Date: 15 Oct 2017
I came across a story recently about a chap who met someone who had been a drug dealer. Shortly before this first meeting, he had come to faith in Christ, an event which brought a radical change to his whole life. He became an enthusiastic church member, was well dressed and very well mannered. It didn’t take long for him to be well accepted by the church and to blend in with everyone else. One day he brought two friends with him, friends who were struggling with drug abuse. They were unkempt and wore what could best be described as street clothing and needless to say they were very wary of entering a church building. During the service they were introduced to an elderly lady, a long standing church member; unfortunately her reaction was to immediately turn away. It goes without saying that they never returned. How would we react in that situation? Whilst you think about that just remember that Jesus Himself dined with tax collectors and “sinners” aka prostitutes!
At the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry there was a lot of discrimination between people. Some claim that in today’s UK there are growing numbers of the “haves” whilst the “have nots” appear to carry on struggling as a result. If you think that’s bad then just consider the fact that things were far worse in the 1st century world where discrimination abounded. Society was male dominated and so women were treated very badly; Samaritans were regarded as outcasts and so non-Samaritans refused to associate with them; Gentiles were treated badly as Jews felt that they were the superior people, God’s chosen people. Add to all that the dreadful way in which slaves were treated. Society was very badly divided which was one of the reasons why Jesus came to heal those divisions, preach a message of forgiveness and reconciliation with God and welcome everyone into the kingdom of God regardless of race, colour, creed or background.
Jesus treated all people as being equal. With that in mind, just ask yourself: how do we treat people when they arrive as newcomers in church, do we make them feel welcome? What if they are dressed scruffily and are a bit unkempt, do we still welcome them or do we turn our backs on them? Since we are attempting to reach out into the community, we really do need to think about our reaction in similar circumstances. When Samuel was looking to anoint a new king, under God’s guidance he considered each of Jesse’s sons in turn. Samuel saw Eliab and thought he would be the one to be anointed. However, God had other ideas and said to Samuel, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7). The basic premise of this sermon is that everyone is invited into God’s kingdom regardless of appearance and background; and it’s worth saying, regardless of their sexuality.
This morning’s offering is the first of three sermons based around the subject of the Christian Community and centres on the thought of making everyone feel welcome by remembering that everyone is invited into God’s family and community. This particular sermon is based on this fascinating short epistle written by Paul to his friend Philemon. It may well be that the letter was intended as a private letter between friends or as an open letter that could be read to the entire church, however I’ll leave you to decide which it is.
The letter is unusual in that it was written by Paul to an individual. Most of Paul’s letters were written to churches to deal with problems or doctrinal issues. However, this particular letter was written to Philemon, this great friend of Paul’s. Philemon lived in Colossae and had come to faith when he heard Paul’s ministry in Ephesus. Subsequently he had returned to Colossae and joined the local Christian community as well as hosting a church in his own home. There was obviously a close link between them since Paul refers to Philemon as “our dear friend and fellow-worker” (Philemon 1b).
As frequently happens with scripture, scholars and commentators disagree as to the exact nature of this letter; was it private or public; was Onesimus a runaway slave or had Philemon sent him to be with Paul; had he stolen money or was it given to him to pay for the journey to be with Paul in Rome; where was Onesimus saved, was it in Rome where Paul was being held or in Ephesus whilst Paul was there. There seem to be lots of questions that need to be answered. However, I always prefer to take the simple approach that a number of these scholars support; Onesimus was a runaway slave who had somehow met Paul in Rome, had come to faith at some stage and was now Paul’s helper/companion and someone Paul now regarded as a son. I should remind you that by this time Paul was an old man and obviously in need of some help. Having heard the story of what had happened between them Paul was now anxious for reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus and so determined to send Onesimus to Colossae with his helper Tychicus. Tychicus is described in Paul’s letter to the Colossians as “... a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord.” (Colossians 4:7). We also know from Colossians 4:7-9 that Tychicus was taking a letter to Colossae and since it was where Philemon lived it seemed logical that he should take this personal letter at the same time.
