Aw shucks. Just doin’ my job. Twern’t nothin’. Loved doin’ it. That’s probably how most pastors would react if told, as Paul told Pastor Philemon, “You, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.” But then Paul’s compliment took a hard turn because Paul asked Pastor Philemon to forgive his runaway slave, Onesimus, who was likely an indentured servant who had run out on his debt. What’s more, Paul wanted Philemon to welcome Onesimus into the Colossian church as a brother in Christ, since he’d become like a trusted son to the Apostle Paul. It was a lot to ask, even of grace.
Paul was asking Pastor Philemon to play out the story of the prodigal son on the platform of his church, with Philemon himself in the role of the father. The script said to throw his arms around the wastrel and to summon everyone to celebrate “this son of mine who was dead and is now alive.” God does that to pastors sometimes. Our stories won’t mirror this one exactly but they’re similar enough for us to nod in recognition.
Read Paul’s letter to Philemon and you’ll root for Onesimus, the reformed runaway. That’s the thing, isn’t it? Grace looks so good, so right and noble, when you’re looking in on a story, but if you’re in the middle of it, grace costs. Someone has to pay for grace. Our Lord Jesus did, of course, but it costs us, too. That goes with taking up his cross ourselves. We, too, play the role of the father.
All Christians are expected to extend grace, but for pastors it is an occupational hazard. I dare say, we get hurt by God’s people more than most, plus we are always being watched. Philemon had to play out his part with the whole church watching. Our own performance, whether public or hidden, requires us to minister to people sometimes who have hurt us deeply, who have falsely accused us or tried to discredit us.
In order to refresh hearts, we must absorb the wound and surrender our grudges to Jesus. We write off their debt. We aren’t noble enough to do that apart from the Spirit’s help. We meet the Lord alone, pouring out our heartache, detailing the cost. We humbly admit to the plank in our own eye. We recognize that, even in this pain, God’s sovereignty is at work. Paul had the audacity to say, “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while …” (Separated?! He absconded!) “… was that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (vv.15-16). For Philemon, that might have been a big step of faith.
Paul asked Pastor Philemon, the refresher of the Lord’s people, to “refresh my heart in Christ” (v.20) by welcoming Onesimus back. Whether or not your congregation knows your struggles, they will benefit from the outcome. Grace gains strength, I think, when the price is high, when it has been poured out like that costly nard Mary poured on Jesus’ feet. Grace quietly pervades a church with its fragrance, changing the atmosphere, delighting the disciples. It makes churches safe.
Imagine Philemon reading his letter aloud to the Colossian Christians. You could’ve heard a pin drop. Then surely Philemon walked over to Onesimus and threw his arms around him. I imagine there wasn’t a dry eye in the house and the Communion meal which followed was a feast no one ever forgot.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit (Philemon 25).
Be ye glad!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He is the author of Feels Like Home: How Rediscovering the Church as Family Changes Everything and Pastoral Graces: Reflections on the Care of Souls (Moody Publishers), as well as being a frequent contributor to Preaching Today and CT Pastors. To learn more about his Pastors' Gatherings visit www.leeeclov.com.