Tuesday, September 06, 2016

The Bethany Bullet - Week of September 4, 2016

“A Profitable Letter”

How much junk mail do you get at home?  Our house seems to be inundated with unsolicited advertisements, flyers, and offers for refinancing or to switch to a new TV or internet service.  How do you know what is useful?  Sure there are the predictable things in the mail: bills and invoices, catalogs and magazines but so much of what is delivered is just unprofitable junk that goes directly into the recycle bin.  On Sunday, we will looked at a letter written by the Apostle Paul that, on the surface does not seem to offer much.  It’s short and not filled with any verses that have become part of our collective memory.  But digging a little deeper, this letter is useful for us today and something we can hold on to. 

With the tidal wave of technology that has reshaped the communication landscape of the past quarter century, the one casualty I miss the most is the personal letter.  It is rare, if at all that our mailbox contains a personal letter.

Yes, birthday cards and thank you cards can be found, an occasional post card might inhabit the floor below the mail slot in our house, but a personal letter?  I’m not sure the last time I received one.

Email, texts, phone calls, posts, tweets, and snaps - they have all supplanted the personal letter as the primary and preferred forms of communication. 

I know that some people still write letters.  If you are one of them, you have my respect and blessing to continue.  If you haven’t written a letter in a very long time this message is not to convince you to start again. 

Today we will look a letter, penned by the hand of the Apostle Paul to a man named Philemon.  Many would say there is not much use to the few words of Paul to his friend but I would argue its content IS profitable to us today. 

The letter spans just 25 verses in length and is a deeply personal and very touching appeal from Paul to his “dear coworker” Philemon.

I’m not sure I have ever heard a sermon on this text before.  I am certain I have never used it in any of my sermons, but this letter struck me this week like never before, and I hope that the words of Paul, written in history and preserved in scripture will bring blessing to our time together. 

C.S. Lewis called Philemon, “the most beautiful and intensely human of all St. Paul’s epistles, full of charm and beauty.”

John Duncan, 19th century theologian and professor at the New College in Edinburgh Scotland describes the letter to Philemon as “the most gentlemanly letter ever written.”

Unlike Paul’s other letters, it seems that this one is hand written by Paul himself in its entirety.  This shows the deep, personal nature of the letter.

We don’t know much about Philemon other than what we can glean from this letter. 
·        He has a past relationship with Paul.  Perhaps he came to become a follower of Christ by his words directly or indirectly.
·        He was an active member of the church. 
·        He opened his home for worship
·        He seemed to have established a reputation as a generous, loving, hospitable believer and a devoted worker for the Lord.

After some greetings, thanksgiving and encouragement, Paul get’s to the heart of why he writes.  Feel free to follow along open up your Bibles to Philemon.  I’m starting at verse 8 reading from God’s Word Translation,

“Christ makes me bold enough to order you to do the right thing. However, I would prefer to make an appeal on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an old man and now a prisoner for Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my child Onesimus [Useful]. I became his spiritual father here in prison. Once he was useless to you, but now he is very useful to both of us. I am sending him back to you. This is like sending you a part of myself.  I wanted to keep him here with me. Then he could have served me in your place while I am in prison for spreading the Good News.  Yet, I didn’t want to do anything without your consent. I want you to do this favor for me out of your own free will without feeling forced to do it. Maybe Onesimus was gone for a while so that you could have him back forever— no longer as a slave but better than a slave—as a dear brother. He is especially dear to me, but even more so to you, both as a person and as a Christian.  If you think of me as your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.  If he wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me.  I, Paul, promise to pay it back. I’m writing this with my own hand. I won’t even mention that you owe me your life.  So, because we’re brothers in the Lord, do something for me. Give me some comfort because of Christ.  I am confident as I write to you that you will do this. And I know that you will do even more than I ask.” (Philemon 8-21)

Paul makes an appeal to his friend and fellow worker in Christ in the matter of a slave named Onesimus. 

Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon.  He knows it won’t be easy for any of the parties involved but he appeals to his good friend on behalf of another. It is very interesting to note that Paul could have ordered Philemon to “do the right thing” but he appeals to him “on the basis of love.” He did not command, he did not force an obligation or duty based on his apostolic authority; it was a matter of love that compelled him. 

