Wednesday, May 11, 2011
A Short Letter With A Story Of Grace And Forgiveness ( A Sermon On The Book of Philemon)
A young man ‘borrows’ his sisters car without asking and goes for a joy ride he doesn’t have a licence and comes round a corner too fast looses control, mounts the kerb and kills two young children playing on the footpath. He pins them to a power pole. He runs away and the sister reports her car stolen. After a while the family of the young man comes to the family of the two children both families Christians and seeks for reconciliation and forgiveness.
A young woman living in Rwanda has fifty members of her immediate and extended family murdered in the vicious genocide and racial violence that erupted there in the early ‘90’s. Her father was beaten to death by a mob lead by her closest neighbour who just happened to be from the opposing tribe in this racial conflict. He is imprisoned when justice is reimposed but his father still lives just down the road. How could this have happened in a country where over 90% of the population identify themselves as Christians. The women is devastated yet as she continues to exist she is aware that she needs to do something to heal the emptiness and deep dark wound to her soul. She has to seek reconciliation.
I could go on and I guess for most of us the response would be well praise God I haven’t had to deal with those situations or maybe your sitting there and you have similar stories you could tell. Similar wounds to show. I know that because we are human we have to deal with broken relationships when we wrong or are wronged by other people, even other believers. Hopefully from the story of Philemon and Onesimus we can find some wisdom that will help when it comes to dealing with working out relationships between fellow believers that are broken because of wrong doings both great and small.
Philemon is one of Paul’s pastoral epistles, letters sent to individuals rather than general letters to churches his personal correspondence which gives us some interesting insight into issues that the early church had to deal with and of particular interest individual believers had to work through. Paul’s letter to Philemon deals with trying to sort out a situation where a believer has been greatly wronged by another person who has himself become a believer, a runaway slave called Onesimus. It’s made more complicated and risky because of the legal implications.
Philemon had become a believer when Paul had ministered in Ephesus, he is a leader in the church there along with Apphia his wife, they host a church in their home and Arichippus that people believe is Philemon’s son is involved in leadership in the church of Laodicea. He is mentioned in Colossians 4:17. Paul starts his letter with a prayer of thanksgiving for Philemon that shows us what sort of person he is. Paul has been encouraged to hear of his strong faith evidenced by his love and hospitality to the people of God, he refreshes them. The fact that he is able to host a church in his house shows that he is a person of some means someone who in the ancient Greek world would have had slaves.
From the letter Paul writes we can reconstruct an issue that has arisen for Philemon’s household. A slave called Onesimus ran away from him and possibly stolen from him as well, as Paul offers to repay anything Onesimus had taken in v.19. But as Onesimus had gone to the great city of Rome to try and hide amidst the masses there he had found his way to Paul and he too had become a follower of Jesus Christ. Paul had found him to be very useful and helpful, but maybe over a period of time the whole story had come out and Onisemus’s situation had become known to Paul and it became important that Onesimus deal with his past and seek reconciliation and forgiveness from his owner Philemon.
Being reconciled with God through Jesus Christ inevitable leads to us being reconciled with one another.
Paul had sent him back with this letter written in his own hand along with a trusted friend Tychius to support him and the gracious offer to make restitution for anything that Onesimus had cost Philemon. The letter was also an open letter to the whole church so that what was done could be seen by all as well.
In the Roman empire there was an ever present fear of slave revolts and to combat this and keep good order the emperor expected the heads of households to keep good order to make sure their wives and children were kept in line and their salves as well, It was a reflection of the way the emperor keep order on a wider level. The law required run away slaves to be punished harshly even to be put to death. So this pastoral situation was fraught with real risk and danger. How was Philemon going to react he had every right and real pressure under the law to have Onesimus put down like you would a rabid dog.
Paul writes literally begging for Onesimus’ life. It does come across a bit like his trying to butter Philemon up doesn’t it. Paul says he could order Philemon to forgive Onesimus free him and release him back to him but he won’t do it. Firstly because then Philemon would find himself caught between two imperatives from authorities above him. Secondly because Christian love and grace are not matters that can be settled by any other law except the law of Love, demanding forgiveness and grace doesn’t work it has to be freely given.
