This sermon is part of the sermon series "Introduction to Philemon". See series.
A mother entered her daughter's bedroom one afternoon and saw a letter on the bed. With trembling hands, she read:
It is with much regret and sorrow that I'm telling you I've run away with my new boyfriend. I know how upset you'll be but I'm truly happy. So please find it in your heart to be happy for me. I have found real passion with Ahmed. He is so nice, with all his piercings and tattoos; his big motorcycle. But that's not all, mom: I'm pregnant! Can you believe it? Ahmed says we'll be really happy in his trailer in the woods. He wants to have more children and that's always been one of my dreams. I've learned that marijuana doesn't hurt anyone. So we've decided to sell it to help support ourselves and our children. In the meantime, please pray for the medical profession to find a cure for HIV. I pray every night for Ahmed to get better; he deserves it. Don't worry mom, I'm 15 years old now and know how to take care of myself. Someday I'll return so you and Dad can get to know your grandchildren.
PS: Mom, it's not true. I'm over at Sarah's house. I just wanted to show you that there are worse things in life than the report card that's in my desk's drawer.
For most of us this would be a pretty unlikely scenario, but what if it were true? What if your 15-year-old daughter did get pregnant and run off with her boyfriend, and for three or five years you never received even a letter until one morning she unexpectedly showed up at your doorstep. How would you respond? Change the scenario: what if one of your most trusted workers embezzled $20,000 from a business account and fled to the Cayman Islands, only to return a few weeks later with empty pockets and a forlorn look on his face to ask for your forgiveness. Would you be hurt? Absolutely! How would you deal with the betrayal? How are any of us able to look past wrongs done and accept the wrongdoer as Christ accepts us?
Paul's letter to Philemon is a message of forgiveness, second chances, and mercy; a message about equality in Christ and the power of the gospel to transcend social boundaries; a message about grace.
Philemon was one of Paul's converts who lived in Colossae. In 62 A.D., a crime occurred in Philemon's household. This particular crime would likely have remained unresolved and historically unknown, except that the fugitive fled to Rome, where he crossed paths with the apostle Paul. Paul was under house arrest in Rome at the time, awaiting trial before Caesar. Although in chains, he was able to preach the gospel to those who came to him, including this fugitive named Onesimus.
Onesimus was one of sixty million slaves who shouldered the weight of the Roman Empire in those days, and in Rome slavery was particularly brutal. As William Barclay describes:
In Roman law a slave was not a person but a thing; and he had absolutely no legal rights whatsoever. For that reason there could be no such thing as justice where slaves were concerned. A master had absolute power over them. He could punish them with blows of the rod, the lash, or the knot; he could brand them upon the forehead if they were thieves or runaways, or, in the end, if they proved irreclaimable, he could crucify them.
Before Onesimus fled, he had most likely stolen something from his master, Philemon, so not only was he a fugitive but a thief as well—a candidate for branding, or worse, if he were ever caught and returned.
Onesimus' freedom would not have felt very free with fear restricting his every move. In my previous life, before the Lord rescued me from a life of crime, I can remember how that felt. There is nothing as oppressive as running from the wrongs we've done—there are no fox holes deep enough, no amount of drugs strong enough to salve the sense of guilt and fear. Fortunately for Onesimus (and for me), God had a freedom waiting that was beyond anything he could have dreamt possible. Through his contact with Paul, Onesimus was introduced to the Savior. The shackles of fear and shame tumbled to the ground. In Christ, he found forgiveness.
But freedom in Christ doesn't absolve our earthly debts and responsibilities, and Paul knew that although Onesimus' slate had been wiped clean before God, Onesimus needed to make things right with Philemon. With these issues on the table, Paul sat down and wrote this letter for Onesimus himself to hand deliver to Philemon, his former master. I want us to pay attention to how Paul sought to resolve this conflict God's way. There are several lessons we can learn through his example of appealing to family support. As Christians, our healing and growth take place in, and not excluded from, the body of Christ. Paul's introductory remarks first affirm the community in Philemon's household. He begins to till the soil around Philemon's heart by appealing to three qualities that provide a Christ-centered foundation for resolving conflict.
Appeal to family unity
Paul's first appeal is to family unity. He opens his letter with this greeting: "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (vv. 1-3). Paul saw beyond his manacled wrists to a higher authority—One who has allowed him to be where he is. He is Christ's prisoner, not Caesar's, according to God's sovereign will. Paul understands that the hand of God moves every piece on the board and that his current circumstances, no matter how restricting, have divine purpose.
By referring to Philemon as "our beloved brother and fellow worker" Paul points to the underlying foundation of their relationship: mutual love and service for the sake of Christ. As Paul and Timothy had devoted their entire lives to following Christ, so had Philemon, who housed the church in Colossae in his home. Paul empties himself of any rank or status and lifts Philemon's service by uniting it with his own. They are equal brothers and fellow workers for the same Lord. He goes on to include Apphia "our sister," and Archippus "our fellow soldier" in his greeting. Most assume that Apphia was Philemon's wife. As mistress of the household, she would be the one most concerned with domestic duties, so it's only fitting that Paul would include her in any discussion regarding the return of a runway slave. Archippus is probably Apphia's son. Finally, the greeting comes "to the church in your house." This means that the letter is not exclusively for Philemon's eyes; the entire church is included in the appeal.
