Sermon: Welcoming Onesimus

I invite you to say these words after me: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.

Let’s say that again: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.

[Take off glasses] Naturally, I cannot see very well. Without my glasses on right now, most of you are pretty blurry. My favorite image from John Calvin – well, one of my many favorites – are the “spectacles of Scripture.” Even if our physical eyesight is 20/20, our spiritual vision is far from perfect. In fact, by ourselves, we cannot see God, the world, or ourselves with any clarity. It is as if we have astygmatism of the soul because of our fallen nature. But God has given us Scripture, like a pair of glasses, to help us see clearly again.

One of the things I love about this image is that it speaks to how important Scripture is for our lives. Going without it would be like me going throughout my day without my glasses. But I also love that Calvin is inviting us to look through Scripture at the world. The Bible is not only something we look at – to study, to understand, to obey – but something we look through. The Bible shapes our ability to see everything else including the Bible itself.

This morning, I invite you to try on scripture like a pair of glasses. We are going to look through one passage of the Bible at another. Our lens will be 2 Timothy 3:16 – All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. This will be our guide in how to read another passage, which will be the book of Philemon. If you have your Bibles with you, take a moment to turn there with me. Philemon is a short book toward the end of the New Testament. It is before the book of Hebrews, but after 1-2 Timothy and Titus. The book of Philemon.

Before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me:

Father, you promise that as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, you promise that that the word that goes out from your mouth will not return to you empty, but will accomplish what you desire and achieve the purpose for which you sent it. Lord, we lean into that promise this morning. Open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to receive what you have for us this morning, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

These are the very words of God from the book that we love:

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother

to Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do as you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul – an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus – that I appeal to you for my son, Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly, he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you. I would have like to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced, but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever – no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me, but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back – not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I might have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

And one more thing: prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

Ephaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Teaching

Say it after me: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.

Again: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching (stop)

Teaching. What is God teaching us in Philemon? In other words, what story is God telling through Philemon?

The book of Philemon is a letter from Paul, the apostle, to Philemon, a Christian and a slave owner in the city of Colossae. The letter is Paul’s plea on behalf of Philemon’s slave, Onesimus.

Paul writes very delicately and tactfully, asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus and have mercy on him, maybe even set him free. When we listen to the book of Philemon, a story emerges of God’s redemption of Onesimus.

Even when running away, Onesimus was in the hands of God. Look with me at verses 15-16:

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever – no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me, but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

How we tell a story matters. The facts of what happened are fairly simple. Onesimus was Philemon’s slave. He ran away. He may have stolen something as he fled, but we are not sure. As a runaway slave, a bigger city is a better place to hide. Somehow, he encounters Paul in prison and Paul leads him to Christ. Onesimus then helps to serve Paul while he is in prison, caring for his needs. Paul knows Onesimus’ master – he even led him to Christ – and eventually Paul sends him back, carrying a letter in which Paul asks Philemon to forgive Onesimus and restore him to his home, and to do even more than that, most likely – set him free.

How we tell a story matters. That is what happened, but that is not how Paul tells it.

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever – no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a dear brother.

Instead of saying that Onesimus ran away, Paul says he was separated from Philemon for a little while. Running away was Onesimus’ plan, but Paul reminds us that God had a bigger plan in mind. Even when running away, Onesimus was in the hands of God. This runaway slave deliberately left his household and his master, but God used it to bring Onesimus to Christ. Now, Philemon has him back – no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a dear brother. God had a bigger plan in mind.

Though a slave, Onesimus was a part of Philemon’s household. By leaving him, he was leaving home. He wandered. He hid. He was a runaway at heart. But then God led him to Paul. He ran away and ran into the arms of Paul, who led him to know Jesus. God redeems Onesimus.

God continues to bring people to salvation in ways that would not normally be believed, that are contrary to expectations, along roads that are long and winding.

God continues to take runaways and bring them the long way home.

Maybe that is your story. You wandered far from home, far from God, but later found that God was leading you back to him.

