When did you last write a postcard and what did you say? I guess many folks now use Facebook messenger instead but was it something like 'Wish you were here in sunny Spain'? Well, this gem of a letter from Paul, who's in prison, to a man called Philemon, is a kind of postcard about a very personal matter between him and his friend Philemon. And so this is one of the most profound and powerful postcards ever written.
So, who are some of the main characters? There's the Apostle Paul, in prison in Rome. There's also Philemon who probably lived in Colossae, 800 miles from Rome in modern day Turkey. Paul had been involved in Philemon becoming a Christian. The church in Colossae met in Philemon's house (v2), so it's likely that he was wealthy with a big house. And among his possessions was a slave called Onesimus, as was the case for some in the Roman Empire – that's not to say Paul agreed with the practice but that's the way it was. Now Onesimus had escaped from Philemon, and done a runner all the way to Rome, where he could melt into the background and never be found. But somehow Onesimus met Paul in prison and through Paul Onesimus became a Christian and helped Paul while he was in jail. It's an amazing story. This bad, useless, runaway slave, for which he could have lost his life, has been converted and his life has taken a massive U-turn.
But Paul knows that however much he wants Onesimus with him, he's got to send him back to Philemon. Onesimus must answer to Philemon. So, Paul writes to ask Philemon to welcome him back, not just as one of his employees, but now as a brother in Christ. And this will stretch Philemon's Christian love to the limit. You see as we look over Philemon's shoulder at this personal postcard, we learn some wonderful truths about what it means to be a real Christian living a real, sacrificial Christian life. Our focus today is on verses 1-7 because the start of this New Year is the start of new challenges for all of us and it's a great time to ask ourselves serious questions about our Christian lives. What will our priorities be this year? What characteristics are going to mark us as a church as we seek to serve the Lord this coming year? Well, in verses 1-7, there are three priorities and characteristics. For Christians must be marked by: Dedication to God's Cause (v1-2), Devotion to God's People (v4-7) & Dependence on God's Grace (v3). So first:
1) Dedication to God's Cause
And we learn that from Paul himself in verses 1-2:
"Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house."
Now you may think what does a greeting have to teach us today? Surely it's just Paul saying hi to friends in Colossae. But notice how Paul describes himself and the people to whom he is writing. He calls himself a prisoner of Christ, and he calls his readers fellow workers and fellow soldiers. Now this is the only time in all of Paul's thirteen letters that he begins by calling himself a prisoner of Christ Jesus. So why? And why is it that Paul says it three more times in this postcard? It's a lot of mentions in a short letter. Well it's a letter coming from a heart of love appealing to a heart of love. And Paul's imprisonment should be an added motivation to Philemon to act in a way which promotes the gospel. Serving Christ has cost Paul dearly. Philemon should put the gospel first too and welcome back his runaway slave, not as a cruel master, and Onesimus as a useless slave, but as loving brothers in Christ. And as we'll see next time, it's quite possible that Paul wants Philemon not just to receive Onesimus back, but then to send him back to Paul who's in greater need in prison. The point is that when Paul calls on Philemon to do something costly, Paul speaks from a position of strength. Paul knows what it is to pay the price in gospel ministry. Now it means prison. That's what it meant for Paul to be dedicated to Christ's cause.
So, what does Paul call Philemon in verse 1? A fellow worker. Philemon had laboured with Paul for the sake of the gospel. What does Paul call Archippus in verse 2? A fellow soldier. They'd stood together in the front line of gospel ministry for Christ. What does Paul call Epaphras in verse 23? A fellow prisoner. Someone who'd taken a stand for Christ and paid the price with Paul. In fact, Epaphras had been the first to take the gospel to Philemon's home town of Colossae. And what about Mark, Demas, Aristarchus and Luke in verse 24? Fellow workers. Do you get the picture? This group of friends had given a great deal to the cause of Christ. They'd all stood by Paul for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, at great personal cost for the cause of Christ.
And as we begin a new year, it's a challenge to us to display such dedication to God's cause isn't it? Wouldn't you love to be known at the end of this coming year, or at the end of your life as a soldier of Christ, as a fellow worker in the gospel? Wouldn't you love to be known as someone who was totally dedicated to God's cause? But the danger is that we often give God the fag ends of our devotion to him. Just a little bit of dedication, but not too costly. Just a little bit of pain, but not too much. Just a little bit of inconvenience but not too inconvenient. After all, I don't want to be known as a fanatic do I? I don't want my Christian life to cost me too much do I? But Paul and his friends wouldn't recognise that as genuine Christianity. What we read of here is men and women who gave their lives for the cause of Christ. It's the very assumption behind this letter that the gospel and the glory of Christ comes first. That's why Paul is writing to Philemon. Not simply to restore a broken relationship, but for the sake of the wider cause of Christ. The German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: "When Christ calls a man, he calls him to come and die." Die, that is, not necessarily literally, but to die to self. Putting self second and Christ first.
Will you take up the challenge to resolve to dedicate yourself to the cause of Christ? Please don't waste your life. Alan Redpath, who came from Newcastle and went on to become a well-known Bible teacher, said that for the first seven years of his Christian life it was like this: Saved soul wasted life, saved soul wasted life, saved soul wasted life. If that's you then you need to reassess how you spend your time. For some it may mean offering ourselves for more service in the church family or in the home. But for each of us, the key question is of the heart, as Redpath used to say. Are our hearts dedicated to the Lord? Are we captivated by his love and glory? Is that the engine room of our lives? If not, then we'll never be dedicated to the cause of God.
