Sunday 8th September, 2019
Theme: Philemon
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
Bible Reading: Philemon 1-21

Last Week in the Father’s Day classic I shared a story about me mucking up the washing and tied it into the idea of forgiveness.  The reading last week was that amazing promise from 1 John that when we confess our sins God is faithful and just and WILL forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Today, our reading is looking at the same issue by from a slightly different perspective.  Philemon or Phillie-mon is the one of the shortest books in the Bible – and is a book that we very rarely preach on … but it is a great story about forgiveness and the difference that forgiveness can make to everyone involved.

Now I have had a great time over the past two weeks reading heaps about Philemon and I am ready to give you an overview of the book and the way that it ties into the gospel message … but to be honest, I found a six minute video that does it even better that I can … so I am going to ask your indulgence and allow this great video from “The Bible Project”.  As we watch this … look out for two key things that I am going to help us explore later:

  • How does this story tie in with the broader discussion on forgiveness
  • What was the benefits of forgiveness for the different people involved?

So, what did you think of that.  The Bible Project videos are great and you can find them on a whole heap of books of the bible and Christian topics.  But If we are honest, we are just as much impressed with the artist than we are with the content.  Amazing drawings.

Ok … so did you get what the story is about.

  • Philemon was a follower of Jesus and a leader of the church in Colossae
  • Onesimus was Philemon’s slave
  • Onesimus wronged Philemon – maybe stole something – and escaped.
  • Sometime later Onesimus runs into Paul – also become a follower of Jesus – and Paul encourages Philemon to forgive Onesimus and reconcile the relationship.

What I loved about the video was the way it explained this issue of forgiveness so well.  On the one hand, it was perfectly in Philemon’s right to punish Onesimus.  By Roman law there was no requirement to forgive, but as Paul sets out … they are both brothers in Christ … and Christ encourages us to forgive.

When I was at theological college, one of my biblical studies lecturers taught us to ask questions of the text … to wrestle with the questions or implications to see if we can gain more insight.    When I read Philemon during the week, one of the questions that I thought was “Why was Paul even getting involved in the first place?”  This dispute between Philemon and Onesimus was not recent … Onesimus was now living in a different city, had found Jesus and changed his life, and was now a helpful companion to Paul.  Why go back and drag up an old issue and in doing so – lose your helper?  Why get involved?

I think for Paul, there is something bigger happening here – that Onesimus and Philemon are part of God’s great story of forgiveness and reconciliation.  Paul becomes a representation of Jesus in this story as he brings the one who has done wrong and the one who can forgive together … and then goes on to say that he will pay the price for the wrongs that has been done.  (v18) If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.  Compare that to Galatians 3:13 when Paul writes that “Christ paid the price to free us from the condemnation we deserve”.

So for Paul – he not only had to tell people about this good news of forgiveness and reconciliation, he had to live it out – and that meant giving up his helper so that Onesimus and Philemon could be reconciled.

But I think for Paul, he also got involved because he knew the truth that forgiveness and reconciliation is not just something we do because Jesus tells us to … we do it because it is helpful.  Forgiveness and reconciliation actually makes a difference to the people involved and to the wider community.

Lets start with Onesimus.  I can imagine that even though he had run away from the problem of letting down Philemon … that he couldn’t run away from the guilt.  That even years later, that pang of guilt would have still been sharp.  Yes – he had found Jesus and had been spiritually forgiven for his sins but Paul seem to have the insight that in Onesimus’ case, the only way to truly break the chains of that guilt was through forgiveness and reconciliation with Philemon.  And can you imagine the joy that would have brought to Onesimus – to be forgiven and welcomed as a brother in Christ.  (We will come back to just how big of a difference this made in a moment).

But what about Philemon.  What difference does forgiveness make to the one who is asked to forgive.  Now this is a key question.  When someone wrongs you, and then asks for forgiveness … of course it benefits them, but what about you?  Why should you forgive?

Google throws up some interesting answers.

  • On a phycology website they say that forgiveness can be therapeutic – it brings healing and can help you let go of anger, resentment and bitterness. 
  • A medical website said that the benefits of forgiving someone include lower blood pressure, stronger immune system, less anxiety and stress and improved mental health.
  • A relationship website said that it leads to healthier relationships and improved self-esteem.

But what about the bible?  What difference does forgiveness make to the forgiver spiritually?

Colossians 3:13 says that forgiveness can be a gratitude thing … we forgive in response to God forgiving us.  But Jesus said that when we forgive others, we are in a more receptive place to receive forgiveness ourselves.  It is literally written into the Lord’s prayer … that we are forgiven in the same way as we forgive others.  It is almost like forgiveness can be contagious – that when we have a forgiving spirit that this spirit is caught by the people around us … who also become forgiving … which flows back to us … and to the whole community.

It is all about Grace – forgiveness leads to us being more graceful … in both sense … we show more grace to others around us and at the same time we are filled with grace.

Which leads to the last point … which I have already sort of just made … that forgiveness benefits the whole community. 

The video picked up that the Paul keeps using this word in his letter to Philemon – Koinonia.  In the NIV it is translated as partnership, but it can also be translated as fellowship, or community or even the family of God.  However, we translate it, Paul is saying that because of our faith in Jesus – we are connected.  We are brothers and sisters … together the family of God. 

But the reality is that as a church family, we have a variety of different experience, opinions, political persuasions and theological understandings which sometimes cause disagreements – and that is not mentioning the different personalities, behaviours and quirks that also can clash.  I have probably driven you bananas at some point.   We are not perfect people … which unfortunately means that sometimes we get hurt, just by being part of the community.  And this is why grace and forgiveness are so important.  Not just for the people involved, but it is only through Grace and Forgiveness that we continue to be a loving, inclusive and supporting community.

I think that Paul purposely choses to use the word Koinonia to remind Philemon on this point.  Paul is saying that if Philemon forgives Onesimus – not only will it be good for Onesimus, and it will be good for himself, AND it will be good for the church community at Colossae … but it will be good for the entire family of God.

And this is where this story takes an interesting twist.

So … did Philemon forgive Onesimus?  We don’t know for certain, but there are some hints that he did.  After all, Paul eventually did get out of prison and most likely visited Philemon and the Colossian church. If Paul had discovered that Philemon was not forgiven, this letter probably wouldn’t have made its way into the bible. 

And this is where this story takes an interesting twist.  Several decades after Paul wrote to Philemon there was another Christian writer called Ignatius of Antioch who it is believed was mentored by John.  He wrote a series of letters which didn’t get in the bible but are still held as useful for theology and insight into the early church.  In his letter to the church in Ephesus he wrote this paragraph:   “In God’s name, therefore, I received your large congregation in the person of Onesimus, your bishop in this world, a man whose love is beyond words. My prayer is that you should love him in the Spirit of Jesus Christ and all be like him. Blessed is he who let you have such a bishop.”

Now, it can’t be proven, but many believe that Bishop Onesimus was the same Onesimus Paul asked Philemon to forgive. That this intervention by Paul and the forgiveness shared by Philemon allowed Onesimus to not only be free from past … but ultimately go on to bless the wider church with his leadership as Bishop of Ephesus. 

The point being … forgiveness and grace are transformative.
It transforms the one who is forgiven
It transforms the one who forgives
And it transforms the Koinonia – the family of God.

So I encourage us all to be transformed by forgiveness
And by the love and grace that comes with it.  Amen.