August 30, 2020 Sermon
“Pursuing Change for Christ: Philemon, Part 2”
1st Scripture Reading – Philemon 1:8-16
8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
2nd Scripture Reading – Philemon 1:17-25
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
22 One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
“Pursuing Change for Christ: Philemon, Part 2”
Do you think God sent Jesus into the world to advocate for the status quo, to advocate for keeping everything the same? I don’t think so. God sent Jesus into the world because God KNEW the world needed to change if it was going to become the amazing place, the amazing kingdom, God envisioned for it.
So God sent Jesus to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God…which represented a CHANGE from the status quo of the very unjust kingdom of the world. And God sent Jesus to demonstrate the vast DIFFERENCE between the world as it was and God’s intended change. How did Jesus demonstrate the vast difference? The summaries of Jesus’ ministry tell us that Jesus:
proclaim[ed] the good news of the kingdom and cur[ed] every disease and every sickness among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.
Healing broken people, curing sick people, that was CHANGE, change that demonstrated the difference between a kingdom of brokenness and a kingdom of wholeness. But that’s not the only way Jesus demonstrated the difference. Jesus performed miracles of abundance – like turning water into wine – that demonstrated the difference between a kingdom of scarcity and a kingdom of abundance. And Jesus taught and prophesied…to show the difference between what people had come to accept and even expect and what God offered through a changed, transformed creation. Jesus taught things like love…and forgiveness…and reconciliation…and justice.
Y’all, pretty much everything Jesus did and taught in his ministry was CHANGE, change from the way WE, people, have made things to be and change to what God desires things to be. And right before Jesus ascended into heaven – in Jesus’ last words to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel – Jesus told those disciples to continue his ministry of change, “19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
I hope you can see that part of the core of what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is to continue Jesus’ ministry of change, of the transformation of this earth from what it is to what God desires it to be.
With this in mind, last week, we began a sermon series that seeks to answerone of the most fundamental questions of our faith: given that we followers of Jesus are supposed to pursue change, HOW are we supposed to pursue change? Are we supposed to pursue the kinds of changes people around us are pursuing? Are we supposed to pursue change the way people around us are pursuing change – meaning, what kinds of strategies and tactics should we be employing?
And we began the series by looking at the opening verses of the one-chapter book of Philemon, a book that is a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the Christian leader and slave owner Philemon. And we discovered that the general approach and overriding principle by which Paul sought to pursue change with Philemon was the theological principle of LOVE for neighbor, love for someone with whom you disagree vehemently, love for a Christian who behaves and believes in a way you find to be decidedly Un-Christian, love even for a person you envision as an enemy due to the heinousness of the person’s sins.
Today, we read the rest of what Paul wrote to Philemon. And in today’s words, we will discover something more specific than Paul’s general approach of love. We will discover some very specific tools, some very specific means Paul utilized to pursue change in Philemon. We can learn from these. We SHOULD learn from these. They might not be exhaustive – if they were we wouldn’t ended four more sermons in this series – but they do provide a great place to start when it comes to specific things you can do to pursue the changes you perceive this world to need, especially when it comes to changing the ways or hearts of individuals, like Philemon. Let’s see what God offers us in the way of tools to pursue change through God’s words through Paul to Philemon.
Let’s start with verses 8-9: “8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”
I mentioned this briefly last week as part of Paul’s general approach of love. Today, let’s dig a little deeper. It’s so easy to want to COMMAND people out of our knowledge of what God says is right and wrong, isn’t it? In fact, Christians have received a reputation for wanting to command the rest of society to live in accordance with our understanding of God’s desires and God’s laws. What’s so fascinating about us having received this reputation is that commanding others to live by our understanding of God’s rules is NOT AT ALL what God models through the scriptures.
- Remember how God started things off with the first man and the first woman? God gave them the CHOICE to do what God wanted them to do – we call it free will.
- Remember how God started things off with God’s called people, the Israelites? God offered them a covenant but allowed them to CHOOSE whether or not they would follow.
- Remember how God responded after God’s people REPEATEDLY violated their responsibilities in God’s covenants with them? God could have cut them off as God’s people – sometimes it even seemed like God did so for a short while – but God’s steadfast love ALWAYS led God to allow them to REMAIN God’s treasured people.
