It’s Already Forgiven!

Rev. Brian Henderson, Pastor-Trinity Lutheran Church-San Diego
Pentecost 16-C, September 8th, 2013

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“Confident of your obedience, … I know that you will do even more than I say.” [Philemon 21]

Our Epistle lesson this morning (Philemon 1-21), is a little different from our usual epistles, and here’s how; all of the other Epistles in your Bible are general letters to all of the people in a local congregation, or they are intended for many congregations that make up the Church.  But this one, … this one is different.  It is a private letter from the Apostle Paul to a pastor and leader of a local church; a man named Philemon.

Philemon was not only a pastor he was also a wealthy one.  How do I know that?  Because he owned slaves!  Slaves?  Wait just a minute, why would a pastor own slaves?  Because that was an accepted practice within the Roman Empire, and specifically in the area that he lived, a town called Colossae.  The ranks of slaves were not only made up of those who were conquered in war, but also of persons who voluntarily sold themselves into slavery so that they would have a place to live, food to eat, clothes to wear, and a little money to spend.  Now within the roster of slaves working for Philemon, was one named Onesimus.  What he did for Philemon, and how he became a slave is unknown, we only know that he was a slave in the household of Philemon.

But what we also know is that Onesimus ran away and eventually found St. Paul in a Roman prison waiting for a trial that would eventually lead to his death.  Why did he run to find Paul?  Because St. Paul was the founder and Bishop of that church in Colossae and Onesimus knew it.   He must have known many things about Christianity while observing the worship services in Philemon’s home.  He also must have observed many qualities of the Christian faith that he admired but which also confused him, so it only made sense that when he ran he would seek out the only authority he knew of within the Christian church, the Apostle Paul.

So here are three truths we must realize so that this message will make sense.  1. This is not a message on the morality of slavery.  2. When Onesimus ran away, he committed theft; he was depriving his master Philemon of the income or service that he would have rendered had he stayed.  3. Onesimus was attracted by the Christian faith, from what he heard and witnessed, but he was not yet converted; that is, when he ran away, he was not a Christian.

Now let’s look at the letter.  In verse 4 Paul reminds Philemon of his true identity in Jesus Christ.  He is not just a wealthy business owner; he is not just a husband and father; he is not just an owner of slaves; and he is not just a leader of a local congregation… he is Christ’s own Ambassador in all of the vocations or positions of life that he lives.  Through faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ he has been set free, pardoned of all of his sins.  In his baptism this pardon engulfed him and recreated him into the image of His Lord Jesus Christ.  In other words he was made one with God through a relationship of love and faith with the Son of God.  Now this is the truth that empowers St. Paul’s entire message contained within this letter.  The underlying question throughout this whole letter is this: Shouldn’t this relationship with God through Jesus Christ direct every thing we do in life and guide the way we live and behave with all people?

In verse 6, Paul talks about the fellowship of believers and how we relate to each other in the body of Christ and how we treat those outside of the church who hopefully will be attracted to the faith because of how we treat them.  Sometimes I mourn over the damage done to the image of the church because of our public persona.  The church may no longer be seen as a group of ordinary people who love in an extraordinary fashion, by celebrating joyfully with others over their great fortune, and weeping and mourning intensely with still others because of their misfortune and tragedies.  Instead, I am afraid we sometimes may be seen as a group of individuals who just want to get our praise on and avoid letting others into our tight circle because either we are jealous that their blessing isn’t our blessing, or because their sorrow is bringing us down and threatening to take the joy out of our own lives. Paul’s letter is encouraging us to go back to our relationship with God through Christ, and he is commanding us to be reconciled with God and with our brothers and sisters in true Christian love!

In verse 7, Paul asks us to consider a couple things.  Are we being a blessing and useful to others in the church by how we spend our time talent and resources and are we allowing others to bless and be useful to us with their time, talent, and treasure?  Or are we so caught up in the moment and with those in our little cliques that we have no time for others who may be different than ourselves?

In verses 8-15, Paul acknowledges that Onesimus sinned against Philemon, and he admits that this sin has separated the two.  But Paul points out that Onesimus not only acknowledges this before Philemon and Paul, but before God Himself.  You see, Onesimus has turned and received God’s gift of forgiveness through Jesus Christ; he was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and now being reconciled to God through Christ, He also wishes to be reconciled to Philemon.  In other words, Paul is once more turning Philemon’s eyes and heart to Christ and His cross.  He is showing Him that forgiveness has already been accomplished at Calvary, now all that is lacking is for Philemon to pronounce and live out that same forgiveness towards Onesimus, who once was only a slave, but now is so much more than that, he is Philemon’s brother!

