A Little Look at a Little Book or
A Big Story in Little Book
We’re 7 weeks past July 4th. The Declaration of Independence professes all men are created equal and possess inalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. It is interesting that this was stated quite sincerely while not considering it to apply to women or slaves. Such an oversight led to many tragedies such as the one on August 22, 1831 in remote southeastern Virginia.
One hundred eighty four years ago this weekend, at 2 a.m. a slave by the name of Nat Turner (who was made famous by William Styron in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Confessions of Nat Turner) entered the house of his master and slew the entire family save one infant. Then he and other slaves moved from house to house in the area killing all they could. Within hours, and now numbering forty slaves on horseback, Turner and his band turned to the nearest town, which just happened to be called Jerusalem. By then aware of the events of recent hours, the townspeople repelled the rebel slaves. They eventually rounded them up and executed them. It took two months to catch and execute Turner himself. Tragedy was all around this happening including hysteria of white mobs who killed and beat many, many slaves not even associated with the original event. Of course, as we’d expect, tight, tight control was placed on all slaves for fear of anything ever again getting out of hand.
The truth be told, this situation, repeated itself many, many times over not only in America but in all places where slavery was. Uprisings. Containment. Fear. Fear of the number of slaves, and of what they might do, had led Pharaoh to crack down on the Hebrews in Egypt. It had repeated itself in Paul’s day.
Slavery was a routine part of everyday life in Paul’s day as were the runaways, rebellions, and rigid control to keep such at a minimum. We’re going to find that Paul, apparently found himself sharing a cell with a runaway slave, one who could have become a Nat Turner. But instead of that slave’s life spiraling into endless flight or into rancid revenge, almost the complete opposite came to pass. He became not one who ran and hid but one who stopped and stood, who left chains for being changed, didn’t spew rebellion but extended blessing and peace. . How? What happened? Embedded in this pivotal question is the realization, isn’t it?, that in a thousand ways human beings are running and hiding, chained and enslaved. Maybe you’re hiding because of a business deal done dishonestly years back, or your feeling chained by a body that is aging and doesn’t work like it used to, shackled by something said wrong or done wrong that made it a miss or a maybe a disaster, or you’re burdened with addiction, depression, or poverty and you wonder: for you, for the world, can such a change of heart really happen? Firmly and brightly God from the Bible says, “Good news!”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit then, these words: Philemon 1:1-25
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.
One census in 390 BC indicated that there were in Athens 20,000 citizens, 10,000 resident aliens, and 400,000 slaves. Slaves were, obviously, a common part of life: the result of war (the spoils) and the result of poverty (people indenturing themselves). The typical household of the day simply included slaves. In the New Testament we see this, for example in Ephesians and Colossians, Paul speaks to husbands, wives, fathers, and slaves. He’s simply moving through the parts of a household.
The numbers of slaves, however, meant that keeping them under control was very, very important. So rebellious or runaway slaves were a terse legal matter. The equivalent of our wild west “wanted posters” were put up for such slaves in the major centers of the ancient world. Giving sanctuary to them was aiding and abetting a criminal.
Maybe it is one of those posters that led Paul to share a cell with Onesimus, perhaps a Nat Turner of his day. This one who faces having an “f” for the Latin fugitivas branded on his head. That would mean to all the world for the rest of his life that he was a slave and a runaway slave at that. Never turn your back on this one.
Somehow Paul and Onesimus’ lives had become entwined. Paul apparently had shared with him Jesus Christ, for he is now called Paul’s spiritual son and Philemon’s spiritual brother.
Paul has told him that the infrastructure of reality was that human beings, regardless of their status in the Greco-Roman world, were enslaved to sin. They had been captured by it. They had indentured themselves to it. They had risen in rebellion and their own rebel leader had entrapped them. They could run but not hide; flee but not escape; give up to despair, but not get out of despair. There was no hope save someone coming for them, buying them out, setting them free from, and dismantling the institution of slavery itself. And liberation and transformation is precisely what God did in Jesus Christ and even now was doing. So said Paul (whom some have called The Apostle of the Heart Set Free). Jesus paid the price that men and women might be free. Slave or free on the outside, if one were not free in terms of God and sin on the inside, one was not free.
I wonder if you, today, are free inside?
The liberation and transformation via Jesus, this fact gripped Onesimus. It and Jesus in it became operational and effective in Onesimus. Jesus bought him out of spiritual slavery. He became aware of and rearranged by, reframed by, re-orangized by, remade by that wonder, and now his days were spent in new found freedom and in service to Jesus. That this was a reality for Onesimus is proved in the fact that Onesimus’ very character and behavior changed. His name meant “useful” but it appears that he hadn’t been … all that useful. But now, points out Paul, he truly indeed is.
I have a friend, a lawyer in Houston, Dave, who once shared with our Wednesday morning Bible study a video featuring one of his boyhood friends: Ron. He and Dave ran together as kids and teens. Their ways parted with Ron’s life going a darker and meaner path. He became a menace, a part of deadly motorcycle gang that ran drugs through Middle America. One business man interviewed on the video told of how in high school Ron Gruber vowed to kill him. He had spent years in real fear because Ron’s threat was totally believable. It only quieted when he heard that Ron was in prison, for murder. Another interviewed was a prison chaplain who had been violently assaulted by Ron one day in prison. He was grave as he spoke of who Ron Gruber was.
