June 26, 2012

Step Up: Onesimus Philemon

Years and years ago when I used to play golf I discovered a tool that allowed me to improved my golf score overnight. I was able to go from scoring 110+ to scoring in the 80’s every game. For those of you who don’t know golf, that is good. The lower the score the better.

The tool I discovered is called a mulligan. It is really easy to use. When you hit the ball and it goes badly...you simply say, “I’m taking a mulligan.” Then you drop a ball and try again as though the first hit never happened. If you use that tool enough times you can keep hitting the ball until you get something you like and your score magically gets better.

It is like taking a do over as a kid. You miss the ball...you yell out, “do over,” and the other kids have to let you do it again as though the first attempt never happened. You get a second chance.

We all like having a second chance.

Recently Charlie Sheen had a very public meltdown. He bragged about promiscuity, adultery, heavy drug use, and the fact that he was the best thing on T.V. He made sure to point out that his program Two and a Half Men couldn’t make it without him...so they decided to fire him and find out. Then just a few months later an advertisement for Charlie’s new show came out...

Everybody needs a 24th chance.

We all want a second chance, but as adults we don’t get to stop the game and yell, “Do over!” We have our own collection of sayings though...“Nobody’s perfect!” “Just give me one more try.” “I’ll never do it again.” Or, to lower Charlie Sheen’s standard, “Everybody deserves a second chance.”

We can agree with the Apostle Paul, Romans 7:15, “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” And so we in our lives we say, “I just need a mulligan...a do over...a second chance.”

Have you ever found yourself on the other side of a bad decision...wishing you could have a second chance? Wishing you could go back and undo what you have done? Hoping to get a second chance?

This morning we are continuing our message series titled Step Up with a man named Onesimus. While there is a whole book written about him, he is only mentioned a few times. Onesimus is the perfect example of someone who gets a 2nd chance and uses it to its fullest. So let’s take a look at him.

This morning I will just have you open your Bibles to the book of Philemon. It is in the New Testament. We are not going to read the whole thing, but we will point out things along the way.

In the Book of Philemon, Paul is writing to a member of the church in Colossea named Philemon. Most likely, Philemon is the elder of the church because it meets his home. He is also a disciple and convert of the Apostle Paul. In Philemon 1:19 Paul reminds him, “...not to mention that you owe me your very self.” Meaning that due to Paul’s preaching and teaching Philemon converted to the Christian faith.

Philemon is man known for his love for God and for his concern for the mission of the Church. We come back to a descriptor that has cropped up several times over the past few weeks. Philemon is a disciple of Jesus. Paul says, Philemon 1:5-7, “I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.”

But what may give some people pause is that Philemon is a slave owner. How can a person be a slave owner AND a disciple of Jesus Christ? So let’s talk for just a minute about slavery in the Bible. When the Bible speaks of slavery is have several things in mind...none of which should be confused with slavery as found in Britain and America during the 19th and 20th century.

The most common form of slavery is that of a contracted employee. A person would become indebted to another person whom they could not pay. So they would “sell” themselves to someone to work for a certain amount of time to pay off their debt. Slave regularly had their own families, their own homes and properties, their own fields...they might even have slaves of their own. They most often work as managers of the slave owners property and business. The slave owner could sell them to someone else, but the amount was the debt was simply transferred. The alternative to slavery was imprisonment.

A very similar modern example of this is the National Football League. When a football team drafts and signs a player that player is now in essence owned by that football team. They have a life of their own; their own home. They can own businesses and have employees. They cannot, however, decide to play for another team. They are bound to the team who holds their contract. But the team can at any time decide to trade a player to another team and, for the most part, not get permission from that player before they are traded.

There was a time in our history where people used passages like Philemon and others in the Bible to support the abusive slavery of Africans, but it was based on misunderstanding and misuse of the biblical text. We are talking about two different forms of slavery. One based on kidnapping, subjugation, abuse, and suppression. The other a form of contracted employee bound to someone in order to pay a debt.

If you don’t think you are in a form of contracted slavery to someone simply stop paying your credit card bill, or stop making your car or house payment. You will see how much your debt has made someone else your master in a very similar form of slavery as that spoken of in the Bible.

So, Onesimus is in debt to Philemon. He sells himself as a slave to pay off his debt. But while in Philemon’s service...Onesimus steals something and flees to Rome. Now, whether he likes it or not, Onesimus is in deep trouble. He has broken a contract to pay off his debt and he is guilty of theft.