Philemon was a wealthy businessman who probably had quite a few slaves working for him, one of those slaves being Onesimus, the main subject of the letter which concerns the conduct and future of that young man. It seems likely that Onesimus hadn’t been that good a slave and having stolen some money from Philemon had absconded to escape justice. In those days it was perfectly legal for a slave owner to execute a slave if he was found guilty of stealing from his owner. I suspect that Onesimus was aware of that which is why he ran away. Unfortunately we have no idea how Philemon treated his slaves or if his behaviour towards them changed after he had become a Christian. Although it is difficult to be certain, one source suggested that Philemon may have been converted after hearing Paul preaching during a visit to Ephesus. However, regardless of that, wherever he was saved we know from Philemon 19b that it was as a result of Paul’s ministry since Paul reminds Philemon, “you owe me your very self”; a phrase that may sound a bit strange but which actually means that Paul was the one who led Philemon to salvation. The Bible Society translation makes the verse clearer when it says, “don’t forget that I was the one who showed you the way to eternal life!” Regardless of where he did come to faith, Philemon had returned to Colossae and become involved in the local Christian community to such an extent that the church met in his home, a fact confirmed by Paul when he sends greetings “to the church that meets in your home” (Philemon 2).
Onesimus was a slave who was owned by Philemon and we can safely conclude from Philemon 18 & 19 that he may well have stolen some money from Philemon. Paul says in those verses, “If he has done wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me” (18) and then adds “I will pay it back” (19). Having stolen the money Onesimus then absconded since he would have been fully aware that he faced execution for being a thief. Paul knew that his young friend faced the death penalty for his foolish act of theft and was prepared to pay the debt for him. That is exactly what Jesus did for us. As sinners we faced the death penalty and yet regardless of what we may have done, Jesus was prepared to die on the cross to pay our debts so that we could be part of His family and live with Him for all eternity. Jesus died for everyone and so everyone is invited although sadly not everyone accepts that invitation.
Somehow Onesimus made his way to Rome. Now when you look at a map you will see that Rome is quite some distance from Colossae and so perhaps Onesimus used the stolen money to pay his way to a new life in the big city; who knows? Paul meanwhile was under house arrest in a rented house in Rome rather than being confined in a prison cell. Being housebound doesn’t seem to have caused Paul too much of a problem since he was still able to receive any number of visitors. We know this from Acts 28 where Luke writes, “They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus.” (Acts 28:23). These meetings happened regularly and Onesimus may well have been present at just such a meeting since at some point he committed his life to Christ.
As part of Onesimus becoming a Christian Paul obviously felt that there should be reconciliation between the runaway slave and his owner. That may well be why Paul said, “I am sending him ... back to you” (Philemon 12). Paul had earlier commented that “Formerly he was useless to you, but now has become useful both to you and to me” (Philemon 11). It is interesting to note the play on words given that the name Onesimus means “useful”! Since becoming a Christian it could well be that Onesimus’ whole demeanour and attitude to life and those around him had changed for the better. Surely that is the way things should be; we come to faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour and our whole life is slowly transformed by Him. Paul though knew the background behind Onesimus leaving Colossae and so wanted to ensure that he would receive a good welcome from Philemon. This letter is in part a testimonial for Onesimus seeking Philemon’s forgiveness and willingness to take him back. Paul knew Philemon well and in seeking his help the Apostle reminded his friend that he could have used his apostolic authority and ordered him to take Onesimus back. However, he preferred the soft and diplomatic approach in seeking help from his dear friend. He also let Philemon know that he was “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Philemon 9) and “in chains” (Philemon 10). That suggests to me that he may have been trying for the sympathy vote as well!
Paul urged Philemon to “welcome him [that is, Onesimus] as you would welcome me” (Philemon 17). Paul now regarded Onesimus as his equal and wanted him to be treated as such by Philemon, hence the request to make him feel welcome. Paul was also truly anxious that Onesimus should be received, “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16). He describes him as being “my son” (Philemon 10) and “my very heart” (Philemon 12) which gives us the clue that Paul was very fond of Onesimus and wanted only the best for him. There may have been a difference in class between them with Onesimus being a slave and Philemon a wealthy slave owner, but they were both Christians and therefore brothers in Christ. They, and we, should all be one in Christ. By way of confirmation of that thought Paul told the Galatians “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). He said something similar to the Colossians, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11).
Paul was always at pains to preach that the gospel was for everyone regardless of whether they were rich or poor, or from a high class or low class background; Christ died for everyone and all are invited to receive salvation through Him.
In this epistle Paul has been pleading with his friend Philemon to not only forgive his runaway slave Onesimus but also to welcome him back as a Christian brother. Since Onesimus had become a Christian under Paul’s ministry, just as Philemon had, it was incumbent upon Philemon to welcome his former slave as a brother and member of the family of Jesus Christ. We can learn from that; we too should accept everyone who comes into this church regardless of their appearance or background. God invites everyone into His family and we should do the same.