Dwelling Below with Saints We Know
Little Books with a Big Message Dwelling Below with Saints We Know Philemon Pastor Pat Damiani July 29, 2018 You’ve probably heard the little ditty, “To dwell above with the saints we love, O that will be glory! But to dwell below with the saints we know, well, that’s a different story!” I think you’d all agree with me that there is a lot of truth in that statement. But we really shouldn’t be surprised that relationships within the body of Christ can be difficult at times. Because the gospel of Jesus brings together people of diverse races, economic status, family backgrounds and religious backgrounds, the possibility for strained relationships is great. Just think about this group that is gathered here this morning. While there are a few of us here that are Tucson natives, we have people here from a wide variety of other places – Illinois, Alabama, Los Angeles, and even Jamaica. We have doctors, and nurses and teachers, and bankers – quite a few of them in fact. We have those who are in management and those who work under managers and those who are retired. We have some people who live in houses and some who live in apartments. We drive Fords and Chevys and Hondas and Hyundais. We have UCLA fans and Wildcat fans, Cubs fans and Dodger fans, Bears Fans and Dallas Cowboy fans all worshiping side by side. We have people with Lutheran backgrounds and people with Catholic backgrounds and people with Baptist backgrounds and some people with no religious background at all. In any place other than the church, gathering together a diverse group like that on a regular basis would be inviting disaster. But the very fact that the gospel makes it possible for us to live in harmony – at least most of the time – is both evidence of the genuineness of our faith and a testimony to the world about the power of the gospel. As we continue with our series title “Little Books with a Big Message”, we’re going to look at Paul’s shortest letter that is included in the Bible. You’ll find the book of Philemon near the end of your Bible, right before the book of Hebrews. The book of Philemon centers around three people with about as diverse of backgrounds as you could imagine: • Paul, a scholarly, zealous Jew and former Pharisee • Philemon, a wealthy Gentile businessman • Onesimus, a runaway slave Apparently, Paul had previously come in contact with Philemon, possibly during his ministry in Ephesus, and led him to become a disciple of Jesus. Philemon had then returned to his hometown of Colossae. The letter is also addressed to Apphia, probably Philemon’s wife, and Archippus, who was probably his son and possibly the pastor of the church there in Colossae, and to the entire church that met in their home. This is very likely the same church to which Paul wrote another letter that we call “Colossians” and it’s quite possible that the two letters traveled together from Paul’s jail cell in Rome to the city of Colossae – one which was primarily for Philemon and the other for the church there. So with that brief background in mind, please follow along as I read the entire letter. [Read Philemon 1-25] Before we address this letter and what it teaches us about developing healthy, gospel-shaped relationships, I want to take a few minutes to address the topic of slavery in the Bible. When we think of the idea of slavery we probably think of 19th century slavery in the United States that was a major cause of the Civil War. Frankly that was a shameful page not only in the history of this country, but also for the church, which also split over the issue. There were many slave owners who used the Bible, including the book of Philemon to justify the practice of slavery, claiming that the Bible actually condoned the practice. But the kind of slavery we are familiar with is quite different than the slavery that was present in both the Old Testament as well as in Paul’s day. One of the main differences is that in Bible times it was not a racial issue at all. People of all races and cultures were slaves. Some were born into slavery or abandoned as children and taken into slavery. Others were sold into slavery by their parents or became slaves as a result of war or became slaves in order to pay off a debt. By some estimates, slaves may have comprised as much as one third of the population in the Roman Empire during the time that Paul wrote this letter. Many slaves lived relatively comfortable lives and were treated well by their masters and many of the most highly skilled people in that culture – doctors, teachers, musicians, artists and accountants – were slaves. That form of slavery was much different than what most of us are familiar with, and in many cases slaves lived what we might consider relatively normal lives. However, the institution of slavery, in Bible time, during the 19th century in America and even in the world today, is completely incompatible with the operation of the gospel. The purpose of the gospel is to bring freedom. So any system in which people are considered to be the property of their masters and who can be bought, sold, exchanged, or even seized to pay their master’s debt runs completely contrary to the gospel. So if that it is