Maybe you know what it is like to run and then somehow find God – or rather be found by God.

Maybe you know Onesimus’ story because it is very similar to your own.

Or maybe you have lost someone – not a slave or employee, but a child, a brother, a sister, a friend – someone in your household who has left and wandered.

God can bring his children the long way home.

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever – no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a dear brother.

God still writes those stories. He still brings the lost home.

What is God teaching us through Philemon? Even when he was running away, Onesimus was in the hands of God. God redeemed Onesimus and brought him home.

Reproof

Say it after me again: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.

Reproof. Where does this passage stop us in our tracks and tell us to turn in a different direction? What sin in our lives is God revealing to us that we need to confess?

The latter to Philemon is a personal letter from one person to another – Paul to Philemon. But the fact that this is in the Bible tells us at least two things. First, the letter speaks to more than just the situation between Philemon and Onesimus. As God’s word, it speaks to all of us. The story of Philemon and Onesimus coming to faith and being reconciled with God and now the call  for them to be reconciled to each other as brothers and show love and mercy is a message for all of us. God still redeems sinners and he still calls us to show love and mercy. But second, Philemon’s place in the Bible tells us that though this letter was personal, it was not private.

The state of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus was not a private matter. It was public. In fact, from what we know of the ancient world, it is likely that this letter was first read publicly in the congregation, probably with Onesimus and Philemon both in the room. The relationship between the two of them was public and important to the church.

Imagine Pastor Olga and I were gone on a sabbatical and we wrote a letter to Vern Tapper to be read before the whole church on Sunday.

Dear Vern,

I hope you and Sue are well. I thank God regularly for all that you do in service to God in the church. As your pastor, I could just tell you to do this, but since I know your heart I’ll ask you to do it out of love. I don’t want you to do this because you are forced, but because you love me.

Could you change out the bad light bulbs in our house? If it costs you anything, charge it to me. Don’t worry, I’ll pay you back – by the way, remember that it is because of you me that you know Jesus the way you do. I’m confident you will do as I ask, in fact, even more than I ask.

Oh, and don’t forget: I plan to come back soon, so make sure the parsonage is ready.

Olga says hi.

Now, it may be silly to think I would write Vern a letter to change the light bulbs, but could you imagine if it was read out loud on Sunday. What kind of options would Vern have in fixing my light bulb situation?

That is what it would have been like for the letter to Philemon. As a public matter, it is the whole community’s responsibility to help them through it, to help them walk in the way of Jesus.

We, however, don’t usually want our struggles or damaged relationships to be public knowledge. We are more likely to be ashamed or say, “That’s really none of your business.” We usually deal with these things privately, far from the eyes of other people. Sometimes especially far from the eyes of the church.

But as your brother in Christ, your marriage matters to me. As your brother in Christ, your relationship with your children matters to me. As your brother in Christ, how your parents divorce hurts you matters to me. As your brother in Christ, your relationship with your boss matters to me. As your brother in Christ, you fighting with your friend matters to me.

As people gathered together by God into one body, our relationships matter. Whether Philemon punished Onesimus, welcomed him, or set him free was a personal decision, but certainly not a private matter.

The challenge we face is that we live in a culture where people are either nosy or disinterested in others. The nosy people feed off of knowing what is going on in other people’s lives without actually caring for people or engaging them. Having the scoop, being in the know, is what matters. But all this does is foster shame and make us want to hide things deeper. Sometimes we can do this as a church. Whenever we respond to vulnerability by shaming people instead of loving them, we say to others that their struggles are not welcome here, that their relationship problems are not welcome here. Disinterest says the same thing.

While Paul’s letter to Philemon called for Philemon to forgive and restore Onesimus, it also called for the church to be the kind of community where their relationship could be healed out in the open.

