Summary: Once Useless Now Useful: The story of Onesimus; the story of Paul; the story of us all.
My father has a knack for finding and fixing discarded bicycles. Bikes that are considered useless by most become useful in the hands of this skilled mechanic. Of course everyone knows that with a bit of duct tape anything can be made useful again. Does that work on people too? Can those who consider themselves or others to be useless be made useful with a bit of strategically placed duct tape? No, even duct tape has its limitations. There is, however, something that can make even the most seemingly useless person, useful. It’s the gospel. It did that for a runaway slave named Onesimus, it did that for the Apostle Paul, and it does it for us.
Let’s begin with the story of Onesimus. Onesimus was the slave of a Christian named Philemon. Whoa! Hold it right there. What’s a Christian doing with a slave? Isn’t slavery wrong? Actually, the Bible never condemns slavery. In fact the apostles Paul and Peter encouraged slaves to obey and respect their masters, even the ones who weren’t nice (2 Tim. 6:1, 2; 1 Pet. 2:18). Of course slave owners were, in turn, to love and care for their slaves. The Golden Rule: “Love your neighbour as yourself” applied to them as it did to everyone else. We pray that Philemon treated Onesimus with such love and concern. If he did, Onesimus wasn’t very appreciative for he ran away and probably robbed Philemon in the process.
Although Philemon may have been ready to give up on Onesimus, God wasn’t. He steered Onesimus to Rome and made certain that, out of the million or so inhabitants, he came into contact with the Apostle Paul. When Paul first met Onesimus and found out that he was the runaway slave of a Christian he knew from Colosse (a city in present day western Turkey, a city over 1,000 km away), he recognized that his heavenly Father was at work. And so Paul went to work on Onesimus. He pointed out Onesimus’ sin of running away from his master, and then he followed that up with the good news of how Jesus had already paid for that sin. As a result Onesimus was not only converted to the faith, he became a trusted and reliable helper to Paul. The runaway slave who had once been useless, now finally lived up to his name, Onesimus, which means “useful”.
Just as God guided and directed Onesimus’ steps to Rome, he still leads us today. It’s no accident that we are here this morning. God brought us here to learn that, even though we often run away from him and our responsibilities as children, parents, employers, employees, and congregational members, he has forgiven us and has plans for us. Through the gospel God makes us useful again. How does God plan to use us? Let’s first see what plans he had for Onesimus.
Although Paul would have liked to keep Onesimus on as a trusted servant of the gospel, he sent him back to Colosse. After all Onesimus was still Philemon’s slave and if he was truly repentant of running away, he would return and take up his place again as a slave in Philemon’s household. Still, Paul wanted Philemon to know that he was sending Onesimus back a changed man. From now on Onesimus wasn’t just Philemon’s salve, he was his brother in the faith and Paul wanted Philemon to treat him as such. Paul went as far as urging Philemon to receive Onesimus as if he was receiving Paul himself (Philemon 17). Paul could have demanded these things because it was the right thing to do, but Paul didn’t command, nor did he beg, he simply expressed his confidence that Philemon would do what he had encouraged him to do and even more.
Dear leaders of St. Peter’s, note well how Paul worked. When we want our fellow members to share in the ministry we don’t have to demand it, nor do we have to beg. We simply need to explain well the challenges that lay before us and then remind one another of what God has done for us. We can be confident that God’s people will respond and do even more than we expect. That’s the power of the gospel.
Although Onesimus was a changed man, he still must have been nervous about going back to Philemon. After all Roman law gave slave owners the right to brand the forehead of runaway slaves, lock them in chains, or simply execute them. Onesimus knew he deserved any one of these punishments because he had not just run away from Philemon, but had probably stolen from him as well. Paul must have sensed these fears and so he wrote to Philemon that he would pay for any damage Onesimus had done. This promise allowed Onesimus to go back and serve his master free of the fear of punishment.