Proper 18 Year C 9/4/2022
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
Rev. Mark A. Lafler
It is not often that one of our readings on a Sunday morning is an entire book of the Bible.
That is the case today, though.
Philemon does not have any chapters, only verses, 21 of them.
And we heard all of them this morning.
Philemon is a short letter written by St. Paul near the last days of his life.
Paul spent his final years either in prison or under house arrest in Rome.
And it was here that he wrote a letter to his friend Philemon who lived in the city of Colossae.
It is a more personal letter compared to other letters we have in the New Testament by St. Paul.
However, it is written also to the church that meets in Philemon’s house.
Telling us two things.
Philemon was wealthy and had a large enough home for the people of God to gather in.
Also, this indicates that the letter was intended to be read aloud to the whole church… not just Philemon.
Paul begins with his usual greetings offering the grace and peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanking God for the life and friendship of Philemon.
Now while Paul was in prison, it seems that someone ended up in prison with him.
His name was Onesimus.
He was a runaway slave.
And it was when they were together that Onesimus was converted to Christianity as St. Paul writes:
…Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (v. 10)
And it is here where we get to the whole point of this letter to Philemon and the house church.
You see, Onesimus is apparently the slave of the wealthy person Philemon.
In all of the prisons across the Mediterranean world…
Onesimus runs away from the slave owner and ends up in Rome…
And ends up in the same prison of a man who is friends with his owner.
Onesimus and St. Paul probably looked at each other at some point in their first conversation and said, “Small world!”
So, Paul is writing a letter to Philemon and the local church to receive…
He wants them to read it together…
He is appealing to the faith that has been instilled in Philemon.
What he is after is he wants Onesimus to be welcomed back as a brother in the family of the Lord Jesus.
Listen again to St. Paul’s appeal…
This time from The Message paraphrase:
In line with all this I have a favor to ask of you.
As Christ’s ambassador and now a prisoner for him,
I wouldn’t hesitate to command this if I thought it necessary,
but I’d rather make it a personal request.
(Remember this is to be read to the whole house church)
While here in jail, I’ve fathered a child, so to speak.
And here he is, hand-carrying this letter—Onesimus!
He was useless to you before; now he’s useful to both of us.
I’m sending him back to you, but it feels like I’m cutting off my right arm in doing so.
I wanted in the worst way to keep him here as your stand-in to help out while I’m in jail for the Message. But I didn’t want to do anything behind your back, make you do a good deed that you hadn’t willingly agreed to.
Maybe it’s all for the best that you lost him for a while.
You’re getting him back now for good—and no mere slave this time,
but a true Christian brother!
That’s what he was to me—he’ll be even more than that to you.
So if you still consider me a comrade-in-arms,
welcome him back as you would me.
If he damaged anything or owes you anything, chalk it up to my account. This is my personal signature—Paul—and I stand behind it.
(I don’t need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?)
Do me this big favor, friend.
You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good.
I know you well enough to know you will.
You’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written.
St. Paul wants, on behalf of Jesus Christ, for the runaway slave Onesimus to be welcomed back with open arms…
not as a slave, but as a brother in Jesus.
All because of the transforming power of the gospel.
Another letter of St. Paul that Philemon would have been familiar with… probably written around the same time is the book of Colossians.
Paul seems to be saying the same theme in the third chapter.
You have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
He goes on to write:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
And over all these virtues put on love,
which binds them all together in perfect unity.
The power of the Gospel brings down the distinctions of our world.
The power of the Gospel brings down the systems of our world.
The power of the Gospel transforms our hearts and minds.
Clothing us with humility, kindness, and forgiveness.
It binds us together in love.
Even love and forgiveness for a runaway slave who stole from his slave master.
Philemon is a book about the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, I offer you two take aways, two lessons for us today.
First, the transforming power of the gospel can change our hearts and minds and lives.
An interesting word play in the book of Philemon is found in the name of Onesimus.
The name Onesimus means in the Greek useful or profitable.
In fact, it was a common name given to first century slaves because of that meaning.
Right after Paul first mentions Onesimus by name in the letter, he writes:
Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and me. (v. 11).
This is not just coincidence…
St. Paul is using this word play to bear the power of the Gospel.
A thief and runaway slave has become useful.
God has a purpose and a plan.
God calls all people and transforms their life by the power of the Gospel.
No matter what you have done.
No matter what you think of yourself.
No matter what people say about you.
No matter what category society places you in.
God can transform your life in ways you could barely dream of.
The power of Jesus through the ministry of the Holy Spirit can transform your life from the guilt, the condemnation, the pain, and the anger…
to a life of freedom, forgiveness, compassion, and faithfulness.
So, the first lesson is the transforming power of the gospel on one’s life.
The second lesson is this, the transforming power of the gospel can change human relationships toward love.
St. Paul wrote:
Receive him no longer as a slave, but as a beloved brother.
All of the relationships we have in this world can be transformed by the power of the gospel.
We all know people that just rub us the wrong way.
People that have caused us pain.
People that seem out to get us.
Whether they are family members, church members,
or that one neighbor down the road that just gives us that look when we drive by…
The power of the Gospel can bring any difficult relationship to a point of love.
Paul knows that Onesimus harmed Philemon.
He knows that he stole from him.
He knows there is pain involved.
But forgiveness and love are never wrong.
And the power of the Gospel can change any human relationship.
So, the book of Philemon…
This tiny letter we barely notice in the New Testament…
Invites us into this transforming power of Jesus Christ.
By the power of the Lord Jesus…
Who gave his life for us on the cross…
Redeemed us from our sins…
He transforms us into a resurrected life…
A life of hope…
So that we can be healers and proclaimers of the transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Being empowered by the Holy Spirit.
To share the good news in this world.
God can transform our lives.
God can transform our relationships with others.
Let us not settle for how our world defines us and the people around us…
Instead, may we ever more press into the transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Which is marked by patience, forgiveness, and love.