Good morning. Let me pray for us as we prepare to open up the Bible together:
Father God, your word is a lamp to our feet and light to our path – so illuminate our ways so we might walk with you and for you every step of the way. Amen.
Let me start this morning with a little spelling test. Don't worry it's only one question – here it is: What does this spell?
The word is confront. And I wonder how you feel about it. For example, if I were to say to you after church today, 'I would like to see you in my office because something in your life has been brought to my attention and we need to thrash it through.' How would you feel? Well I suspect that some of you might just laugh, because you know that I am such a light-hearted softie that you reckon being confronted by me must be like being mauled by a teddy bear. But maybe others of you would react like I would do if the shoe was on the other foot. I mean if you were to tell me you were coming round to my house later tonight to confront me, I would be tempted to treat you like a trick or treater… and turn off all the lights and pretend that there's no-one in. I find that confrontation makes me anxious and insecure and looking for a back door of escape. And I reckon most of us will do almost anything to avoid confrontation.
Yet the Bible teaches us that confrontation – if properly handled – is a good thing. And so it is something that we need to learn to embrace and to do well. After all, the gospel good news of Jesus Christ himself confronts us. Why did God come to earth in the person of Jesus that first Christmas? Ultimately it was to save us – but first he had to point out what we needed saving from: our sin! As he says to us: 'You're a sinner! You're going the wrong way! Turn around and come back to me.'
Once we turn to Christ, we are on a journey – a journey to become more like Him. And I don't know about you, but I've got so far to go, so much changing to do. And I need other people's perspective and input in order to help me do that – because so often I do not see my sin in myself. That's why God puts us into a family, which he calls the church, and tells us to love our brothers and sisters enough to confront them, to challenge them to do seemingly impossible things… like change to be more like Jesus.
And as life unfolds and we seek to do that in our relationships with one another, it's a little bit like standing on the roof of the church here and having to walk along the ridge line along the top. We have to keep our balance in the highway of life together. You see it's so easy to slip down one side or the other, as on the one side of the roof is angry Condemnation where everything gets noisy, aggressive, hurtful and ultimately very, very messy. So we then retreat to the other side of the roof which is Avoidance. So rather than confronting the person with the issue, I cocoon, and the issue just keeps festering away inside me. It's like spilling milk on the carpet and not clearing it up properly – and in time there is a terrible rancid smell that festers.
Maybe there is a relationship or a situation you're involved in at the moment that is about to explode, or go rancid unless it is confronted. Well if there is, then I'm sure it will make you think instantly about the book of Philemon. Ok… probably not! But you should! Because here in this easily missed, yet unmissable letter, the Apostle Paul is writing so that the relationship between two Christians can be restored. For a great wrong has been done, and there is much that needs to be confronted without falling into avoidance or condemnation.
So please could you get the book of Philemon open in front of you, and as we look at it we're going to piece together the story behind the letter, and then the conflict resolution will become clear.
Enter stage right – Philemon:
- It looks like Philemon met Paul and became a Christian through him at some point previously – verse 19 – he owes him his life!
- And now he hosts and leads a church in his house – verse 2. The fact he's got a house big enough to hold church meetings in shows he's obviously got a bit of dough.
- So like any wealthy citizen in Roman times he would therefore also have had servants. Such as…
Enter stage left – Onesimus:
- Whose name means 'useful'. What were his parents thinking when called him that? I don't know; maybe he had a brother called 'handy' and a sister called 'multi-purpose'!
- But as Paul makes a play on his name in verse 11 and calls him 'useless', we see the big issue start to emerge – for Onesimus, the 'useless' slave that he was, seems to have snatched some of Philemon's savings and made a run for it.
- But it's a small world as they say, and irony of irony Onesimus, as a slave on the run, had somehow met Paul and now he'd become a Christian.
And so Paul despite every personal inclination to keep Onesimus as a friend and as a helper who is now 'useful' to him – nevertheless sends him back to Philemon with a heartfelt plea. Can we see? Verses 12-14:
"I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord."
Paul knows Onesimus has stolen from Philemon, he's run away from him, and he can't just forget the past now this man is converted and working with him. No, this issue has to be confronted. It can't be left to fester. Onesimus has to return to Philemon and make his peace with him.
Paul, you see, knows that the Christian work he does will have no integrity if the relationship between these two men is not restored. That is very striking. Do we get that? All the good work we do as a church will have no integrity if the relationships between us are not right. So if we have a problem with someone or develop a problem with someone, we should sort it out.
And I tell you – whatever the problem is, I bet it's not as big a problem as Onesimus'! For if Philemon ever got his hands on this runaway slave he would have been under strong pressure from his fellow slave-owning neighbours to make a real example of him. Rebellious slaves in those days would have had the letter 'F' for fugitive branded on their forehead. But that was only if their owner was in a good mood, as it was much more likely that they would be crucified. There were 60 million slaves in the ancient world. And how else do you keep that many slaves in order, unless you kill the ones that are disobedient?!
So imagine how Onesimus must've felt as he turned up back at Philemon's house - what foreboding he will have felt with each step. And can you imagine the surprise that Philemon would have had as he sees his slave? And how he might have snatched the letter from Onesimus' grasp, barely able to control his temper? Yet what does he read? Verses 15-16:
"For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother..."
'What?! He is not beloved to me Paul! He deserves to die for what he did to me!' Do you see? Philemon is not only to forgive Onesimus, but now this slave is a Christian… he is to model in his home what the Christian Gospel has to say about the slavery issue. Go to this fellowship group that meets in Philemon's house (v.2) and there is about to be a small revolution. Because as the group ends, no longer will this slave be coming in with the pizzas, only then to depart. No! He is to be at the heart of the group sharing Paul's prayer requests, sitting down with the others, studying, praying, participating as one of them. The whole dynamic has changed in this test case of Galatians 3.28:
"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."
Here is the timebomb ticking away in the New Testament, that would explode with that famous Christian campaigner William Wilberforce and the Abolition of Slavery in 1833. Here it is. As Philemon is challenged to show what it means to be: "…all one in Christ Jesus."
So here is the Application. Please see the sacrifice everyone has to make in order for this relationship to be restored.
- Paul is old and in prison and could do with all the help he can get and yet he is giving away a good friend, a helper, a son – his very heart.
- Then Onesimus is prepared to go back to Philemon. To go back to him in person and see the one who he has offended. Do you know how bad that feels when you have to do that? You know when I pick up the phone to apologise or to arrange a difficult conversation, I find it's got teeth on it. And I put the phone down and I think, 'You know what? I'll just have a cup of tea first.' And I delay it all day long. But Onesimus won't do that! Now he's a Christian, Christ calls him to hold up his hand and say: 'No! It was totally my fault. I'm so sorry I've wronged you. Please forgive me.'
- And Philemon? Well he has got to take very seriously some verses from Colossians 3.13 which we looked at in Midweek group this week: "…bear with one another… forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you..." Folks, we prayed this earlier on in the service, didn't we? In the Lord's prayer – "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." And that forgiveness of others must not be simply words. It prompts us to take action. So Philemon has got to not only forgive, but try to forget and treat his slave as a brother. And Paul is emphatic about this (v.17): "So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me."
And so my question to you this morning folks is – Who are you trying to avoid? Who would you rather not receive with warmth and affection, if they walked through the door just now? Folks, I have to say that as I have examined myself on this issue I have found both condemnation and avoidance in my heart. And it's so easy to self-justify and make excuses: 'What good will it do; it will just lead to an argument', 'It's their problem anyway, why should I get involved?' But at the end of the day it's simply that I just don't want to have to make the sacrifices that Paul, Onesimus and Philemon are called to make here.
That is why we need to see the motivation Paul gives Philemon to make the sacrifice.
I mean, why do this? Why seek reconciliation? Verse 8:
"Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you…"
Just think about that little phrase "for love's sake" for a moment. My guess is that all of us make our decisions for something or someone's sake. I wonder how you would fill in the blank – 'for _____ sake'? A lot of our decisions are made for convenience' sake, aren't they? Anything for any easy life! Or for profit's sake, always asking: 'what's in it for me? I'll do whatever works well for me.' Then there is for guilt's sake. I think we do a lot of things because we feel bad about them, because we feel we ought to do them. Like when you'd sent all your Christmas cards out a week or two before Christmas and then someone who you hadn't sent one to… sent one to you. And as you opened it you went: 'Oh no! Now I'm going to have to send them a card!'
