He's My Brother
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So far this summer we’ve looked at the word Koinonia – sharing, partnership, fellowship – and what it has looked like in three different passages. We’ve seen Luke talking about the early church in Acts being devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to Koinonia, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. We looked at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and our Koinonia in the blood and body of Christ and what that means. We’ve looked at Paul’s letter to his friends in Philippi and how he talked about their Koinonia in the gospel from the first days of his ministry and what that meant in terms of Paul’s memories of them, his thankfulness and joy in the present and how he prayed that their love would overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help them determine what is best.
To help them determine what is best. The love of God working in and through them. The love of God being made visible, answering the question “What does love call for in this situation?”
This is precisely the question that Paul is answering in his letter to Philemon. And what is the situation surrounding this letter? There was a man in a town called Colossae. He was a man of means – had a house big enough to host a church, had slaves in this house. Philemon had come to know Christ through the ministry of a man named Paul. He’d become good friends with Paul and a leader in the church at Colossae. He had a problem. One of his slaves had run away. Onesimus – a name that means “useful” or “beneficial”. He’d proven to be anything but. Onesimus might have taken some money with him as well. Onesimus had met Paul – it’s possible that he had sought Paul out, knowing that he was a friend of the master he had run away from and hoping that he might be able to find some clemency through Paul. The thing is that while Onesimus was with Paul, he had become a follower of Christ. Paul doesn’t want any legal sword hanging over his or Onesimus’ head. There were penalties for harbouring fugitive slaves. A slave owner was legally entitled to have a returned slave punished by anything from scourging to death. And so Paul sends Onesimus back accompanied by a letter. This letter that makes up the shortest book in the Bible. Three hundred and fifty-five words in the original Greek. No chapter markers, just an appeal by Paul to help Philemon know what love looks like in this situation. To help us to know what Christ’s love looks like for us. Let us take a look at this letter this morning and see what God has to say.
While we call this letter Philemon, Paul makes it clear in his opening that his audience is wider than simply his friend – “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus, our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house…” This letter was meant to be read out in the church. There is a communal element to this situation that Paul, Onesimus and Philemon find themselves in. It’s outcome will affect not only these three men but the entire faith community that meets in Philemon’s house. How this church leader welcomes or does not welcome back his runaway slave will affect the rest of the church. This will be a test-case for Paul’s teaching in Galations 3:28. People would have been asking the question “What does this look like in real life?” People may have wondered if Philemon’s conversion was a ploy in order to escape punishment for running away. The question Paul is answering is “What does it mean to be ‘in Christ’?”
The question Paul is not answering here is “How just is slavery in the Roman Empire.” I read an article recently talking about how Jesus never explicitly condemned slavery – and that might be something good for us to talk about, which of Jesus’ words give us the idea that God’s plan for people doesn’t include them being reduced to commodities. Paul doesn’t explicitly condemn slavery here. Why? As one writer puts it “… Paul does not advocate a social philosophy that countenances revolution and violence. In the exigencies of the social structures of the Roman Empire of Paul’s day, slavery could be overthrown only by violent means; and the apostle will be no party to class hatred or violent methods – Coercion is incompatible with God.” That’s so true isn’t it? God doesn’t coerce. God persuades. God invites. God woos. God courts. I was reading a post by Frederick Buechner recently where he wrote of a John Donne sonnet in which the poet asks God to ravish him. God doesn’t ravish – He courts. He invites. This was Jesus’ thing to do wasn’t it? Extend an invitation. Follow me. Come and see. I remember reading about Phillip’s invitation to Nathanael when we were in Bolivia last year. I remember praying “Lord make me a good invitation. May I not be like an invitation scribbled on piece of scrap paper but something really nice, like embossed! Paul is not trying to coerce in this letter, we see this throughout Philemon. He’s trying to persuade. To invite Philemon to see his former slave with the same eye that God sees him with. Philemon’s response will have implications not only for himself, Paul and Onesimus, but for the church in Philemon’s house.
Grace and Peace
As usual Paul starts where we must always start –with grace. Grace. The unmerited favour and love and mercy of God. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace and peace. I know people who sign their letters that way. What a great way to sign a letter! A Greek and Hebrew greeting or sign off. Charis – the grace of God. Peace – shalom – the wholeness, the rest that Christ brings about in our relationship with God. A wholeness that God intends for all of humanity, for all of creation. A wholeness that God invites us to participate in as we perceive all the good that may do for Christ.
And this is where we come to Koinonia in the letter. Paul has started where we always must start, with God’s grace. He’s told Philemon that he thanks God for them because he hears of their love for all the saints and their faith toward the Lord Jesus. Philemon is creating memories that cause Paul to be thankful! And then Paul comes to another prayer for his friend in v 6 – “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” The sharing of your faith. The Koinonia of your faith – the sharing, the partnership. As I’ve said throughout this series, the foundational aspect of sharing that we must always have in front of us is that it is based on the eternal loving fellowship that exists between God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit. I’ve spoken of it as a kind of dance going on between the three and it is one that we’re invited to be caught up in and consumed by and when we’ve made the decision to follow Christ my brothers and sisters we are caught up in this dance together! We’re invited to participate in God’s grace and to be changed by this and to be made into active participants as God brings shalom, brings peace and wholeness and life to His creation. Paul is not telling Philemon anything he doesn’t already know necessarily, he’s reminding him of this Koinonia that his friend is already caught up in. How does he know? “The hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother” – v 7. Here again we have one of my favourite words – splancha translated “hearts” here – the guts the innermost part of us where we feel things most deeply and viscerally – the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. Paul is taking a risk in sending Onesimus back of course but he knows to whom he’s writing and he knows what God has done through his friend in the past.
