1Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker. 10I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. 15For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. Philemon 1,10-21 (ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
(Thanks again to Edit-O-Earl!)
“Other’s can err but we don’t allow ourselves the same privilege.” That’s a phrase from a sermon by a Rabbi named Daniel Roberts. It’s not really all that profound, but it is very true, especially for all you perfectionists out there. You will really understand what the Rabbi is saying. Even those who are not perfectionists know a lot about making mistakes, because our lives are full of them. A famous Bishop once said “I saw a man this week that hasn’t made a mistake in 4000 years.” He was talking about a 4000 year old mummy. It’s only dead people who don’t make mistakes. We are not so lucky; we make them all the time. And we hate it when it happens. It’s bad enough to make a mistake but worse when we make a public one that everyone knows about. When we make them we are usually pretty hard on ourselves doing it.
I’ve made my share of mistakes. I remember when I was little. I wanted to make a good impression on the kids at my new school. We were playing softball and I was third base. I missed an easy grounder right to me, you know the kind practically hit my glove and slipped right between the legs. I hung my head in disgust, forgetting that there was a runner advancing round the bases. He made it all the way home while I moped trying to show deep remorse. I doubled up on my mistake, because I was trying to show how upset I was at missing the ball.
Do you remember that show the The Apprentice. One of the guys on there made a big mistake. (Actually I think Donald Trump seized on it more for ratings than anything else!) He was offered immunity from being eliminated. But thinking he had done a great job and was safe from getting fired by Trump he turned it down. Donald Trump was flabbergast, and fired him. As the young man was leaving the room he said, “I’ll not make that mistake again.” Because of a silly mistake he’s now out of the running for the coveted job.
We don’t often make life changing mistakes. Most of the time they are of no real consequence to us, we hear ourselves saying that tell-tale word “oops.” But once in a while we make a whopper, a mistake that we can’t correct, one that really makes a difference in our lives. You know the kind: The big ones that are life changing, we may say “oops” when they happen but the word doesn’t really cover the serious nature of them.
That’s what happened to a man named Onesimus. He made a mistake, his big mistake. His mistake is the reason why Paul wrote the letter to Philemon that is our text today. In a way, Onesimus is like the “Prodigal Son.” It seems (in as much as we can guess) that he was a slave who ran away from his master, Philemon, and may have even stolen something in the process. The punishment for what he had done was death. For slaves in the Roman Empire crucifixion was the most common way to carry out a death sentence. We don’t know why Onesimus ran; he may have wanted to see the world, or he may just have wanted to get away, but he ended up in Rome. When he discovered that a life of running away wasn’t all it was cracked up to be; it is thought that he went looking for Paul, who was in prison of the Roman government. Under house arrest. Paul was Philemon’s good friend. He had founded the church at Colossae. Where Philemon lived. Onesimus must have known Paul was in Rome, so he went to see if he could help him.
Paul does help, what he does is nothing less than Christ-like. He sends Onesimus back with a letter to Philemon asking that he (Paul) be charged for anything that is owed. Implying that Onesimus should be forgiven for running and even sent back to Paul to continue working with him. Martin Luther said that we are all like Onesimus, runaway slave. Jesus saves us from the punishment we so rightly deserve. “Receive him as you would receive me,” Paul wrote to the Onesimus’ master. Sounds a lot like Jesus words, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40 (ESV)
There are two ways that people usually handle their mistakes, both the big one and the small ones. There is the guilt route. You know that our society doesn’t really tolerate mistakes. Mistakes are seen as weak and foolish things we do that cost us. Mistakes are illogical and stupid. Just look at the ex-apprentice. Donald Trump must have called him stupid a dozen times. Oh sure, he learned from the mistake, but I wonder how long it will be before he’s hired, how long it’s going to be till he’s not known as the guy who made the “big stupid mistake” on television. When that’s the way we see life, when that’s the pressure that’s put on us, it’s no wonder that our teenagers suffer from a very high suicide rate. Our reaction when we make those dreaded mistakes is to go into automatic depression, like me when I hung my head after missing the ball. We are pushed toward self reevaluation. They cause us to re-consider our self worth. Others can err, but we don’t allow ourselves the same privilege. We hold ourselves accountable our whole life… and even beyond. And even when things seem to be going really well we dredge up our past errors, to temper our luck. We carry our mistakes as a burden, slung over our shoulders like a big sack. That’s the guilt trip we lay on ourselves with our mistakes. And, at one time or another we’ve all been there.
