The 11th Sunday After Trinity August 7, 2005
466, 477, 481, 464
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Good morning one and all! Greetings in Christ Jesus!
Allow me to introduce myself to you. My name is Philemon. You may not know me very well. Do you know, for example, that I lived in Colosse during the time of the Apostle Paul? Those of you who are studying God’s Word in confirmation classes probably know my name best of all as the name of a New Testament book of the Bible. When you recite the New Testament books of the Bible it comes right after Titus: …1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon…
But there is more to my story than simply a book of the Bible. I, by the grace of God, am a child of God. The book that you know as part of the New Testament is a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to me. I have a page of that letter with me this morning.
This is an intensely personal letter from Paul—an apostle, a fellow Christian, a close friend to me. Paul wrote this letter in his very own hand. Paul didn’t always write his letters with his own hand. Sometimes he had others write his letters as he dictated the words, but for this letter he took the time and effort to write it himself. I treasure this letter very much.
The Holy Spirit worked through Paul when he wrote this letter. God used Paul to write the letter to me, but it is also part of His holy Word. So when I read this letter it is not only words from a dear Christian friend and a brother in Christ, it is the very Word of God!
The Almighty God of heaven and earth wrote these words to me. I read these words and I tremble at them. They are not frightening words. That is not why I tremble. I tremble at these words because they are words from God speaking to me. They are also speaking to you, for if God took this letter written to me and made it part of His Word, then His lesson for me is also one for you to learn.
I’d like to read to you a part of this letter this morning, and I pray that you will tremble, knowing that this is the very word of God; and then I’d like to tell you some more about my life and the lesson I have learned.
The apostle Paul writes to me, Philemon:
I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, 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 the Lord. If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
In order for you to understand this letter from Paul, I need to tell you a little more about me. As I mentioned, I live in Colosse. I am a slave owner. One of those slaves, named Onesimus, ran away. Onesimus ran away from my household, ran away from the duty that was rightfully his, and ran to Paul. Paul sent this letter along with Onesimus when he sent my slave home to me.
Without Paul’s encouragement and without the knowledge of Christ growing in my heart, I may have been very angry at Onesimus. I had every reason to be completely angry with my wayward slave. I had every right to seek justice against him. He was a runaway slave, he left my house, he left his duties, and left me without his labor! But no, Paul encouraged me much differently.
Paul speaks of Onesimus in a rather humorous way. I’m sure it was one of the ways that Paul strove to diffuse my anger and lighten the tension of the situation. Onesimus means profitable. Onesimus wasn’t always so profitable. But Paul says, he is returning him back to me as a profitable one. “…who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to [both of us].” [v.11] Onesimus was brought to faith in Christ while he was with Paul. Onesimus as a non-Christian slave was not always so profitable—an average worker at best. Now, Paul tells me that he is coming back to me as a brother in Christ! What a difference that makes!
Paul wrote to tell me that Onesimus was a great blessing and a help to him in prison. Onesimus was such a great help to Paul that he even thought about keeping Onesimus as a way for me to indirectly serve Paul through my slave. Paul, however, did not keep Onesimus. He wrote, “But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.” [v.14]
Instead of keeping Onesimus, Paul sent him back to me. What an act of Christian good will and love! Onesimus had run away, he did not have to come back. Paul had a good slave, he didn’t have to send Onesimus back—at least not by world standards. But the love of Christ constrained both of them. The love of Christ newly planted in the heart of Onesimus moved him to return to me and be a faithful slave. The love of Christ moved Paul to send Onesimus back to me rather than coveting or stealing my slave. These are the results of the Spirit of God working in the hearts of God’s children. The Spirit lives in sinners hearts and moves them to desire what is pleasing to God and in that way show love to God.
Paul also instructed me and taught me a lesson when he wrote, “For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother…” [vv. 15-16]
Paul was teaching me to appreciate a Christian brother. Onesimus would be a much better slave as a Christian. You heard part of Paul’s letter to the church in Colosse (cf. New Testament Reading). I am part of that congregation. We meet in my home. In that letter, Paul pointed out that a Christian slave owner strives to do what is fair and just and right for his slaves; and a slave strives to serve his master well. As a Christian, Onesimus would do that and be much more profitable to me than in the past.
However, Onesimus’ improved work wasn’t the greatest part of my returning slave. The greatest gift in having Onesimus come back to me was that he is now a brother of mine in the Lord. The apostle John wrote in his Gospel account that when someone is made a child of God, it is not by the will of man (cf. John 1:13). It wasn’t my will that Onesimus came back as a child of God. When someone is a child of God he is born again, not by the will of flesh, but by the will of God! Paul wrote me this letter to teach me to appreciate my Christian brother because that brotherhood is a miracle! Every single one of you as my brothers and sisters in Christ are your own individual miracles! Think of it! Each one of us was lost and condemned in our sins, but now by the blood of Christ we are washed clean—that’s a miracle. We receive the forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ, but we wouldn’t believe any part of God’s Word if it weren’t for the grace of God and the working of the Holy Spirit. Our faith in Christ is a miracle too!
