Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa;
Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I 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, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” (Philemon, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
It's a personal letter. Paul to Philemon. One of the shortest in the Bible. The length hardly makes it unimportant. This letter of St. Paul to Philemon is about faith in action. Onesimus the slave has run away and likely stole something from his master Philemon in the process. In desperation he has come to Paul who is imprisoned. Paul had preached at his master's house. Philemon and his family became Christians and the church at Colossae met in his house. Onesimus, the slave, had heard the good news about Jesus Christ. Onesimus, in desperation, goes to Paul with his sin. And Paul pleads for him for the sake of the Gospel.
Now, we would side with Onesimus, the runaway slave. But this is not Uncle Tom's Cabin. We cannot automatically press our view of slavery onto the ancient world. We, in fact, have no idea what the actual relationship between Onesimus and Philemon was. We have no idea of the conditions of Onesimus' service to Philemon. In the ancient world slavery was is varied as employment. And, in fact, in some cases slavery was equivalent to it. Many slaves were freed by their masters for their hard dedicated and faithful service. And on the other hand many slaves were brutally treated by their masters. The human heart certainly doesn't need an institution like slavery to show its true nature. And in some ways slavery was a necessary social construct. Many slaves depended on the institution for their welfare. Many masters depended on their slaves to provide services and products for the community. In the ancient world, there were good masters and bad masters. They were slaves who were faithful and those who were not. Jesus, in his parables, encourages those who are caught in the institution of slavery to be faithful to their masters, and for masters to treat their slaves fairly. But the matter covered here in the letter is not about the institution of slavery, whether it is right or wrong. Paul's letter to Philemon is a letter of appeal for Philemon to remember who he is in Christ. To remember what Jesus has done for him. And to act according to the grace that God has given him.
Remember it is a personal letter. A personal pastoral letter. Pastor Paul appeals to Philemon for the sake of Onesimus. Paul has a relationship with these men. He has preached the gospel to Philemon and Philemon is a baptized believer in Jesus Christ. He has also preached the gospel to Onesimus and Onesimus is a baptized believer in Jesus Christ. What is understood between them is the forgiveness that Jesus has won for them on the cross. For whatever reason, Onesimus has sinned against his master by running away. Philemon is well within his rights in demanding punishment. Onesimus has been and unfaithful servant. Onesimus life is forfeit. Crucifixion is the standard punishment for runaway slaves. And yet, with the cross in the background, Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon. Or better yet, because of The Cross in the background, Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon.
The picture is this. Onesimus' sin against Philemon, his unfaithfulness to his master, is ultimately sin against God. God requires us to be faithful to those who are put over us. Just like you and I are required to be faithful citizens in our country and faithful workers for our employers. It is a sin to be lazy, unproductive, and leave our work for others to do. And while our sin against our employers is indeed against our employers, ultimately our sin is against the God who gives us work to do to provide for ourselves and our families. The fact that we are unfaithful workers is only a reflection of the fact that we live in a broken relationship with God. It is the first table of the law: love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and with all your mind. And the second table of the law: love your neighbor as yourself. You and me and Onesimus show that we do not love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind, because we do not love our neighbors as ourselves. There are many times when we neglect our work. There are many days we do not give our employers a full days work for a full day's pay. And we deserve to be punished. But what we deserve goes even deeper than that. Sin against our employers is sin against God. It is a rejection of the way God has given us to live. It is open rebellion against Him. And open rebellion against God deserves nothing but God's anger in punishment. In other words, rejection of God requires God's rejection of us. That is what hell is, eternal separation, eternal confirmation of living in a broken relationship with God. And so we, like Onesimus, deserve the death penalty. We deserve the cross.
The Cross is behind Paul's letter to Philemon. Philemon too, is a sinful man. Paul recognizes this sin in his letter. He reminds Philemon that he has been saved through the preaching of the Good News and owes Paul his "very soul". In other words, Philemon is a sinner who has received God's forgiveness through faith in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Paul says "forgive as you have been forgiven." Or to quote our Lord's Prayer, "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." Philemon undoubtedly prayed these words many times. These words have their meaning in The Cross. Philemon has received the gift of faith and through that gift forgiveness of his sin. The gift was given him freely by God's undeserved love. To be unforgiving, or require payment for forgiveness is to reject the gift and the giver.
From Luther's Small Catechism:
The Fifth Petition
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
What does this mean?
We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.
Philemon shows he has received forgiveness by giving it freely to his slave Onesimus who has sinned against him. He shows what forgiveness really is. Onesimus has no means to restore their relationship. Onesimus has no means to take care of the debt he owes Philemon for his theft and his desertion. If Philemon is to forgive, he must do it while Onesimus is undeserving. He must do it by grace, that is undeserved love.
And yet pastor Paul goes one step further. He offers to pay any debt Onesimus owes. He offers to bear the cross of Onesimus' sin. As part of his appeal and as an example to Philemon, Paul acts just as his Savior, Jesus Christ. Jesus takes our sin to the cross. He bears the debt we are unable to pay. He does it freely, without cost, by God's grace.
And this is your story, too. Your sin has been forgiven in the cross of Jesus Christ. In other words, The Cross is behind your story. You have been forgiven for your unfaithfulness. You have been forgiven for being unproductive. You have been forgiven for leaving your work undone. You have been forgiven for your rebellion against the God who has given you all these things to do. Jesus takes your punishment to the cross. And offers you forgiveness through faith and trust that what he does, he does for you. Without what you're Savior does you have no means to restore your relationship with God. The debt must be paid for you, like Paul pays the debt for Onesimus.
Now we turn to the most difficult part. It's your turn to forgive. I'm not here to command you to forgive. Although like Paul, as your pastor, it is within my office to command you. What I wish for you, I appeal to you, is to forgive those who sinned against you in light of the forgiveness you have received in Jesus Christ. Jesus forgiveness is given to you, undeserved, by God's grace, that is undeserved love. You can forgive, and show what The Good News truly is. It is free forgiveness to those who are undeserving. It is forgiveness that flows from the cross to you, and through you to those around you. Paul says Onesimus (whose name means "useful") was in his sinfulness useless to Philemon. Through forgiveness Onesimus and Philemon can be reconciled. And Onesimus once again become useful. In other words the broken relationship can be restored. Forgiveness is the only thing that can restore your broken relationships. It is yours to give. It is a wonderful gift you have to give. It all comes from our Savior Jesus Christ, who took our sin, and the sin of the whole world to the cross. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.