Sunday, September 4, 2016
A man found himself in considerable trouble. His actions affected people he cared about and left him exposed, without support, and on the run. So he ran until he met a man who told him about a Jew who had died on a cross. This was no ordinary Jew, but rather the Messiah, the Son of God, and God in the flesh. And when this Jew, this God-man, died on the cross, he did it for everyone else. He went to death – as if God could die – for the sake of all sinners.
So this man is on the run and meets someone who tells him about Jesus, and he listens. He listens with his heart and as he does, he examines his own life. Something inside him awakens. He knows it is true. As astounding as it sounds, he knows Jesus truly is the Savior. He knows he cannot go another day without Jesus.
All he can do is tell the other, that he believes the story and that he wants to follow Jesus. He was on the lam, a man with sin branded on him, his own past chomping at his heels. He was running a straight line, a frozen rope toward the horizon. But he gets rerouted when he hears the Gospel, and realizes he could spend the rest of his life running and he’d never outrun failure.
Instead of escape, he falls into the arms of our loving God.
This man’s name is Onesimus. He was a first century slave, possibly in the city of Colosse, a town in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. He was indentured in the home of Philemon and his wife Apphia. The household included the parents, their children and their slaves. Today, slavery is a scorned institution. We think of it as inherently evil. Slavery today usually consists of young girls and sometimes young boys who have been kidnapped and are kept as sex objects their owners rent out to lecherous men. It is completely hideous, dark, and universally illegal. That’s slavery in 2016.
In Rome, Greece, and Colosse in 40 A.D., slavery was absolutely legal, an accepted practice. The crime would be if a slave did what Onesimus did – run away. He fled his home and his master, and his flight injured everyone in the household. With him gone, the workload on other slaves increased. The household was a recently converted to faith in Jesus. They learned, under the teaching of the Apostle Paul, a new, deeper form of love for each other. The entire household was changing they grew in their understanding of the Holy Spirit. When Onesimus fled, the slaves left behind as well as the owners and the family would all be heartbroken that he abandoned them. They were a family.
True, the family had levels. Philemon, the father, was the head of the household. The children were children of privilege who had access to education and property and wealth. Onesimus and the other slaves sat at the bottom rung, with no authority and no choice but to obey. That’s how things were. In all likelihood, Onesimus was the one in the bunch who did not submit to the Lordship of Jesus when Paul visited them on his way through Colosse.
The others in the family, especially the head of the home, Philemon, along with a few other Colossian households heard Paul talk about the salvation that is found in Jesus Christ, believed, repented of their sins, and were baptized. The conversion of these households was the beginning of the Colossian Church. But Onesimus wanted no part in it. The family became a Christian family, and when he had the opportunity, he fled.
He made it as far as Ephesus, 125 miles on foot. He had been on the run for over week, maybe as long as a month. Then, someone spotted him. Maybe a Centurion or a nosey citizen noticed a brand on his arm that signified he was slave. Maybe he was caught stealing bread. Whatever happened, he ended up in prison. There, he bumped into the same man who changed his household with stories about Jesus. He found himself stuck in prison alongside the Apostle Paul.
How long were they interred together? It was long enough that Philemon saw a fuller picture what Jesus-followers are like. In those ancient prisons, you would starve if your own friends or family members did not bring you food. You’d freeze if they did not bring warm clothes and blankets.
Paul never lacked for anything. Different men and women with names like Timothy, Epaphras, Mark, Luke, and Priscilla and her husband Aquilla made a steady procession to the prison gates. “Another visitor for Paul.” The guards were weary. But they dare not interfere because Paul shared everything he received with the other prisoners and with the centurions. He was kind to the Romans!
The other prisoners were full of despair and here was Paul, praying, praising God, and singing hymns that burst with joy and great happiness. Some became annoyed with Paul’s endless exuberance, but other paid close attention. His ideas were far out there, very different than anything else anyone in was claiming in the Greek-speaking world.
He said there was one God – the God of Israel. That was it. He said, that God inhabited human flesh, a Galilean named Jesus. That Jesus was crucified, a fate he accepted as death the where sin leads. But then, Jesus rose on the third day, defeated death, conquered sin, and made a way for all his followers to have life as sons and daughters of God in the eternal Kingdom of God.
It was one thing to hear Paul say all this in the comfort of Philemon’s home. In luxury, Onesimus figured Paul was one more Greek-speaker full of weird ideas. Now, in chains, Paul said the same thing, with the same enthusiasm. In this misery, Paul poured forth the same joy. Here, Onesimus could not ignore it.
He stayed with Paul and asked question after question. In turn, Paul asked him questions and when he did, Onesimus felt as if Paul could see straight into his soul. However, Paul’s intrusion into his heart was not abusive or even unwelcome. Onesimus did not feel violated. He felt healed. He felt new.
