Charge That to My Account
Philemon 1–25 – Colossians: Made Alive in Christ
15th Sunday after Pentecost – September 2, 2018 (am)
Jesus said: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God (Mat.5:9). Are you a (peacemaker)? Do you even want to be a (peacemaker)? And why wouldn’t you, right? Who among us would want to bypass an opportunity to receive blessing from God? But, do you know what it means to be a (peacemaker), and what it takes? Parents of multiple children know what it means, and quite a bit of what it takes—when their kids are at certain ages, much of their day can be spent making peace. And some don’t get enough of it in the home; they take it on the road. My wife actually chooses to spend lunch hours on a playground with elementary school children. That is a peacemaking convention, every day of the week! Spouses know what it means—bosses, often employees, friends. But how do we do it? That’s the question. How do we become peacemakers in the way Jesus means it?
In our passage today, Paul shows us. We’re looking at his letter to Philemon, the shortest of his letters, and the most personal. It was addressed to Philemon, a beloved fellow worker, to Apphia, who was possibly his wife, to Archippus, who may have been their son (O’Brien 1318), the man Paul charged at the end of Col. (4:17), and to the church that met in (their) house (1-2). But clearly it was primarily to Philemon. And Paul had a very sensitive matter to address with him. He needed to be a (peacemaker).
Let’s follow the story and see what we learn about how to do that. We’ll do that by meeting each of the three characters and exploring their role in this encounter, this scene.
Onesimus and His Role in This Scene
We know precious little about Onesimus besides his name (10), his occupation—he was a bondservant (16), a slave, of Philemon—and something of his activity—he was AWOL from Philemon’s household (cf. 11-12, 15), and he may have sinned against his master, or even stolen from him, when he left (cf. 18). But we also know that he was led to receive Christ as Savior by the Apostle Paul when Paul is was in prison, almost certainly in Rome (10).
It was not at all uncommon for slaves to run away from their masters in the Roman Empire. The institution was different from what we know of slavery in America and Great Britain, but it had several similarities (Melick 341-4). Human ownership was part of it, but slaves were not seen as sub-human; there was nothing like the 3/5 rule back then. Masters did have power of life and death over their slaves, but that diminished by the will of the government and of the people as the Empire aged. Conquered foes made up the majority of slaves, but there was nothing like the racial divide we see in American history. Most masters saw their slaves as investments they wanted to take good care of, and many even treated them as part of their household, giving them responsibilities in areas like money-management or education of the kids or family healthcare. Some slaves even owned property, and willed it to whomever they chose.
But others, like Onesimus, did run away. And they would often head to a big city hoping for anonymity. But in many ways that was even more unpleasant for them. Plus, running away is never the best answer in any case. We could talk long about what is the best answer for a slave. But it’s the gospel that’s the true game-changer.
When Onesimus met Paul and embraced the gospel, his whole life changed. It came into focus. He became what he was actually created to be, namely, a servant of the true and living God. He who was formerly useless, for whatever reason—perhaps because he was disgruntled in his service to Philemon, perhaps because Philemon was not a gracious master and Onesimus resented him for it—is now useful, both to Philemon and to Paul (11).
Ironically, Onesimus’ name means useful or (beneficial) (ESV f.n.2), two words that Paul uses elsewhere in this brief letter (11, 20). Almost certainly that must be intentional. (Paul is) sending (Onesimus) back to (Philemon) (12) so that he might prove to be true to his name! So, this sending back was not a punishment. It was an opportunity born of the gospel. And surely it was Onesimus’ receiving of the gospel that made him useful to Paul, his spiritual father, and to Philemon, his rightful master. It was his receiving of the gospel that so knitted his life to Paul’s that the Apostle wrote to Philemon: 12 I am sending… my very heart. 13 I would be glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf…, but I won’t.
And why he won’t transitions us to…
Philemon and His Role in This Scene
Unlike with most of the church in Colossae, it appears Paul was personally acquainted with Philemon (1); he calls him a beloved fellow worker, a (dear friend) and fellow worker (Wright, O’Brien). Like Epaphras and Onesimus, it sounds like Philemon had also come to faith directly under Paul’s ministry (19). This church meet’s in his home (2), and he is likely the leader of it (7). If so, he’s a loving leader (5), and his people are refreshed through (him) (7). Could anything better be said of a shepherd?
However, on the matter at hand Paul needed to speak some direct words. We hear the force of his message in vv.8-9—first the iron fist, then the velvet glove. 8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you…. What Paul wants Philemon to do, what he expects him to do, is to 15 … (receive Onesimus) back…, and 16 no longer as a bondservant but… as a beloved brother… both in the flesh and in the Lord—both (as a natural) brother and (as a spiritual) brother!
This is explosive! If Phm. had been faithfully preached and obeyed in our nation over the last 250 years, the institution of slave would have imploded by the grace of God through the gospel. And this is Philemon’s assignment. This is the action Paul could command (8), but he prefers to present it as an appeal (9). But he turns up the heat a bit: 16 … if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. Then he turns it up again: Philemon (owes Paul his) own self, likely referring to his conversion. Then he adds: 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ, just as you refresh the hearts of the saints (7). And finally: 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. He’s pressing!
Despite Philemon’s love… for all the saints and his faith in the Lord Jesus (5), this is really sounding like this assignment might be hard for him. And if something like theft is involved, as many believe, it would not at all be hard to understand why. Our sense of justice can often impede the flow of mercy and compassion in our hearts. We’d like to be gracious, or merciful, but the law has been broken! A crime has been committed! You can’t just let something like that go. You can’t just excuse actual wrongdoing. That itself feels wrong—morally wrong!