I chose a safe example in my fake letter to Vern about light bulbs. But the question we must ask is whether our letter to Philemon could be read out loud in church and be responded to with Christian love? If it couldn’t, then we as a church have a sin to confess. What if the letter we read was a marriage on the verge of divorce? What if it was a young man addicted to pornography? Could that live in the light in this community? What if it was someone struggling with depression, an eating disorder, or physical abuse? What about infidelity? What about doubts in our faith? What about confusion in someone’s sexuality?

The problem between Philemon and Onesimus was deeply personal, but Paul made sure it was something embraced by the whole community. Wherever there is sin and brokenness we cannot bring into the light in our community, then we have a sin to confess.

Correction

Let’s say it again: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness

Correction. What promise does God give here that sets our feet on solid ground?

Verse 16: no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.

A dramatic change has been brought about in Onesimus. Before he was a slave, but now he is a child of God and a spiritual brother to Philemon. What changed? Onesimus now knows Christ. Knowing Jesus changes our status with God and with each other. Before Onesimus was a slave. He had little value other than what he could produce. He was property and on the lowest rung society had. But now, he is a child of God, adopted as a son through Jesus Christ. He is now a brother to the very man who is his master.

It is common to say that “blood is thicker than water” – that your relationships with your biological family are more significant and lasting than any other. However, the promise of the gospel, see vividly in the life of Onesimus, is that the waters of baptism are far thicker than blood. Paul’s plea for Philemon’s treatment of Onesimus is grounded in the fact that these two being brothers in Christ trumps and subverts their relationship as master and slave. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a while was that you might have him back forever – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. At his core, Onesimus is no longer a runaway, no longer a slave, no longer useless and worthless, but a child of God and a beloved brother.

Instead of being cheap in the eyes of the world, Onesimus is precious in the eyes of God.

Training In Righteousness

One last time: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.

Training in righteousness.

Note for a moment that every time we do this, God shows up. If you have been with us for a while, this is the fourth New Testament letter we have viewed through the lens of 2 Timothy 3:16. God’s word has never failed to be useful in all the ways he promised. Part of the reason we do this is to grow in our understanding of God’s word, but we also grow in our trust in God’s Word too. All Scripture means all of it.

Training in righteousness.

How is God calling us to respond to his word? Is there an act of obedience we are called to perform?

Paul’s plea to Philemon is that he would forego his rights out of love for his brother. Philemon had every right to punish Onesimus, bring him to court and exact his pound of flesh. Onesimus was still his slave. Paul implies he may still owe Philemon or have wronged him in some way. Philemon has all the rights and all the power, but Paul asks him to set it aside for the sake of love.

Listen to Paul: So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back – not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I might have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

Paul doesn’t appeal to his brain, but to his heart. Do you love your brother? Do you love me? Then lay aside your rights, your anger, your bitterness, your whatever and show the kind of love to Onesimus I know you are capable of.

Paul calls for Philemon to welcome someone who has wronged him, someone who owes him. Paul calls him not only to welcome Onesimus, but to welcome him as if he were Paul himself. He is your brother, after all, just as I am.

Do you love your brother or sister? We are called to set aside our anger, even our righteous anger, for the sake of love. Can you love a brother and still treat them like trash? Can you claim to follow Christ and still treat them like a slave?

Who is God calling you to welcome? Where is he calling you to set aside your rights for the sake of loving like Christ?

Onesimus was changed in his wandering abroad. By God’s gracious providence, he was led to Paul who led him to Christ. Onesimus the slave is now a brother and child in the Lord. But now he must go back to the very place he once fled, with Paul’s spirit-led letter in his hand. Will they welcome him? Will they let this relationship heal out in the open? Will Philemon forgive him or cast him out because of his past sins? Will they embrace as brothers or will he have to bow as a slave?

Will we welcome Onesimus in our midst or not? Will we let the letters to Philemon in our midst bring our relationships into the healing light of Christ or will we force each other to bury our struggles in the darkness? Will we trust the power of the gospel to change broken people into children of God?

May Paul’s words be true of us: Your love has given me great joy and encouragement because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. Amen.

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