In verse 18, we have perhaps the most beautiful part of the letter.  Here we see Paul, who points Philemon and us to the cross, and he takes up that same cross himself on behalf of Onesimus.  He says that what ever Onesismus owes you, what ever harm he has done that you feel demands restitution, charge it to me, Paul, personally!  “In other words,” says Paul, “as Christ paid my debt of sin and freed me from that burden, I too can not help but do the same for Onesimus.”  Now this is beautiful and it is important, because it sets up what comes next.

In verse 21, Paul says that he is confident that Philemon will take back Onesimus as his brother in Christ without penalty and with complete forgiveness, in fact he is confident that he will do something even better. Paul is certain that Philemon like himself, through the power of the Spirit of Christ, will also take up his cross, and absorb what every financial or social loss that Onesimus’ disobedience caused, just as Christ did for Philemon and Paul upon His cross, where His death brought life for all sinners, even sinners such as Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus.

Dear friend, may I speak to you personally through the grace and forgiving love of Jesus Christ?  Do you know that I thank God for your salvation; I can’t help but celebrate that like me, He has snatched you too out of the grasp of the devil by paying for your sin Himself.  What a joy it is to know that He has also washed you and recreated you into His own image in your baptism, so that like me, you too need never fear the punishments of death.  The fact that you are listening to these words this morning is proof of your love for Christ, even as weak as it may be, it is present by the work of God, and for that I truly am joyful.  I know that it is this same love of Christ that has moved you to give freely and abundantly in your time, talent, and treasure to the church and in other places and ways.  Through your giving, you have truly refreshed the lives of so many.

Now because of this wonderful gift of grace that is active in your life, I must be bold to speak a command of God.  “You must be reconciled with your brother or sister.”  You are required to do this thing, not asked.  Yet you are forgiven through grace, so this command will not cause you any fear or worry, because it will actually be Christ within you forgiving, becoming reconciled to the one that has hurt you and deserves, in the worlds eyes, only punishment and retribution.  You know as well as I that any good works that God commands, which are done out of fear or obligation, do not count for a thing in His eyes.  Instead, we know that God loves a cheerful giver, one who gives of their time, talent, treasure, and even forgiveness, voluntarily out of a heart filled with love and abundant thankfulness for what Jesus has done!

So I, a simple pastor who at times can also be a sinner, ask you to forgive that person who has sinned against you.  Let it go and allow the cross of Jesus Christ to absorb it.  When you see them living their life as if they had never sinned against you, why not do the same.  Let all anger and animosity go and be reconciled to that person.  Sit down, speak truthfully with them; talk about sin, their sin and your own, and talk about grace, Christ’s grace that forgives each of you completely.  Think of how you were baptized and know that the very same waters also cleansed them.  Allow them back into your life after God’s own Word has restored both of you.  This is my prayer for each of you and it is the very thing that I celebrate even now, because I know that by the Spirit of Christ, you will do even more than I ask.

As we close our message, I thought that I would share one more bit of information with you about the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus.  Not only did Philemon forgive Onesimus and take him back, he took him back just as Paul asked, as a dear brother, fellow redeemed sinner through Christ Jesus.  Now to strengthen our faith, allow me to show you what God can do when brothers and sisters are willing to be reconciled with each other through Jesus Christ.

Some time latter after Onesimus’ return, Philemon released Onesimus and had him go back to Paul and serve as a missionary as Paul directed him (Colossians 4:7-9).  Church tradition teaches that later Onesimus went on to become a bishop of the Church in the city of Ephesus at the age of 70, and latter he probably died as a martyr in the Christian faith, refusing to recant his faith in God and his love for his Savior Jesus Christ.

All of this, because Philemon obediently followed the Spirit of Christ and was willingly reconciled to Onesimus.  I wonder whose lives we can influence and change by also being obedient to the Spirit of Christ?  May God bless each of us Onesimuses, and may we also be reconciled to those we have hurt and to those who have hurt us.  I ask this in Jesus name… AMEN!

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