- And remember how God responded to ALL the people throughout the world who decide to NOT get on board with all God offered? Did God FORCE them to do what God wanted them to do? No, God sent Jesus to die for them…even while they were still sinners. God sent Jesus to send US, the Church, not as a hammer but as agents of persuasion for God’s desired change.
Y’all, I firmly believe God is all powerful. God created everything, which gives God power over everything. But I ALSO believe the scriptures reveal God to have CHOSEN to limit the way God would use God’s power, meaning God chose to use persuasive power instead of coercive power. That’s what the Holy Spirit is all about. The Spirit GUIDES us but doesn’t compel us to comply. We get to choose. And THAT choice thing, it’s the loving thing, and so it’s how God wants us to treat others, as well. Meaning, when it comes to pursuing change as followers of Jesus, even pursuing change FOR Jesus, ushering in God’s kingdom here on earth, our job is not to FORCE or COMMAND or COMPEL anyone to do what we believe is God’s will. No, our job in pursuing change is to point people to God’s desires and let them choose….even if they would choose something so terrible as slavery….even if they would choose something so terrible as racism…even if they would choose something so terrible as, well, insert anything you’d like. I hope you see that God’s approach is VERY different from the approach most people take in our world today…which is hopeful; it means if we would only choose God’s approach, we might experience better results when pursuing change than what we’re experiencing right now.
Let’s continue with verse 17: “17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”
PARTNERS. That’s how Paul approaches such a grievous, heinous sinner as a slave owner. PARTNERS. Since I did not talk about this last week, I encourage you to consider if partnership is a typical approach taken in our society when it comes to trying to pursue change with those who strongly disagree with us, especially those who disagree with us in ways we perceive to be harmful. Think for a moment about those with whom you disagree about anything concerning ETHICS or MORALITY – about RIGHT and WRONG…do we 21st century Americans treat such folks as partners, or do we treat them as UNWORTHY to be our partners, even unworthy to be proper members of a civilized society?
But Paul’s approach gets even more interesting than extending partnership to a sinner, extending partnership to a slave owner. Paul actually asks the slave owner to extend partnership to PAUL. What? It’s like Paul puts Philemon in an elevated position and asks Philemon to grant Paul access to that elevated position. In other words, Paul doesn’t approach the sinner from a place of superiority but rather from a place of humility, maybe even a place of subordination. Would we EVER do such a thing?
I don’t know if you’ve been watching the Democratic or Republican National Conventions over the past few weeks, but, if you have, I imagine you’ve noticed most of the speakers have taken the exact OPPOSITE approach from Paul with regard to this partnership thing. Our political leaders don’t treat the people on the other side of the aisle as partners; no, they treat them as inferiors, as unworthy, as being so far BENEATH themselves as to be barely human. And they encourage you to do the same. Which, I think, has an awful lot to do with why our nation is so divided and why our nation struggles to accomplish much good these days. I wonder, what would happen if we approached the folks on the other side of the political aisle as partners? Or even better, what if we ASKED the people on the other side of the political aisle to elevate us to the position of partners with THEM? I think Paul was onto something. Actually, I KNOW God was onto something and was working through Paul to show us. In our efforts to pursue change for Christ, we should not be belittling those we seek to convince, those we seek to help usher in the change; no, we should treat them as partners, as equals.
Let’s backtrack a little to verse 11: “11 Formerly [Onesimus] was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.”