This scenario still arises in our lives today, in our nation, at our very borders, for instance, where the need for justice and for mercy stand side-by-side as a test for the church. How do we respond? We’d like to be merciful, but the law has been broken, a crime has been committed. You can’t just excuse that. That feels morally wrong. But is there also room for mercy? Is there a place for mercy, and compassion? My intent is not to take sides in a national dispute, but to urge the church to remember our calling in this world, and what it means to represent the gospel in our day. We’re not just called to obey the law, or uphold the law, but to proclaim the gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation to God in Christ. And it is not always easy to see, to know, how to do that.
We don’t just feel this tension when the law has been broken. Parents feel it with their children when chores aren’t done. Spouses feel it with one another when agreements are not kept. We feel it in the workplace when promises are broken. And we can’t make peace with promise-breakers. It just feels wrong, really wrong. We need help knowing how to respond to such things, just like Philemon needed help.
This need transitions us to…
Paul and His Role in This Scene
Only here does Paul identify himself simply as a prisoner for Christ Jesus (1) and nothing more (Wright 177). That can’t be any more accidental than his play-on-words with Onesimus’ name. Paul knew what it meant to be a slave, to be in bondage. And yet, in Christ he was free—free to spend himself fully for the cause of Christ, for the Kingdom of Christ, and not feel encroached upon by the injustice of his circumstances. For Paul, Jesus not only absorbed the cost of his sins against God, Jesus absorbed the cost of others’ sins against him, Paul, so that he was now able to forgive them just like Jesus had forgiven him! Paul can absorb the cost of others’ sins, real sins. He can extend forgiveness without feeling abused because of the amazing grace of God he’s received in Christ!
Now, offering forgiveness in response to sin could feel more like suffering than freedom except for three things: 1) Suffering isn’t the truest description of what’s happening when we’re called upon to extend forgiveness like this. It is suffering. But even more, it’s fellowshipping with Christ in His sufferings—in His death (cf. Phi.3:8-10), which requires our dying to self in just the way Jesus called His disciples to do (cf. Mar.8:34-38). And He then rewards us for it!
2) Strictly speaking, this is not ignoring injustice because the cost of justice has already been paid, by Christ on the cross. If God’s standard has been met, surely ours should be. And that’s just what the cross was meant to do: Rom.3:26 It was to show (God’s) righteousness…, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus—so that He might (uphold justice even while forgiving real sin).
3) According to Jesus, the clearest test of whether we’ve truly tasted of God’s forgiveness for our sin, is whether we feel compelled to extend that forgiveness to others. Is it a delight to do so because of what Christ has done for us—we know that anything that feels like a cost to us is already paid by Him? We don’t need to feel put upon, like we’re being taken advantage of, taken for granted, cheated, mistreated. If we’ve been forgiven, we delight to extend forgiveness; that’s the surest sign of our forgiveness! And if we don’t delight to forgive, there is true cause to wonder whether we’ve truly tasted of God’s abundant forgiveness.
So, what was Paul’s role in this scene? He wasn’t the one who needed to offer forgiveness; he was addressing the one who needed to do that. And he wasn’t the one who needed to receive forgiveness; he was sending that one back home to seek it. He’s just a third party here—an Apostle, yes, with the authority to guide this situation toward its needful outcome, but still a third party to it—a mediator. So, what did he do to help it along, to be a (peacemaker)? Reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus was so important to Paul, even from prison, that he made the most amazing statement to Philemon in this amazing little letter: 18 If (Onesimus) has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it…. That is to say: I will (assume the cost of forgiveness, the cost of whatever justice seems to demand in this situation in order to create some space for mercy to be extended and reconciliation to be achieved). I will (assume the cost). Or again: Because of what Christ has done for me, I’m not only happy to cover the cost of forgiveness for any who’ve sinned against me, I’m actually glad to cover it for this one who has sinned against you, Philemon. And all you need to do to refresh my heart in Christ (20) is to go ahead and grant it. And I’m (confident) you will! (20)
That’s what it looks like to be a (peacemaker). And friends, we don’t find that quality in our hearts by nature. I’m confident that each of us can think of things going on in our circles right now that need a (peacemaker), maybe even a situation where genuine wrong has been done (not just feelings being hurt), and someone needs to step in and bring peace. Is it you?
If so, are you willing to recreate Jesus’ work on the cross in that situation, to live it out—to live the gospel with authenticity and passion—to imitate His work on the cross where He paid the price of forgiveness and reconciliation in the lives of all who receive Him by faith? Are you willing to enter into His rich forgiveness that enables you, frees you, so deeply satisfies you in Himself that the cost of forgiving others quickly and completely and joyfully just flows out of your forgiven, reconciled heart like streams of cold, fresh, living water?
If so, are you also willing to take this forgiveness on the road to guard the good of the body, as Paul does here, seeking to be a (peacemaker) in situations of conflict between others? Are you willing to cover the cost, knowing the resources you spend actually come from God Himself, from Christ?
Jesus said: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God (Mat.5:9). Are you a (peacemaker)? That is the work the gospel does in our hearts when it reconciles us to God and to one another. It reproduces His heart within us and enables us to imitate Him, and to enjoy nothing more than that. We don’t come away from this story awed by Paul and his heart of compassion and mercy. We come away from this story awed by God and His heart of compassion and mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation! We come away saying: God, by your grace make me like Jesus just like you made Paul so much like Jesus! Father, bless me, bless us, with the privilege of being (peacemakers) for your glory and for the spread of the gospel!