Sunday, August 28, 2016

Standing in the Gap (Philemon 17-25)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; August 28, 2016
Text: Philemon 17-25; 2 Corinthians 5:17-19

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Call to Worship:Sing to the Lord; Lisa Honeycutt/Milissa Katibah, vocalists (Medema)
Song of Praise: King of Love (Steven Curtis Chapman)
Song of Praise: Before the Throne of God Above (Cook)
Offering of Music: Nancy Lucas, piano
Our Song of Praise: the Doxology
Hymn of Sending: Called as Partners in Christ's Service (BEECHER)
Postlude: Nancy Lucas, piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript.  Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

This is our fourth and last week in Philemon, a short letter found in the New Testament, from the Apostle Paul to his friend and Christian leader, Philemon. In the past three weeks we have looked at several aspects of this letter. The first week we looked at the exemplary character of Philemon, whom Paul praised as a “good Christian” and follower of Christ. I noted that he was a product of his culture, which widely accepted slavery, particularly as a form of paying off debts. Yet I also noted that the Gospel of Jesus Christ had a different view of human worth and dignity than the prevailing view of 1st century Greco-Roman culture. So we talked about “blind spots” caused by culture (then and now) and the way in which the Gospel of Christ can help us to confront, see, and change cultural perspectives we have taken for granted.

The second week we looked at the way Paul chose to communicate with Philemon. He had a true word to say and he had the authority to say it. So he could have ordered or commanded Philemon to do a certain thing. But he chose instead to ‘appeal’ to him, that he might understand and chose the Christ-like response. We talked some about our own communication of truth. It is not enough to be right; truth isn’t helpful if we speak it in a way that keeps people from hearing it! So we looked at 1 Corinthians 13 and the importance of speaking and acting godly truth IN LOVE. That’s what Paul models for us in his communication with Philemon.

Last week we looked more directly at the situation with Onesimus and we heard the contents of Paul’s appeal. He was appealing in the name of Christ for Philemon to receive and welcome Onesimus no longer as a slave, but as a brother. In this we see a specific example and application of Paul’s teaching in Galatians that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free.” Paul appealed to Philemon to see beyond the cultural norm to a Kingdom perspective, and to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ. I asked you where your blind spots might be, noting the difficulty of seeing them without the aid of another, like those in the body of Christ or scripture itself. We talked about our cultural view of race, politics, and money as three likely areas where most of us have significant blind spots.

This week we wrap up the letter and find a few additional details to the main appeal from last week. These fall into two main areas: a further word on dignity and a living example of reconciliation by Paul.

A Further Word on Dignity (v. 17)

So we talked the last few weeks about dignity – that the Gospel of Jesus Christ removes the distinctions and disadvantages imposed by culture on race, gender, and economic status (slave/free). Said more strongly, the Gospel RESTORES God’s creation intent. God created humanity male and female, together in the image of God. When I say there is no distinction, it is not that the Gospel says there is no such thing as gender, but that the cultural advantages and disadvantages assigned to men and women are not part of God’s design. Both male and female are in the image of God and that affords men and women dignity that is often denied or overlooked in our culture.

So it is or SHOULD BE with race; so it is or SHOULD BE with economic status, which is how I’m translating 1st century slavery for us today. The Gospel of Jesus Christ removes cultural distinctions and restores God’s intent: that there is as much inherent dignity in a person of color as in a white person, that there is as much inherent dignity in someone who is in debt or impoverished as in someone who is financially well-off. And that’s our Philemonic blind spot today… of course it is the polite thing to say that everyone is equal and we are color-blind, but it doesn’t take much looking to find out that reality is otherwise. And here’s an important distinction: just as the Gospel doesn’t erase male and female, but lifts them up boldly to say male AND female, God made them in his image; so also the Gospel doesn’t call us to be color-blind or economic-blind, but to see clearly the wide, beautiful range of hue and pigment, of language and heritage, of prosperity and struggle and say, God made us and claims us and loves us and calls us. That’s godly dignity!