Why does Paul address the whole church with what seems to be a private affair? One could argue that by doing so, Paul is subtly putting pressure on Philemon to comply with his request. I think Paul is emphasizing how individual decisions ultimately affect the entire believing community. The healthiest way for anyone to make a tough ethical decision is within the context of community support. By addressing a "private" letter to the entire church, Paul is implying that the church has some say in decisions a believer may consider his or hers alone.
Today, we live in a society that values the right to privacy above everything else. "Who are they to tell me what to do or how to behave?" is a response we often hear. Most wouldn't appreciate the church being privy to a personal matter concerning the treatment of an unfaithful worker, or the discipline of a runaway daughter, or the correction of an alcoholic husband. Even within the church, people would view these as invasions of privacy. But Paul approaches things differently. He assumes that Christians live and act within the context of community—that we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality—and that whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. When we are joined in Christ, we are joined to one another.
So we have this beautiful picture of Philemon and Apphia managing their home as to the Lord—to be ruled by him and used for him—with all family ties and tasks considered sacred. Since the house church meets in the same home, Paul naturally expects that Philemon will consider how his decisions will impact the community of faith. Though Philemon has sole legal jurisdiction over his slaves, Paul assumes that the whole church, not just Onesimus' master, should have a voice in whether or not they accept Onesimus back into their home. Granted, Onesimus' crime showed disloyalty; it violated the welfare of his household and likely cost Philemon much sorrow. But Onesimus is also in need of forgiveness, guidance, and community support. In this context, Paul's blessing in verse 3, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ," is not meaningless or unpractical. These words must remind Philemon of what he has already experienced of God's blessings. Paul is calling Philemon to extend the same grace and peace to a slave who has wronged him. By acting graciously, Philemon will know more fully the peace of God that has at its source the sacrificial work and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Appeal to family encouragement
Secondly, Paul appeals to family encouragement. In verses 4-5 he writes, "I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love, and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints." In the confines of his jail cell, Paul must have had plenty of time to pray and give thanks. Solitude has a way of minimizing distractions, allowing those things of real value to float to the surface of our awareness. But Paul did more than pray. He also had his ear toward the believing community which often brought new occasion for his prayers and thanksgiving. Epaphras, who pastored the church in Colossae, was now with Paul in his imprisonment. From him Paul would have heard news concerning Philemon's great hospitality and generosity. Then he met Onesimus, the fugitive slave, from whom Paul would have learned more of Philemon's character and breadth of ministry. At every mention of Philemon's name, Paul would lift his heart in gratitude for a life so affected by the saving influences of grace: "I am so grateful for you. Whenever I think of you I thank my God." What great words of encouragement! Isn't this what we need, to be affirmed in this way?
Words are an incredibly powerful tool. What we say and how we say it can draw us close to the hearts of others or can cause others pain. I thought about the impact of words when I read a story by Hilary Clinton, whose father never affirmed her as a child. When she was in high school, she brought home a report card with an A in every subject. She proudly showed it to her father, hoping for approval or praise. Instead he said, "You must be attending an easy school." Thirty five years later, that thoughtless remark is still etched in Hillary Clinton's mind. Her father may have considered it a casual joke, but he created a point of pain for his daughter that has endured to this day. Words are a mighty instrument with lasting power to enlighten, encourage, and heal; or when used carelessly, they can wound and destroy.
Some folks get a little confused here, because they think it's impossible to express gratitude unless they feel thankful. That's simply not true. Gratitude is more about choice than feeling. We can choose to be grateful even when our emotions are steeped with hurt and resentment. We always have the option to view our lives through thankful eyes. Paul serves as a great model here. Much of our relational conflicts would be minimized if we were more intentional about affirming one another on a daily basis. It's that simple! Paul is not buttering Philemon up with praise before broaching the subject of Onesimus—that would be manipulative. He sincerely offers thanks because he has heard of Philemon's faith and the love he extends to the community, without partiality.
Philemon is a man of great faith in Christ. We can have faith in a lot of things but still remain stuck in our lives. Faith only derives its value from its object. When Christ is the object of faith, lives are transformed from the cliffs of despair, and hearts begin to change from the inside out. Philemon possesses such a faith—one that is anchored in the person of Jesus Christ.
One way Philemon's faith proved itself was through the love he displayed towards others. Paul is talking about a family love, one that brothers and sisters in Christ have towards one another. It was his practical goodness, generosity, and hospitality that warmed Paul in his prison cell. It was a love that had at its source an undivided faith in the Lord Jesus. Only in true faith can love be true. As one writer eloquently puts it:
That which is exhaled from the heart and drawn upwards by the savor of Christ's self-sacrificing love is faith; when it falls to earth again like a gentle rain from heaven, which causes the good seeds of compassion to sprout forth, it is love. So are faith and love wedded, and they cannot ever be divorced. They belong together; consequently a loveless faith is cruel, and a faithless love sentimental.