I’m not suggesting Paul avoids appealing to emotion in his appeals to Philemon – he definitely appeals to emotion when he calls Onemsimus his child and when he appeals to Philemon to consider Oneimus a brother – but, Paul ALSO appeals to something called UTILITY. That’s what was going on in verse 11 and what Paul continues in several other verses. In verse 11, Paul focuses on Onesimus being USEFUL – not just useful to Paul but also useful to Philemon. In the overall scheme of Paul’s understanding of the gospel, this usefulness, this utility, is very important. Remember, according to Paul, the whole POINT of the Holy Spirit’s working through people is to achieve the “common good”; it’s utility. So Paul makes the logical, philosophical, economic, and theological point that a free person is much more BENEFICIAL than a slave. We can extend this – I’m pretty sure God and Paul intend us to do so – to pretty much any kind of sin (especially since most sins have to do with injustice): seeking, working toward, justice for all, which is God’s desire for people, produces the GREATEST benefit to humanity. Another way to say this is that the kingdom of God is BETTER – meaning more BENEFICIAL – to people than the kingdom of people. When it comes to pursuing change, what this means for us is that we should seek to convince people that the changes we seek are GOOD by demonstrating the utility of those changes for society, in general, but also for the people to whom we speak, specifically. In other words, when it comes to pursuing change for Christ, don’t JUST appeal to emotion but ALSO point to the benefits of the desired change, and make sure the benefits apply to ALL, make sure the benefits are actually in the realm of God’s justice.
I’m running short on time, so, I’ll spend a little less time on the final two tools God provides through Paul, two tools that are just as important as the others, so I’ll encourage you to spend some time connecting them to our world today and to your own life. In verses 18-19, Paul tells Philemon that PAUL is willing to make a sacrifice in order to achieve the change Paul desires and pursues in Philemon. Paul will repay any cost Philemon will incur to make the change…which again, is the opposite of what we typically do in the kingdom of the world: we expect the SINNER, the one who needs changing, to bear the cost, the burden of the change, to make reparations for past wrongs. That’s very different from what God reveals, It’s also something very different from what Jesus did; Jesus paid the price for OUR sins to pave the way for the change Jesus desires in us. (PAUSE) Now for the final how-to of pursuing change Paul offers in the letter: throughout the letter, not in one specific verse but in almost EVERY verse, Paul directly expresses the source of the change Paul pursues, that source being Christ. I wonder, do we too often AVOID this tool, avoid telling people we’re pursuing the changes we’re pursuing because we’re followers of JESUS, the Christ, who calls us to pursue these changes? Do we avoid connecting the changes we pursue with Christ because we’re afraid of how people will respond to our bold claims and proclamations that we’re claiming change for Christ? My friends, if we’re followers of Jesus, shouldn’t we present Jesus as the source, the basis, for EVERY request we make? Even if people don’t like it, even if people don’t want to respond well to it, there IS power in Jesus’ name…but even more than that, how will people who don’t yet know what Jesus is about ever come to know if we don’t tell them? I’d be willing to bet that if we pursued moral and ethical changes – putting an end to racism, putting an end to senseless violence and killing, putting an end to animosity between peoples and political parties – if we pursued these moral and ethical changes because God wants these changes, Jesus wants these changes, we would draw MORE people to Christ, not fewer. But…if we instead focus on different kinds of changes – you know, changes to our buildings and lawns and things things that aren’t exactly from the source of Christ – and these are the only kinds of things people around us hear us talking about, communicating, if these are the kinds of things people associate with us and with Jesus. I don’t think we’re going to draw more people to Christ.
At the outset of the sermon, I told you God desired change in creation; that’s WhY God sent Jesus. I’m sure you know that God’s desired changes haven’t happened yet, not completely, so there’s STILL work to do. And even though it’s God’s vision, God sends US to continue the work begun so long ago in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. And through Paul, God provided some very clear tools for how to pursue this kind of change: (1) like God, like Jesus, point people to God’s vision rather than seeking to force them to comply; (2) approach those in whom you pursue change as partners, not inferiors; (3) communicate the benefits of the change you pursue…communicate those benefits in terms of the common good, which means making sure the changes will benefit the common good and not just your good; (4) be willing to sacrifice to pursue the desired change; if you’re only willing for someone ELSE to sacrifice, it might be time to reconsider whether or not this a truly a change God desires; and, (5) make sure Christ is the source of the changes you pursue. If Christ is the source, be sure to COMMUNICATE that reality. If Christ is not the source, you’re pursuing the wrong changes and should start over!
My friends, if we pursue change in the ways Paul pursued change with Philemon, not only will we be more successful in achieving the changes we pursue, but also we will actually see, WITNESS, the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in our midst. Isn’t that what we want to see? I sure hope so.