Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Some Words for Wednesday - A bother or a brother? Philemon pt.2

(Some notes from the message shared recently when we gathered as a church.)

Last week, we considered the first few verses of the letter to Philemon.  Using the example of the apostle Paul, we found a simple recipe for prayer:

1. Take some thanksgiving.
2. Add some petitions.
3. Mix them together in a caring Christian community.

This week we'll focus more on the purpose of Paul's letter.  He is writing to Philemon, who lives with his family in Colosse: Philemon's son, Archippus, and slave, Onesimus, are both mentioned in Paul's letter to the Colossians.  Onesimus had run away from Colosse to Rome, but was now returning.  How should Philemon react?

The first question we might ask is: Why doesn't Paul tell Philemon not to have slaves?  When we think of slavery, we probably link it to racism, kidnapping and human trafficking.  We know that none of these are acceptable, so why doesn't Paul condemn slavery in his letter to Philemon?

Well, slavery in Paul's day was very different to what we understand as slavery today.  Tim Keller, in his book "The Reason For God", writes:

"In the first-century Roman Empire, when the New Testament was written, there was not a great difference between slaves and the average free person.  Slaves were not distinguishable from others by race, speech or clothing.  They looked and lived like most everyone else, and were not segregated from the rest of society in any way.  

"From a financial standpoint, slaves made the same wages as free labourers, and therefore were not usually poor.  Also, slaves could accrue enough personal capital to buy themselves out.  Most important of all, very few slaves were slaves for life.  Most could reasonably hope to be manumitted within ten or fifteen years, or by their late thirties at the latest." (pg.110)

So, Paul doesn't condemn the kind of slavery he witnessed at that time - although elsewhere, he does advise that if someone can buy their freedom, they should do so (1 Cor.7v21).  Instead, he believes slaves and masters would be active members of the same churches, and both would be transformed by the gospel.

So what does Paul teach Philemon regarding how he should react to the return of Onesimus?

1) Paul sees sons instead of slaves.  This is clearly true of Onesimus (v10).  The slave had run away to Rome, and been converted under Paul's ministry.  Now the apostle felt fatherly concern for Onesimus.  We don't read of Paul having a family, but that doesn't stop him having a parental role within a church.

This is also how Paul views Philemon.  It's implied that Philemon was converted under Paul's ministry - he owes Paul his life (v19)!  Even though Paul has apostolic authority, he doesn't command Philemon - instead he appeals to him (v8-9).  As a spiritual father, he does not exercise the authority the role implies, but expresses the compassion the role demands.

The family dynamic of a church is not only expressed in this letter, but throughout the letters of the New Testament.  A good example is given in 1 Timothy: Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father.  Treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity." (5v1-2)

A person's position before God is more significant than their position at work.  Within our own churches, we must be careful we do not divide into cliques based on income or occupation.  No one is to think too highly of themselves, but we are to "associate with the lowly" (Rom. 12v16).

2)  Paul sees a brother instead of a bother.  Onesimus had become a believer since running away - but what does that change?  We might think it only changes the way a person lives, but it's far more than that.

a) There is a change of identity (v16).  Onesimus has entered the family of God, and is now a child of God.  He is able to see himself differently, and the church should also see him differently.

b) There is a change of expection.  Paul says Onesimus was useless, but is now useful (v11-13).  Paul has a different expectation of Onesimus now he is saved - he will be useful to the church.

The gospel makes useless people useful!  Have you learned that in your church?  Or, if the world has written someone off, do you just follow suit?  It's possible for a church to create a culture where believers with "complicated" lives are seen only as recipients of ministry.  The church has no expectation of grace, so the individual shows little evidence of it.  Ultimately, the church ends up seeing a believer as a bother instead of a brother.

But if someone has accepted Christ as their Saviour and Lord, it is wrong for us to see them as only recipients of ministry.  If they are in Christ, they have gifts to use for the benefit of the church: "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." (1 Cor. 12v7)  

There should be lots of opportunities for involvement in the life of a church community.  We are not to demand involvement as though someone's salvation depended on it, but we are to anticipate their involvement as though their salvation produces it.  We are then to enjoy their involvement - to be "glad" of their service (v13) - while they discover the joy of truly belonging to a spiritual family.  

3)  Paul expects Philemon to be inspired instead of insulted.  The gospel regularly challenges us, and it may be tempting to reject it because we feel insulted.  The problem for many people is that, although God accepts us just as we are, He won't leave us just as we are.  The gospel's aim is to make us more like Jesus - and for that to happen, we have to be willing to put everything that contributes to our identity on the altar.

Paul doesn't demand the obedience of Philemon, but he does anticipate it, because he anticipates the transforming power of the gospel.  This power will transform Philemon beyond what could be demanded, just as it was transforming Onesimus.

So our aim as members of a church community is to inspire and encourage one another, and to anticipate and enjoy the evidence of our faith.  We are challenged to not have favourites, but to treat all believers as active members of a spiritual family.

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