For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life
Let us pray:
Hide me behind your cross, Lord Jesus. Articulate the Father’s heart through my voice and let the Holy Spirit breathe new life to us, opening our ears to hear the message of God. Amen
It’s the story of a church leader who was doing all the right things.
It’s the story of his worker who had not.
And it is the story of the pastor asking the church leader to do the right thing again, even though it was harder than ever. Even though the right thing meant giving up his rights. Even though the right thing looked a whole lot like a one-sided deal.
But one thing had changed: the worker had come to Christ. The worker had become, in the pastor’s care, a brother in love. The worker had shifted from the one who stole and cheated and lied to the one who was forgiven by the One who had saved us all.
This letter of Paul’s could have been written in any time and in any place. It has all the elements of a good movie, even: the bad guy with the change of heart and the good guy who has the opportunity to make it right and the one who brings everyone together because of the One who brings everyone together.
The only problem with the story is that we don’t know the ending. In fact, except for a vague statement of ‘wrong’ we don’t even know the beginning. The beauty of this story, which is included by way of a letter from one leader to another, is that we don’t have to know all the details: we can all find ourselves in this story in one place or another at one time or another.
This letter that Paul writes to Philemon is one that has stayed in the canon despite it’s short length, despite it’s incomplete story, and despite it’s very personal nature, because it resonates (or it should resonate) with all Christ followers everywhere: it is the story of forgiveness and redemption that all of us know – we are either the one who must give it or the one who must ask for it or the one encouraging another to live it: but all in all this is the story of Christ’s love writ in real circumstances.
In Philemon and Onesimus’s story, Onesimus is the sinner. He has, at the least, run away and potentially, he has stolen from his master. Philemon is the wronged master. In the Roman empire, people often sold themselves into slavery to pay debts. The slavery was generally temporary; slaves had the opportunity to earn their freedom. Slaves who broke their agreement were despised by most, because they were doubly in error: they had broken their word and they had defaulted on a debt. Because of this, Philemon has rights in the Roman empire, that include the option of condemning Onesimus to death.
Paul tells Philemon that even though he could exercise his rights, Onesimus has not only had a change of heart, he’s become Philemon’s brother in the Kingdom, serving Paul as though he were Philemon himself. And that should mean something.
The Kingdom that we are a part of, God’s Kingdom through Christ, makes us behave differently. We waive rights that we would have insisted on before, we challenge the status quo that insists that each of us is better than the rest of us. We defy logic. We love the ones who have hurt us. We give to those who might take advantage of us. We surrender our rights to the love and favor of the God who runs the Kingdom we live in: we are always only looking for God to say well done at the end of our living instead of living for the accolades of our world. We don’t care what others think – we care only that God has said love your neighbors, pray for your enemies, and live as though the designation of last place is as precious (if not more so) than the designation of winner.
We don’t know what Philemon did when his runaway slave came back to him. But we do know that if Philemon was a true follower of Jesus then the right thing, although it was the harder thing, was what he did.
This week someone told me that Christians too often are the ones who throw stones, who spend their time condemning others and hurting them instead of standing up for those who are finding their way or being dismissed and detained and victimized. My answer to that is that true Christ followers find their place catching the stones that others throw and dropping them in order to love both sides: those who can’t see past their own righteous indignation to throw them and those who can’t run away when they are lobbed. It isn’t comfortable to stand in between. It isn’t easy. It isn’t even fun, but the Jesus who dressed in human flesh even though he is God, says that this is the way of the cross. We don’t get to throw stones, even at those we disagree with. We don’t get to adamantly insist on our rights being acknowledged of fulfilled, even when we are right and the other one is wrong, because Jesus calls us to something more. To a hope in a life where giving of ourselves and giving all we are offers the return of abundant grace that makes our surrender a precious receipt of the beauty of God’s favor. God’s blessing is God’s presence and we forfeit that blessing when we insist on making ourselves the first and foremost in any situation. Loving others is hard work, it requires effort to be kind.
Paul gives this introductory statement about who Philemon is:
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.
Based on this, it seems reasonable to assume that although Onesimus deserved something else, Philemon, in love, welcomed his former slave as a brother in love.
We all might be Philemon. We all have been Onesimus. We all have been in the position of asking for grace where we deserved something else. That is the very definition of the gospel: God gives us grace and mercy when we deserved anything else. God offers us relationship where we once were rebellious. God says please come to me even when we run away. In fact, God started the redemption story by offering ways to get back in relationship and building a plan whereby God himself would come to us, would pursue us, so that we might see the truth of God’s love in the beauty of a babe in a manger, the harshness of a savior on a cross, and the glory of an empty tomb that promises a resurrection that defies the damages we do to each other.
God asks us to love God more than we love ourselves because God loves us and gave himself up for us and because in the place where we live into God’s Kingdom, we can receive the blessing of God in our lives.
How could we possibly imagine saying no to that? I don’t think Philemon did; I hope that each of us refuse to as well.
If you aren’t a Christ follower today or if you aren’t sure if your life of Christ following looks like this, I ask you to remember God’s love for you as we move into our time of response and reflection. It is at the table of Christ, what we call communion, that we find our way home. It is through communion that grace is given and that redemption makes its way from our heads to our hearts. It is my prayer that everyone who hears my voice today will know that Jesus lives and that Jesus loves and that you are welcome, no matter who you are or what you have done.
As we have been doing every week in this series, I will remind you of what it looks like to say that the love of God is found in every page of Scripture. Follow along on your sheets and whenever I point at you say whatever is bolded on your page:
What does it mean to say God loves?
God loved us enough to create us, to form us from the dust.
God loved us enough to let us fail, to let us choose our own way over God’s – to let us chain ourselves to sin and defeat and heartbreak and sorrow and death.
God loved us enough to provide a rescue, a way back: through wanderers, murderers, adulterers, defaulters, promise-breakers, foreigners, strangers, and lovers.
God loved us enough to show us mothers, judges, kings, and prophets who loved and spoke for God and kept reminding us of the promise of redemption
God loved us enough to show us how evil and wrong continually mess things up and how obedience to God fosters holiness and bestows blessing
God loved us enough to send us Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, to preach and live peace, grace, hope, joy, and love.
God loved us enough to see Jesus rejected, to see him die, to see him buried.
God loved us enough to raise Jesus from the dead and send the Holy Spirit to remind us of all we have in him and empower us to live like Jesus.
God loves us enough to want us to live like Jesus – an abundant life infused with all the fruit of the Spirit, redeemed, free, loved.
God loves us enough to still let us choose our own destiny.
God loves us enough to promise the hope of forever, of resurrection from the dead, and final judgement.
God loved us enough, God loves us enough, God will always love us enough.
For God so loved the world…
God loves you.
God wants you to know it. God wants you to live in it.
God wants you to be able to love others because you know you are loved.
God’s love is expressed to us every week, most tangibly, as we gather at this table: The Son who died and yet lives, gave everything so we could know the depth of God’s love.
So, Come. Drink the wine. Eat the bread. Know you ARE loved.
God loves you. Go, love the world with him.