Paul has already made the appeal to Philemon to receive Onesimus as brother, not slave. But he goes a step further as if to make sure Philemon really understands. He doesn’t just want forgiveness, but a new relationship entirely. He writes, “If you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.” Onesimus has been ministering to Paul as he waits in prison. Onesimus not only has DIGNITY, he has a God-given CALLING and PURPOSE. Again, God made him and claims him and loves him and calls him. And Paul wants Philemon to see that! What started as seeing past a cultural blind spot is (potentially) opening up into a whole new outlook. Don’t just welcome him as a brother; welcome him as a partner in ministry!

A Model of Reconciliation (v. 18)

And then Paul does something remarkable (and interesting). He recognizes that there is a debt still to be paid. He could have just asked (or commanded) Philemon to forgive it, but instead he offers to pay the debt himself. Why would he do that, especially when it is not necessary? I think it was for two reasons. One is so that no legal case could be brought against Onesimus by anyone (not that Philemon would). Paul wanted him to be free and clear in the earthly sense as well as in the spiritual sense.

But a second, more significant reason is that I think Paul was offering Philemon and Onesimus (and us because we are reading) a living example of what Christ has done for us. Our second scripture reading today, from 2 Corinthians 5, not only describes WHO we are in Christ – a new creature – but also HOW Christ accomplished that. At least it explains it to the extent that human language and imagery can do so. Verse 18 says: “[God] reconciled us to Himself through Christ.” And in v. 19: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them…”  But God did not just wave off the debt or the trespasses. Christ PAID the debt on our behalf on the cross. Because of what Jesus did, we are reconciled to God. And that is both a literal ‘reconciliation’ or paying of debts and it is a spiritual/relational ‘reconciliation’ which restores right standing between two people.

Paul is doing something similar, I think, to illustrate and remind Philemon, Onesimus, and us of what Christ did. So Paul offers to pay any outstanding debt, to literally reconcile the account between the two men. But in doing so he is also restoring right standing between the two men, as equals and as brothers in Christ. Paul is, himself, engaging in a ministry of reconciliation, just as he tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 is God’s intent for us: “[God] reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliationand He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.”

So, as challenging and stretching as these scriptures are to us in terms of becoming aware of our “blind spots” and taking a good, hard Kingdom look at them in the light of the Gospel of Christ and God’s Word, God want even more. He wants us to not just see where culture has blinded us, but to take the word of the Kingdom into culture. In the case of race, not only are we challenged to see where culture has blinded and misled us, but we are to do something about it and take up the ministry of reconciliation… with God’s help!

Closing Remarks (vv. 19-25)

Paul has a few final remarks. He reaffirms his confidence in Philemon to do the right thing in obedience to the Lord. Paul even says, “I know you will do even more than what I say.” (v. 21) He also greets other fellow-workers and sends word from others, like him, who are imprisoned.

And then there’s one of my favorite asides because a good college friend used to say this to me all the time. After Paul says, “I will repay any debt… look you can even see it’s my own handwriting” he adds “not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self.” My friend used to quote that if we’d be out at Waffle House and he forgot any money. I’d offer to pay and he’d respond, “What is that when you owe me your very life?” I’d think, “Well, it’s another $3.50 out of my pocket” but I instinctively understood this strange saying… we were close friends and brothers in Christ. On one level I cared about the money; I didn’t have a ton of it as a college student. On the other hand, I’d literally give my life for him; what was another bacon and egg biscuit in light of that? Little did I know that line came from Philemon. I discovered it years later. Paul is reminding Philemon of the perspective of the Gospel. Yes, his neighbor or even the voice in his head might say, “Wait, you aren’t getting what you were owed from Onesimus.” But Paul is reminding him of just how much more he owed God that was forgiven and paid by Christ, just how much he owed Paul for leading him to the Lord.

It is so easy for culture to whisper and get our attention back off of God’s Kingdom and the values of God’s Kingdom… to whisper how much we need the money or how the races have reason to distrust one another or whatever else lies in our blind spot. But the Gospel re-centers us; Christ DIED to reconcile us to God and make us new creations all over again, to restore our dignity and purpose and calling. That calling is to extend the grace God has shown us to those we encounter, to have a ministry of reconciliation in this world. May God help us see and hear and trust and follow. Amen.



