This sermon is part of the sermon series "Introduction to Philemon". See series.
Coco was a pit bull mix, just barely one year old. As a puppy she was dumped on the freeway and rescued by a teenager who handed her off to another friend who eventually gave her to yet another friend who then left her in the hands of an animal shelter. When Clayton and Deanna laid eyes on the homeless dog, it was love at first sight. With three soaring hearts and one wagging tail they brought their newly adopted pet into a loving home at last. It wasn't long, however, before they discovered a secret: Coco had issues. With Clayton and Deanna, Coco was loving and obedient; with other people she was hostile and aggressive. They hired a dog trainer who specialized in aggressive breeds, and over the next few weeks, Coco stopped fighting with other animals. No more random barking. No more racing through the house. No more digging in the yard. For months they trained Coco faithfully and witnessed with delight her gradual transformation. Their story seemed destined for a happy ending—except for one thing: Coco remained hostile towards other people. Clayton and Deanna had to keep her penned in the yard when anyone came over for dinner. On walks they had to keep her on a tight choke collar, muzzled and away from children. In fact, Coco's aggression was so strong, it soon became unlikely that any additional training would help. Despite their best efforts, Clayton and Deanna came to the realization they couldn't keep her. After much prayer and discussion they made a hard decision. They had done all they could to save this dog. Now exhausted, they chose to do the responsible thing, however heartbreaking it was.
This story illustrates a foundational principle, one that underlies Paul's entire appeal to Philemon: As humans we are limited in our capacity to affect change in our relationships. We can say all the right things and model all the right perspectives, but unless God empowers the change, we may as well "try and catch the wind." Somehow we get this idea, very subtly in the beginning, that it's actually possible to do what only God can do. Like a mechanic fixing cars, we start spending immeasurable energy trying to fix people. Counselors call this "codependency," a phrase that often defines the tendency of some to be a "savior" to others. But when saviors fail in their attempts to affect change in others, they tend to feel as if they have betrayed God's purpose for their lives. They may even get a little critical when the outcome doesn't measure up to their expectations.
Only God has the power to change hearts. Our responsibility is to speak the word in truth and to love others with the power of Christ. I'm not suggesting we not help others grow. Surely we provide others with encouragement and support and point them in the right direction, but if the child is to ever learn how to pedal, steer, and balance alone on a bicycle, we must eventually let go of the handlebars. We have to give others the freedom to learn for themselves the obedience Christ requires and trust God's process in them.
Paul understood these tendencies well. In his letter to Philemon, we see how he applies the antidote. Paul is mediating a potentially explosive situation between two brothers in Christ—Onesimus, a runaway slave, and Philemon, Onesimus' master—yet Paul has no interest in lording his authority over them or winning their obedience through compulsion. His only desire is to empower those he loves to develop their own sense of moral responsibility.
Hold rights loosely.
Verses 8-9 read: "Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do that which is proper, yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you." In his appeal to Philemon, Paul is first willing to surrender his authority before the greater demand of love. In other words, he holds his rights loosely. One can give good advice without being authoritative. Some may obey out of respect to the one giving the advice or out of fear of punishment for failing to comply. But Paul would prefer that Christians do what is good because it's the right thing to do for the Lord.
Slaves were viewed as personal possessions, and Philemon would have been expected to take revenge on one who had run away, but what was accepted in that culture was at odds with Christian morality. Paul assumes that Philemon, as a Christian who knows God's love, will show the same love and forgiveness in his grievance against Onesimus. In this way, love becomes the virtue that forms the basis of Paul's appeal. He doesn't use the language of fear and guilt; that would reduce Philemon to the level of a slave himself. As one writer put it: "Slavery is a system of bossing people around. If Paul had bossed Philemon, he might submit and grudgingly free Onesimus, but the principle of domination would still be intact. And slavery would spring up again inside the church, in more ways than one. Instead, Paul subverts the entire system of domination by appealing to Philemon's free decision, to act in a manner consistent with the equality and love between brothers and sisters in Christ."
How do we recognize this system of slavery at work? Whenever people are together for any length of time, a "pecking order" is the first thing that gets established. In a chicken coupe there is no peace until it's clear who is the greatest, who is the least, and who is on every rung in between. You may have noticed this at large family gatherings, staff meetings, or even in your own community groups. When I was doing my counselor training in college, our professor came to class one day and said, "Today we are going to learn about group dynamics." She had everyone set their chairs around in a circle—all of us, that is, except her. Our teacher, the one with all the authority, experience, and expertise, took herself out of the established order and said not a word. We sat there in this dumb silence, squirming in our seats, and looking at each other as if to say, "Okay! Who's going to take the lead? Who's going to be the first to speak?" The one who spoke first was also the one most uncomfortable with silence or the absence of rules and agendas.
