verse 19 we find out that he also became a Christian through Paul! In verse 2 he hosted a church in his home. Church was at his house! There was no such thing as church buildings back then. Buildings are handy things, but we could live without them.
Verses 5-7 he is a pretty solid Christian, someone who refreshes the hearts of the Lord’s people. He is like a cool drink on a hot day. He not only hosts the church gathering, he probably feeds and encourages them. He is a key dude at church. Like your Growth Group leader or similar!
But in verse 6 Paul prays Philemon would be even more effective. And in verse 17 Paul explains how. He gets to the point and says what he wants from him, “welcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me.” He calls him to scandalous reconciliation; to accept him back, “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” in Christ.
So the big question is… DID HE?
Well, would we have this letter in our Bible if he didn’t? I don’t think so! If Philemon said ‘stuff you Paul, no way!’ and had Onesimus beaten and branded I think the letter would have landed in the fireplace. I reckon he did it!
The guys down the market saying: “That idiot Philemon, not only took back his slave without punishment, but my wife Lucinia told me she saw him standing next to the slave in their Christian cult meeting, singing their hearts out together to their weird God! Madness! Why would he do that?”
I wonder who God will call YOU to accept back?
I’ve seen all of these examples happen.
I don’t think we always do a great job of resolving conflict in churches. My observation is that people get offended, leave and refuse to talk to anybody. I remember a lady chatting to me briefly at the door about a concern she had, it was a quick conversation, one of so many that Sunday. Then before I knew it, I got a flame-mail (a heated email) from her husband. They were fed up with being ignored. I tried to meet with them and others did too, but they refused to talk to anyone, and moved church. Then they had problems there too. I kept bumping into them, and to be honest, I really struggled to welcome them. There was this great big elephant in the room that was stopping us relating properly. We both could have done things better.
If you see trouble brewing with someone, take the initiative. Act quickly. Stay non-defensive. Find a way to hear out their concerns before things get out of hand. By the way, you are not called to welcome in someone who is harmful or abusive, without very clear boundaries in place. Criminal matters need Police help, not a naïve version of forgiveness that lets them back in to continue to offend. That would be unloving.
Praise God I have seen scandalous and beautiful reconciliations happen in church. No other organisation has so many really, really different people under one roof! Young and old. Rich and poor. Eastern and Western cultures. That we do so well is proof of the Holy Spirit we all share!
When it all goes wrong you know what to pray for: Refreshing, loving, scandalous, supernatural reconciliation like Philemon’s.
Paul is the final character. He models Gospel shaped leadership.
Firstly, he approaches Philemon with such gentle persuasion. He was an Apostle, he could have simply pulled rank and ordered Philemon to accept Onesimus back. He doesn’t bark orders, he seeks to win a heart. He appeals on the basis of love not rank, look at verses 8-10
Therefore, 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. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus (NIV)
Paul prays, he encourages, he says how useful Onesimus is to him (he was helping him somehow in jail) and will be to Philemon. We know Paul can be direct but this is delicate. He uses every bit of care and love he can. It is not ‘obey me, or else!’. This is what the gospel does to leadership.
The other week I did the exact opposite. A couple of welcome team members dropped a message to the group chat that they couldn’t make it at the last minute. I was worried that this put the team leader in a hard spot, with no time to get replacements. It could have been solved by encouraging that leader to have a gentle chat with the group members, reminding them of the vision for why they serve to honour the Lord etc. But no, instead I decided to play my pastor card. I pulled rank, I butted into the chat and left a message that we need to arrange swaps ourselves and not leave it to the team leader to fix. It was way too harsh and it undermined the leader who is doing a great job. So then I had to find the team members and apologise to them. That was not gospel persuasion like Paul does here. It was lazy leadership. Using people instead of winning them.
Paul models gospel-shaped persuasion, but even more impressive is Paul’s mediation here. He uses his position of trust with both men to help them reconcile. He acts as a go between. “Look Philemon, you are both brothers now, so treat him like you’d treat me. Oh and by the way, if he owes you money charge it to me; take this as an IOU. You’ve got my credit card number, I’m good for it.”
He mediates as his own personal cost. Sound familiar? It is as if he has one arm around the slave and the other around the Master, he stretches out his arms to bring them together as the man in the middle. Like our Lord Jesus, one arm around the sinner and the other around His Father. He stretches out his arms (on the cross) to bring us together, the man in the middle, just as 2 Corinthians 5:19 says.
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. (NIV)
Philemon is a picture of gospel reconciliation. Of Jesus standing as guarantor for our debt to God. He pays every bit of it, turning aside God’s anger toward us, enabling reconciliation and relationship with our Master in heaven.
And being reconciled to God, we can be reconciled to each other, once slaves now dear brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Have you been humiliated, wronged? Got so angry? Waking in the night rehearsing what you’d like to say to that person if you had the chance? Perhaps you’ve moved church or moved congregations to avoid someone? God would have me ask you today, will you forgive them from the heart? Will you do what you can, from your side at least, to reconcile? Or have you just let the passage of time make you think it is dealt with? Yet, in your heart you know the wound is still festering.
You are called to welcome a repentant sinner back with the same level of welcome Jesus has shown you. Impossible! Yet, not with God!
I went to a wedding once and the younger brother of the groom gave a speech. It was funny, at first, but then the humour went way too far. He had a go at the bride’s looks, he had a go at his brother’s life choices. The room fell silent until the mother called out from her seat ‘that is enough, sit down, stop’ He didn’t stop. That day the bride and groom expected to be the best of their lives, and they were humiliated. With festering wounds in the heart of their family. The kind of wound that sees one side of the family not talking to the other for decades, but they were Christians. A year later the younger brother needed a place to live and the newly married couple invited him to move in. Their brotherhood in Christ enabled the impossible. Refreshing, loving, scandalous, supernatural reconciliation.