Sunday, August 21, 2016

No Longer as a Slave (Philemon 10-16, Galatians 3.24-29)



Sermon by: Robert Austell; August 21, 2016
Text: Philemon 10-16; Galatians 3:24-29

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Call to Worship: jazz piano, Rick Bean
Song of Praise: That's Why We Praise Him (Tommy Walker)
Song of Praise: No Longer Slaves (Helser)
Our Song of Praise: the Doxology
Hymn of Sending: In Christ There is No East or West (ST. PETER)
Postlude: organ, Royallen Wiley

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript.  Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

We are continuing today in the short letter to Philemon, found near the end of the New Testament. It is a personal letter from the Apostle Paul to the head of an early Christian house church, a man named Philemon. The situation, which we really hear about in today’s text, is that Paul has met a man named Onesimus who is a bondservant or slave who has fled his debt to Philemon. We’ve talked in previous weeks about the culture that accepted that kind of slavery as debt-payment, but also about how Christianity intersected and cut against that culture. Yet Christians, even “good Christians” like Philemon still had blind spots and Paul was writing to his friend to help him see with Gospel lenses more clearly. Last week we talked about effective communication, seeing how Paul wrote Philemon, not ordering him what do to (though he had the authority and the truth to do so), but appealing to him to receive Onesimus back as a brother in Christ. Today we get to the actual details of the situation and see the very heart of the Gospel, the “Good News.”

Useful (vv. 10-13)

When we think about Onesimus being a slave, verse 11 comes across especially harsh. It’s bad enough to refer to someone as ‘useless’ in any context, but the context of slavery adds to that word the even worse connotation that Onesimus was just viewed as property or a thing (and not a valued one at that). That Paul would now declare him ‘useful’ doesn’t help; it sounds like Paul has just fixed his attitude so that he’ll now be a “good slave.” But that’s not what is going on at all – another reminder that scripture always needs to be read in context.

Remember that Paul is pressing in towards the gospel truth here, not just wanting to order it from Philemon, but wanting him to understand and believe and be changed by it. Paul is not talking about the inherent worth or dignity of Onesimus here (he will in a moment and elevate that dignity as high as it goes!); he is talking about how Philemon views him. Onesimus as “useless to you.” In other words, Paul is saying, “You didn’t view or value him as a person to respect, much less see him as a brother or potential brother in Christ… but listen – he IS!” This is Paul pressing in on the blind spot created by culture that said slavery and the “less than” perspective that came with it was acceptable, even for a good Christian. Paul is saying that the Gospel of Jesus Christ requires more!

Paul uses vivid language to describe Onesimus: he is “my very heart” (v. 12) and he is ministering to Paul while he is in jail… not serving Paul as a slave, but serving Christ and ministering to Paul.

Finally, there is some intentional use of words here. Paul did not just pull ‘useless’ and ‘useful’ out of the air. The name, Onesimus, means ‘useful.’ Paul is playing on that to say, “Philemon, you did not see the true worth of this man; I have and am sending him to you and asking you to see in a new way, with the eyes of Christ, that this man is not just ‘useful’ to you, but useful to Christ and therefore a brother to you and me.”

For the Right Reasons (vv. 14-15)

Paul mentions two details that are worth noting. One is repeating his reason for writing: he is not ordering Philemon to do the right thing (‘compulsion’), but appealing to him that he might see the gospel opportunity and respond “of his own free will.” (v. 14) Paul is after a change of heart because that’s what Christ does to people – it changes their hearts. Onesimus is not the only one here who is a “new creation in Christ”; Philemon, though a believer, has an opportunity to grow – to see what was in his blind spot – and to be made new again.