It is a miracle that I received Onesimus back as a brother in the Lord. It is a miracle that you have Christian brothers and sisters sitting next to you. How can we not appreciate a miracle of God? It is indeed a great thing to have brothers and sisters in Christ who have been born together into one faith, one Lord, one baptism, one salvation forever (cf. Ephesians 4:4ff).
Understanding my lesson and appreciating a Christian brother began for me by appreciating Paul. I certainly sinned in my role as Onesimus’ master. In this letter, Paul does not approach me with anger. He approaches me with love. I learned to appreciate a Christian brother by understanding that when he comes to me it is in love for my benefit. How thankful I am that Paul wrote the letter and sent Onesimus back to me for my spiritual well-being and growth in my faith. How wonderful it was that he approached me in love to instruct me. I certainly was a Christian, but like every one of you and every other Christian in the world, I have weaknesses and failings. Paul sought to correct me and strengthen me, guide me through my weaknesses, and instruct me. What a blessing to appreciate! It is a great blessing indeed when Christian brothers and sisters care enough for your own individual soul that they take the time and effort to speak to you of God’s love and come to you with the Word of God and instruct you.
I don’t know about you, but I know I don’t always appreciate my brothers and sisters in that way. Sometimes I get pretty defensive when someone wants to correct me. Sometimes I really complain about those brothers and sisters who have been bonded to me by the blood of Christ. These too are sins for which I need to repent. There is no brother or sister in Christ who is perfect, but each one is a blood-bought soul. They are all one with me and one with each other in Christ. They are a miracle of God’s Grace. What a valuable gift to appreciate!
Paul wrote, “Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord” [v.20] and that is exactly what Paul did for me. You heard (cf. New Testament Reading) how Paul wrote to our whole congregation instructing us to help one another, uplift one another, encourage one another, and forgive one another. Forgiving is sometimes the hardest. When someone does something to me I get angry and it can be very hard to forgive.
When I think of how hard it is to forgive, I pray that God will remind me of the lesson that He taught me through Paul. He taught me to appreciate my Christian brother by focusing on the bond that we share in Christ. That leads me to focus on my Savior and brings me back to the cross. I know that on the cross Jesus died for all sins—including all of mine. If our Savior so died for each of us, giving up His very life and blood, Oh! I can surely forgive the ways someone sins against me! Having that great gift and miracle from God and being joined together with my Christian brothers and sisters, how could I not forgive them? I pray that I always will.
Another part of the lesson that Paul taught me is now an ongoing prayer of mine. The prayer is that I might be a blessing to my Christian brothers and sisters.
There are so many ways that I could be a hindrance to my fellow Christian. I could have become very angry at Onesimus, treated him very badly, and shaken his young and growing faith. I could react in any number of ways through life and lead a fellow believer into sin. I recall with trembling what Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). I pray that I never lead someone into sin and most of all into a soul destroying temptation, but I have the potential to do so. I have the potential to do all sorts of things that would not be demonstrating a Christ-like love to a Christian brother or a Christian sister. Sadly, you have the same potential.
Christian brothers and Christian sisters date and, Lord-willing, many will find a spouse. As a Christian brother appreciating a Christian sister, I don’t want to lead her into sin. Likewise, Christian sisters do not wish to lead their brothers into sin, but the potential is there and the temptations are great. The sinful flesh continues to live in each one of us and the Devil wants to exploit it and bring us to destruction. I appreciate my Christian brothers and sisters when I go to the Word of God to equip myself with the armor of God so that I can stand against those temptations—not just for my own well-being, but for all my brothers and sisters in Christ. The best way to show appreciation for God’s gift of your Christian brothers and sisters is to prayerfully be an equally blessed gift back to them.
There is much opportunity in our lives to lead fellow Christians astray because of the pressure to cave into the way the world thinks. You may think that it is worse in your day than it has ever been. The darkness in the world today is certainly significant, but it was bad in my day too. If there weren’t employers and employees cheating one another, Paul would never have written to us concerning how masters and slaves should act. If wives and husbands never had difficulties in my day, Paul never would have needed to write to us concerning the roles of husbands and wives as they serve one another in the Lord. If children never rebelled against parents in my day, Paul would not have written to them reminding them to obey their parents in the Lord; and if parents never made wrong and poor decisions, if they never exasperated children in my day, Paul would not have needed to write to them. But Paul wrote to us about every single one of these (cf. New Testament reading). We had the same temptations as you do.
As we face all of the temptations and influences of the world there is so much opportunity for every one of us—whatever our station in life may be—to follow after the world’s way and to lead a brother or sister into sin. We appreciate our brothers and sisters in Christ by being faithful to them and helping one another against the world’s deadly influence.
That is the lesson that Paul taught me—to appreciate a brother in Christ. Now, I appreciate Paul all the more. I am thankful to God for his friendship, the bond that I share with him in Christ, and the Word of God that God brought to me through him.
I appreciate my slave, Onesimus. In earthly standards, we’re quite different—I’m the master he’s the slave—but in Christ we are one, because in Christ “there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). It’s a miracle! It’s a gift to appreciate!
My prayer for you today and always is that you will tremble at every Word of God. I pray that the lesson God taught me will live and grow in your hearts. The lesson to appreciate a Christian brother—to appreciate one another—as we serve one another in the love of Christ to God’s Glory. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.