Even though I did a lengthy placement with a chaplaincy team at a prison, I don’t really think I can imagine what it must be like to be in prison. After all, even though it was intimidating to be under lock and key and to have my movement and freedom restricted, at the end of the day I could leave and go home. An experience of prison is not like the impression we get from watching Porridge with Ronnie Barker, much as we might love that classic series; neither are the Prison Officers like Mr MacKay – at least not the ones I met!
It is one thing to be imprisoned for breaking the law. It is something entirely different to be imprisoned when you have done nothing wrong. But that is exactly what happened to Paul. Our reading today is taken from Paul’s letter to Philemon which he wrote when he was imprisoned because of his commitment to Christ. I wonder if Paul’s letter is the kind of letter you would expect someone to write when they are imprisoned? And of course this was not the only letter that Paul wrote from prison. He also wrote those other epistles – to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. For Paul, his present hardship was an opportunity to serve Christ in a deeper way.
It is a little ironic that Paul (who was held captive), writes his letter to Philemon, to (try and secure the freedom) of Philemon’s slave called Onesimus. Paul knew all too well what it was like to be held captive, and if you remember last time I shared with you I that said God notices the hurting and has compassion on the bound, the burdened and the broken. Despite Paul’s personal situation, he modelled Christ by continuing to do what was right and holy, irrespective of life’s difficulties and uncertainties. He put aside bitterness and all those questions that are raised – all for Christ’s sake. Nothing that life could throw at him could bind him and separate him from the love of Christ…we must remember “if the Son sets us free, we will be free indeed.” (John 8:36) Paul kept the faith and stayed in the knowledge of the love of his Saviour and he was able to serve God in an incredible way by encouraging and challenging Philemon. (cf. v. 5). Paul then had been willing to give up his rights for Christ’s sake, and even that could be used to the honour and glory of God.
So what do we know about Philemon? Philemon was a wealthy Gentile Christian in Colossae; we are told that the church met in his home and of course he was a slave owner. Paul refers to him as:
- his dear friend (1b)
- a fellow worker (1b)
- a convert of his who owed Paul “his very self”
After the introduction, Paul begins by commending and encouraging Philemon because of:
a) His love for all the saints
b) His faith towards Jesus Christ
Paul essentially carries out a spiritual health check on Philemon – love and faith are present, and these in turn have borne fruit by refreshing the hearts of the saints. Love is a hallmark of a genuine Christian faith, and it is heartening to know that in faith and when we show love to one another we to can be refreshed. No wonder Paul always thanks God for Philemon in his prayers. But the sense we get from what comes next is “All this you do; let me then spur you on to even greater things.” The love that we have in Christ is the love that keeps on giving. That’s how it should be for us too when we accept the gospel and allow God’s word to speak into our lives.
When we consider the friends we have, are they people who challenge and encourage us to be the best that we can be? Do we challenge and encourage them to be the best that they can be too? What would we be commended for?
So was Philemon willing to do the same as Paul? Was he willing to give up his rights for Christ’s sake too? Would he be willing to free his slave Onesimus who had somehow wronged him (Philemon 18), and then made his way to Paul in prison (Philemon 9) where he became a Christian (Philemon 10) and a useful partner with Paul in the gospel (Philemon 11, 13).
Paul is saying to Philemon that Onesimus is not simply his brother on Sunday in church…but on Monday morning as well as in the home and the workshop.
Paul knew that under the law, Onesimus had to return to his master. Paul not only implores Philemon to receive (Philemon 17), forgive (Philemon 18) and acknowledge Onesimus’ new status as a fellow believer (Philemon 16), but he also requests that Philemon would relinquish all claims on him so that he can continue serving with Paul (Philemon 13). Paul does this without exerting any apostolic authority; Philemon is convicted by Paul’s argument alone and as far as we know Onesimus was indeed set free. The Christian faith can break down all social, racial and economic barriers. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, make nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
How does this speak into our lives today?
- Our journey of faith is a journey from slavery (to sin) to freedom (in Christ). It always has been for God’s people. There are always areas in our life into which we need to invite Christ as Lord. It can be hard, but it is not a journey we make alone…we are accompanied by God who is “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1) and we as the body of Christ, the people of God, journey together.
- That journey is also a journey into reconciliation – Christ reconciles us to himself – through forgiveness:
- “17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)
- God always initiates, always takes the first step. God always shows us the way. “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13) This is echoed in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us.” As Christians, we are called to a lifelong journey of practicing forgiveness, justice and reconciliation. As God’s makes the first step, we are called to make the first step with others.
- When we examine our lives in the light of the Gospel, as we receive the Gospel are we too prepared to forgive, acknowledge and relinquish or do we harbour grudges? If you do harbour a grudge or hold unforgiveness in your heart, what steps are you prepared to make today to move towards reconciliation and forgiveness? Are you prepared to let go and let God?
- As we gather before the Lord’s Table today, reminded of the price Christ was prepared to pay that we might be reconciled to him, let us be reconciled to one another and those whom we know. Let our remembering be shown in how we leave this place today. As we share the peace, let us be reconciled – to God, to one another and to ourselves. Every time you forgive and give someone to God, you plant a seed that may bear the fruit of the Spirit.
- If the words I have shared today have really spoken to you and encouraged or challenged you, don’t forget that prayer ministry is available, either in the side chapel after you have received communion or a blessing or after the service with me or any of the wider team.
- But now let’s ask ourselves…are we prepared to lay all that we have, all that we are at the foot of the cross and say in the silence of our hearts…“Lord Jesus Christ, all that I have, all that I am I give to you. Help me to let go of the things that hold me back. May your will be done and your kingdom come. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us.” Amen