Paul goes a step further with the second detail. He says, echoing a similar situation wording from Genesis, that perhaps God was using this very situation for this reason – that both men would grow closer to God and to one another. In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery – an evil and malicious act, to be sure. But God had turned good out of that evil, leading Joseph to a place where later he would even save his brothers’ lives. The powerful statement in Genesis is, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)

That can lead into a philosophical question of whether God causes evil, but scripture asserts God is not the author of evil. What God can and does do, though, is act around, under, and beyond limited and sinful human intents and actions to redeem them for good and for His glory. Next week we will see Paul echoing that redeeming gesture when he offers to pay off the debt Onesimus owes to settle his earthly obligations.

No Longer as a Slave (v. 16)

Finally, in verse 16, Paul gets to the heart of the Gospel message: as a believer in Jesus Christ, Onesimus is more than a slave – the creation of a fallen culture apart from God. He is a creation of God, a “beloved brother,” in the flesh and in the Lord, that is, in human and spiritual terms. That’s what Paul wants Philemon to “see” – what has been in his blind spot. And he doesn’t just want him to see, he wants him to understand and change and grow.

And all that leads to this question for us as we try to apply this letter to our lives:

What has our culture created that may be a distortion or lie, yet is in our blind spot even as we try to be “good Christians?”

Our own view of race?
Our politics?
Our view of money and the pursuit of money?

I think the answer is yes, yes, and yes; and the list goes on. And part of what keeps a thing in our blind spot is the increasing tendency these days to insulate ourselves with like-minded people. The internet is actually wired to move in that direction, noting your preferences and what you click on to feed more of that same thing back to you (as it sells you stuff). So you get ads that agree with you, news that agrees with you, and friends who agree with you; and the blind spot gets bigger.

What can we do? How do you see something you can’t see?

The Apostle Paul invites us to bring a gospel lens to bear on our lives and on culture. What does Jesus and the scripture say about race? What does it say about politics and earthly power? What does it say about money and the pursuit of money?

We have talked a bit in this series about the Gospel and race. Paul writes in Galatians that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ. (Galatians 3:28) And that’s not just a great leveler of race and status and gender; it is a reminder of our identity in Christ. We are actually inheritors of God’s image and blessing. If that’s not a basis for dignity and seeing each other differently, I don’t know what is.

More broadly, I want to make a plug for church and Christian community. While there are some churches that are very homogenous and like-minded, I think one of the great values of Christian community is the real-world opportunity to talk with, work with, and live life with people who think and talk and act differently than you do. We all are trying and need to keep growing in faith and practice, but here we can do what is so hard to do online and in the real world, and that is to intentionally choose each other, in spite of different politics and race and gender, precisely because we have the same Savior who has declared us brothers and sisters – God’s FAMILY together.

So don’t be put off if you realize someone here votes differently, looks different, or talks differently from you.

Press in for the sake of Jesus; you are God’s family!
Hang in there for the sake of Jesus; you are God’s family!
Grow together for the sake of Jesus; you are God’s family!

Next week we’ll see Paul head in that direction, and talk about the work God has for us as intentionally chosen family together. Amen.



Sunday, August 14, 2016

An Appeal for Love's Sake (Philemon 8-9, 1 Cor 13)


Sermon by: Robert Austell; July 24, 2016
Text: Luke 10:25-37; Micah 6:6-8

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Call to Worship: Holy Spirit, men's chorus (Torwalt, arr. Vanderheide)
Song of Praise: Love the Lord (Brewster)
Hymn of Praise: Open My Eyes that I May See (SCOTT)
Offering of Music: Be Thou My Vision (arr. Forrest)
Our Song of Praise: the Doxology
Hymn of Sending: Though I May Speak (GIFT OF LOVE)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript.  Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.


Last week we began a four-week series on the letter to Philemon. Philemon was the leader of a house church and greatly esteemed by the Apostle Paul. Last week we looked at Paul’s words of appreciation and noted that even a “good man” or a “good Christian” can have a blind spot. While there is no evidence that Philemon mistreated his slave, Onesimus, he overlooked his dignity as a human being and the kind of challenge Christian faith brought to bear on his culture.