So Onesimus runs. Rather than face the consequences of his actions, he runs as far as he can run hoping to escape Philemon.

We are a lot like Onesimus aren’t we? There are times when we would rather run away than face our own problems or deal with what it takes to bring a real solution.

Each year 50% of marriages end in divorce as men and women run away from the hard work of making a marriage last. Many expected it to be a life of feeling like they were in love. Or they simply stopped working on their marriage somewhere along the way...so they run away from the marriage and turn from the vows they made before God. Rather than put in the effort of saving the marriage they simply leave.

Statistics say that 1 in 4 children are growing up without their fathers. Men are abandoning their responsibility to their children, but many more are running away by hiding at their work or in their man caves or anywhere else but with their children. There are approximately 4,000 women a day who abort their unborn children.

We run away from relationships and tough conversations because we just don’t want to have them. We don’t want to confront. We don’t want to tell our parents or in-laws or children or colleagues they have overstepped their bounds. So, we just avoid the situation and the discussion because we want to keep the peace, but that isn’t really keeping the peace that is running away.

We make excuses and run away by blaming other people. It wasn’t my fault. If you only knew my situation you would understand and give me a pass. The great biblical example is the passing of the blame found in Adam and Eve...in King Saul and in so many others who were unwilling to own up to their sins and mistakes.

Many run away by relying on some form of self-medication. Rather than physically run away or adequately dealing with the issues we turn to alcohol or drugs or prescription pills to make it all go away. In the US alone more than 7 million people are misusing prescription medications to run away.

We like to run away because it is easier than actually dealing with the situation or accepting the consequences of our actions, or doing the hard work of making things right. But Onesimus was on a crash course with a life change. When he ran away from Philemon he had no idea he would run into Paul in Rome, and that meeting would change the course of his life forever.
While in Rome, Onesimus runs into Paul...and in the process converts to Christianity.

Paul makes a great play on words. Philemon 1:11 says, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” The name Onesimus means useful, but he was never useful to Philemon. He owed him so much money that he had to sell himself into slavery. He stole from Philemon who was willing to have him work off his debt rather than imprison Onesimus. He was insubordinate and looking for an escape. He wanted out. His name meant useful, but he was useless to Philemon in his previous state.

But now...he is useful. Often there are things in our past making us feel useless and worthless and unneeded. I have come to realize that everyone feels inadequate in some way. I have met world-wise people who say, “I am not that smart.” I have met accomplished people who just can’t feel worthwhile no matter how much they accomplish.

You begin to analyze and question the tone and the words because you can’t take someone at the face value of their words. This or that decision by a leader feels like it is against you. You begin to ascribe wrong motives to people without even speaking to them.

Somewhere along the way something caused us to feel useless and inferior. Teasing at the hands of classmates causes us to feel rejected because we were different. A parent offer praise only when we accomplish something or they constantly compare us to our siblings. Your exhusband or exwife abandoned you just like everyone else.

Our sin can make us feel useless...millions of people refuse to walk in the doors of the church because they feel their sin disqualifies them; that somehow they have to become better before they can come to God. For those who make it through the door, we can be plagued for years with feelings of inadequacy about God’s love and forgiveness.

But here is Onesimus...a thief, a runaway...and Paul can say, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” And then in Philemon 1:12 say, “I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you.”

The power of Paul’s message, the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that it takes us from useless to useful. The Gospel changed Onesimus’ character to its very foundations. Onesimus is now truly useful.

So now, Paul is send Onesimus back. When we accept the work of God in our lives...we have to stop running. And often, we have to go back and repair some of the things we have damaged along the way. For Onesimus it means returning to Philemon to accept the consequences of his actions.

So Paul writes a letter of recommendation to Philemon hoping to sway him into a merciful, forgiving response. As the leader of the Church and therefore subordinate to Paul, Philemon 1:8-9 says, “I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” Paul’s appeal is also not willing to assume any proper action on Philemon’s part, Philemon 1:14 says, “I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.”

So Paul offers another view, Philemon 1:15-16, “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—no 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 fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” While neither Paul nor God condone what Onesimus has done...God is able to redeem the situation. There is a big difference between God causing something to happen and God being able to bring good out of it. There is a big difference between God causing the death of someone, and God allowing someone’s death to reunite a family, bring someone to salvation, or challenge a family to move forward. Paul is not condoning the action, just reminding Philemon that something far greater has come of this than just a runaway slave.

