September 02, 2019
The Proper 18C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 14:25-33 from the Lectionary Gospel; Jeremiah 18:1-11 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 1 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Philippians 1:1-21 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Psalm: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 114 (Lord’s Day 44)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Some while ago on TV I saw a news profile of megachurch pastor Joel Osteen. Peppered throughout the interview with this pastor were brief video clips showing him preaching to his vast congregation that numbers into the tens of thousands. The people of the congregation stretch out before this pastor like a vast sea of humanity with the people seated the farthest from the pulpit mere specks in the distance—a good pair of binoculars would not allow the pastor to pick out the features of anyone’s face so far from him. (As the image below shows, you’d need powerful binoculars even to see the big video screen from many locations in the “auditorium”!!)
The ministry this man built started from far more humble beginnings. But in America, there is no better sign of his “success” than the size of the crowd that gathers to hear him preach each Sunday. “Nothing succeeds in America like success” they say.
Large congregations may or may not be a true indicator of faithfulness to the gospel: sometimes they are, sometimes they are not. Sometimes big crowds can even be a result of gospel unfaithfulness. But if the gospels make one thing clear, it is that Jesus never regarded a large following as necessarily a good sign. In fact, he seemed intent on a regular basis to thin out the crowds that followed him. To Jesus’ mind, a large following probably meant that a lot of those folks did not know what they were doing in hitching their wagons to his particular star.
The closing verses of Luke 14 are a classic example. Notice how Luke structures the narrative. We are told in verse 25 that “large crowds were traveling with Jesus” only to have Jesus immediately turn to that same throng of people to say some things that seemed calculated to turn people off. Luke does not directly tell us that Jesus said what he did because the crowds were so large, but that is clearly the implication.
What’s more, it is clear that Jesus says something so radical, he must have known it would be both puzzling and also finally a turn-off to many people. The call to hate father, mother, spouse, and children is a tad on the harsh side and surely did not fail to make at least a few folks—and perhaps more than a few folks—turn away.
That was curious enough. But Jesus then goes on to tell two quasi parables (they are really more like analogies) that talk about counting the cost and doing prudent calculations in advance of undertaking major projects. The upshot of these two analogies is easy enough to discern. But the way Jesus told them seems to be a left-handed rebuke to the crowd. It’s almost as though Jesus is chiding the many people who were following him for not having a clue as to what they were doing in that they were the ones who had in fact not counted the cost ahead of time. They were the people who had to abandon a building project before it was finished because they ran out of money. They were the people who had gone to war against a superior opponent due to lack of prudent advance work as to the strength of the enemy.
Twice Jesus says that you have to give up everything and take up a cross if you are going to follow him. The implication is that these people had not done that but had found it altogether too easy to fall into line behind Jesus.
For those of us who preach, this passage has a lot of relevance. After all, how many of us in the church today are not there in large part because we were raised in the church? Yes, at some point most of us made some kind of conscious decision to be a follower of Jesus: we willingly went through confirmation, we initiated our own profession of faith, we underwent the sacrament of baptism, etc. But do those formal, “typical” ways of growing up into church membership rise to the level of thoughtful seriousness and astute calculations that Jesus talks about in Luke 14?
In short, do we find it altogether too easy to fall into line behind Jesus? Especially in America, is it relatively painless to join the vast throngs that crowd into the more popular churches in the land? Many churches have in recent years and decades done all in their power to make it convenient to be a member of the church: they have established excellent parking lot flow patterns, they have greeters and Information Booths and excellent latte and family-friendly programming for every conceivable need for every possible age group along with sermons guaranteed to provide advice for things like “Five Ways to Grow Your Business” and “Seven Ways to a Healthy Marriage” and “Four Ways to Raise Successful Children.” (Good Advice has eclipsed—or supplanted—Good News in many pulpits.)
With programming like this, it seems unlikely that once people enter into these churches that they will hear pastors saying things that appear calculated to make them walk right back out the door. Indeed, a well-known pastor of a large church in Minneapolis once had over 1,000 members leave his church after he shared some political thoughts that the pastor knew up front would not sit well with his congregation but that he believed were true to the gospel message he was charged to preach truthfully. The spectacle of a pastor willingly sacrificing some members was so rare, it made headlines all around the nation, including on the front page of the New York Times.