With different words and actions, Paul is writing to challenge Philemon that, as he would write elsewhere, in Christ there is now no distinction to be made between Jew and Greek, male or female, slave or free. We saw last week that even in his opening words, Paul lifted up a prayer that Philemon would come to know this new kind of fellowship, made effective through knowing God’s will in Christ (v. 6). Today, we will just look at two more verses, but see how Paul approaches this blind spot in order to spur Philemon on to this new vision of society and human worth.

Confidence to Order the Right (v. 8)

So I realize the actual “situation” hasn’t been revealed yet in the letter, but I’ll remind you of enough of a preview to understand the context. Onesimus is a slave to Philemon and has run far away, fleeing his debt and making himself a criminal in the eyes of the law and culture. Philemon is a Christian leader and, by all accounts, a “good man.” Paul is going to urge Onesimus to go back to Philemon and make good the debt. But it’s not just that. Paul has written and taught of a Gospel that holds no distinction of worth between “slave and free.” In addition, Onesimus is a follower of Christ and so also a “brother” to Paul and Philemon. So, Paul is trying to reconnect and restore the two men.

Now, he is sure of this Gospel and what God would want between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul also carries a special authority among the early Christians because he has started almost all of the churches, likely including the one in Philemon’s household. In other words, Paul has the credentials and the rightness to simply tell Philemon what he should do. As he writes, “…I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper…” (v. 8). He’s not just saying, “I could boss you around.” He actually has the authority and the truth on his side. He even drops a bit of those credentials at the end of the sentence: “…since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” (v. 9) But that’s not the route Paul goes; he chooses another way.

I think about being a parent. Often we also have authority and truth on our side. And often the easiest thing to do with our children is to just “order [our kids] to do what is proper.” I think about it being a pastor. There is an authority that comes with this role, acknowledged by you calling me here and then showing up. And more times than not, it is relatively clear what scripture is saying. It would be easy – and many pastors take this approach – to just “order you to do what is proper.” But… Paul chooses another way, and it is one I would commend to you and try to use myself.

Does it Count if Truth isn’t Heard?
(1 Corinthians 13)

As I considered Paul’s approach, I was reminded of 1 Corinthians 13 (which Paul also wrote). We often turn to that chapter at weddings or other occasions to read about the meaning of love. There’s so much there that I think we often miss the great application in the first three verses. “If I speak with the tongues of men and angels… if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge” – that’s truth and authority of the highest order. And even if you do extraordinary works – “give all my possessions to feed the poor… surrender my body” – love is essential.

Why is that? Isn’t it enough to be right? To have truth on your side? It is tempting to think so, but from what I read in scripture and from my own experience, the answer is ‘no.’ This passage says that you can have all the truth, authority, and good deeds in the world, but without love they are nothing. In fact, they can be worse than nothing… they can be a “noisy gong or clanging cymbal.” That’s not nothing; that’s rude and annoying! That can even turn people away from truth!

There is no where you can see this more clearly than in modern discourse, especially online. As one of our members has said more than once, “How many times have you changed your mind about something after seeing a Facebook post?” I’ll go one further; if online posts are typically love-less, don’t even think about looking in the comment section. People are screaming the truth in expletive-laden ALL-CAPS; but is truth being heard? Do we rest easy at night thinking, “Well I said my piece; that’s all I can do. The rest is up to them.”

Does truth count if it isn’t heard? I think Paul would say, ‘no.’ It is on you, especially as a Christ-follower, to speak in such a way that folks can hear the truth and receive God’s mercy. And Paul writes that way is love.

Think again about the relationship of parent and child. I was going to say parent and teen, but really it applies at any age. A parent can ‘order’ behavior. A parent can even enforce behavior. That’s authority and truth (assuming it’s the right behavior). But if you want to really speak to a child’s heart, or another person’s heart, speak in love. Truly have their best at heart and consider how they will best hear and receive what they need to hear and receive. That doesn’t mean excusing behavior or being a wimpy parent. But it does mean putting love at the forefront – and that sometimes takes a lot of work.