This is why Paul can make the request that he’s making. Paul is not going to try and force Philemon to do something. God doesn’t coerce. Instead Paul appeals to love – “For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” (vv 8-9) Look at v 12 - “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” God doesn’t coerce. He invites us to participate in acts of peace, of wholeness, of reconciliation. Paul appeals to what we call providence – God’s unseen hand guiding events – “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever…” Providence – God making life from dire situations. Joseph telling his brothers “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” “Perhaps this is the reason this whole thing happened,” writes Paul as he gets to the crux of his request in v 16 – “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in in the Lord.”
Live It Out
This is the heart of Paul’s message here – both to Philemon and by extension to us. When we consider God’s grace, God’s peace, our sharing in it, our sharing in it together, how are we going to react when we have the chance to extend grace to another? This is where belief becomes action, where talk like “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all in all!” (Col 3:11) becomes action! “I am sending him, who is my own heart, back to you.” “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” What does it mean to be “in Christ”? What does it mean when your slave runs away and returns to you “in Christ”? There’s that great line in “O Holy Night” that we sing at Christmas – “Truly he taught us to love one another/His law is love and his gospel is peace/Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother/And in his name all oppression shall cease.” That is our hope isn’t it? We know that God will bring that about one day. Paul isn’t advocating a slave uprising. He’s not advocating armed coercion. He’s advocating a change of heart. A change of heart that come about when we are “in Christ”. A change of heart in Philemon, this one who along with Paul has a sharing in the gospel of love and mercy and peace. One day all oppression shall cease. We know that don’t we? One day all oppression shall cease. In the meantime, Philemon. In the meantime, Christ’s church. In the meantime, welcome him as you would welcome me. Paul recognized that there has been a financial loss. Put it on my account, he tells Philemon. I can’t think Philemon took him up on this. Philemon’s a man of considerable means. Paul is in prison. I’m sure Philemon considered the monetary loss that he was legally entitled to and forgave it when he considered what he had been forgiven for.
Some people look at this letter of Paul’s with a jaundiced eye. He’s pulling out every rhetorical stop known in his day in order to persuade Philemon. He’s basing his appeal on love though. On the love God has for us. On the love for one another God will enable in us. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with us being persuasive. We’re bombarded by messages daily that try to persuade us of things aren’t we? Many of which are just straight up lies. Let us counter them with the truth. God is love, God is grace, God is mercy. Let that be our message. You can be sure people are watching. Let them see that. May God enable those things in us to the point where people can see them plainly. You can be sure people were watching Philemon. “What is he going to do now?” Can you imagine? I don’t think people were any different back then. What is he going to do now? I wonder if Philemon stood up in front of his house church and threw his arms around his erstwhile slave. Who is God calling us to throw our arms around? We need to be getting it right in here before we’re ever going to be getting it right as we scatter from here. Let the start of people being persuaded be in what they say us do. In the love and grace and mercy we extend.
I’ve often said that I believe our opportunities to talk about God will come about as a result of our actions. We’ll get to talk about about God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s justice based on how people see love, grace, mercy and justice being lived out in our lives. Paul is appealing to Philemon’s sense of honour. The mores of their society were based on honour and shame. Not so much now. To me one of the things you see in our society is the desire for change. The desire to be change. Look at the magazines at any supermarket checkout line. Not the gossip ones. “Fall First Look – 8 Fresh Updates for Hair and Makeup.” “A New Wardrob for 300 dollars.” “Refresh Your Home in 48 Hours.” “How to Live Large in 400 Square Feet.” People recognize an innate desire for change – to be better. In Christ we find this. In Christ we find what it means to be made more authentically human. NT Wright commenting on v 9 of this letter says the following – “Living Christianly makes people more human, not less. No Christian should grumble at the extra demands of love. They are golden opportunities to draw on the reserve of divine love, and in so doing become more fully oneself in Christ, more completely in the image of God, more authentically human.” We’ll see others as more human too. Philemon is being invited to see Onesimus not as a commodity – not as something to be bought and sold – but as a brother in Christ. Who are we being invited today to see as more human? What systems do we take part in that dehumanize people? We’re invited to look at both I think, on an individual and a systemic level. Sometimes it’s both. The story is told of Desmond Tutu and Bishop Storey who struggled against apartheid in South Africa. One day they were led off into the woods outside Johannesburg by a group of young Afrikaans men. One of them shouted “Are you Christian?” before the final moment. When the answer came back “Yes”, the two men cried out “Then you cannot do this! You cannot do this!” The young men let them go.
What does love call for in this situation?
We never know what the result will be when we’re listening for God’s voice for the answer. Early church leader Ignatius was on his way to Rome to face execution. He wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus in which he talks about the bishop there – “Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love, and your bishop.” We don’t know, of course, if it’s the same man, but how wonderful to think that the man who Paul was sure would be welcomed back and forgiven and freed was the same man who went on to become the leader of the church in Ephesus. We have no idea what might result when God’s love and grace flows through us. God grant that it might start with us. God grant that in our following Jesus we would ever more become who God intended us to be, that our sharing of our faith might become effective when we perceive all that we may do for Christ.