the case, then the natural question that arises is why doesn’t the Bible condemn slavery. Or even more relevant to the passage we’re studying this morning, why didn’t Paul address the slavery issue head on? For that matter, we could even ask why Jesus didn’t do that. Originally the answer to that question was going to be the main focus of my message today. But the more I looked at the passage itself, it was apparent that is not the main theme here. So let me give a really brief answer to those questions and then we’ll move on. We need to remember that one of the purposes of the Old Testament law was to protect the dignity of people – especially to those who didn’t have the power to stand up for themselves – immigrants, the poor, the disabled and slaves. In the case of slaves, the purpose of the law was not to address whether or not that practice was acceptable, but rather to provide some important protections for slaves in light of the fact that such a system existed. Nowhere in the Old Testament does God ever condone the practice of slavery in any way. The reasons that Paul and Jesus did not address the idea of slavery were a bit different: 1) They had something more important to focus on – the life-changing power of the gospel – and they didn’t want an argument over slavery to distract from that. 2) They understood that the only way to transform the culture in the long run was to change hearts, not to try and change people’s behavior. Before we move on and get to the main theme in Paul’s letter to Philemon, what we can say for sure is that a proper understanding of Scripture will never support the practice of slavery of any kind. Now let’s get back to Paul’s letter. Philemon had a slave named Onesimus, who had stolen from his master and run away to Rome, where he just happened to cross paths with Paul. Although it seems likely that he had heard the gospel while in the house of his master, when he meets Paul and Paul shares the gospel, God opens up his heart and he responds by putting his faith in Jesus. But Paul doesn’t just leave him on his own at that point. They enter into a mutually beneficial relationship in which Onesimus serves Paul and Paul disciples Onesimus to help him grow in his faith. As Onesimus grew in his faith, he came to realize that he needed to return to his owner, make restitution and be reconciled to Philemon. So he returns home with this letter in which Paul exhorts Philemon to receive Onesimus back into his household, not just as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. O couple weeks ago, we studied the book of Obadiah. That book also dealt with relationships. Let’s see how well you can remember the main idea from that passage. I’ll give you the first phrase and then see if you can remember the rest: When pride prevails… [wait for answers] relationships fail This morning’s passage has a similar message, although it comes at the idea of relationships from a more positive angle. Rather than focusing on what to avoid in our relationships, it emphasizes the one element that promotes good relationships. I’ll summarize that idea like this: When humility prevails relationships excel What we find in this letter is that humility is the key to the health of all the relevant relationships here: • • • • • The relationship between Paul and Onesimus The relationship between Paul and Philemon The relationship between Philemon and Onesimus The relationships between Philemon and his family The relationships within the church that met in Philemon’s home So let’s see what we can learn from this passage about… HOW TO EXERCISE HUMILITY IN MY RELATIONSHIPS 1. Remember God’s grace The one thing that everyone mentioned in this letter shared in common and which united them was the grace that God had extended to them through Jesus Christ. And so it’s fitting that Paul begins and ends his letter with an emphasis on that grace. Paul’s salutation here is very similar to all his letters where he begins by blessing the recipient with God’s grace and peace. And then Paul closes the letter with a benediction in which he called for God’s grace to be with Philemon’s spirit Martin Luther once wrote that “We are all the Lord’s Onesimi”. I think he is right because this book beautifully illustrates the operation of God’s grace in the life of every single disciple of Jesus. God created us to serve Him. He is our rightful Master. But like Onesimus every one of us has rebelled against Him. We took everything that God had entrusted to us to use for Him and squandered it on ourselves. We stole His glory and ran away, claiming to be free, only to find that we just became a slave to something else – sin. But while we were running away from God, God led us across the path of someone who shared the gospel with us. At that point God opened our eyes and allowed us to see our sin. We became aware that we were guilty and condemned. At first, that made us fearful of returning to God. But then Jesus said to us, “You are guilty, so there is no use trying to plead your case before God. Let me do that for you. Just give this letter to the Master.” And you look down and read the letter that reads “receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge it to my account.” That’s God’s grace. None of us could ever hope to pay back God for all the sins we have committed, But the good news is that we don’t have to. Jesus died on the cross in order to pay the entire debt that we owe to God for those sins. All the glory that we stole from Him and all the back wages that we owe for our sins were charged to Jesus’ account. And that made it possible for us to return to the Master and willingly put ourselves under His lordship. If we would do nothing more than to remember that grace in our lives, that alone would lead us to exercise a whole lot more humility in all our relationships. 2. Pray for others – and let them know it Even before he sat down to write this letter, Paul was praying for Philemon. And you get the feeling that he had been doing that for a long time – probably ever since he had come into contact with Onesimus. Have you noticed how hard it is to genuinely pray for God to bless someone and still remain angry at that person? And have you also noticed how hard it is to remain angry at someone who tells you that they are praying for you? 3. Be tactful I am now preaching to myself. My natural tendency is to be pretty direct with people, and if I’m not careful that can easily morph into bluntness. So if I had been writing this letter to Philemon, it probably would have been much shorter, maybe something like this: Philemon, Let’s forget all the pleasantries and get right to the point, I’m sending Onesimus back to you. Since he is a Christian now, just forget everything that has happened in the past and treat him like a brother in Christ, Paul. The best thing about that kind of communication is that I could easily email or text that to Philemon. But it might be a little long for a tweet. I love how Isaac Newton defined tact: Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy. Paul does that here. Her takes time here to build his case. He expresses his love and appreciation for Philemon. He asks Philemon to consider the situation from God’s perspective. It’s only after he does all those things that he gets around to his request in verse 17. Before we leave this point, let me share a word of caution. In the era of Twitter, Facebook, emails and texts, it is really easy to violate this principle. There are two practical approaches I’ve discovered that at least make it less likely I’ll do that: • First, whenever possible, deal with conflict, or potential conflict in person. Obviously that wasn’t an option for Paul and sometimes the same is true for us. But being able to hear someone’s tone and read their body language often goes a long way toward making sure we don’t misinterpret what the other person is trying to communicate. • Second, if you must respond in writing, wait. My rule of thumb is to wait at least 24 hours to respond. Sometimes I will write out my response right away, but then I’ll come back to it a day later after I’ve had time to reflect. And when I do that, I often decide I don’t need to respond at all, or that I could be much more tactful in my response. And when I’ve violated that practice, I usually end up regretting it. 4. Be willing to yield my rights We see this clearly in verses 8-10. As an apostle, Paul had the right to demand that Philemon do what he was requesting, but he makes it clear that he will not assert that right. Instead, he merely appeals to Philemon and is willing to live with whatever Philemon decides to do. There is also a sense in which Onesimus is yielding his rights here. He could have easily claimed that now that he had become a disciple of Jesus, he was just going to stay with Paul and keep on being discipled. But instead, he willingly returned to Philemon and subjected himself to whatever decision Philemon made about his future. And Paul was also asking Philemon to yield his rights to punish Onesimus for what he had stolen and for running away. And In that culture, that punishment could have included selling Onesimus to a new owner to pay his debt or even having him arrested by the Roman government and possibly even being put to death. I am not saying here that we just have to let people run roughshod over us and take advantage of us. Sometimes we do need to stand up for ourselves. But in general, one of the biggest barriers to reconciling broken relationships occurs when both parties insist on hanging on to their rights. That is true in marriage, in the workplace, in the community, and, unfortunately, even in the church. 