September 9, 2007 - Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
I just got a letter from Paul. I can’t believe it. It came to me in the hand of a man I never thought I’d see again, one I thought was gone for ever. It was that good-for-nothing Onesimus! He used to be my slave, but he ran away. So I was flabbergasted when he walked into our house as the brothers and sisters were gathering for worship. He came with Tychicus, who brought a letter to the whole church from Paul. But Onesimus walked right up and handed me this scroll, saying it was a personal letter to me from the apostle himself. It certainly looks like his seal. Hmmm.
He begins, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, Evidently they’re still holding him in Rome. and Timothy our brother, The young man is with him. That’s good. Paul needs friends who can stand by him.
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, That’s kind, he calls me a friend. I wish I could do something to help him. to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home. So I’ve got to remember that to tell Apphy and Archie that Paul says “Hey!” to them. And to our whole church here. Apphia is my dear wife and Archippus is my son. They help me host and teach the believers who meet here at my house. Our little fellowship just keeps growing.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. You never get just an ordinary greeting in Paul’s letters. You feel blessed just reading the opening, reminded that grace and peace are holy gifts from God, poured out from heaven through His Son. Well, let’s see what my old friend has to say.
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, Picture him kneeling down in his prison praying for me of all things! because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. What love he has, to praise my humble efforts for the Lord. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. It’s true. The more I take part in what Jesus is doing, the more I understand His goodness to me. When I give a gift to a poor brother, I realize even more how much Jesus gave me. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints. I’ve given him joy? Why he taught me the Good News! His teaching lifted me out pagan darkness. Whatever I’ve done is nothing compared to what he’s done for me. If my service here in our little house church gives him joy and encouragement, then that’s truly grace.
But what’s this? Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, Order me? What’s he talking about? One minute he’s praising and encouraging and now he wants to give me orders? He doesn’t have to order me. I’ll do whatever he wants. yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. Yes, of course. Sure, I’d take orders from Paul. He’s an apostle, called by God. He’s got the authority if anyone has. But I’ll do whatever he wants just because I want to. I love him. He’s my father in the Lord. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus There you have it. That’s Paul’s authority over me. His whole life of faithfulness to God and to all of us. He never wavered for the Lord, even went prison chains loomed ahead. He never quit telling people like me about the love of Jesus. What wouldn’t I do for him?…
Oh wait. Wait a minute! I didn’t expect this. He’s writing to me about that runaway, that rotten slave! I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, His son! By Caesar’s non-existent beard, this is crazy. Paul gone mad in jail… Where was I? my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. I can’t believe it. That good-for-nothing went to Rome, and he met Paul! Onesimus was my number one slave. I never treated him badly. I only beat him when he deserved it. But he ran away from me last year. He stole the household funds and took off one night. He vanished from Colossae and no one saw where he went. He must have spent my money on a ticket to Rome. And there, somehow, he must have run into Paul. And now Paul is calling him son. This is hard to take… oh, but it gets worse:
Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. A pun. He talks to me about this lousy slave and he throws in a pun! Just like Paul. “Onesimus” means “useful” in Greek, you know. So “Useful” was useless and now he’s useful again. Give me a break! And supposedly useful not just to Paul, but to me no less. We’ll see about that.
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. Well, duh, he’s here isn’t he? But “who is my very heart?” Ouch, it sounds like he loves that slave as much as he loves me! I don’t know if my heart can take much more of this. Oh well, let me finish this little epistle out. It can’t get any worse, can it?
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. Ouch again. “Take my place.” I owe Paul a lot you know. He led me to faith in Christ and showed me the path to eternal joy. I pledged him my help whenever he wanted it. But how could I possibly help him there? He’s 900 miles away, in prison, in Rome. So now, in the strange ways of God, my lost slave finds his way there and becomes the help I couldn’t be. O.K., fine. I’m glad Paul got a little comfort out of him. Maybe it pays back a little of what Onesimus cost me. But what more could Paul ask?
But I did not want to do anything without your consent, Well, I would hope not! so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Listen to Paul tact. About as subtle as a Roman legion. No pressure, right. It’s not an order, he’s not forcing me. He’s just appealing to faith and friendship. What can I do? If he wants Onesimus, he can have him. What I’d like to do is what any smart master would: mark his face so everyone knows he ran away, and put an iron collar on him. Then cut my losses and sell him cheap. He’ll probably run away again as soon as he gets the chance, and steal even more the next time! But I’ll send him back to Rome for Paul if that’s what my friend wants. Good riddance.