But then what happened to Onesimus happened to Ron and his life changed just as fantastically as Onesimus’ had. Both the business man and the chaplain re-encountered Ron at different times during prison ministries. Both men spoke of how upon seeing Ron, they were overcome with fear and dread until Ron dramatically apologized, asked for forgiveness, and told of a new heart given him by Jesus Christ. The Onesimus story again! Jesus Christ intervened.
I want you to know this morning that Jesus Christ can really change lives. Maybe your own past and personality has you on the run or shackled. What you don’t have, do have, what’s happened to you, not happened to you, … in so many cases, so very serious. Yet, I want you to know that Jesus can change lives, your life. Maybe it is a loved one’s life. Jesus Christ really changes lives.
Now I want us to shift the lens from Onesimus (and us) and the real change to how Jesus worked that change through Paul (don’t you want to know how you can be a part of passing on such powerful, good change?). The change for Onesimus didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened through a relationship. It was through a relationship, Paul to Onesimus, that the news of Christ and presence of Christ had come in the first place. It didn’t happen just out of the sheetrock wall of a church. It is a message and a presence that goes from the mind and lips of Paul to the ears and heart of Onesimus. That relationship has two words that I would put with it – involved and ask.
The first is that it was a truly involved relationship. Jesus in our lives is an event and a process, a launch and a journey. Paul not only told Onesimus about Jesus but helped Onesimus in thinking through and living out a kingdom of heaven life, a changed life, a life of usefulness, a life of integrity, a life free in terms of relationships he had messed up. How can you be free with God and not be free in your conscience with others? That’s what Paul by virtue of the involved relationship he had with Onesimus helped Onesimus with.
The letter itself reflects that Paul’s relationship didn’t stop at words. He didn’t just press upon Onesimus and then say, “Good luck. See you later.” He became part of the reconciling. He wrote a letter. He advocated for. He sponsored. He put his money on the line. Paul for Onesimus. Involved relationship.
Ron Gruber will get out of prison one day. He’ll have been blessed to have had someone from a church preach to him and provide a Bible study for him. He will need, at that point, more however. He will need Christians who co-sign on an apartment for him, who loan him some money for the security deposit, who vouch to a buddy for him so that he gets a job. You might, when it’s you, sense how risky it is to personally do that. You vouchsafe for and become encumbered by. It was risky for Paul. He faced being out money. Philemon could have taken Onesimus in and found Onesimus stealing and running off again. Paul would have thought, “That didn’t go well. That really cost me.” But I’m pretty sure he would have heard the voice of Jesus, “Yes, I know what you cost me.” Talk about involved. Jesus.
The early church members worked and toiled. They pooled their hard earned money. Then they would go down to the market, the slave market, and buy a life out of slavery. It cost them. It will cost us. It costs. Involvement simply does.
The second feature of the relationship is that it is centered in request. Jesus doesn’t force himself upon a life … that’s inherent to slavery not to Jesus. Paul doesn’t force restoration upon Philemon … that would be a reverse slavery. And I would imagine, that Paul hasn’t forced seeking forgiveness and restoration upon Onesimus. He has simply shown that such are the dynamics of the kingdom. Jesus doesn’t force but forgives. He stands at the door and knocks; he doesn’t break it down. Jesus mends lives and relationships. We follow him … in message and method.
In the Sermon on the Mount there’s a passage about pearls before swine, don’t throw your pearls before swine. Jesus doesn’t teach there, “Don’t force what you consider to be pearls on to people who, by virtue of them not seeing it your way, you consider to be pigs.” Rather he says, “Don’t think of people that way and throw your supposed pearls at them.” No. Be an “ask, seek, and knock” person. At the heart of the kingdom is respect and request, not ridicule and require.
If your life needs changing, hear this morning that Jesus Christ can change it. This is why the little book of Philemon is in the big book – to make sure we know this.
If your life has changed, hear this morning that it is Jesus’ intention to involve us in his change of others’ lives. Involved and respectful relationship is the way. This is why the little book of Philemon is in the big book – to make sure we know this.
You know what?? Tradition tells of a great bishop of Ephesus some years after this. His name? Onesimus! What might become of inmate named Ron? Could he become a bishop of some kind? What might become of someone through you? What might become of you?
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.
 He didn’t share about Jesus Christ, although that must have been part of it. He shared Jesus Christ himself. Pray for me as your pastor that I may not just share about Jesus but share Jesus himself.
 Notice the social restructure here – not a slave but a son, not a slave but a brother. Jesus changes a person’s identity and relationships.
 We say that we want our church to be one where God is seen, love is felt, and lives are changed. Change is possible, thank God, through Jesus Christ. That’s why we point and point and point to Him. “World, everyone, me, look at Jesus Christ.”
Pastor Jeff Wood has been a pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Sebastian since 2014.