We can easily see this tendency in the simplest things as well: where people choose to sit, how they walk in relation to others, how people may or may not persist in talking above others. These dynamics are present in every society. We need not do away with all rules or authority; that would be anarchy. But our Christian faith completely redefines leadership and rearranges the lines of authority. Jesus didn't simply reverse the pecking order, as many assume—he abolished it. The authority of which Jesus spoke was not an authority to manipulate or control. It was an authority of function. When Jesus' disciples argue about who will be greatest among them, Jesus responds, "You know, the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you" (Matthew 20:25-28). Jesus rejects the right of any brother or sister in Christ to impose his or her will upon another. In its place he interjects these words for all future generations to hear: "Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve."
The spiritual authority we have in Christ is not found in a position or a title but in love's service. It's found in a towel. Love is not love that coerces but, as Alexander Maclaren writes, " … is the weapon that casts aside the trappings of superiority and is never greater than when it descends, nor more absolute than when it binds authority and appeals with love to love. Such ever is love's way: to rise it stoops." Paul is allowing Philemon the freedom to work out what is demanded by love, which implies the freedom to choose wrongly. He trusts, however, that love is resourceful enough to find the right way in accomplishing good.
Consider the mutual benefit.
The second thing Paul does is consider the mutual benefit for all concerned. He writes:
Since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. And I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that in your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; but without your consent I did not want to do anything, that your goodness should not be as it were by compulsion, but of your own free will" (verses 9-14).
Paul uses 145 out of 335 carefully chosen words before mentioning Onesimus' name. Some of us can't even wait until after our morning coffee before bringing up sensitive issues. But here is another example of Paul's tact in handling conflict. Paul has gone to great lengths to frame his request in the context of love. Notice that Paul points to the status of Onesimus as a new believer before even mentioning his name. Maybe he anticipated Philemon saying, "So that's it! He wants me to take back that ungrateful, thieving, good for nothing slave. How could he?" Paul stops that argument before it even begins by referring to Onesimus as "my child, begotten in my imprisonment." Maybe to Philemon Onesimus seems an unlikely candidate for God's grace. His story then is a reminder that our God knows nothing of hopeless cases. If that were not so, I certainly wouldn't be standing here this morning—neither would you.
Paul eases the tension of the situation with a play on Onesimus' name, which literally means "useful" in the Greek. By saying Onesimus was "formerly useless, but now is useful," Paul contrasts the difference the gospel makes in a life. Though Onesimus had run away from Philemon, he unwittingly ran smack into the Lord. As a result, what he once was, he no longer is. His true identity is now anchored in Christ. Onesimus had also been of practical use to Paul. As an aged prisoner, Paul needed others to take care of his basic needs—to fix his food, run his errands, and keep him company. So useful had he become that Paul refers to Onesimus as his "very heart." In verse 20, Paul makes another play on Onesimus' name: "let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ." Paul is indirectly requesting that Philemon refresh his heart as he has others by accepting Onesimus back as a brother. This phrase reflects Paul's conviction that all of one's actions should be directed to benefit others. Although his personal preference would be to keep Onesimus with him, Paul puts aside his own wishes out of consideration for Philemon's rights and feelings. By sending Onesimus back—his child, his very heart—Paul demonstrates the selfless love he wishes to instill in Philemon.
We should never expect others to do what we are unwilling to do ourselves. Paul waives his own interests out of a sense of responsibility to Philemon. How powerful is that! Our natural instinct is to cling to what we love. We don't like to let go of that which has proven a benefit to us personally. Look at Linus from the Peanuts cartoons: "I can't live without my blanket," he says. Linus' blanket is a symbol of what he's attached to, and in this sense, none of us are without our blankets. Our blankets can be material—our homes, our relationships, our finances, or they can be immaterial—our need to hold tightly our pride, our control, or our affections. The danger is this: where our blankets are, there our hearts may be also. These securities easily become idols if we're not careful.
What are we holding on to, or withholding, in our relationships with others? Maybe it's the hurt and pride that stems from being wronged unjustly. Maybe it's the need to be right or in control that has alienated friends or loved ones. Maybe it's a busy schedule that leaves little room for nurturing relationships. Regardless of the specifics, how is this thing affecting your family, your community, your relationship with the Lord? If it has no eternal benefit, lay it down. Lay it at the foot of the cross where God's grace will always benefit.
There is one more thing to notice here: in returning, Onesimus is also acting from love. He has wronged Philemon in his own home. Granted, Onesimus carries with him a ringing endorsement from Paul in this letter, but there is no guarantee Philemon will honor it. Onesimus must accept with grace whatever Philemon decides, which in that day could include severe punishment or even death. Onesimus is willing to take this risk. Whenever we have unfinished business with others, it effects our relationship with God. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, "If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." Jesus here is stressing the importance of taking immediate action in settling grievances against one another. As soon as we are conscious of a broken relationship, Jesus calls us to mend it. This is done by taking responsibility for our part and offering amends. Our procrastination only serves to clutter our spiritual lives. Carrying the load of an apology owed, a resentment held, or an unexpressed remorse is like living in a messy house. We can pretend the piles of debris aren't there, but the mess remains. Onesimus, as young as he was in the Lord, understands that his faith doesn't provide an escape clause for earthly debts, so he commits, with a repentant heart, to make his wrong a right, whatever it will cost him. In so doing he provides a great model for us.
