This sermon is part of the sermon series "Introduction to Philemon". See series.
Victor Hugo's novel, Les Miserables, is a story about Jean Valjean, who was sentenced to a nineteen-year prison term for stealing a loaf of bread. During his imprisonment, Valjean hardened into a tough convict. No one could beat him in a fight. No one could break his will. Valjean finally earned his release but found he had nowhere to go. He wandered through the village seeking shelter until a generous bishop had mercy on him. That night, while the bishop and his sister fell asleep, Valjean rose from his bed, rummaged through the house, and crept off into the darkness with the family silver. Three policemen knocked on the bishop's door the next morning, with Valjean in hand. They had caught him with the stolen silver and were ready to send him back to prison for life. But the bishop responded in a way no one expected: "So here you are!" he said to Valjean. "I'm delighted to see you! Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They're silver like the rest, and worth a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?" Valjean was startled and stared at the old man with an expression no words could convey. Valjean was no thief, the bishop told the policemen: "This silver was my gift to him." When the policemen left, the bishop gave the candlesticks to his guest, who was now speechless and trembling. "Do not forget, do not ever forget," said the bishop. "You have promised to use the money to make yourself an honest man." The power of the bishop's act, which defied every human instinct for revenge, changed Valjean's life forever. A naked encounter with forgiveness melted the granite defenses of his soul. He kept the candlesticks as a precious memento of grace and dedicated himself from then on to helping others in need.
This story from Victor Hugo's novel illustrates the process Paul believes Philemon will follow in regards to his runaway slave, Onesimus. Paul has been mediating a rift between these two believers. Like his Lord, Paul placed a high premium on face-to-face reconciliation, so he sends Onesimus back to Philemon for resolution. Onesimus had wronged Philemon in his own home, but he is now willing to return and make amends at whatever cost to himself. Paul is confident that, in the same way the bishop treated Jean Valjean, Philemon will care for the slave's spiritual needs.
Accept the person.
Paul writes in verse 17, "If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me." This verse is the letter's climax. We can imagine Onesimus arriving at Philemon's door hoping he will be greeted with the same hospitality that Paul himself would expect. In all fairness to Philemon, even the most forgiving of Christian masters would find it difficult not to be a little angry upon finding a runaway slave at his doorstep. The word that Paul uses for "accept," however, requires that Philemon go beyond a mere welcome. The word literally means "to take to one's self." This has a slightly different ring to it. Welcoming someone can often be a matter of duty or protocol; accepting them is a gift from the heart. If someone gives a painting to a friend, he is asking that friend to give it a place in his own home. Paul is asking that Philemon restore Onesimus to fellowship by giving him access to his very heart, without prejudice.
How difficult it is for us to accept those who aren't cut from the same cloth as ourselves. How clearly the lines of discrimination are woven into the very fabric of our lives. Every society is characterized in part by those who are acceptable and those who are not—those who don't get chosen at recess, whose invitations to dance get turned down, who get cold-shouldered or voted off the island. We exclude others out of pride or fear or a desire to feel superior. I was struck by this sense of exclusion on a return flight to the United States from Peru. The first class passengers were served gourmet food on china and crystal. Those in the coach ate snacks served in paper bags with plastic wrappers. First class had room to stretch and sleep. Those in the coach sat with their knees hitting the seats in front of them. Once the plane got under way, a curtain was drawn to separate the two compartments. Like the Berlin Wall or the veil that separated the Court of the Gentiles from the Holy of Hollies, the curtain was a reminder that some are privileged and some are not—and those who aren't should probably stay in their place.
In the act of exclusion, we divide the world into "us" and "them," "master" and "slave," the "righteous" or "unrighteous." But Christ came as the great wall remover. His death broke down the temple barriers, dismantling the walls of hostility that had separated categories of people since the beginning of time. Any study of Jesus' life must convince us that whatever barriers we need to overcome to treat people with equality will never compare to what he overcame when he descended to join us on earth. When Jesus loved a guilt ridden person, he saw a child who had strayed. He understood that so much of our suffering results from us being fallen people. He could have said, "They made their bed, let them lie in it," but he didn't. Instead he chose to see through the surface of dirt and grime to the divine original which is hidden in every man.