Perhaps the reason he separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good Have him back? What’s he talking about? I thought he said he wanted him. What do I want with this useless “Useful,” runaway? Paul can have him. But Paul says here no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. Brother? He’s got to be kidding. First the pun, now this. This is just another joke, right? I’m not about to call some slave “brother,” especially a no-good, useless, lazy, runaway like this one. Is this the way Paul gets his laughs sitting there in a Roman jail house? Well, forget it. “Brother.” I don’t like this joke. Maybe I’ll just burn this letter. No…
He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. In the Lord. Ouch, ouch, ouch. This may be no joke. Paul always taught me that in the Lord there’s no difference between people. How’d he put it in that letter he wrote to the Galatians? “Neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” I remember, but I didn’t imagine what it could mean. I’m supposed to look at a man who is my own property and call him “brother.” I don’t know if I can.
So if you consider me a partner, You know I do, Paul. Partner, friend, father in the Lord. I owe my faith to you. I owe my salvation to you. And you’re tearing me up inside… welcome him as you would welcome me. Welcome him like I would welcome Paul? Oh that reminds of another letter he wrote, I think it was to the Romans. I think he told them, “Welcome each other just as Christ has welcomed you.” Paul welcomed me into Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus welcomed me. I would certainly welcome Jesus or Paul. I’d give my right arm to see Paul again. I throw my arms around him and praise God if he came back here. But Onesimus? Welcome him? Oh, Paul…
If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. Well, yeah he’s done me wrong! He cost me 500 denarii to start with. Then he stole about 263, and there’s a year’s labor I’ve lost… Maybe a little interest on all that. Let’s call it a thousand. So Paul can just send me… Oh wait. I’m not getting it, am I? Paul’s offering, but he hasn’t got a thousand denarii to spare. He’s in jail, living on what Christian brothers and sisters send him. How could I ask him…? Huh, he even signed it. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. For sure it’s really him. Even Luke the doctor’s handwriting isn’t as bad as Paul’s. So I’ve got a signed blank check from Paul. But I can’t use it. Onesimus may supposed to be useful, but this promise is useless to me. Even though he says I will pay it back look he goes right on to say not to mention that you owe me your very self. Oh no. What was I even thinking? Paul pay me? When I owe my soul to Paul? When he preached to me the gospel that saved me from hell and put me right with the one true God? Who am I kidding? I can’t ask Paul for anything. I owe him more than I can ever repay.
I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. In Christ. How could I ask more benefit from Paul? From the Lord? In Christ, I need now to benefit Paul, even, if it were possible, to benefit my Lord. That’s what this is about, not what they’re going to do for me, but what I’m going to do for them. And what am I going to do? What will I do now about Onesimus?
But what’s different here? I’m still a master. Onesimus is still a slave. We both believe in Jesus, but what’s changed? He still owes me. He’s still a runaway. How am I supposed to live with that? What’s really changed?
Onesimus has changed. After all, he’s back. He knows what happens to runaways. He probably feels the hot iron on his brow, the cold metal around his neck. Something changed in him, for him to travel hundreds of leagues and quietly, submissively hand me this letter. And he’s still here, waiting to see what I will do. He has changed. As a thief as well as a runaway, he may even be wondering if there’s a cross waiting for him since he came back. But there’s only one Cross that really matters, isn’t there?
Jesus died for me, and Paul risked his life to bring me the good news, and now Onesimus is back risking his life with me. What’s changed? Jesus changes everything, doesn’t he? There’s a little more here from Paul.
Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. “Even more.” Yes, I guess I will. Paul wants me to welcome Onesimus back, not just as a slave, but as a brother. He’s changed, but what really matters here is if I’ve changed. Has faith in Jesus changed me enough to forget my losses and pride and do what Jesus did, what Paul himself did for me? Onesimus has changed, now I need to change and forgive him.
Paul said he was “confident” about me, confident I would obey him, even when he’s not forcing me. Confident I would remember his love and would find love of my own. Confident that I’ve changed. Embrace a thief and runaway. Treat a slave like a brother. Even more, he said. Yes, Paul, I will. Yes, I’ve changed to. I see it now. I’ll set him free, trusting you, trusting Christ. I’ll draw up the papers right now.
So Onesimus truly has been useful to me. Not useful as a slave anymore, not useful for service, but useful in a deeper, better way. He’s been used by God to change my heart.
And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to my prayers. Of course. If I can do this other thing, then of course I have a room for you. Though I fear you may never see it, friend. But by your teaching, by the Lord’s grace, there is a place where we will be together again. And we’ll sit down and talk long, not just the two, but the three of us, you and I and Onesimus. We’ll talk about the love of Jesus.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. So may His grace be with you.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj