Sermon - Sept 8, 2013 - Philemon 1-21 - Refreshment for the Soul
4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers,5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®
When I looked back recently over my old sermons – and I’ve got more than 1600 in my files – I realized that I’ve only preached twice on the book of Philemon in the New Testament. Philemon is one of those little books in the Bible – it's only 25 verses long – that's easy to overlook. In my Bible, it’s only one page long. Christians tend to think that because the book of Philemon is small, it must be less important than the larger books. And we tend to think that because it's less doctrinal than other books, it must be less important. As I’ve done my sermon research, and as I had a good look at this little book, my attitude about it has changed. I pray that God will bless our look at this out-of-the-way part of his Word!
When the Apostle Paul wrote this brief letter, he was a prisoner – most likely in Rome. Scholars estimate that when Paul wrote this letter he was about 60 years of age – an elderly man for that time. Paul's letter is addressed to man by the name of Philemon – hence the name of the book. Philemon's slave – his name is Onesimus – had run away and, by a strange set of circumstances, had come to meet Paul. And, amazingly, under Paul's ministry, Onesimus became a Christian believer. Paul wrote this letter to Philemon asking him to take Onesimus back. Paul wanted Philemon to take Onesimus back not as a slave, but as a Christian brother. Paul's letter to Philemon is a letter asking for clemency. Paul asked Philemon to set aside a long-standing tradition – a tradition that demanded severe punishment for a runaway slave.
There are three basic characters in the book of Philemon. The first, of course, is Paul the Apostle, as I mentioned, in prison at that time for sharing his faith in Jesus Christ. The second character in the book is Philemon. He’s a rich and successful Gentile – non-Jew – and he’s now a believer in Jesus. And the third character in this letter, of course, is Onesimus, a runaway slave, soon to be sent back to his master.
We all know the story of how Paul had come to know Jesus Christ, and how his faith revolutionized his life. Paul was now travelling from place to place, establishing Christian churches. Philemon was now a believer, and a group of Christians met in his home. Onesimus, on the other hand, is a runaway slave – the lowest status that you could imagine in the world of that day. He is protected by no law, and subject to abuse.
By the grace of God, Onesimus met Paul after he left the home of Philemon. And again by the grace of God, Onesimus came to trust Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord. Paul and Onesimus had become good friends, and Onesimus had been helping Paul with his mission work. But the time had come to notify Philemon about his runaway slave. The time had come to do the right thing and send Philemon back to his master.
Each of the people mentioned in the book of Philemon is very different from the others. Each one has a different background and a different personality. But they had one important thing in common. They were all Christians – believers in the Lord, Jesus Christ. This morning, we have a chance to see how the Christian faith affected the lives of three very different people, and how it has the potential to change human customs and traditions so that they match God's will. Paul's prayer – and the reason for his letter – is a very simple one. He very much wants Philemon to take Onesimus back. He wants Philemon to treat Onesimus with Christian love. He wants Onesimus to begin a whole new life once he gets back to the home of Philemon.
Paul began his letter by reminding Philemon that he prayed for him often. Paul was impressed with Philemon's faith and his love for Christian people. Philemon's faith brought Paul much joy and encouragement. Paul wanted Philemon to continue sharing his faith with those who didn't know Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. Paul considered Philemon a "fellow soldier" – another Christian in service to the Lord. Paul intended that he wanted his letter be read to the whole church that met in Philemon's home. He hoped that their mutual counsel and advice would help Philemon to do God's will.
Philemon's faith – according to Paul – had a wonderful ability to "refresh" fellow believers. Philemon was one of those unusual Christian people who found it easy to encourage others. He was able to strengthen their faith. When people were around Philemon, their faith grew stronger and more resilient. Philemon wasn't a burden to fellow believers. He didn't make things more difficult for them. Instead, he was able to "refresh" their faith and made it stronger. Philemon was the kind of Christian that every church needs. He was a real blessing to many. Paul made his appeal to Philemon on the basis of Christian love. You’ll notice that he didn't issue an order to Philemon. Paul didn't flaunt his apostolic authority. He simply appealed to Philemon's basic sense of decency and his love for the Lord. Since his conversion to Christianity, Onesimus had become a close friend and associate of the Apostle Paul. He had helped Paul to reach out with the Gospel of Christ. Onesimus had shown the genuineness of his faith by serving the Lord with gladness. Paul sincerely believed that God's hand was at work in this man's life. Paul sincerely believed that Onesimus could be a great help to the church that met at Philemon's home. But he wasn't sure how Philemon would react to the return of his runaway slave.
Paul believed – as he stated in the book of Romans, chapter 8, verse 28 – that all things work for the good of those who love the Lord. In other words, for Paul, everything that happens to a Christian eventually works out for the good, through God's blessing. Paul knew that God would help him to make the best of his time in prison. He also knew that God had great plans for Onesimus. And he knew that Philemon's runaway slave could now be a wonderful blessing to his master – and to many others as well – far more than he ever could as a slave.
Onesimus was a changed man since he had left Philemon's home. Christ had changed him – from the inside out. Onesimus now had a new heart – a loving heart – a heart for the Lord. He was now coming to his true potential – a potential that had been hidden away while he lived as a slave. His name – Onesimus – means "The Useful One" in the Greek language. As a slave, Onesiums had been useful – in a limited and grudging sort of way. But now – as a Christian – Onesimus was truly useful – to Paul, and also – hopefully – to Philemon. When it comes right down to it, Paul believed that the way to change the world was to change individual human hearts – one by one. What happened to Onesimus – a runaway slave – could happen to many others. Paul wanted Philemon to understand that. He wanted Philemon to set aside any desire he had to punish Onesimus for running away. It seems that Onesimus had taken something from Philemon's home as he was leaving to run away. We're not sure what that was. But we do know that Paul wanted to make restitution – he wanted Philemon to know that all accounts would be settled if Onesimus were to return home.