The relative rarity of that kind of thing makes news. And that kind of makes you wonder . . .
What can account for Jesus’ call for us to hate our families? To understand this, we need to see this saying in a wider biblical context from both the Old and New Testaments. As F.F. Bruce pointed out in his book The Hard Sayings of Jesus, there is throughout the Bible a tendency to use the word “hate” when what is really meant is a secondary form of love. So when in Deuteronomy 21:15 there are regulations for a man with two wives (one of who is loved and one of whom is hated) the meaning is not that there is literal, visceral hatred per se of the second wife but more that the second wife is less preferred than the first. Similarly when God says things like “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated,” the meaning is not that God literally hates Esau or his kin in the colloquial use of that word but rather that Jacob was preferred over Esau and that Esau, therefore, received love but a love that was perhaps a bit less in intensity or scope.
Bruce also points out that this idea of “hate” meaning a lesser form of love is backed up by the parallel to Luke 14 in Matthew 10:37 when Matthew makes it explicit that what Jesus is getting at here are those who love father or mother more than they love their Savior and Lord.
Across the year 2008 the late Rev. Ed Dobson decided he was going to “live like Jesus.” Among the things Rev. Dobson did that year was read through all four gospels over and over and over again on a regular basis. He also did his best to live out Jesus’ words and principles in as literal and careful a way as he could as he tried to let the gospel shape his life in ways more intentional than is probably true for even the more devout among us.
He knew going in that this could create problems for him but even after counting the cost, he wanted to do this. But 2008 was also an election year in the United States—indeed, it was one of the most hotly contested elections in a long while. And through much prayer and discernment, Dobson felt led as a follower of Jesus to vote—on that particular occasion at least—for the Democrat candidate, Barack Obama. As news of this choice spread, the man who tried for a year to live like Jesus received some Jesus-level persecution and criticism from his right-leaning Christian friends, colleagues, and former parishioners.
Whether one regards Dobson’s political choice as correct or incorrect, he surely did suffer to a degree for that choice. But what is striking about that experience is that it is somewhat unusual. Many Christian people today are very sure they have it all figured out when it comes to voting, lifestyle, childrearing, and the like and so long as everyone sticks to the same playbook, following Jesus comes with very little by way of cost or hardship. Most of us don’t have to make hard choices like leaving friends and family behind if that’s what is required to follow Jesus as best we can. We don’t so much “count the cost” as just accept the asking price, which seems pretty low most of the time.
And that itself may be something worth pondering.
Author: Stan Mast
Who do you think you are? In our text for today, that question floats in the background. It’s a question that can be asked in a friendly manner, or as a challenge. In Jeremiah 18 it is asked in a challenging way. Who does God think he is? Answer- the Potter who “molds and shapes us after his will.” (The quote is from the classic hymn, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.”) Who does Israel think they are? Answer—the Pot whose will can resist the Potter.
What we have here is a powerful example of the contest of wills that is at the center of human history. I’m referring, of course, to the contest between the Sovereign Lord who rules heaven and earth and the Sovereign Self who came into being when the first humans bit on the tantalizing promise that they would “be like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3).” Jeremiah 18 gives us unique insights into the mystery and tragedy of that contest.
Jeremiah has been given a grim mission: announce doom to Judah. But the ultimate aim of that gloomy message is repentance. So far, Israel hasn’t responded to Jeremiah’s words; indeed, in the verses after our reading the leaders of Judah plot to kill Jeremiah. Here God gives Jeremiah an object lesson for Judah designed to convince them to pay attention and repent. In a tradition that Jesus would continue, God uses an ordinary part of ancient life to drive home an extraordinary message. “Go down to the potter’s house and there I will give you my message.”
At the potter’s house, Jeremiah sees an ordinary thing. A potter is working with a piece of clay to form a pot of some sort. When the pot turned into something the potter hadn’t intended because of some flaw in the material, the potter simply started over, forming the clay into another pot, “shaping it as it seemed best to him.” Message- the Potter has absolute control over the lump of clay. He can do whatever seems best to him with that clay. So far, so good. Everyone knows that is true. No argument.
