What a Letter Can - Do Another Look at the Little Book
Pastor Jeff Wood
The same passage of the Bible can be preached in different ways. Last week we took a little look at a little book and today we will take another look at the same little book finding another message from God therein.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit then, these words: Philemon
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, 2to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home:3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. 6I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. 7Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.
8Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul--an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus-- 10I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12I am sending him--who is my very heart--back to you. 13I 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. 14But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. 15Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good-- 16no longer as 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.
17So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back--not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
22And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
23Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
25The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth and from his fullness have we all received grace upon grace.
I heard tell of a woman who was very wealthy and well-known in her community. She had commissioned a book to be written covering her ancestry. The author uncovered in his research some details that were not flattering and which she, of course, found distressing. One of her great grandfathers had been a convicted murderer. He was eventually executed by electrocution at the infamous Sing Sing prison. Hearing this she pleaded that this black spot in the ancestral tree not be included in the volume. But the author said its omission would be too conspicuous. “Write it, then, in a way that it doesn’t sound so bad.” That’s what she asked. Being the nice guy that he was, the final version came out this way: “One of her great grandfathers occupied the chair of applied electricity in one of America’s best known institutions. He was very much attached to his position and literally died in the harness.”
Sometimes the truth hurts, doesn’t it? Sometimes we go to great lengths to hide it, don’t we? And there are different kinds of hiding. Part of my boyhood was spent on the island of Guam. It is out in the Pacific and one of the interesting things about many of the islands is that there are many vestiges of WWII – rusted tanks, grown over artillery guns, and dark caves (holes where un-captured, fugitive soldiers had hidden themselves).
I remember learning about George Tweed who hid for two years plus while the Japanese occupied the island. But even more intriguing was, after returning stateside from Guam, learning that a Japanese soldier was discovered who had been hiding out on that island long, long after the war had ended. We lived there in the early 60’s so this meant that he had hidden for more than 20 years. He didn’t know the war was over. He thought that only this particular island had fallen and he didn’t want to surrender. He thought that boats with the loudspeakers, and jeeps with the loudspeakers, announcing the war to be over was just a ploy. So he hid and hid and hid -- Not, in this case, a hiding of a black mark on the family tree but a literal hiding of himself.
Sometimes the hiding is more mental, psychological, social … something like shame. Once when I was little, maybe five or six years old, our family was traveling. My parents stopped to have dinner with some of their friends from some time before my sister and I had come along. In the play time before or after dinner, down in the basement with their kids, we found some matches. I, more than the others, got into playing with them. I lit them. I burned a little piece of paper. I tried a tiny tip of the curtain. I tried it again and suddenly the whole curtain seemed to be on fire. I tried to hit it and then within a moment or two one of the kids had run upstairs. Parents came downstairs. I remember them trying to knock this wall of curtain down. I remember the fire department arriving. I remember lots of smoke and a pretty messed up basement. But I mostly remember sitting in the front seat of my parent’s truck as they asked me, “What happened?” I was so afraid, with all the flashing lights and the firemen, with whatever the consequences might be that I just said, “I don’t know.” It was me. I knew. But I said, “I don’t know.” I even wanted to say, “It was me.” But I didn’t have the strength, I didn’t know how, so I said, “I don’t know.”
Have you ever been there? Been in hiding, not admitting what you know because of your fear and shame? Hiding. Hiding. Maybe it’s why your last job ended. Maybe it is that, while we say on our resume we got that degree, actually we didn’t. Maybe it is something about your heart … its confusion, its hurt, … its waywardness. That’s what we try to keep out of everyone else’s view.
What is striking in the Philemon letter we read is that Onesimus moves, we don’t know how fast or slow it was, from a hiding place in all its dimensions to an out in the open place. In fact, so open that he was then and is on display now through a public letter. How did that happen? Some of us have been hiding in different ways and moving from an embarrassed, crimson place to a humble, free place. From a half-life to a life is what we need. How does it happen?