I find it significant that there are many spiritual parallels between the situation that Onesimus faced and the situation that we face as we stand before God. Let me explain: Onesimus was a slave – in a literal sense. We, too, are slaves – spiritually speaking – slaves to sin. Onesimus had run away from his responsibilities to Philemon. And as sinners, we have run away from our responsibilities to God. Paul found Onesimus and graciously offered him the Gospel – forgiveness of sins through Christ, and the promise of eternal life. And God has found us – in Christ – and has offered us the same thing. Onesimus could never have paid for such blessings. And neither can we. Paul offered to pay whatever Onesimus owed to Philemon. And Christ offers to pay whatever we owe God, because of our sins. All of us – spiritually speaking – are runaway slaves. We are all indebted to God. And we cannot pay what we owe. But Christ, like Paul, has interceded for us. Because of what Christ has done for us, we are now set free. We now enjoy our liberation. We give God our love and our service – not out of a sense of obligation – but out of a sense of thanksgiving and praise.
All of us have learned by experience that there are two basic reasons why people do things. One is because they have to. And the other is because they want to. Experts call this the difference between extrinsic motivation – that is, motivation from outside -- and intrinsic motivation – self-motivation. As a slave, Onesimus did things through extrinsic motivation – he did things not because he wanted to, but because he had no choice. But now – as a Christian – Onesimus acted out of intrinsic motivation. He acted because Christ was in his heart – because the grace of Christ moved him to act. Now, as a Christian – Onesimus did things because he wanted to, not because he had to.
So, let me ask you then – why do we serve the Lord? Why do we take part in the life of the church? Why do we offer our services to the Lord and to his people? Because we have to? Or because we want to? Is it extrinsic motivation that runs the church? Or is it intrinsic motivation? Are we as Christian people primarily motivated by the Law? Or are we motivated by the Gospel? I would hope and pray that it's the latter and not the former. When it comes right down to it, all Christian motivation should be intrinsic – from within. We should not be doing things in the church out of compulsion or guilt. We should be doing them out of pure love for the Lord.
In this letter, Paul gave Philemon a chance to put into practice what he said he believed. Paul gave Philemon a chance to show the world his Christian forgiveness. He gave Philemon a chance to show the world what Christian reconciliation is all about. And God does the same for us today. He gives us many opportunities to live out what we say we believe. He gives us many opportunities to forgive, and to be gracious to others, to show patience and understanding. We don't always recognize these opportunities from the Lord. And we don't always do what we should. When we come to faith in the Lord Jesus – when we trust him with no strings attached – we move from being slaves to sin to children of God. When we come to faith in the Lord Jesus, we enter a whole new relationship with the Lord. Our sins are removed. We see others in a new light. We have mercy on others, just as Christ had mercy on us. We forgive others, just as Christ has forgiven us. We do our best to treat everyone fairly and graciously. We try to do the right thing in every circumstance of life. With God's help, we set our personal prejudices aside, and do what Christ would want us to do.
When we come to faith in the Lord Jesus – our true potential starts to show through. We become truly "useful" to God. We are "refreshed" by God's Word and the Sacraments. And we seek to "refresh" others in their faith. Christian people are "refreshed" when God's word is preached in all of its purity and power. They are "refreshed" when it is explained and applied in daily life. Christian people are "refreshed" when they have a chance to study God's word together – and to live it out in daily life. Christian people are "refreshed" through worship. Their faith is strengthened through music – the language of the heart. The faith of God's people grows stronger when they attend the Lord's Supper and receive the Lord's body and blood. Christian faith is strengthened through Christian fellowship – through the mutual encouragement of the saints. As our faith is refreshed, we move from obligation to love.
Christian people whose faith is being "refreshed" are people who get things done for the Lord. Christian people whose faith is being "refreshed" provide funds for the Lord's work. They share their faith so that the church can grow. They find themselves changing – becoming more the kind of people that God wants them to be. They are more patient with others. They are more positive in their views. They are more loving. They show forth the fruit of the Holy Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Apostle Paul commended Philemon for his ability to "refresh" the faith of the saints. And now, Paul was giving Philemon a chance to "refresh" the faith of a former slave. He was giving Philemon a chance to show mercy – a chance to be forgiving – a chance to show true Christian love. Christian service requires teamwork. It requires mutual support and encouragement. All of us were slaves to sin before we came to know Jesus Christ. We have been set free through faith in him.
We are no longer runaway slaves like Onesimus. We have been freed from our bondage. Christ has paid the debt that we owed. Barriers between us and God – as well as barriers between us and other people – have been removed in Christ. Christian tradition tells us that Onesimus – the former runaway slave – became the Bishop of the church at Ephesus. If that tradition is correct, then this man came to his full potential in Christ. He became a great blessing to many.
As Galatians 3:28 says,
There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.
May God help us to remember who we are. More than that, may he help us remember whose we are. May the story of Onesimus and Philemon encourage us in our own Christian life. Amen.
Let's Pray: Dear Heavenly Father – Help us to understand how you can work in the lives of very different people to accomplish your ends. Remind us that you changed Paul from a self-righteous man to a believer in the Lord Jesus. Remind us that you changed Philemon from a self-sufficient man to one who depended on you. Remind us that you changed Onesimus from a runaway slave to a leader innull your church. Keep on changing our hearts. Motivate us from within, by the power of your Holy Spirit. Bring out our true potential as we learn to trust you. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.