2) Devotion to God's People
Secondly, there's the challenge of total devotion to God's people (v4-7). And this is important for us at St Joseph's as we still need to be looking out for those who are new or those who feel a bit lonely and discouraged. Paul here thanks God for Philemon and reveals what he's praying for him. And that's a great way to encourage someone - to tell them that you thank God for their gifts and the way God has used them. Because then they're encouraged, but God gets the glory. He's the one who's used their gifts in his service. Look at verses 4-6:
"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 towards the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ."
So what's Paul got be thankful for? Well he thanks God for Philemon's faith in the Lord Jesus and his love for all the saints. Philemon has faith in Jesus. He's trusted in Christ as his Lord and Saviour. But he's also put that faith into practice. He's shown real love for fellow Christians. A real love for Christ will always show itself in a sacrificial love for fellow Christians. And how has Philemon shown his love? Verse 7:
"For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you."
Philemon's faith in Christ has led to a love for the saints. Saints doesn't mean special people who we see in stained glass windows. Rather it's Paul's shorthand for Christians. Many Christian hearts have been refreshed by Philemon. What a lovely expression that is! What a way to be remembered! As someone who refreshed the hearts of the saints. Perhaps he did so by using his home for gospel work. Paul asks, verse 22, if he can stay at Philemon's house when he's released from prison. Maybe Philemon had helped Paul and others financially or practically. Almost certainly Philemon had shown his love by caring for people's spiritual needs too. Perhaps by praying for them after a service. Perhaps by meeting up with folk to encourage them. Perhaps he took time to get to know each person in his church personally. He loved giving himself to people. He loved refreshing people's hearts. Even his name means kind or loving. Loving by name and loving by nature.
And that's why Paul prays the way he does in verse 6. Now Paul's not only praying that Philemon would be active in sharing his faith in the sense of evangelism. No, the word translated 'sharing your faith' has a wider meaning, namely generosity towards others. Paul's praying that Philemon's love and generosity would be active. Why does Paul pray this? So that Philemon's understanding of every good thing we have in Christ would grow. So that Philemon's generosity toward others may help him to realise the good things we have in Christ. It's a great prayer to pray for ourselves isn't it? As Philemon is generous to others, Paul is praying that Philemon would realise how generous God's been to him. It's a wonderful upward spiral of love and joy. The more you realise how much you've been loved, the more you love God and others. Get it?
At the start of 2018 is this what marks us as a church/as individual Christians? Wouldn't it be good to be known as a church and as individuals as those who refresh the hearts of others – especially perhaps believers but also non-believers? So why not consider getting to know a few more people. Chat with people after the service, find out gently how things are going spiritually. Also, let's learn to love one another practically and to commit to pray and encourage folks, to refresh the hearts of the saints.
A man called Uwe Holmer was a pastor in East Germany during communist rule. After the communists lost power, Erich Honecker, the former dictator was hospitalised for treatment for cancer. There was no man more hated in the whole of East Germany. He and his wife were strongly anti-Christian and they'd caused many Christians to suffer. When he was released from hospital, Honecker and his wife were effectively homeless. They'd nowhere to go, everyone hated them. But one man stepped in and offered them a room. That man was Uwe Holmer. He and his family had suffered under the communists. Eight of his children had applied for further education and been refused, simply because they were Christians, even though they were among the brightest in the country. But Pastor Holmer took this despised couple into his own home and sheltered them. Now if that's the sort of love a Christian shows to his enemy, how much more should we love our fellow believers.
3) Dependence on God's Grace
Thirdly and finally there's the challenge of total dependence on God's grace. And this comes from God himself. You see, having heard those two previous challenges, we might be asking how? The answer is in verses 3 and 25:
"Grace to you and peace from our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit."
These verses are easy to skip over. But they contain a very important truth. That we must be totally dependent on the grace of God throughout our Christian lives. Paul himself knew this. At the start and end of every letter of Paul there's a prayer that his readers might know the grace of God at work in their lives. What does he mean?
Well grace is the free and undeserved gift of God that God shows to us fully and finally in Jesus Christ. But we experience that grace daily as we're dependent on him. It's God who keeps us going in the Christian life by grace. We don't deserve it. It's a gift. It's God who gives us life and health, again, nothing we deserve but his gracious gift. And it's only by God's grace that we're able to serve him and love one another sacrificially and courageously. So, God's grace can be with us at work, facing tough relationships, in the doctor's surgery facing an unwanted test result, at school or college facing jibes, in the home facing a demanding child or spouse. God promises us his grace in all situations. But if we try to do anything in our own strength, then we'll fail. We need to be dependent on God's grace to sustain us today and always. We will need to be people of prayer who constantly throw ourselves into the gracious hands of God.
You see there's a warning for us here of being self-dependent people, rather than grace dependent people. In verse 24, Paul mentions one of his closest friends, Demas. Paul calls him a fellow worker. But later, Paul says in 2 Timothy 4 that Demas has deserted him because he loved this world. Demas had sold out and left Paul. And that's what happens when you stop living by grace, and begin to live by self. You move away from Christ until you give up the faith altogether and desert God's servants. And if it can happen to one of Paul's inner circle, then it can happen to us. The antidote to such a spiritual shipwreck is to be totally dependent on God's grace. Never seek to live the Christian life on your own. You can't do it. Instead be totally dependent on the grace of God. For it's the only way we'll stay dedicated to God's cause, and the only way we'll remain devoted to God's people.