Summary: This is a sermon about Onesimus. We should act out of love, not out of duty.
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, 2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. 6 I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul-- an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus-- 10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him-- who is my very heart-- back to you.
13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good-- 16 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 man and as a brother in the Lord. 17
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back-- not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. 22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
Two little brothers, Harry and James, had finished supper and were playing until bedtime. Somehow, Harry hit James with a stick, and tears and bitter words followed. Charges and accusations were still being exchanged as their mother prepared them for bed.
She said, “Now boys, what would happen if one of you died tonight and you never had the opportunity again to forgive one another?” James spoke up, “Well, OK, I’ll forgive him tonight, but if we’re both alive in the morning, he’d better look out.”
It can be hard to let go of a hurt… hard to forgive… hard to forget. Some families have been feuding for 50 years over something that the rest of us would probably consider quite silly. But the fight is real. The problems are real. The anger is real. The hurt… is especially real. And to forgive? To make it like NOTHING happened? C’mon! Unrealistic right? Downright impossible!
Trouble in the Text
Well… in our scripture text today… Paul is asking the impossible. You see, Philemon was a very respected and influential person. Paul tells us this much in verse two where he writes, this letter isn’t just for you Philemon… it’s for the entire congregation that meets in your home. Paul was writing because there was about to be a very big problem for Philemon.
Philemon had a slave, (which in the Greek here is translated servant, employee, or helper), named Onesimus (which means “useful”). Onesimus was not very useful to Philemon… Paul even implies in verse 18 that Onesimus may have lost Philemon a good amount of money or that he may have even stolen money. Onesimus then added insult to injury by escaping to the large town of Rome to hide from his master. In Rome Onesimus had met Paul and was converted. Onesimus changed his life, and was now implored by Paul to return to Philemon! What kind of welcome do you suppose Philemon would give to Onesimus? The law gave Philemon full authority to string Onesimus up by the nearest tree if he ever saw him again. I imagine Philemon had something exactly like that in mind.