Monday, January 10, 2011

Apostles' Tweets: Church of the Refreshers

Preached January 9, 2011
Scripture readings: Philemon 1-21; Mark 9:33-37

If the internet network called Twitter had existed in New Testament times, Paul’s letter to Philemon would have been as close as Paul (with all his wordiness) could have gotten to a tweet. During the next few Sunday’s we will look at the four tweets of the New Testament; the letters that are so short that no one ever thought about dividing them into chapters.

I love Paul’s letter to Philemon. It is beautiful. It never sets out the plan of the gospel. It never describes or explains much about who Jesus is, or what Jesus has done; except to tell us that Jesus is the Christ (the King), and that Jesus has good things for us. But it is full of the consequences of the gospel. It is full of the changes that happen in people whose lives are touched by the love and the good news of Jesus.

There is a word that is used a couple of times in this very short letter; and that is the word “refreshing”. Apparently Philemon was a person you could count on to be simply a refreshing person. It was typical of Philemon to find a way to do the thing that refreshed others. (Verses 7 and 20) Paul was asking Philemon to be refreshing again under very prickly, and emotional, and dangerous conditions. The danger came because Philemon held the life of an escaped slave in his hands.

Onesimus was legally a slave. Legally he was owned by Philemon. Apparently, Onesimus had hatched a plan of escape in which he robbed his owner, used the money he stole to travel to Rome, and created a new identity for himself as a free man.

The Roman Empire was a slave-owing society. Some historians estimate that there were about sixty million slaves in the Roman Empire during New Testament times.

In a slave-owning society, it is very important to make a strict example of escaped slaves. Acceptable punishments for escaping ranged from branding, to being sent to labor in the mines, to death by crucifixion. Not being firm in enforcing the penalties for escaping would encourage other slaves to take a chance for freedom.
Philemon was a slave-owner: a wealthy man; probably an aristocrat. His family had always owned slaves. All his friends owned slaves. If his friends got word of any kindness on his part to an escaped slave, they would see his action as a betrayal of the code by which they lived. They would see it as a betrayal of the standards that held the whole empire together.

To not punish Onesimus would make Philemon an outcast within his social class. He would lose face. It would cost him in his financial relationships.

It would draw unwanted, official attention to his Christian faith and this would endanger his life and wealth. It would endanger his family, and the Christians who worshiped in his house.

Paul, in this letter, did not ask Philemon to grant Onesimus his freedom, but he asked the slave-owner to do much more than that; and he said that he knew that Philemon would do more than he asked. (Verse 21) Paul promised to repay Philemon for anything that Onesimus had stolen from him (and Paul inserted the form of a contract within this letter, and signed it). Paul asked Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a brother in Christ; for the slave had not been a Christian when he first escaped. Paul asked Philemon to accept Onesimus back just as if Onesimus was Paul, himself.
Paul did the most daring thing by writing this request to the slave-owner, and making the slave Onesimus the very person to carry the letter across the Mediterranean and put the letter, bearing Paul’s signature, in his master’s hand.

Think of the gesture that Paul was setting in motion. Think of the confrontation into which Paul deliberately sent a brand-new Christian, toward whom he felt like a father.

For a slave to escape was an attack on the honor of his owner. It was like a slap in the face. What would you do if someone slapped you in the face? What if you extended your hand to shake another person’s hand and they pulled their hand away from yours. Jesus said, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39)

People seldom slap anyone in the face any more, but plenty of us have had outrageous and offensive things said and done to us, and we have done such things to others. We all have.

These are slaps in the face. I had a friend who explained to me that he was learning karate so that he would know what to do when he ran out of cheeks. Onesimus had virtually slapped both of Philemon’s cheeks; first by robbing him, and then by escaping him.

Now Onesimus took a long journey back to face those cheeks again. It took him weeks. He boarded a ship at Ostia, the harbor of the city of Rome, at the mouth of the Tiber; sailed east to the old Greek lands that are now called Turkey; landed at Ephesus and took the road inland through the mountains to Laodicea.

Onesimus knew the daily drill of his master, and others of his social class. Even the rich got out of bed at dawn.

The rich had followers called clients. They supported him, and he took care of them.
An hour after sun-up the clients of the wealthy man would call on him. He was their “patron” or “patronus”.

They would line up at the door of the patronus’ mansion. There a slave would lead them in (one by one, or group by group). The master and patron Philemon would be seated in the big central room called the atrium. A slave with paper (or papyrus) and pen and ink would sit at a small desk, within reach, to write notes or make records of any business that took place.

Onesimus stood in that line of clients, one morning. A fellow slave, who remembered him, met him at the door, with a surprised and rather frightened look, and led him in to see the master. Surprise is the least of the emotions that appeared on the patronus’ face. Onesimus would bow, and hand the letter to his master, who would hand it over to the slave at the desk, who also looked surprised (and more than a little frightened), and that slave would read Paul’s letter to their master.
Philemon heard the words of his friend Paul, telling him: “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains….I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you….So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” (Verses 10, 12, 17)

There is a story behind this story (although we know nothing about it); how Onesimus escaped from his Christian owners and used the money he stole from them to make his way to Rome. Rome was the center of all legal authority in the empire, but it was also one of the best places in the empire where one could create a new identity for oneself. Onesimus had seen the Christian faith and life in his owners (the ones who were so good at refreshing others) and in the people who met to worship Christ in their home; but he was not aware of anything about their faith that he was not willing to leave behind for the sake of his freedom.

Paul may not have known or even noticed Onesimus in Philemon’s house (because, as a slave, Onesimus had mastered the art of invisibility). But Onesimus had known Paul; had seen and watched him, had heard and listened to him, without any apparent affect. Onesimus made his way to Rome, and something must have happened to him there.

