Passage: Philemon 1:1–1:21
†††In the Name of Jesus†††
Pastor Murray Keith
Text: Philemon 1-21
Date: September 4th, 2016; Pentecost 16; series C
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Our epistle lesson for this morning is St. Paul’s letter to Philemon.
In fact, it might be better to describe it more as a postcard than a letter because of how short it is.
But there is a lot going on in this little message from Paul and it is definitely worth looking at.
Something interesting about this letter to Philemon is that it is a personal letter.
Most of the time, the letters in the New Testament are sent to congregations – like if District President Prachar wrote St. Paul’s a letter that would be read publicly on a Sunday.
But this letter is to a person. It is almost like we are reading a private email.
So why would somebody’s private mail make it into the Bible to be read by billions of people over the centuries?
Well this letter provides us with an important lesson and clearly shows us the love and forgiveness that we have in Christ.
The Gospel, the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, not only brings us to faith when we hear it - it also changes us.
Here in St. Paul’s letter to Philemon, we get a glimpse of what that new life in Christ looks like.
So what’s going on in this brief letter?
Well, there was a fellow named Philemon who converted to Christianity through St. Paul’s preaching. He lived in Colossae.
Philemon had a slave named Onesimus.
It is important to keep in mind that slavery in the Roman Empire wasn’t like the “slavery” that comes to our minds today. We think of the type of slavery that happened in the southern United States, for instance.
But in Rome, race wasn’t an issue and anyone could have been a slave – doctors, mine workers, you name it.
It didn’t matter if you were educated or had a high position in society - in fact, if a slave had an education he was simply considered more valuable.
It all came from Rome’s practice of enslaving people they conquered rather than killing them.
Slavery in those days would be more like an employer/employee relationship than the slavery that we are more familiar with today.
Having said that, the Scriptures do not endorse or promote the practice of people holding other human beings as personal property, but we read about instances of it.
So Philemon had a slave named Onesimus.
But things got interesting one day as Onesimus became a runaway slave!
He took off on Philemon and even stole from him - to say the least, this was a gutsy move because it was punishable by death!
Colossae, where they lived, wasn’t a very big place and it was difficult for Oneismus to hide.
It would be like a fugitive trying to hideout in Clavet. Good luck!
So Onesimus made his way to hide in Rome and it is there he ran into the Apostle Paul who was preaching the Gospel of Christ.
This is where the rubber hits the road and the forgiveness flows.
In his letter, Paul describes who Philemon is in Christ, “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints . . .I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.”
In Christ, Philemon is faithful, kind, loving, and compassionate.
Paul appeals to his Christian character before boldly asking him to accept Onesimus back, not only as a guilty slave who needs forgiveness – but also as a brother in Christ!
Accept him back? After Onesimus ran away and stole from Philemon? Was Paul joking?
No. He meant every word.
Maybe you’ve found yourself in Philemon’s place before.
Someone deeply hurt you and you feel betrayed and you are furious.
Our default position when people sin against us and hurt us is to want justice and revenge.
Yet, we are called to forgive and seek reconciliation.
We are called to forgive those who trespass against us as we have been forgiven our trespasses.
St. Paul appeals to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.”
Here, St. Paul reflects what Christ Jesus has done for all of us before God.
All of our sin has been charged to Jesus’ account and he paid for it completely through his life, death, and resurrection.
Because of this, God the Father receives us into eternal life as he receives his Son - holy, blameless, and pure.
We don’t know what happened next. The letter ends as somewhat of a cliff-hanger!
But, we’re confident that Onesimus went back to Philemon because St. Paul sent him with a bunch of other people who also delivered letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians.
But, did Philemon forgive him? Did he receive him back as a brother in Christ or did he turn him over to the authorities?
St. Paul wrote “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”
St. Paul, in essence, just reminded Philemon of who he is in Christ - and Paul was confident that he would live accordingly.
Throughout our lives we will be in the place of Philemon.
People will sin against us and seek our forgiveness.
Maybe even more so, we will be in the place of Onesimus. We will be the ones who have sinned.
The wronged one and the one who wrongs.
Will we be quick to forgive and offer grace and mercy?
Will we be the ones to do “even more” than we are supposed to do for the sake of the Gospel?
We are all the same: sinners forgiven by God’s grace.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Amen!
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.