The Text: Philemon 4-21
The Reconciling Miracles of a Faith Active in Love
Dear friends in Christ,
What’s been the most welcome, life-changing letter you ever received? Carefully crafted letters can achieve miracles. In trying to reach an agreement over something that’s emotionally explosive, we often say things we don’t mean to say.
But a letter can be re-drafted until it says exactly what we want to say. When someone has hurt you, do you just grin and bear it or do you take the initiative and try to resolve the issue in a loving and forgiving way? It’s not easy to take the initiative in this situation, is it? It requires the ability to forgive the person who has sinned against you as soon as possible.
Even “good” Christians have said how hard it is to forgive someone who has hurt you deeply. What do we do if a family member or friend has less and less to do with us and gives us the cold shoulder? We may need to pray that Jesus will enable us to forgive and forget what’s happened to us. We can do this because our Lord’s love for each one of us, all of us, is such a forgiving love. That’s what’s so good about it. The New Testament offers us invaluable help in being able to constantly display a forgiving love.
Christianity revolutionised relationships between different kinds of people. Those who would have nothing to do with folk of a different ethnic background or social status became the best of friends; they became brothers and sisters in Christ. The Christian Church entered the scene as a radically new community in which long-standing differences and divisions founded on race, colour or social status became irrelevant.
This is especially evident in today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to his dear Christian friend, Philemon. This is Paul’s shortest and most personal letter, a masterpiece of tact, courtesy and diplomacy. In it, St Paul reveals his confidence in the power of Christ’s love to totally transform the fractured relationship between a slave-owner and his runaway slave. For a slave to run away like Onesimus did, was a major crime back then. While slaves were better off than free peasants, their masters had complete ownership of them and treated them as their property.
Rather than advocating outright the abolition of slavery, in his letters, St Paul puts the master/servant relationship on a radically new footing, as far as Christians are concerned. All Christians, regardless of their status in life, whether slave or free, servant or master, are equally brothers and sisters in Christ. In Christ’s community, status, rank, or class divisions no longer count. St. Paul makes it virtually impossible for Christians to continue being slave owners or treating their slaves as their property. In his stress on dignity and respect for slaves and their fair and generous treatment, St Paul goes far beyond any other ancient document on this subject.
The apostle Paul begins this letter by addressing Philemon as a “dear friend and co-worker” because he is grateful for everything Philemon has done for the Church that meets in his home, and the immense love Philemon shows to his fellow Christians. He wants Philemon to see how incalculably valuable his love for his fellow Christians has been. His love has motivated them to keep showing their love for their fellow Christians in a growing measure. God grant that we too may continue to grow in love for each other and thanking God for each other.
Philemon’s fellow Christians found him to be like a breath of fresh air. Paul is keen that Philemon sees what joy his love has brought to both Paul and the other members of the Church community, so that he will now share that same love with his runaway slave Onesimus. “I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother (v7).” We see how deeply Paul loves Philemon, how highly he esteems him and how completely he trusts him.
Having run away, Onesimus amazingly meets up with St Paul in prison, and through Paul he becomes a Christian. This enables Paul to call Onesimus his child and his own heart. Paul now bases his plea to Philemon to welcome back and forgive Onesimus, not on the basis of his apostolic authority, but rather, out of Christlike love, that goes the second mile and does much more than can be expected. Miracles happen when, in seeking reconciliation with someone estranged from us, we show them a love like that. God let Onesimus run away from his master so that he might become a believer in Christ and a Christian brother to both Philemon and Paul. The letter to Philemon is all about the radical difference faith in Christ can make in our relationships with one another. “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has passed away, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).” Christ alone enables us to let the past stay there and be forgotten.
Christ’s love for us determines how we relate to each other. We’re told of the early Christians that they loved
“new” Christians and embraced their friendship as soon as they met them. They had learned this from our Lord Jesus. Jesus liberated people of different colours, creeds and status with a love like they had never known before. He showed infinite kindness towards life’s “little people”, changing their lives forever. Our Lord loved the rich young ruler even when that wealthy young man walked away from Him. Jesus offers each one of us, all of us the power to take the initiative in reconciliation with those with whom we’re not on the best of terms, and enables us to tell them both how much Jesus loves them and how much we love them too.
When someone has offended us, we must remember how taking offence can so easily be used by Satan to keep us unreconciled with that person. Jesus says to us, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23).” Jesus wants us to take the initiative towards reconciliation and forgo our rights.
In today’s text, St Paul emptied himself of his rights as an apostle in the hope that Philemon would also waive his right to punish Onesimus, just as Jesus gave up His rights and came to this earth as a servant to save us from our sin and guilt. He paid the price for all our debts before God, so that our future would be so different from our past. We can now show each other the same kind of unconditional love Jesus has shown us. St. Paul was acting like Jesus to Onesimus, pleading the runaway slave’s cause, just as Jesus pleads our cause before the throne of God in heaven.
Paul does for Onesimus what Christ has done for each of us. He acts as if he were the runaway slave who wronged his master. Paul accepts responsibility for any loss Philemon might have sustained and offers to repay Philemon himself. Paul would be only too happy to keep Onesimus with him, because now as a fellow Christian, Onesimus has such great potential to help him in every way. In sending Onesimus back to his master, Paul feels he’s losing a part of himself. He says “I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you (v12).”
Practising a love only Jesus could inspire in him, Paul continues, “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me (v17).” That’s the kind of love our Lord wants to activate in us, a love that goes the second mile, a love that delights to do more than the bare minimum for the benefit and blessing of others. The revolutionary nature of Christlike love is best expressed in putting the needs of others ahead of our own. Those who brighten up someone else’s day, or lighten someone else’s load are of incalculable value to our church and our community.
Art Buckwald got into a taxi with a friend. When they got out, his friend said to the driver, “Thank you for the ride. You did a superb job of driving.”
The driver was stunned. “Are you a wise guy or something?” he replied.
“No, my dear man, and I‘m not putting you on. I admire the way you kept cool in heavy traffic.”
“Yeah”, the driver said, and drove off.
“What was all that about?” Art asked his friend.
“I am trying to bring love back to New York, he said. “I believe it’s the only thing that can save the city.”
“How can one man save New York?” Art asked.
“It’s not one man. I believe I have made the taxi driver’s day. Suppose he has twenty fares. He’s going to be nice to those twenty fares because someone was nice to him. Those fares in turn will be kinder to their employees or shopkeepers or waiters or even their own families. Eventually the goodwill could spread to at least 1,000 people. Now that isn’t bad, is it?”
May God bless our church and community with more men and women like Art Buckwald’s friend. Love puts the best construction on the actions of those we’re tempted to criticise. Instead of criticising others, love loves to say positive things to others. What prayer is to God, so criticism is to Satan. We need more encouragers in our state. There are already too many discouragers! Tell as many of your friends and relatives as soon as you can, and as often as you can, that you love them.
“Live in love as Christ loved us and gave Himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:2).” Amen.