We live in a society in which demands are more common than appeals.  Assertiveness, we are told, not tact, gets people ahead in life.  Here, Paul shows us a better way. The most powerful motivating force on earth is not intimidation or threat or assertion of what one perceives as one’s own rights, but love.  This is not my primary focus for today but it does set the stage for what is to come. 

Paul chooses his words very carefully.  As a faithful intercessor, he places himself between the one for whom and the one with whom he is pleading as he makes his request. With tender affection and beautiful tact, calling the runaway slave his own child and himself his father, Paul brings the subject of Onesimus directly before Philemon. 

Once he was useless to you, but now he is very useful to both of us.” (Philemon 11).  Paul uses a play on words here as the name Onesimus means useful or profitable.  Of course Onesimus had been untrue to his name.  He was a runaway and most likely a thief who owed his master a debt.  He was rather unprofitable and useless to Philemon.  Sending a runaway slave back to his master was a sure recipe for death as the standard punishment was for the runaway to be stoned.  There was nothing profitable or useful in a runaway slave.

But now, Paul informs Philemon, that Oneismus who has been instructed in the gospel and converted to Christianity has become truly useful.  He has already been useful to Paul, and he will again be useful to Philemon, if Philemon will receive him. Paul wished he could keep Onesimus, but knows the right thing to do.  As he sends Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul makes no attempt to excuse the past behavior of the slave who has been unprofitable. 

While Paul never comes out and says it, it is quite likely that Onesimus stole money from his master.  There was also the matter of service that Onesimus had been depriving Philemon since he was gone.  It’s no doubt there was a debt to be paid.  Paul was ready to assume the obligations of the father and would pay the debt himself if that meant that Philemon would receive Onesimus back.  Paul was serious about his offer.  There should be nothing standing in the way of full forgiveness and reconciliation. 

I know it doesn’t take a theologian to see where I am going with this.

Yes, Paul’s actions give us a good example on how to live and treat one another in love, but I’m not sure that is the primary reason this letter has been preserved for us in the pages of scripture.  Like many other places in Scripture, we can find ourselves in the story. 

I’ll only speak for me, but I would guess many could say the same thing.  I have been unprofitable to the Lord.  My words and my actions have not been useful in furthering God’s kingdom or giving Him praise.  Often have been the times I have run away from God, hiding and hoping that my past or the things I have hidden wouldn’t be remembered or seen.  I have sabotaged relationships and have taken that which is not mine, be it reputation or resource. I am in desperate need for one to intercede.  I’m guessing you could say the same. 

Paul’s deeply personal words to Philemon remind us of the deeply personal Word made flesh, whose life wrote the most beautiful letter ever written with nail scarred hands to preserve our lives and restore our relationship to the Lord. Paul’s eloquent intersession for Onesimus can be regarded as a reflection of our Savior’s intercession for us. 

Like Onesimus, we sinners have all wronged and run away from our heavenly master.  Like a runaway, we deserve nothing but His wrath, eternal condemnation, and death.

But, as Paul found and rescued Onesimus, Jesus has found and rescued us.  He identified himself with us by taking our nature and becoming our substitute.  He not only offered to pay, but DID pay our sin-debt on the cross to satisfy the father. 

His life is a love letter written to sinners, preserved in Scripture and brings to you the Good News that your sin is forgiven.  His hands wrote it on the cross and His resurrection secured the ending.   His life, death and resurrection are the most profitable words written to us.  Jesus is our profitable letter.

And Jesus still intercedes for you. Now as our great high priest He intercedes for us daily, for we are dearly loved; connected to Christ as brothers and sisters in the faith to be useful in the Kingdom. 

Speaking on the same topic, Paul said it this way to the church in Rome, “Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” (Romans 8:34)

Martin Luther in a sermon on Philemon said that “We are Christ’s Oneisimi.”  We are dearly loved and seen as profitable and useful in the kingdom on account of Christ.

It is a tender and intimate God we have, who would send His Son to us; to intercede for us, to die for us and to rise again to bring us life.

This small letter, written by the hand of Paul himself, preserved in the pages of scripture IS profitable as it points to The Word made flesh by whose hands we have been freed and sent to serve.  As the Holy Spirit preserves us in the true faith, we can share this letter with others who need to hear it. 

-Pastor Seth Moorman


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