But Paul says to Philemon here, 'I could guilt trip you. I could command you. I could try to manipulate you. But I'd much rather you to do this… for love's sake.' But what is that? We use the word love in all kinds of different ways, don't we? So I love my wife and children… but I also love doughnuts and football. And I don't think they're the same types of love! But there should be no confusion about the love that Paul is talking about here – the word is "agape" love, self-giving love. It is the kind of love Jesus showed on the cross, which Paul describes in the other reading we had this morning from Colossians 1.21 – he says that Jesus died to reconcile us to God not when we were his friends, but while we were still his enemies!
Look, imagine you decide you are going to get a dog for yourself as a pet. So you go down to the Newcastle Dog and Cat Shelter. I don't actually know how this works, but let's just imagine it works like this. You walk in and you have a choice – a free choice of any dog in the shelter. What do you do? What is it that you're looking for in a dog? I would imagine that you would be walking along looking at all these little dogs in their cages giving you their best little cute dog face – 'Pick me, pick me!' And you would look for the one that appeals to you, wouldn't you? It would be quite extraordinary if you walked in and said: 'I'm looking for the ugliest, angriest, nastiest dog you've got. I want the kind of dog that has absolutely nothing attractive about them.' And they lead you to this mangy dog with a rabid look in its eye and say: 'Well, this dog has killed it's last six owners.' And you say, 'That's the one! I'll take it.' That would be extraordinary, wouldn't it?
But the Bible says that God's love for us is not a love that walks along and says: 'Wow! What an adorable little human being. How could I help myself from loving them?' No! God's love chose that which is not lovely. Colossians 1.21 – he chose us while we were his enemies! You see, there was once a time when we were alienated from him. We weren't just neutral, floating around neither loving God nor hating God. No! We were dead set against God – against him in our thinking and behavior, and therefore deserving of punishment, not love. But even then He said, 'I'm going to choose to love you.' Let that sink in. Put your name in there. God – while you were his enemy – still made the decision to love YOU. God made the decision to send his precious, darling son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for YOU!
That is gospel, good news love. And that is the kind of love that Paul is calling Philemon to show to Onesimus. 'I don't want to force you to obey. I'm not going to command you. I want you to choose to, for love's sake, love broken, sinful people, even your enemy – just like I have loved you.'
Do you see? Why do this? Why seek reconciliation – when it can be so costly? Because of how God, in Christ, first loved you. And here is the big crescendo of this message this morning – this is the key message of this little letter: Gospel love will push you further and take you deeper than you ever imagined.
It will push us further. It will take us to places where we would not naturally go. It will take us into relationships that we would not naturally be willing to pursue. Philemon is being asked to do something that is monumentally too much for him. Everything in Philemon will be saying: 'He has to be punished! He must pay!' But only gospel love will overcome. It will push Philemon further and take him deeper than he could ever imagine. And it will ultimately make Philemon more like Jesus - the man that God has always wanted him to be.
So lastly, as we close:
How does Paul do healthy confronting? Well let's have a quick look at how he starts his letter. Verses 4-7:
"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. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you."
Folks, if someone had to confront me and they started off with the perspective of verses 4-7 then I'd be delighted to see them. I really would. Wouldn't you? I mean see how Paul delights in this man: 'I hear about your faith, your love for the saints, you have refreshed the hearts of so many.' He is so sensitive to what this man does well. He is specific. He doesn't charge in saying: 'Look you're a lovely guy, but I need to tell you this – BOOM!' No!
And please see also – this is so important – Paul does not label Philemon. 'You rich, slave-owning, slave-killing bigot, now listen to me.' That's the label, isn't it? And that's what some of us are doing in our relationships, as we move from discussing the issue to attacking the person's character: 'Well they were late, so they're lazy.' 'They didn't get back to me, so they don't have integrity.' And so we go in labelling them with accusations and we put them automatically on the defensive.
Well Paul does the opposite here – he opens Philemon up by firstly, expressing appreciation for who he is and the relationship they have. And then he secondly, anticipates all Philemon can be: all that God is doing in Philemon's life to make him more like Jesus – by challenging him, pushing him out of his comfort zone to be more like Jesus. So much so that years later this previous slave Onesimus went on to be one of the church's most famous Bishops – one of the men who spiritually speaking lead his generation. Don't you think that Philemon as an old man said to himself, 'I'm so glad that Paul took the effort to confront me and did it so graciously that I did not crucify him. I'm so glad I didn't crucify him.'
And so the lesson here is: if you have some confronting to do – please pray! And do it. But when you do, like Paul wrap it in the paper of appreciation and anticipation.