As Paul wrote to the Romans, we are to "accept one another just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God." We are to accept whom God accepts and see them through his eyes. God receives those who were formerly scarred by sin and unites them to himself through the grace of the gospel. From the mulch pile come beautiful flowers. Through grace a derelict slave can become a herald for the kingdom. A shyster like Zacchaeus can be redeemed as a son of Abraham. A terrorist named Saul can become a chosen instrument to the Gentiles. A privileged slave owner can learn that Christian charity extends to all persons, including slaves. So for Philemon to accept Onesimus is to extend the same grace he himself has received. This doesn't mean that Philemon must overlook the wrong done to him. God never calls us to blind tolerance. The wrong must be dealt with—through forgiveness.
Forgive the wrong.
In verses 18-20 Paul writes, "But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand; I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). Yes, brother let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ." Paul uses rhetorical strategy to remind Philemon the depths from which he had come: "not to mention that you owe me your own self as well …" Paul mentions the very thing he says he won't. Most likely you're familiar with this ploy when someone is trying to obligate you through guilt manipulation. My mom used to say, "Now, Steven, I don't want to remind you how much we've done for you and your brother," and then she would list all the ways. I don't believe Paul is trying to be manipulative. That would be inconsistent with the character of this letter. Rather, Paul is reminding Philemon of the basis of their relationship. He's basically saying, "Hey, Philemon! Don't forget where you came from." Like Onesimus, Philemon was also brought to faith through Paul's ministry. Paul suddenly and skillfully converts Philemon from a creditor, whose debt will be repaid in full, to a debtor, who cannot possibly repay the price of his life.
When it comes to forgiveness, we probably agree that it's a beautiful idea—until we have to practice it. In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus links our own need for forgiveness with our willingness to forgive others. This doesn't mean that God's forgiveness is dependent on our having forgiven others first, but we should never expect to receive what we are unwilling to give. Forgiving those who have wounded us is not as easy as flipping a light switch—it's tough! Henri Nouwen describes the process at work:
Forgiveness from the heart is difficult," he writes. I have often said, "I forgive you," but even as I said the words, my heart remained angry and resentful. I still wanted to hear the story that tells me I was right after all; I still wanted to hear apologies and excuses; I still wanted the satisfaction of receiving some praise in return—if only the praise for being so forgiving! But God's forgiveness is unconditional; it comes from a heart that doesn't demand anything for itself, a heart that is completely empty of self-seeking. It is this divine forgiveness that I have to practice in my daily life. It calls me to keep stepping over all my arguments that say forgiveness is unwise, unhealthy, and impractical. It challenges me to step over my needs for gratitude and compliments. Finally it demands that I step over that wounded part of my heart that feels hurt and wronged, that wants to stay in control and put a few conditions between me and the one whom I am asked to forgive."
We tend to shun forgiveness whenever it appears too costly. For Philemon, accepting Onesimus might cost him his reputation. He would appear weak and soft—a threat to a system that depends on the oils of fear and punishment to run smoothly. Such forgiveness crossed the grain of everything society accepted as normal. But forgiveness is the only way to break the cycle of oppression. By forgiving Onesimus, Philemon would join in God's redemptive work in the lives of sinners.
You may be wondering why Onesimus would need forgiveness for trying to escape the dark oppression of slavery. Wasn't Onesimus the one victimized and not Philemon? We are all—victim and perpetrator—caught in a web of sin. Any oppressive system makes it impossible for someone to be pure hearted and to avoid harming others. Hurt people tend to hurt people. We prefer to regard ourselves as the ones wronged; we fall short of seeing how we may have contributed to the conflict. In the context of Christian theology, however, both Philemon and Onesimus are sinners, and we can assume that because Onesimus returns, he has also forgiven Philemon of any wrongs. Before there can be restoration in the relationship, both must repent and forgive wrongs done by the other.
We must forgive. There is no other way. But if forgiveness is to happen, we must first honestly face the sin and how it has affected us. Then we must choose to release to God the debt that's due. The only way that happens is when we are willing to look to the Cross. Without the Cross there is no forgiveness. When Jesus went to Calvary, he provided the way for us: he was abandoned by his closest friends, denied three times by Peter, scoffed at and spit on, physically tortured to die in utter humiliation. Jesus bore the burden of his sufferings with perfect integrity. He didn't blame or snivel, but in the midst of his pain he did something extraordinary: he granted forgiveness at the moment of humanities deepest cruelty: "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do." In other words, those who crucified Christ were spiritually sick sinners, like us, and like those who injure us. Until we can see how great our own sin is and how much grief it causes God and others, we will never know how much it cost Christ to forgive us. Understanding the cost for our forgiveness gives us the courage and motivation to forgive others. As C. S. Lewis put it, "To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has excused the inexcusable in you."