Something went wrong. We don’t know what it was. But whatever happened to him made him look for Paul.

Paul was probably under house arrest at the time. The Book of Acts (28:16 & 30) tells us that the first part of Paul imprisonment saw him renting a house, or an apartment, at his own expense, under guard. Whether or not Paul wore real chains at that time, he was not a free man. He was under constant surveillance and restraint.

Something happened to Onesimus that led him to look for Paul in that great city of perhaps a million people. But Paul wouldn’t have been hard to find, because the court knew where he was, and Paul was someone who could not be kept quiet.

Somehow Onesimus knew that Paul had the answer to what he needed. Perhaps he needed to be refreshed, and he knew that his own master had learned the art of refreshing from Paul. Paul praised Philemon for lessons well learned: “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.” (Verse 7) Onesimus found Paul, and was so deeply refreshed by him that he became Paul’s baby boy.

It takes scarcely five minutes to read Philemon. Read it for yourself.
Paul was on trial for his life. And yet Paul took upon himself a responsibility for the life and faith of a fugitive slave. He made himself responsible for making things right between the slave and his master.

Read how painfully polite Paul is; how playfully polite he is; how careful he is about Philemon’s feelings and sense of honor. Read how extremely careful Paul is to show Philemon what a very important person the fugitive slave is.

Onesimus is a slave’s name. He must have changed it (taken on an alias) when he escaped, or else his name would have actually given him away and gotten him arrested.

But now Onesimus carried his slave name again: which means “profitable”, “useful”, “helpful”. And Paul made word-play upon the slave name in order to make the offended owner smile. (I read it and think, “Good old Paul!”) Paul said it like this: “Once, old “Useful” was useless to you; but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” (Verse 11) Paul would seemingly say or do anything to bring grace, and mercy, and peace to a poisonous relationship; an offended honor; a matter of law and conscience; a matter of life and death.

Here we see that Paul is a master of refreshing. Knowing what it means to be a brother or sister in Christ is the powerful secret that motivated Paul. It surely came from what Paul hoped that Philemon would learn: “a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” (Verse 6) This is what filled Paul with all that courtesy, with all that generosity of spirit that Paul showed, and what he begged for from Philemon. “Philemon, please refresh my heart in Christ.”

And this tweet from Paul is what the church is to be. We are to approach problematic relationships, and offenses, and scandals, and slaps to the face within the church, in the exact spirit we see in Paul. The family of Philemon, and his wife Apphia, and their son Archippus were leaders in the church; and this same spirit is essential to the heart of leaders in the church. This is the spirit that turns leaders and simple Christians into servants.

The New International Version has Paul saying this about Philemon: “I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.” Faith in the Lord and love for our brothers and sisters in Christ are a single package. As Christians, our love for others is indispensable to a living faith, if we claim to be people of faith.

But this translation is not as good as it could be. It could be better translated as: “I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints” (Revised Standard Version): faith toward the Lord and all the saints.
Somehow both love and faith apply to Jesus and to our brothers and sisters. Yes, we even apply our faith to them. Paul tells the slave owner, “Welcome him as you would welcome me.”

Imagine how difficult this would be. For a slave owner to welcome a fugitive slave and thief, like that, would take real guts. It would take a deep and determined faith. And this is how the church and its teachers and leaders and members are to be.

It is even more daring than that. We are to see others as Christ: even the people we think of as the littlest, and who are least able to give us anything, or do anything for us. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37) This is not just an instruction for the treatment of children. The disciples were arguing about which them, as grown-ups, was better than the others.
The identification of Jesus with other people, the littlest of people, is something that no human being can ever outgrow. It is all about who is great and about who is least, no matter how old, or young, or talented, or rich, or well connected, or not.

When your love and faith toward the Lord Jesus is also focused on your brothers and sisters, and toward your potential brothers and sisters, then you are sharing your faith. What comes from Jesus is flowing through you. And then, and only then, will you get what Paul wanted Philemon and you to get, “a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” (Verses 5 & 6)

We only think that we understand every good thing we have in Christ. We do not really understand, at all, until we let the love and faith we have in Christ brim over toward others.

That is the faith, and that is the love, that takes the risks that carry us beyond our limit. It is only when we cross the limit of ourselves that we will come to the end of our own resources; and only then do we get into the good things of Christ. Only when we understand every good thing we have in Christ will we truly be refreshed with the gospel. Only then will the good news of Jesus refresh us. We don’t know anything or have anything worth giving until then.

Tradition has it that, by the end of the first century, the fugitive slave became the bishop of the church in the city of Ephesus. It was there, in Ephesus, that the Christians, toward the end of the first century, organized the project that gathered together all the letters of Paul that could still be found; that had not been lost or destroyed. Onesimus would have played an important part in having this short letter, this tweet, that he had held in his own hand, be copied and joined in the beginning of the book we call the New Testament.

The Lord’s Supper is the place where we meet every good thing we have in Christ, and Jesus the Christ comes to us as our refreshment. When we know that every good thing we have comes from him then we will be able to refresh others, and to be the church of the refreshers, and give to others what we have received.

1 comment:

  1. Good morning, Pastor Denis, and thank you so much for posting this. I really am much into this and your inspirational post was what mostly I needed to read today. I also love the pictures you pair with your posts.

    Sorry I've not been around lately...I 've been very very busy with work. Not much time left for me to visit my favourite blogs.
    I am REALLY thankful for your lovely comments on my blog. Highly appreciated!!
    Thank you so much. I love reading them. :)

    Hope you have a good Sunday!