It’s interesting that the roman household code had been a topic that Paul had written to the church at Ephesus about. In Ephesians’ 5:22 following Paul had applied the law of love to this code, when he had told his readers to submit one to another, wives and husbands, children and parents and slaves and owners. It turned the code on its head by asking all people to exercise their place in this cultural structure as an expression of love and service to Christ and one another one not of imposed power and position. It’s interesting that down through the ages people have wanted to claim the roman household structure as biblical rather than the law of love, submitting one to another, and apply that to our different cultural understandings of relationships within families and power structures.
His appeal to Philemon is out of the fact that as an old man and a prisoner for the sake of the gospel that he has come to love Onesimus. He appeals on the basis of grace that while Onesimus had wronged Philemon and run away, and just like with Joseph in the Old Testament, God had used this bad situation for good. Onesimus might have been useless to Philemon at one time but now he was so much more, he had become useful to Paul and Philemon, a play on Onesimus name which means useful. In fact he was so much more than just a slave now he was a fellow believer and a brother in Christ. On this basis Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back and from the general tone of the letter to free him and send him back to Paul. The relationship between the two had changed and so how they were to deal with each other changed as well.
What a real challenge of Christian love for Philemon, what dilemma follow the household code and legal obligations of his culture or follow the way of love. Keep law and social order or give kingdom of God grace.
There is a lot for us to ponder in this. You see we have all experienced and known the love of God in our lives and it’s only by the grace of God that we have been reconciled with him. We have been shown grace we need to show grace to others. Easy to say hard to do! Jesus parable of the man who was forgiven much but threw a fellow servant who owed him a little shows that yes it is hard to do but also the basis for showing love and grace to others. That we have been forgiven so much ourselves: God’s undeserved grace.
Secondly, grace is a costly commodity to give. It cost God the life of his son Jesus to make a way for us to be forgiven, it’s a mystery that I don’t think we can fully understand but it sets an amazing precedent. Jesus call on his disciples on us was to love one another as he had loved us. A love freely given, freely offered but costly.
Onesimus also shows us what we need to do when we know we have wronged someone as well. We need to deal with it and to ask for forgiveness. It was risky for Onesimus what if Philemon, a human being, couldn’t show mercy. But for Onesimus and for us our deepening relationship with Jesus our experiencing love and forgiveness from Jesus will lead us to seek to right past wrongs. Kris’s dad used to own a bakery in Tauranga and was amazed one day when a man walked into his store with a large mat that had been stolen from outside his shop two and half years before. The man returned the mat and apologised for stealing it. He said that he had become a Christian recently and wanted to set things right. That’s what it’s about.
Well, we don’t know how the Philemon/Onesimus story ends. There isn’t a sequel an email reply tagged on the end. From a letter written by Ignatius we do know that there was a bishop called Onesimus and scholars have wondered if it was the same person because Ignatius makes the same play on his name that Paul did. Perhaps its right that this story is left unresolved for us because it leaves the challenge to all of us in the situations we find ourselves in when confronted by broken relationships hurts inflicted by fellow believers or hurts we inflict on others. What are we going to do? Hopefully as Paul tells Philemon we will obey not a legal imperative but the way of love and show grace and forgiveness.
If your wondering about the situations in the introduction. I can report on two of them.
A past president of the Methodist church of New Zealand was the grandfather of the two children killed in the hit and run. A few weeks later he appeared on the Holmes show and amazed the nation by the fact that his Tongan family and the Samoan family of the young man had gathered together cried together asked and given forgiveness and it was as if it had never happened. He and his family appeared at court to ask that the young man not be sent to jail because he was forgiven.
The women from Rwanda appeared in a world vision video about reconciliation. She had written to the man who beaten her family member to death saying she forgave him and she was shown on the video preparing a meal to welcome the man’s father.