Summary: To help my audience see how to apply deliberate Christ-centered action to their relationships at home and in the Church so that potential messes are made into decisive victories for the Lord
Sweet gum trees. They’re a great shade tree – they grow quickly and strong. They produce a lot of leaves that will often turn nice colors in the fall. And, if you’ve had a couple of them, you know they also produce about a billion spiny, ball-shaped seedpods called monkey balls or gum balls. Every spring, those dandy little things cover the lawn, and they have to be moved off. About a year ago, articles started to appear that said those gumballs are a newly-discovered source for shikimic acid, the main ingredient being used to fight the Asian bird flu. Until now, they were depending on a plant in China for this. Suddenly, my gumball trees may be useful! I’ve always said that if I could find a buy for those things I’d retire!
Onesimus was a slave, and he had really messed up. Onesimus – his name meant “Useful” – had run away from his owner Philemon. Roman law was pretty clear. A slave owner literally owned someone else’s life. If he chose to, he could treat his slave real well or could treat him horribly. When a slave ran away and was caught again, any of a number of consequences might follow. He might be tortured, branded, or killed. Somehow, Onesimus had bolted, and he ran away to Rome, where Paul was in prison under a kind of house-arrest. Isn’t it ironic that a young man who ran away to seek his freedom attaches himself to a man who calls himself “a prisoner of Christ”; a man who lives with a kind of freedom that defies prison?
We don’t know how they met. We only know that while he is there, Paul becomes a spiritual father to the runaway slave. Onesimus accepts Jesus. Somehow, Paul discovers it’s a small world after all, because it turns out that Onesimus has run away from Paul’s friend, another son in Christ, named Philemon, in Colossae.
Now Paul has some decisions. Does he just say nothing? After all, Onesimus is pretty good help to have around. If he says something, it might get Onesimus in pretty hot water, or he may not even stay around. He may bolt, again. Then there’s the church that meets in Philemon’s house. What would they all do? Some might side with Philemon and some with the runaway slave. It has the potential to really polarize people. Whatever Paul instructs might create some kind of power play. There could be hurt feelings, legal implications, and all the muddle of a public spectacle.
Have you ever been in circumstances that just seem so complicated you’re not sure what to do? Trouble with in-laws, ex-spouses, step children, siblings? Trouble with managers, employees, co-workers? Trouble with teachers, friends, friends of friends, ex-boyfriends of friends and boyfriends of ex-friends? Or even in the church – trouble with committee members, board members, ministry team leaders, even Sunday School teachers? You don’t have to go too far in life to run into times when there are potential messes. Once the dust settles, you can often look back and learn from them what you should have done differently.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could learn a way to solve the problems before they turned ugly? Wouldn’t it be helpful to be able to defuse the situation and not have some major blow up?
That’s where this letter comes in. It’s what Paul chose to do with the potential Onesimus-mess – a way to do what’s right without stomping all over everyone’s toes. I hope you see where I’m going with this. Take your current Onesimus-sized mess, and apply the principles found in Philemon to it. That’s my goal for us this morning. How can we take a mess like Onesimus created and make it useful instead of tragic?
1. Act as a Community (vv1-2,23-24) (Care)
We live in the Joplin community. That is, we share this place with the other 46,000 or so residents. Now, everyday, this community’s population more than doubles because of people who come here to work and to shop. Some of those people don’t have the same concerns about Joplin that the rest of us have, because they’re not part of the community. When you belong to a community, that implies some qualities about you. The same things are true for the community of believers who make up the Lord’s Church. So, what does it mean to “act as a community”?
People in a Community know each other.
This was a Christian community. They may have been separated by many miles, but Paul speaks to them like people who are all under the same roof. V2 he mentions Apphia and Archippus – maybe even Philemon’s wife and son.
2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home…