It’s harder to do in public discourse, because often you are interacting with strangers (but not always!). But that’s just who Jesus would have you love, not put off with clanging rhetoric. That lesson is at the heart of our GRACE & TRUTH banner… grace is another word for love… they have to hang together.

An Appeal for Love’s Sake (v. 9)

That brings us back to Paul and Philemon. Paul could have ordered Philemon to do what is proper. But he wants more than a certain behavior; he wants a change of heart. And so, he continues, “…yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you.”

That small thing passes so quickly in a letter that’s already short, but it is needed more than ever these days. If we are followers of Christ, are we not committed to loving our neighbors, even our enemies? It is an easy out for our conscience to fling God’s truth out upon the world and even hope for God’s judgment. But through Paul’s teaching and example with Philemon and in his other writings, we can see there is a better way.

Now to play the devil’s advocate, aren’t there sometimes when you can’t beat around the bush and simply need to be directive, shout orders, and get the truth out there? I mean, what if someone was standing on a train track and didn’t see an oncoming train. There is not time to make friends and make a winsome and loving appeal from the heart.

Yes; sometimes the time is short and the need immediate. But even then, you have to consider whether you will be heard. If you need to shout, “Look out!” but begin that with “Hey idiot! Look out!” then you actually put the person at risk. It’s not enough to speak the truth – to warn of the train. That’s at the heart of this: what does it take to be heard? What does it take for a message or action to sink in and really make a difference?

Paul has a challenging truth to speak to Philemon. He’s a good man with a blind spot who has an opportunity to grow deep in faith and in relationship. Paul urgently wants him to HEAR the news of a gospel of dignity, mercy, and grace. So Paul decides not to order him to do what is right, but rather to appeal to him for love’s sake.

I pray that you hear God’s Word to you this morning. Amen.




Sunday, August 7, 2016

A Good Man (Philemon 1-7, Luke 6.39-45)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; July 24, 2016
Text: Luke 10:25-37; Micah 6:6-8

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Call to Worship: Sing to Jesus (Ortega/Nibbe)
Song of Praise: King of Love (Chapman)
Offering of Music: Speak, O Lord (Getty/Townend)
Communion Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Hymn of Sending: They'll Know We are Christians by Our Love (ST. BRENDAN'S; arr. Austell)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript.  Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

For the month of August we will be looking at the short New Testament book of Philemon. Let me offer a short overview of the whole before we walk through it in parts and more slowly.

What has apparently happened is that Onesimus, a bondservant to Philemon, has run away and come to Paul, who is in prison as an old man.  For clarification, a “slave” or bondservant in almost all New Testament contexts has little to do with our American history and image of slavery, but is a debtor who has gone to work in the household in order to pay off a debt.  Once that debt was paid, the bondservant would return to his old life.  By running away from Philemon, Onesimus has also run out on paying his debt, and so has “stolen” from Philemon.

Running out on a debt was a serious matter.  What makes this story so unusual is that Philemon is a Christian and pastor, and Onesimus apparently becomes a Christian while with Paul.  Onesimus hasn’t gone into hiding or disappeared, but has gone to the other Christian and pastor he knows, the Apostle Paul, and is “ministering” to Paul in jail.  He is continuing to serve someone, but not the one to whom he owes the debt. Paul is greatly blessed by Onesimus, but is convicted to send him back to Philemon and not leave the relationship and debt broken between them.  The bulk of the letter to Philemon is Paul’s “appeal” to him about receiving Onesimus back into his household.

A Good Man

Today we are primarily looking at the introduction to Paul’s letter to Philemon. And what cannot go unnoticed is Paul’s high estimation of Philemon’s character and life. Paul lavishes praise on him. After greetings to Philemon as “beloved brother and fellow worker” (v. 1) as well as to others in the household, Paul gives thanks to God for Philemon, because: “I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints.” (v. 5) And there’s more… “I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.” (v. 7)

In fact, the only thing Paul prays that is not praise or thanks for Philemon is in v. 6: “I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake.” We’ll come back to that.

Philemon is what we would call a “good Christian.” He serves as pastor and leader to a house church. He is known to Paul as loving, faithful, and an encouragement to the saints (other Christians).