Will Philemon remember that he, too, is a bankrupt debtor who has been forgiven by God? Will he then accept God's forgiveness of Onesimus and accept his slave back as a brother? These are the choices God lays before us. Recently I read a remarkable story by Corrie Ten Boom. Corrie watched in horror as the Nazi jailers brutalized her sister, Betsie, in the processing center at Ravensbruck. Many years later, after the war had ended, one of these jailers approached her after she had finished delivering a message for a church service in Munich. She writes,
He was the first of our jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there—the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie's pain blanched face. His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; and I was going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile. I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness. And as I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. So I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world's healing hinges, but on His.
Our part is to yield our injuries unto Christ's care. Though Paul never once mentions the word forgiveness in his letter, he encourages Philemon to do the same.
Bestow a blessing.
The last and perhaps most difficult thing Paul asks of Philemon is to bestow a blessing upon Onesimus. This is the grand finalé, a sure sign the work of forgiveness has been done. In verses 21-22 he writes, "Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say. At the same time also prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you." When we've been wounded, most often the cry of our hearts is, Why should I? Why should I give time, energy, or even attention to someone who has offended me? Why should I share my life with someone who has shown no respect for it? I might be willing to forgive, but to give on top of that? Never! Though all of us have probably empathized with that sentiment at one time or another, if we truly desire to restore a relationship with someone, we have to take the initiative. Loving actions communicate in unmistakable terms the reality of our forgiveness and commitment to reconciliation.
Thomas Edison understood this principle well. It took hundreds of hours for he and his staff to manufacture a single incandescent light bulb. One day, after finishing a bulb, he handed it to a young errand boy and asked him to take it upstairs to the testing room. As the boy turned and started up the stairs, he stumbled and fell, and the bulb shattered on the steps. Instead of lecturing the boy, Edison reassured him and then told his staff to start working on another bulb. When it was completed several days later, Edison powerfully demonstrated the reality of his forgiveness. He walked over to the same boy, handed him the bulb, and said, "Please take this up to the testing room." Imagine how that boy must have felt. He knew that he didn't deserve to be trusted with this responsibility again. Yet here it was, being offered as though nothing had ever happened. Nothing could have restored this boy to the team more clearly, more quickly, or more fully. To bless those who have hurt us, deprived us of something, or in other way handicapped us, is the most extraordinary work any of us will ever do.
Although we can only guess at what ultimately happened with Philemon and Onesimus, we hear Paul's confidence that Philemon will free Onesimus in his devotion to God's calling. Since this letter is included in our canon, we can assume that Philemon did just that. Based on historical evidence, many believe that Philemon returned Onesimus to Paul in Rome, where he matured into a great man of God. Fifty years later, when the Christian martyr Ignatius was being transported from Antioch to Rome to be executed, he wrote letters to a number of churches. In writing to Ephesus he praised a certain bishop named Onesimus who had visited him. In the letter he even used the same pun on Onesimus' name that Paul had used. It appears likely that Onesimus, the runaway slave, had ultimately become the great Bishop of Ephesus. This fact may be mere coincidence, but I am convinced of the power of forgiveness to set free and restore lives such as this one.
During World War I, a German soldier ducked into an out-of-the-way fox hole. There he found a wounded enemy. The fallen soldier was soaked with blood and only minutes from his death. Touched by the man's plight, the German soldier offered him water. Through this small kindness a bond was created. The dying man pointed to his shirt pocket, so the German soldier took out a wallet and removed some family pictures. He then held them up so the wounded man could look upon his loved ones one final time. With bullets raging over them and war all around, these two enemies were, for a moment, friends. What happened in that shell hole? Did all war cease to exist? Were all wrongs made right? No. What happened was simply this: two enemies saw each other as humans in need of help. This is forgiveness. Forgiveness begins by rising above the war, looking beyond the uniform, and choosing to see the other, not as a foe or even as a friend, but simply as a fellow soldier longing to make it home safely.
What about you? Is there a wounded soldier in your path that God is calling you to care for? Then go, be reconciled, "forgive one another, just as God in Christ has forgiven you."
Steve Aurell serves as pastor of recovery ministry at Central Peninsula Church in Foster City, California.