And yet there’s another way to take that sentence. Others can err, but we don’t allow ourselves the same privilege. Mostly, when we run up against a mistake we push it off on someone else. Call it the blame game. The more serious the error the more fingers we try to point away from ourselves. “If all else fails, blame someone else!” That kind of blame game has been going on since the very beginning. When God walked into the garden after Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the forbidden tree, he asked Adam, “What did you do?” “Hey,” the man answered, “the woman gave me the fruit. It’s her fault. And you know that it never would have happened if you hadn’t put her here.” And God asked her, “What have you got to say, Eve?” “It was the snake, he fooled me.” She answered. Adam tried to reflect the blame to Eve and God. Eve blamed the snake. God laid the blame squarely where it belonged, on both of them.
The reason we fret over our mistakes or try to give them to someone else is because we know what they really mean. Often we say, “Nobody’s perfect.” And that’s true. We are not perfect. Adam and Eve were, at first. They made more than a big mistake. It was a life or death issue. They willfully disobeyed God. They purposely defied his place in their lives. They followed their own desires and did the only thing God told them not to do. They condemned the whole human race to the same mistake, the same rebellion, and the same punishment. We talked about Onesimus running away from his master. And the penalty was death. Being a slave he may have had reason to run away. We don’t have good reason to reject God. And yet we do. Every day we try to make it on our own, and ignore him. If Onesimus had been caught he would have died on a cross. The punishment we deserve is no less than that. That’s what our mistakes continually remind us of. It’s not that God punishes us for our little flubs. We make mistakes because we aren’t the people that he created us to be. We don’t live up to the perfection that God has every right to expect from us. The punishment we should get is death.
In his letter to Philemon, Paul takes up Onesimus’ cause. Onesimus had made a mistake, a dangerous one. Paul could have appealed to Philemon on his authority as an apostle, in fact, as Philemon’s Pastor. But instead he chooses to present his case through love. He never tells Philemon what he should do. He just reminds Philemon of the special relationship they have. “Don’t forget that you really owe me your very self.” As if to say, “Jesus came into your life through me.” Paul doesn’t say, “Forgive Onesimus, free him, and send him back to me.” Instead he says, “I want you to do what you believe is right, based on your relationship with me, and mostly on your relationship with Jesus.” What kind of a relationships were those? Here are a few things Paul had said before that he may have wanted Philemon to think about:
"God demonstrates His love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
“Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners--of whom I (Paul) am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on Him and receive eternal life."
That was the background of their relationship to each other, and their relationship with Jesus. Of course we should remember that Onesimus’ mistake wasn’t just a little one, like a secretary’s typo. It was a serious problem. It was potentially fatal. It wouldn’t be an easy thing set aside. Philemon is asked to ignore the fact that he has a houseful of potential runaway slaves. Forgiving and forgetting is a dangerous precedent to set. But, of course, forgiveness is never easy.
Paul didn’t expect Philemon to forgive Onesimus’ mistake because he felt like forgiving him. He expected him to do it because God had already taken care of it; and not only that but because God had taken care of Philemon’s mistakes, too. He assumes that he will forgive because he too, had been forgiven. He assumes that because God has been gracious with him he will be gracious with his slave. Paul told Philemon to charge him for whatever Onesimus owed, and he would pay it. It was a reminder to Philemon that Jesus had already done that very thing for him.
We deal with our mistakes in different ways, but God deals with them in only one way. He dealt with our mistakes, our sin, in the death of Jesus. The cross that Onesimus deserved for running away was the cross that Jesus took. The death that we deserve for our rebellion is the death that Jesus took. Jesus died to forgive the sins of Onesimus and Philemon and Paul, of you and me, and to take care of the mistakes that we all make. We don’t have to carry them around anymore. They don’t have to trouble us to our graves. We don’t have to blame other people either. We can take the blame ourselves and remember that Jesus went to the cross and died for those mistakes too. We’ve been forgiven much. We can take those things that trouble us and give them to Jesus.
And even more importantly, when someone makes a mistake that hurts us, that cost us. We remember that we have been forgiven much. You know the largest room in the world is room for improvement. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.