Monday, September 6, 2010

On the Basis of Love

In Nomine Iesu
Philemon 1-21
September 5, 2010
Pentecost 15/Proper 18C

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~

The time we spend here in the Divine Service is very different from how we spend the rest of our time during the week. This time is unique and different in so many ways. Certain things happen here that rarely happen elsewhere. There’s the music of the pipe organ. There’s the pastor’s sermon. There’s the movement that happens here—standing and sitting and kneeling, bowing and the sign of the cross. These are just some of the things that set apart the divine service from the rest of life.

The devil loves to exploit the distinctiveness of the Divine Service for his own purposes. In fact, he loves nothing more than to isolate the Divine Service from the rest of life. You come to church on Sunday, get your fix of religion for the week, then go back out and live your life on your terms. Ideas like sin and grace, forgiveness and reconciliation, just become part of the Sunday morning experience—with no relevance or application for Monday through Saturday. Church and faith get safely compartmentalized so as to have no effect in real life. That’s the devil’s plan for the Divine Service.

To guard against that danger, God has given us the book of Philemon—most of which you heard read just a few minutes ago. Paul’s letter to Philemon contains both a slice of real life, with all the ugliness of sin and its effects, together with a slice of the Christian life, with all the beauty of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace-making. Philemon gives us a picture of the gospel of Jesus Christ in action, in real life, between real sinners. It takes the truths of the Divine Service and puts them into practice.

Reading the book of Philemon is like arriving late for a movie. You’re not exactly sure what’s already taken place, but eventually you’re able to make sense of the plot. There are three main players in Philemon, with St. Paul being the most well known. St. Paul was in prison somewhere when he gets a visitor named Onesimus. Onesimus had been a slave in the household of Philemon. Philemon was a wealthy Christian layman in the city of Collosae. In fact, one of the churches at Collosae met for the Divine Service in Philemon’s living room.

Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had run away. Not only that, he didn’t run away empty-handed. No, Onesimus likely grabbed Philemon’s cash and credit cards, laptop and cell phone when he made his dash for freedom. And please disabuse yourself of whatever negative feelings you may have about slavery. Slavery in the Roman Empire of the First Century was nothing like slavery in the American south. There was nothing racial about it. In fact, it’s probably better to think of Onesimus as being a kind of household manager for Philemon. Philemon trusted Onesimus, gave him great responsibility, compensated him well—then one day Onesimus up and left, helping himself to his master’s money and possessions before hopping the bus to Ephesus.

While he was a fugitive, Onesimus came into contact with St. Paul. And while he was with Paul a miracle happened. Onesimus was brought to faith in Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul referred to Onesimus as his “son.” And now Paul is writing to Philemon, urging him to take back his runaway slave, to forgive him, and to receive him as a brother in Christ. “Welcome him as you would welcome me,” Paul wrote to Philemon.

In this brief letter Paul teaches us a thing or two about peace-making in the church. After all, that was Paul’s aim—to make peace between Philemon and the newly converted Onesimus. And the first thing to note here is how high the stakes were. There was the potential for disaster. It could have gone all wrong. What if Paul’s request didn’t go over well with Philemon? What if Paul’s request offended Philemon? What if Philemon’s desire for justice outweighed the need for mercy? If Paul were to make an enemy out of wealthy Philemon, the resulting damages to the church could add up quickly.

Did these possibilities even occur to Paul the peace-maker as he sat down to write this note to Philemon? Surely they did. And yet, when you hear what Paul wrote there’s no evidence of a quivering fearfulness—no pessimism, no panic, no nervous negativity. Paul seems perfectly confident that all will turn out well.

Have you ever attempted to play the peace-maker? Jesus calls the peace-makers “blessed” for a reason. It’s tough work to bring together the sinner and the one sinned-against—to reconcile the one who hurts and the one who inflicted the pain. Human emotions can be unpredictable in those situations. You yourself might get injured in the peace-making process. How is it possible that Paul could be so confident—so certain that Philemon would willingly take back Onesimus and forgive him?

Beloved in the Lord, learn from Paul how to navigate these treacherous waters. If your purpose is to make peace, then learn from Paul that it really isn’t your tact or your interpersonal communication skills that will save the day. Learn from Paul that it isn’t your boldness or your powers of persuasion. It is love—on the basis of love—that peace is made. Listen to how Paul puts it: “Although I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love.”

Paul’s whole appeal for peace was made on the basis of love. The Greek word is agape. And agape love is first and foremost the love of God in Jesus Christ. It’s not a feeling or an emotion that comes and goes. No, God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). It is the sacrificial love of Jesus for sinners that kept Paul so confident that things would turn out well. It is that powerful love of Jesus that changes hearts and causes anger and animosity to melt away. Paul’s confidence was not in himself, but in the power of Christ’s love, poured out at the cross. It’s this love of which Paul wrote in Corinthians: “It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. [It] does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13). That love will not fail you. That love can be your confidence as you step into sticky, sin-filled situations to make peace between brothers and sisters in Christ.

If Paul teaches us about peace-making, then Philemon teaches us about forgiveness. For just a moment imagine Philemon’s anger and disappointment with Onesimus. He trusted Onesimus with everything—treated him well—and Onesimus stabbed him in the back—betrayed him, stole from him, really stuck it to the man.

Perhaps you don’t have to imagine Philemon’s feelings. Perhaps you know that same anger and disappointment. Perhaps someone you trusted has hurt you and stuck it to you. That pain is real pain—not easily forgotten or swept aside. We don’t know for a fact whether Philemon forgave or not; but we know it’s what Paul expected to happen. But how? How could Philemon forgive the one who had caused so much pain, offense and anger—the sinner, the scoundrel, the thief—Onesimus?

It would be easier said than done; and it could only be done on the basis of love—on the basis of Jesus’ love for all sinners. For Philemon to forgive, Philemon would have to give up his rights. Runaway slaves could be put to death under Roman Law. Philemon had the right to prosecute and persecute and strike back at the one who had struck him first. But he didn’t. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. And neither can you who are in Christ. In order to forgive, Philemon would have to give up every right and every claim for justice. In fact, Philemon—wealthy, important, free Philemon—he would have to make of himself a slave, letting go of everything for Jesus’ sake. Isn’t it ironic? The slave, Onesimus, comes home a free man in the love of Christ; while the free man, his master, Philemon, makes himself a slave in the love of Christ. Philemon gives up everything, takes up his cross, and follows Jesus in the wonderful way of forgiveness.

That’s a way in which you also can go. You can deal with those who sin against you like Philemon—on the basis of love. For that’s the very approach that God Himself has taken with you. On the basis of love the Son of God was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. On the basis of love the holy God has named you and claimed you in the gentle splash of your baptism. On the basis of love He forgives all your sins in the cleansing cadence of Holy Absolution. On the basis of love He feeds you with the bread that is His body and the wine that is His blood.

It is that calling, cleansing, feeding, forgiving love of God in Christ that makes you what you are. It defines you. It also defined Onesimus. The name “Onesimus” means “Useful.” It was a great name for a slave. But as a fugitive, on the run, living life in the shadow of his sin, Onesimus was actually useless. But in this formerly useless man God worked repentance and faith and reconciliation. God makes the useless useful; and He has done no less with you. You are valuable, precious, and so very, very useful. He has plans for you.

I said earlier that reading Philemon is like arriving late for a movie; but it’s also like leaving the movie early. We don’t actually know how things turned out between Paul and Philemon and Onesimus. The conclusion wasn’t scripted out for us. There’s no tear-filled, heartwarming embrace before the music swells and the credits roll. But that’s how it is in real-life too. You leave here this morning to go back into a world where you will sin and you will be sinned against. And how your attempts at peace-making and reconciliation will work out no one can say for sure. All we know is that as we head back out into the messiness of life, we carry the life of Jesus in our bodies. On the basis of love—His love—we can carry on with confidence and joy, knowing that our labor is not in vain—that in Christ, we are useful. We are loved. We will live forever. Amen.

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