Thursday, May 22, 2008

Philemon: Biblical Goodnes for the Short Attention Span

Truth be told, this entry was going to be about Hebrews. I even have a rought draft floating around in my head somewhere and a title, "Why I'm lovin' me some Hebrews". But every time I sit down to write about it, I end up going down several rabbit trails and have difficulty staying on topic. (Yes, shocking, I know.) I promise I'll write about it soon, because I AM loving me some Hebrews!

Distracted by all the things going on in my life right now, and knowing I couldn't wrap my head around all the ways that Hebrews is helping me look at said life with some biblical clarity, I resigned myself to blog a couple of quotes or a quick Top Ten List. Just as I was closing my bible, I noticed the book right before Hebrews -- Philemon.

If you've never read Philemon, you should. Go get your bible and read it. I'll wait right here..................Pretty good stuff, huh? Wedged between bible heavyweights Titus and Hebrews, Philemon is a short letter from the Apostle Paul that packs a punch. Now, Philemon is a friend of Paul's, a model Christian, an active worker for Christ, and a slave owner. While imprisoned, Paul meets Philemon's runaway slave, Onesimus. Onesimus has apparantly stolen something from his master and has fled to Rome. Under Roman law, Philemon had every right to put Onesimus to death.

Paul writes this letter to his friend to convince him not only to forgive this runaway slave, but to welcome him home as a brother in Christ. There are a whole lotta lessons in this short letter, but to keep me on task, I'm going to focus on one train of thought.

"Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul -- an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus -- I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and me." (2:8-11) Because Paul was an elder and an apostle, he could have commanded that Philemon welcome Onesimus home with open arms. But instead, he chooses to appeal to his friend's Christian commitment. He wanted him to want to take Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as an equal in the Body of Christ. I don't know about you, but when someone tells me I have to do something, my mind goes into overdrive coming up with all the reasons why I don't have to. When you counsel a friend about overcoming sinful behavoir, do you blast them with bible verses, or do you appeal to what you see as their strengths? Do you give them some wiggle room and trust that the Holy Spirit will have a say in the matter? I hope we all do that.

"I am sending him -- who is my very heart -- back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good -- no longer a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord." (2:12-16) Paul is saying, "This is a great guy, I'd love for him to stay with me, but because I love you both, I'm sending him back so that you can be blessed by what he has become. You haven't lost a slave, you've gained a loyal friend and a brother in Christ. But again, the ball's in your court." Again -- ample wiggle room.

"So, if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back -- not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have 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 ask." (2:17-21) When you know someone that's new to the faith, do you personally invest in their lives? Do you "cover their bets", so to speak? Or do you give them a big hug, welcome to the family and say, "Good luck with all of THAT!"? You wouldn't teach your child to swim one day and then let them go to the pool by themselves the next. You hang out in the shallow end, cheer them on as they tread water, and make sure you're there in case they get into trouble. Which, by the way, the ususally do. Trust that people will do the right thing, but don't be offended or surprised when they don't. Forgive them as Christ forgives you, help them up and get them back on track.

There's a whole bunch of good stuff in this little letter; many rabbit trails I could go down, but for now, It's enough for me to reflect on just a few of them. We never learn how the homecoming turns out, but I imagine a really cool reunion, where we see Onesimus walking toward Philemon (whose hoping that Onesimus will find his way back, but doesn't know for sure). Philemon looks up from what he's doing, recognizes Onesimus from a distance, stands up, starts walking toward his old slave and new friend. The camera zooms out for a wide shot, then fades to black....think last scene in The Shawshank Redemption.


JamieLee said...

Great post. I have spent a little time in Philemon, but I may stroll on back there again today. One of the ever-fabulous things about the Word of God is it's always relevant, fresh, and can always speak to you in a way it's never done before, even if you've read the same verse 100 times!

JamieLee said...

oh, by the way, the name of your blog CRACKS ME UP! and I want to know how the heck you came up with that?????

JamieLee said...

How big of a geek am I? This is the 3rd comment I'm leaving on your blog today! Just wanted to say I did go spend some time in Philemon today, AND you ended up in a post of mine on my other blog today:

Jeff said...

Great stuff- I really appreciated the part about how Paul made his appeal to Philemon- because he was so fantastic at finding ways to relate to people.

He knew that there was a church meeting in Philemon's house, and he asked him to accept Onesimas like he would accept anyone else that came to be a part of that Body- as a friend.

And, he explains to Philemon that Onesimus is no longer useless to him. He has been a help to Paul (he was one of two that delivered the letter to the Colossians on his way back to Philemon, who likely lived there too.)

What is so cool about the way Paul is talking here, is that Philemon's name means "friendly," and Onesimus' name means "useful."

Yeah, I totally see the "Shawshank" imagery.

artis1111 said...

Kathy, I hope you are having a great week. How is the church art comming?Kathy

Brother Raphy said...

Like it, strongly like this post!

JML said...

Good! I don't know about other people, but I honestly don't think about Philemon very much. I don't ever quote it, but when I come across it, it's always a welcome read.