But even the best and most sincere folks can have blind spots. And I believe Philemon had a blind spot. It would have been the case that all his household would have not only been exposed to Christian teaching, but even present for worship… that goes for the bondservants as well as the family members; households worshiped together.

I said that the practice of paying off a debt as a bondservant in the 1st century was different from slavery in our country. I would expand on that statement in two ways. The fact that this letter is about a debtor-bondservant actually opens up the story more broadly as so many of us experience various forms of debt. But the other point I would make is that some things do stay the same. It is human nature to look down on or look over people, particularly those who may owe money… especially if they owe YOU money. And this point is shared with the African-American experience of slavery. They were looked down upon and looked over… even by those whose peers might have described them as “good Christians.” And even today, it is so easy to look down upon or look over those who are different, or ‘serving’ you as a maid or waiter or trash collector or… you name it. Even “good Christians” have blind spots and fall into this age-old trap.

So that’s what I think Philemon has to teach us. Hearing Paul’s initial description of this Christian man, we might all rightly say, “I’d like to be like that.” But what we come to realize is that Philemon may have had a blind spot for his bondservant, not seeing him as someone with whom to share the Gospel of Christ or to count as a “brother in Christ” even with the debt owed. Yet the same debtor was  someone whom the Apostle Paul truly saw, though at that point he was not only a debtor, but a thief.

Let’s pause and consider Jesus’ words.

A Blind Man

Jesus spoke a parable that we mostly remember for the log and the speck part. But there was so much more. He said, “A blind man cannot guide a blind man, can he? Will they not both fall into a pit?” Is it enough to be a “good Christian?” Jesus says that if we are blind (even in one area), we risk leading others astray. He will lead Philemon to this truth over the course of his letter, challenging him in an area that he previously had missed.

Then there’s the speck and the log part of the parable. Is it possible that Philemon overlooked his bondservant because he was a debtor? He had made some mistake or some sin to get him into debt and needed to get his life together before becoming “one of the faithful?” Paul will gently teach Philemon what Jesus strongly said, “You have something of your own to tend to first!”

And finally, Jesus teaches in the same parable that the fruit we produce – our words, our actions – come out of the tree of our heart. If we seek the good with our heart, it will be reflected in what we say and do. I believe Philemon WAS a good man, earnestly desiring to please the Lord. And it is precisely that which Paul banks on to appeal to him later in the letter, to invite him to see his bondservant with new eyes as a brother in Christ.

We will address the status of the debt and the theft later on, but for today, want to simply make this point: even a “good man” or a “good woman” has blind spots. If we truly desire to grow in faith and grow toward God, we will seek to learn, to see, and to change.

Fellowship

I said earlier that the only thing Paul prays for in these opening verses that is not praise or thanks for Philemon is in v. 6: “I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake.”

This is Philemon’s blind spot. He has been an excellent Christian teacher and leader with his family and those gathered in his church, but he has overlooked the opportunity to have “effective fellowship” with someone like Onesimus, who owed him such a debt that he was working as a bondservant.

Paul will later describe Onesimus as “my very heart.” How quick we might be to see someone up front in a church or Christian gathering as the “good one” and dismiss the worth and dignity of debtors, addicts, sinners, and other ‘misfits.’ Yet scripture teaches that each of them is created in God’s image… good not because of what they have done or haven’t done, but because God’s image is good and full of dignity.

Might it be that we also share in Philemon’s blind spot and need to have our eyes opened by Jesus’ words?  I think for me the answer is ‘yes.’

What we will see in the coming weeks is that Paul is uncharacteristically gentle as he writes to Philemon... and to us. He will not berate or ‘force’ the lesson, but invites Philemon to see things – see a person – with new eyes. It is my hope that God will do something similar with us. For if there is any goodness to be found in us, it is not in our own doing, but in the goodness of God’s Spirit living in us. And if that is the case, I know God will continue the good work he began in us until it is brought to completion.

May God give us ears to hear and hearts to respond in faith. Amen.