by Paul Gilbert
Summer is now in full swing, and I hope that you all are enjoying your travels, trips, and jaunts across the fruited plain! Because the fluidity of summer can make Sunday worship attendance a bit, hmmmm, erratic shall we say, I thought I would circle back around to the Philemon sermon series we recently finished up (you can access these messages here).
Part of what inspired us to preach this series is how regularly relevant the topics of reconciliation, restoration, and forgiveness seem to be in our daily lives. In fact, Pastor Dave wrote a series of blog posts last year drawn from Philemon that addressed how pastors are called to address these issues in their churches. However, I thought that these posts were so encouraging and insightful that I have decided to repost them one at a time over the next three weeks here in the Four Oaks weekly. I have done a bit of editing to focus the content into our own context at Four Oaks, but if you want to access the original posts, you can do so here. Thanks for the assist, Dave!
Philemon is a fascinating, yet often overlooked, epistle of Paul. Many of the curious, contextual details of this short letter have been lost to history. We know enough, however, to piece together the story and draw some principles for how we are to relate to each other in the body of Christ. We know, for instance, that Onesimus was a rather useless, thieving slave. In his dissatisfaction, he stole from Philemon before going AWOL. In a bizarre twist of events, Paul evangelizes him from his Roman cell and Onesimus comes to Christ. Paul eventually enlists him as a key leader in his ministry.
Pretty remarkable stuff so far, huh? Well, we’re just getting started. Things get even more interesting when we press into the irony of Onesimus’ conversion a bit more.
Apparently in a disgruntled state, Onesimus the slave had stolen something precious and fled from his master – a guy named Philemon. This means he had some serious problems – he was basically the equivalent of a fleeing felon. So Onesimus the runaway slave found himself appealing for help to Paul the prisoner. Somewhere along the way, Onesimus received Christ and a rapid transformation began. The man fled his physical slavery, only to have his spiritual slavery revealed, which then compelled him to return and be reconciled to his earthly slave master.
Here are a few lessons we can learn from this story:
Conversion is Never Convenient
From Paul’s other letters, we know how physically and emotionally brutal prison was for him. Paul was shackled, burdened, and afflicted when Onesimus arrived. A lost soul before a chained man. Onesimus was probably oblivious to Paul’s chains – he was runaway slave carrying stolen property. Should Paul dismiss him until a better time? Perhaps beg off citing his present circumstances? Onesimus appears like a black hole of needs. What would you do?
Paul immediately offered him the most precious thing he had: the promise of new life in Jesus. But that was just the beginning. Paul dove into discipling the young man. Think about it: Onesimus appeared with all of these entanglements. He seemed like a real "case." But Paul saw something more. Sure Paul was imprisoned and chained, but a soul needed God so there was work to do!
Ministering to and serving fellow sinners in the local church is never easier or convenient. People’s problems will not wait for our schedule to resolve. And by the way, when does a schedule ever resolve! Despite Paul’s obvious limitations, he cared for Onesimus. He had invested his time in equipping him and connected with him so deeply that Paul eventually called him “my very heart” (Philemon 12). Onesimus was a broken slave, but Paul saw much more – he saw a child of God with great potential.
Four Oaks, people’s issues don’t respectfully knock and wait to be invited in. They break down the doors of our well-organized lives, often at the most inopportune times. Is Onesimus knocking right now? Open the door and begin the adventure. What an opportunity Paul would have missed had he waited for a more convenient time to invest in a struggling saint!
As Christians, we often love radical conversion stories, but often tire quickly from the messes that follow. How easy it would have been for Paul to dub Onesimus a "new creation," erase his past, and release him into someone else’s care. But Paul understood something critical to caring for broken people: their story matters. Onesimus has incredible potential for fruitful living and ministry, but he also had unfinished business with Philemon.
To Paul, baggage mattered. Onesimus had to go back.
The former slave was returned to his slave master not to endorse the institution, but to bring reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul was no pragmatist. He did not avoid correcting Onesimus’ stealing for the sake of relational peace at all costs. He named the elephant in the room. For Onesimus to go forward, he must first go back. Onesimus must deal with his baggage so he doesn’t drag it around the rest of his life.
But to Paul, the baggage did not define Onesimus. Note the way Paul commended this former criminal. He said Onesimus had become useful, that he held Paul’s very heart, that he was like a son to the apostle, and that he was “very dear to me” (Philemon 16). Paul did not focus on the past, on who Onesimus was when he came to him in that Roman prison. Paul saw who he could be once the Gospel took hold. Paul saw the potential hidden beneath the baggage of a broken past—he was living proof! Paul saw through Onesimus’s slavery, beyond his baggage, and into a life of gospel usefulness.
The gospel supplies us with new eyes. Because the resurrection followed the Savior’s crucifixion, more mature Christians can see beyond the brokenness of struggling Christians to a future of potential impact. We can’t ignore the baggage they bring – it’s the fertile ground from which the good news of the gospel will sprout and flourish. To lead effectively in the future, Onesimus had to deal with his past. But the gospel reminds us that our past does not define us – reconciliation in Christ does.
The Future Rests in Broken People
New Christians, non-Christians, and broken Christians arrive to our door incomplete. Sometimes they look like criminals fleeing the consequences of their actions. Sometimes they come completely oblivious to the impact of their decisions upon others. Remember: future, faithful saints always have present defects. How quick the seasoned Christian is to sanitize his own past and progressive development! Not Paul! A slave was knocking on his cell, but all he saw was a future son. Paul saw past the lazy, listless slave to the spirit-empowered leader he would become.
Would I have turned Onesimus away? I hope not. How about you? I wonder how many of our eyes would have been too clouded by our busyness, concluding that he wasn’t worth our time. I wonder how many of us would see ourselves more as Paul than as Onesimus. Our churches and lives are filled with broken, marginalized people who are easy to overlook and dismiss. Only when our eyes are transformed by the resurrecting power of the gospel can we see beyond the baggage. The future of Christ’s church rests in broken people. If Jesus can take you and me, with all of our baggage and history, and do what he’s done, what might he be able to do with those broken, inconsiderate, immature folks in our midst?
Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll walk through a few more principles contained in the letter to Philemon. May God grant us the grace to welcome the disruptions from, confront the baggage of, and entrust the future to the broken people he gives us.