5. Be willing to bear the cost There is always a cost that is incurred in developing and maintaining healthy relationships. And each of the three main characters in this letter demonstrate that. Paul’s cost here was at least twofold. First, there was a cost associated with parting with Onesimus, who had been useful to Paul in his ministry. This is probably a good time to point out that Paul actually has a pretty good sense of humor and he uses a word play here that doesn’t really translate into English. In verses 10-11, he writes that Onesimus, whose name means “useful”, had formerly been useless to Philemon, but now he was useful to both of them, now that he had become a disciple of Jesus. Secondly, Paul was willing to pay back any of the financial costs that Philemon had incurred due to Onesimus’ actions. Onesimus also had several costs to bear. First, he bore the cost of giving up his freedom and the very real possibility that he would return to his life as a slave. There was also the real possibility that he would have to make restitution to Philemon, And lastly, there was also a cost to him in parting with Paul and his mentorship Philemon also incurred some costs. He had lost a slave and his labor for a period of time. He was also lacking whatever cash or property Onesimus had stolen. And there was the potential cost to his reputation if he forgave Onesimus since all the other slave owners there in Colossae would have been worried about that setting a bad precedent. As we see here there is a wide variety in the kind of costs we might incur in order to maintain healthy relationships. Sometimes that might be our time, other times our material resources. Sometimes it might mean giving up one relationship for the good of another. Sometimes it might be damage to our reputation in the eyes of some. 6. Expect the best in others I love what Paul writes in verse 21. His expectation is that Philemon will not only do all that Paul has requested, but that he’ll go the extra mile go far beyond that. If you are raising young children, this is an especially important principle. The expectations we have for our children will have a great bearing on how they behave. So expect your children to do their best to please you and be surprised when they mess up instead of doing the opposite and expecting them to disobey and being surprised when they obey. Expect your teenagers to be godly and be surprised when they rebel instead of expecting them to rebel and being surprised when they don’t. Just that one change holds the potential to completely transforming your relationship with your kids. And that same principle works in all of our other relationships as well. When humility prevails relationships excel We live in a world where we easy access to a multitude of supposedly “Christian” books, videos, podcasts and sermons that teach us how we can use God and the Bible to reach our full potential or to be happy or to achieve “our best life now”. But the Bible is actually God-centered and not man-centered. It is about God and His glory. So even though employing the principles that we’ve talked about this morning will undoubtedly improve your marriage and make for a happier family life and make your job more enjoyable and prevent conflict in the church, that is not the primary reason you should do all these things. The main reason you should develop and maintain healthy relationships is because when you do that, God will be glorified and others will be drawn to Jesus. When our relationships are no different than those of unbelievers, when there is unresolved conflict in our marriages and when churches split over personality conflicts, or preferences or arguments about insignificant difference in doctrine, the world looks at us and thinks, “they are no different than me”. And every time that happens we steal a bit of God’s glory and people turn away from Jesus. But when the world looks at our marriages and family life and marvel over how much we love each other, when they look at a church full of diverse people and see how well they get along, then that gives us an opportunity to tell them about the difference that Jesus makes in those relationships. And when that happens, God is glorified and people are attracted to Jesus. There is a pretty good chance that every one of us here this morning has at least one relationship in our life in which we are struggling – maybe our marriage or our relationship with our kids or our parents, maybe a relationship with a neighbor or at work, or even with someone else who is sitting in this building with you this morning. You probably can’t fix all those broken relationships overnight. In fact, you probably can’t fix even one of them instantly. But what every one of us can do is to pick out just one of those damaged relationships and commit to taking just one of the actions we’ve identified this morning in order to exercise more humility in that relationship. I’m going to give all of us a few minutes to pray about that and to write down the one thing that you’re going to do – hopefully today, but at a minimum, some time this week – to take that one step. The one step I will take this week to exercise more humility in one of my relationships: [Prayer] Discussion questions for Bible Roundtable 1. Why do you think that Paul addressed his letter to Apphia, Archippus and the entire church rather than just to Philemon? What significance does that have for us? 2. Why do you think Paul includes the names of his fellow workers at the end of the letter? What significance does that have for us? 3. What can we learn from this letter about some important elements of discipling and being discipled? 4. What are some of the ways that Paul demonstrates humility throughout his letter? 5. Which of the six principles we discussed today do you find to be the hardest to implement? Which is the easiest? What practical steps could you take to work on the one that is most difficult for you?