He is also not asking that Onesimus be forgiven his debt, but he knows the Gospel of Jesus Christ has changed Onesimus at the core of his being. Because when a person really understands the Gospel and allows its message to work at the core of our being...we really grasp what Jesus is trying to do...we are changed deep down at the roots of our character by our encounter with Him.

Paul is not condoning Onesimus’ actions. Onesimus has sinned. Paul is simply asking for mercy. Paul believes so strongly in the change that has taken place in Onesimus that he puts his own reputation and bank account on the line. Paul writes in Philemon 1:17-19, “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self.”

The power of the Gospel is that it charges our wrongdoing to someone else’s account. Paul was willing to take on the debt and offense of Onesimus. But even greater than that, Jesus willing took on the debt and offense that was ours. What should have been my punishment has been laid on Jesus. The punishment for the sins I have committed against God are not held against me because Jesus took that punishment upon himself on the cross. It was charged to His account.

It is important here to point something out. While forgiveness is readily given...sometimes we have to face the consequences of our sinful actions. Onesimus received God’s forgiveness. He was accepted and loved...but he still had to return to make things right with Philemon.

So often we want God’s forgiveness to take away the consequences of our actions...the consequences of our sin.

Time and again I have counseled with people who say, “Why do I have to struggle with this?” And while you try to say it politely...sometimes it is because they made decision to not live obediently. Many marriages end in divorce because one person failed to heed the warning signs...His anger...her self-absorbtion...his roaming eye...more often than not how they are when you date them is how they are when you marry them. This happens to women so very often, and it is because I think women want a project. “I can change him!” My wife, and probably all the wives in here, will tell you you are fighting a losing battle...he isn’t going to change.

Sometimes we suffer the consequence with our health. If we spend our entire lives living as we please, eating what we want, drinking what we want...we can’t be surprised when our health suffers.

If we spend our money without reservation, fail to save and invest, accumulate debt through credit cards...we can’t be surprised when financial troubles rip us apart and cause ulcers from our worry.

Forgiveness does not mean the release of the consequences. We still have to face up to what we have done in some very practical ways. For Onesimus it meant returning to Philemon. But Paul knows something else. He writes, Philemon 1:21, I am “Confident of your obedience...knowing that you will do even more than I ask.” Paul knows that our God is a God of Second Chances, and that Philemon, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, believes in second chances too.

Every one of us is offered the opportunity for a second chance. In the Christian faith we call it salvation, new birth, regeneration, being Born Again...but it all really means that we are given a second chance with God.

Our sin separates us from God, but we are offered a second chance when we turn to Him in faith. We do this by accepting the salvation offered by His son Jesus Christ, and becoming a disciple or follower of Jesus. Remember what a disciple is? A disciple is someone who wants to have the character and competencies of Jesus Christ. That means we want to act like Jesus acted morally and do what Jesus did in the world around us.

Onesimus was a changed man. Paul knew it. We are not completely sure what happened to Onesimus. The general assumption is that Philemon took Paul’s advice and, at the very least, welcomed Onesimus back; otherwise the Book of Philemon would not have been included in the New Testament.

But there is a story about an Early Church Father named Ignatius who, 50 years later, was being taken to Rome for his execution. Ignatius was the Bishop of Antioch; which meant he pastored a church and oversaw the other churches in the city. On his way to Rome he stopped in Ephesus, just a few miles from Colossea where Philemon and Onesimus lived. A few members of the local church came out to care for the aged Ignatius lead by their Bishop...Onesimus.

There is no definitive evidence that these are one and the same man, but I like to believe that Onesimus used the second chance he received to make a difference for the Kingdom of God. It wasn’t just a way of escape from punishment, Onesimus saw it as an opportunity to change the world and expand the Kingdom of God. Later he would be martyred for his faith having lived a life worthy of death because of his work for the Kingdom.

What can you do with your second chance? We have the opportunity to make a difference in Huber Heights by firmly establishing a community of believers here that serves and loves like no other. When people think of church in the Huber Heights area, I want them to think of us because we have served and loved our way into their lives. They know that God loves and cares for them because we love and care for them.

Are you willing to step up to make this happen in our community?

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