To emphasize love at the expense of our faith is to allow love to spill over the boundaries of truth. When the borders of truth get washed away, those we care for are not given the benefit of seeing Christ in us. If you have ever opened your home to abuse or neglect of any kind and have allowed it to go unchecked, then you are operating out of a codependent and faithless love, or as some would call "cheap grace." One of the greatest challenges that confronts me in counseling is not with the person who is acting out destructively, but with the spouse or parent who continues to protect the abuser from consequences. True love never compromises its standards. It never rolls over in the face of sin but rather leads us and those we care about closer to the Lord. On the other hand, to emphasize faith at the expense of love produces a cold and hardhearted legalism that, though holding to the same faith, is as empty of genuine Christian life as the former. We simply cannot say we know God's love yet withhold it from others. It's a contradiction. Philemon's love was neither codependent or heartless and serves as a wonderful example of authentic Christian goodness and hospitality in action. Paul takes pleasure in encouraging his brother Philemon as he lives out both faith and love.
Appeal to family service
As Paul reflects on Philemon's character, the Spirit of God leads Paul into intercessory prayer for him: "And 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. For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother." Paul is acknowledging Philemon's track record as a servant—the third quality he emphasizes. He is not praying for success in Philemon's evangelistic or pastoral work, nor is he referring to witnessing to non-believers, although, the way in which we treat one another is a very powerful witness to those outside the church.
But the burden of Paul's prayer here is for Philemon to continue to share the same love and faith with respect to Onesimus who is in need of Philemon's forgiveness and help. He prays that the fellowship—or the sharing and generosity—of Philemon's faith would become effective—or active—as he realizes the knowledge of every good thing which is in him for Christ's sake. In other words, Paul is saying, "Philemon, the moral insight is within you. I have seen your love and faith at work. Now I am praying that you would make it active in this situation."
To be worth anything, love must be demonstrated, not simply possessed. It has to put on "work clothes." Often we know, at least on an intellectual level, what we "ought" to do, but that knowledge is valueless until we step out and take action. Paul has confidence in Philemon's willingness to honor Christ in his actions. Though his decision concerning Onesimus will require an extraordinary exercise of faith, love, and moral insight, he has a well-seasoned track record.
Like an oasis in the desert, Philemon's service refreshes the hearts of the saints, including his slaves. None of us can see how far the blessings of kindness may travel. There is no way to anticipate when the seeds of love will bear fruit in others. When I reflect back on how those who have tithed into my spiritual account have affected me, I realize how those deposits have shaped my heart for the good—how they have changed me for eternity. I also recognize, in all humility, that one of the primary reasons I am in any way capable of caring for others is because it was first done for me. True service massages and helps bring to life those innermost, and perhaps dormant, feelings of kindness, compassion, and empathy; it helps those who are weary recover their senses and collect their strength.
After Jesus lived out servant hood before his disciples through washing their feet, he called them to the way of service: "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you" (John 13:14-15).
In his book A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, William Law urges that every day should be viewed through the eyes of servant hood. By learning to serve one another we
… condescend to all the weaknesses and infirmities of our fellow man, covering their frailties, loving their excellencies, encouraging their virtues, relieving their wants, rejoicing in their prosperity's, showing compassion for their distress, receiving their friendship, overlooking their unkindness, forgiving their malice, being a servant of servants, and condescending to do the lowest offices to the lowest of mankind.
True service builds true community. Quietly and unpretentiously it goes about caring for the needs of others—forever binding, ever healing, always building deeper relationships in Christ.
Appeal to brotherhood
There is one last thing to notice in this passage. Paul ends verse 7 with the word "brother." Here, too, is an example of Paul's tact. As Philemon reads on, he will learn that Onesimus is also "a beloved brother," and that in sending him back, Paul is sending his "very heart." Will Philemon allow that to soak in? Will he allow it to penetrate those areas of his own heart that have been wounded by Onesimus? Paul believes he will. This word "brother" then comes as a fitting climax, showing how deeply Paul loves this man and how he sees them tied to a single strand of brotherhood in Christ.
Is your commitment to Christ reflected in the quality of your relational ties? This is so important! For it's only when the ties that bind us together are stronger than those that would tear us apart that we stand even a remote chance of resolving conflict in a healthy way. God created us to work out our struggles within the framework of community. It's impossible to be spiritually alive while being disconnected from the body and alone. This means there is no longer any room to think in terms of you as an individual totally separate from me. We have been joined together in Christ in order to learn how to work together, so that every individual part benefits from all the others. To the degree that genuine love and mutual respect undergirds our relational foundation, conflicts will be touched and begin to fade away.
Steve Aurell serves as pastor of recovery ministry at Central Peninsula Church in Foster City, California.