Paul and his associated eventually managed to achieve Paul’s freedom from the Ephesian prison. By then, Onesimus was one of his associates too. Paul was his teacher. Paul was his father in the faith. He would do anything Paul asked him to do. He would go anywhere. And Paul asked Onesimus to go to the hardest place.
Paul wrote the letter that is in our Bible – the book called Colossians. Then Paul penned a second letter, a more personal one. Onesimus would carry both letters back to Colosse, back to the household he had fled, back the fellow slaves he abandoned, back to the family, Philemon’s family that held legal authority over him. In Christ, Onesimus was a free man and a son of God. In the eyes of the law, he was a runaway slave and owed a debt to Philemon.
The letter Paul writes which in our Bibles is the book of Philemon addresses this debt Onesimus owes to Philemon. But that issue is just a prefix to a much deeper one – the question of who we are in Christ. In the 1st century world, Philemon was a man of wealth, a property owner. Onesimus was a slave. Paul was an itinerant teacher, a Jewish scholar, a Roman citizen, and a maker and seller of tents. What does it mean when the citizen, the property owner, the tent maker is a follower Jesus? Today, what does it mean when the school teacher or the construction site foreman or the mortgage banker is a disciple of Jesus Christ?
Please note that Paul did not try to protect Onesimus from a potentially angry Philemon. He sent Onesimus to face Philemon. In terms of the world, Philemon held all the power in that exchange. But Paul is making it plain that he expects Philemon to not operate according to the terms of the world. This letter, by virtue of it being in our New Testament, gives us the same message.
In the Kingdom of God, we deal with each other. We do not leave wrongs unaddressed. We confess to one another. We give one another mercy. We welcome each other in love. We repent of our sins. Onesimus returned to the household he had abandoned. Philemon, as instructed by Paul, was to receive Onesimus as a brother – not a slave. Onesimus could not command this or expect it. He could only do his part. He stood before Philemon and stood as one who fully devoted to Jesus.
In the Kingdom of God, we give forgiveness. The open end of this story is Philemon’s response. We don’t know what he did. We hope he embraced Onesimus. We hope everyone in the household rejoiced and celebrated Onesimus’ baptism. But we don’t know. The story is left for us to finish.
We are to live as if the Kingdom has already come in fullness. We know Jesus. We know he rose. We know the Holy Spirit is with us now. We are to live here by the attitudes and values of the future Kingdom that is coming when Jesus returns.
Paul teaches us by showing the change that happened in Onesimus. What occurred him, when the Holy Spirit filled his life, would splash out and onto the entire household of Philemon. Onesimus had been a runaway. In Christ he became a help to Paul and to all in Philemon’s home. His relation to Philemon had been a time-bound relationship, one restricted to the conventions of the Greco-Roman world. In Christ, the relationship transformed and they – slave and slave owner – found themselves on equal ground at the foot of the cross. There and in the light of the empty tomb, they were brothers forever. And Paul expected them to begin living that reality immediately.
How much can our relationships change we consider we are dealing with brothers and sisters with whom we will share space at the Lord’s table? How much more love will come from us? How much more compassion and mercy, from us to everyone we meet? Onesimus went from being powerless, to one who stood in the power of the risen Lord. He went from being one with no name to one named among the followers of Jesus. He had been a slave, but he was now a brother.
We wish Paul would have just written plainly – all slavery is wrong. It absolutely is and the great abolition movements have been led by Christians. The great abolitionists were fighting for freedom because of their faith in Jesus. To be a voice of liberty and equality is to live out our discipleship. But for Paul the change began in the heart. His world would not do away with cruel institutions like slavery until the hearts of slave owners changed.
Our world has plenty of cruel institutions that run contrary to the ways of Jesus, institutions that will be obliterated and absent from the Kingdom. Pornography is one example. Predatory lending another. Institutionalized discrimination another. As Christians we can fight these institutions. Ultimate success comes when those who profit from sin meet Jesus and experience new life in Him. This meeting with Jesus happens as we – the people of God’s church – live in anticipation of the Kingdom by living Kingdom values in our daily lives. It begins with love.
Imagine the way the world might change, if the ways of the Kingdom were to become the ways of the world. No, maybe that’s too big. Zero in. Imagine one person in your life. Maybe it is a Christian, maybe not. Maybe this person routiney angers you – a cranky neighbor, an angry uncle. Maybe it is a supervisor at work who pushes you around. Imagine one person and see yourself interacting with that person this week. Get that picture in your mind of you and this other person in some kind of meeting or conversation that will happen this week.
Here’s the catch! You go into the exchange with this person who has been difficult for you as a disciple. The next time you two interact, you’re aware that you’re going into it as a follower of Jesus. Now imagine how that knowledge guides you as you prepare to love this person you don’t even want to like.
May that person go from bully over you to friend of yours.
May she go from antagonist to protagonist.
May the relationship move from a tense exchange to a refreshing encounter.
May he move from enemy to brother.
May he move from enemy to brother.
May our world see transformation in Christ through the change that happens as each of us live as Kingdom people in our daily lives.