Do you have amends you need to make? Then go! Make things right with your family, coworker, brother, or sister in Christ. One word of caution: apologies amount to lip service if not accompanied by a heartfelt commitment to change. Making amends is not so much about saying, "I'm sorry," but being sorry enough to change. If we are to be a community that works through conflict God's way, then making prompt amends is essential to family health.
Reflect on God's purposes.
We have seen that in order to effectively navigate conflict, love must be the governing principle. The love that Paul models, first of all, holds its rights loosely. Secondly, it considers selflessly the mutual benefit for all concerned. That benefit is the restoration of broken relationships to grace. In verses 15-16, Paul lifts his eyes to the heavens to reflect on God's purposes. "For perhaps," Paul writes, "he was for this reason parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord." By using the word "perhaps," Paul is being careful not to presume on God's providence. He wants Philemon to see, however, the hand of God by implying that Onesimus' flight may have had divine purpose. Paul is not saying that the wrongs were inspired by God, but that God used it for the good. The basic assumption is that God, who transformed Onesimus, had separated the slave from his master in order to do just that.
Have you ever thought about God's hand in regards to a friend or family member who rejected your fellowship? It's one thing to hear about how God uses someone else's harmful choices for the good. It's quite another when that someone is a loved one. I have a good friend named Danny who lives in Colorado. Danny grew up in church, but to hear him tell it, "couldn't understand why folks were so nice and courteous on Sunday and yet so nasty every other day of the week." As a result, he became disillusioned with the Christian faith. At a young and impressionable age, Danny rejected his family and community to join the hippie ranks along the Big Sur coastline. It was there, in the midst of God's natural creation that the Lord moved in his heart.
This is not a unique story; many of us have had similar experiences. Looking back, it's easy to chuckle at the irony of God's timing. But what do you think Danny's parents were experiencing as they watched their son leave home? Do you think their hearts burned with the desire to bring him back? To warn him against the dangers he was facing? Do you think they were tempted to use their parental influence to protect him from harm? Probably so! But at some point they must have realized their limitations and become willing to place their son into God's hands. They must have also allowed the pain of that rejection to find resolution in God's forgiveness. Danny eventually returned to a church community and is now one of the most sought after worship leaders in the country. Isn't that great! None of us can plum the depths of God's ways, but what we see here is the mysterious providence of God at work. We can't straighten out the lines of our own paths or the paths of others, but God can. He can turn the worst-case scenario for the good; healing hearts and mending relationships along the way.
The story of Onesimus helps us see that even our darkest moments, our deepest despair or most destructive choices can have some meaning in God's sight. Though we can only make out the individual threads, we are all part of his great tapestry. Philemon lost a slave for a while so that he could gain him back forever. It's as if Paul says, "Onesimus will always be yours, but on a different level—not as your possession, but as your brother." It may have never been Paul's intent to make a frontal attack on the institution of slavery, but he does interject the dynamics of Christian love into it. In time this principle would work itself into the very fabric of society—that every man is of worth in himself, as created in the image of God.
What can we apply to our own relational conflicts? First of all, in the same way that Paul surrenders his rights, we need to get pride and inappropriate control out of the way. This doesn't mean we stop speaking truth, or communicating appropriate boundaries, or pointing others towards Christ. It does mean that we allow others the dignity to decide for themselves the obedience Christ demands. This challenges us to rely on the Lord's assurance that he is in control and that he loves his children. Oftentimes we must first get "self" out of the way. Grasping at control can be a way of navigating around the risks involved in trusting. Without trust, the conduit by which grace might otherwise flow is compromised. Let go and let God.
Second, examine your motivation. Take a moral inventory. Is selfishness or humility fueling your responses? In his appeal to Philemon, Paul is modeling his words to the Philippian believers, "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit," he tells them, "but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others." Conflicts arise when there are at least two people promoting competing agendas. This kind of conflict cannot exist when each is concerned about the interests of the other. When we stop looking out for ourselves and start seeking agreement, the issue is no longer "What do I want?" but "How can I help?" Being "right" becomes less important than being united to a single purpose.
Finally, seek God's perspective. The question is not what they need to learn but what I need to learn from God. Perhaps God has placed us in the midst of conflict for a reason—to reveal what needs to be changed in our hearts or to help us learn to rely on his resources. Maybe it's to teach us a deeper lesson in humility, acceptance, or grace. Ultimately all our issues will need to be settled before God, "who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation."
Steve Aurell serves as pastor of recovery ministry at Central Peninsula Church in Foster City, California.