Another child related memory comes to mind. This time I’m not the child. I’m the parent. I don’t mean to embarrass any of the kids, so I’ll not say which one and I will say that what happened is, in my experience, a typical part of growing up. We get home from a trip to the store and I notice one of the kids slip away to his bedroom quickly. The door of their room is closed. When I knock and step in, that child is trying to put away an item that looked like something from the store we had just come from. Something we had not paid for. Something he had just taken and slipped into his pocket
We got right into the car. We drove right back to the store. We walked right through those doors. We went right up to the clerk. We said, “We took this without paying for it and it was wrong.” In that case, unlike mine with the basement fire, there was no option to hide, no invisibility cloak, no hole to crawl into. Although there is a severe mercy in being forced into the open, this is not what happened for Onesimus. What happened for him?
Jesus met him in the person of Paul the Apostle. Met him, looked him in the eye, through that eye loved him down into his heart, embraced him letting him know that a poorly written page in a chapter of his life, or even a poorly written chapter in the book of his life, didn’t mean that for him that there was not redemptive insight and material there, that there was a larger story to be written. He faced him, embraced him, stood beside him, and then before him and behind him.
Then all of that interpersonal stuff got made into something very concrete, a letter.
I have files at home that have letters – when the vacuum cleaner breaks I have a letter from the manufacturer that says they will repair it. I have a letter from the IRS that the tax information provided by the accountant is sufficient. I have a letter from this previous employer or that saying that I was a good worker. Sometimes it is good to have a letter, to have something in black and white, to have something that can pass before another’s eyes, to have something … that I just know is there in case I need it. Sometimes people have letters granting the holder safe passage or authority to do certain business or transactions.
Onesimus had a letter. It was a letter that spoke for him. It meant that he had someone who pleaded his case for him, someone with authority. This letter further said literally that he had someone who would make restitution for the debts he had incurred, someone who loved him, someone who declared him to be his son, to be his name -- useful. He had someone who didn’t just spout all this into the air. He put all that on record, in a letter, in black and white, for the whole world to see. Sometimes people say I don’t want to put this in writing lest it end up in the wrong hands. Not this one – it’s in black and white. Hard copy.
So Onesimus had something he could clutch as he moved over the open road back to his master’s house. He had something he could knock and leave on the master’s doorstep to read before he showed his face. He had something that was in the minutes and could be looked at years later. Yeah, I think the letter helped him come out of hiding.
Men and women, what is in your hands when the Bible is in it? Jesus Christ has penned just such a letter for you. “Dear Father, I plead from a position of love between the two of us, for Jeff, Mary, Steve, … (you) … useless as a slave in selfishness and sin but now useful not merely as a servant but more so as a son, daughter. He’s now my brother. Do for him and more what you would do for me. Whatever he or she owes, I, says Jesus, (walking to the table, pointing to the cross) have paid and will pay.”
You and I have in this book, a letter to clutch, to help, to show to ourselves when we tremble, to have face us, stand beside us, advance in front of us, and to show to others who are reserved toward us. We have this message from God … to us and for us. Use it to come out of hiding and to advance. It’s like a cookbook. You can read that all day long and starve. You have to do something with it. He gave us a letter. Hold it. Use it.
I remember reading a newspaper correction long ago. You know how if the paper has made a mistake, they print a correction. This one read about some Mr. Smith running for congress, “Correction: Mr. Smith has 100% of his family’s support, not 10% as reported in last week’s paper.” Can you imagine?! You read an article of a man aspiring to public office and to the world it is announced that his family is 10% behind him? Do you see this table? Do you see this cross? Do you see this letter to Philemon … and in them know that you have something to hold on to that is Jesus’ letter for you … to God. It all means that he is 100% behind you.
This word is full of grace and truth. If you are standing in grace, you can face the truth. Otherwise it can be, ‘You’ll know the truth and the truth will make you flee.’ But standing in grace, we can know it and it will make us free!
Friends, the good, good news this morning is that you don’t have to hide. Come out from your running, your dark places, your shame. Don’t be afraid. You have a letter. You have a letter. It is this word of the Lord.
If you would like to talk with someone about this message or your spiritual life, or to have someone pray with you, the pastors and elders of the church would welcome your call.
Pastor Jeff Wood has been a pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Sebastian since 2014.