But then the word of Yahweh came to Jeremiah. “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does…. Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” God asserts his complete sovereignty over Israel; he can do “whatever seems best to him” with the clay that is his people.
This is a message that 21st century people will not accept, I suspect. In a day when even the most devout, indeed, especially the most devout, feel free to challenge God, argue with God, become angry with God, and generally treat God as an equal, a message like this will be rejected out of hand. It brings back all those old images of God as an angry tyrant, a hair trigger tempered CEO with his finger poised over the SMITE button on the celestial computer.
Most folks won’t welcome a sermon on a text like this, unless you preach it as God intended it. I say it that way, because the picture here is not that of a tyrant who’s eager to destroy, but of a potter who is eager to start over with a fatally flawed piece of clay. This is an aspect of God’s sovereignty we don’t usually consider—not absolute capricious control, but gracious willingness to change his plan to benefit his flawed people. When God discovers this fatal flaw in his people, he does not simply destroy them; he offers to start over. What he ends up doing will be determined by how his people respond to his announcement of doom.
This is the puzzling part of our text. After unequivocally announcing that he has complete control over his people, God introduces the idea of conditionality into the relationship between God and Israel. Four times God uses the word “if” in verses 7-10. The sovereign Lord promises that if his people will change their behavior, he will change his plans. So, the sovereign plan of God is, what, malleable, conditional, uncertain? This kind of talk is as confusing to the ultra-Calvinist as the talk of absolute sovereignty is maddening to the ultra-secularist.
Further, what do we make of this talk about God changing God’s mind? “I will relent and not inflict the disaster… I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.” Isn’t God unchangeable? Isn’t that the heart of the classic “simplicity” doctrine? If God knows all, then why would God ever have to change? Wouldn’t God simply include the conditions right in his plan? Then God would appear to relent, reconsider, even repent, but that is simply God accommodating himself to our infantile understanding (Calvin’s famous accommodation doctrine). But God doesn’t really change God’s mind or plan. That is set from all eternity.
Well, such an explanation certainly defends important doctrines, but I’m not sure it takes enough account of the actual words of this text (and others—Exodus 32:12, 14, Amos 7:3, 6, Jonah 3:10). And it doesn’t take seriously the enormous importance God himself seems to assign to human choice. This text seems to say that Israel’s destiny is in its own hands. Here are my plans, says God, but if you change your behavior, I will change my plans.
Does this mean that humans are ultimately sovereign, that the Pot is in charge of its own life? That is the conclusion drawn by some scholars. But I think it means that in his sovereignty, God has given human beings a frightening (or heartening) role in God’s plan. We are not inanimate, senseless pieces of clay. We are made in God’s image with a mind and a will and the ability to affect our relationship with God. Does God cede control to us, then? No, but in his loving control, he gives us an important role to play in the outworking of his plan.
This may all seem too complex, but it is the reality that runs through the Bible. God wants, commands, invites our obedience in faith. That is the message to Israel. You are mine and I expect you to love me, obey me, trust me. When you don’t, you are playing with fire, with darkness, with death. I can destroy you, but that’s not what I want. I want you to turn around and come back to me. I will do everything I can to bring you back. But you have to choose to come back. If you do make that choice, I will not do what I said I would do. Instead, I will do what I’ve wanted to do all along, namely, bless you, build you up, plant you, save you.
God ends all this complex (we might say confusing) talk with a simple, direct, and devastating warning. “Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you.” What would you do if God spoke that directly to you? “I’ve been patient long enough; now the end has come. Prepare to meet your Maker, the Potter. There is no more chance for you to turn around and come back to me.” That would be devastating.
But that’s not where God leaves things. Instead of ending his warning with an exclamation point of anger, God ends with yet another invitation. “So, turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.” God truly is what he announced himself to be in that seminal revelation in Exodus 34:6,7: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
Of course, that text goes on to say, “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished….” And that’s where Israel is now in Jeremiah—guilty, guilty, guilty. But not just guilty. Totally unrepentant. That’s the point of verse 12. All the “if’s” of verses 7-10, all the promises of God relenting and reconsidering, all the possibilities for new life, all of that is a moot point. Because Israel is stuck in their sin. “But they will say, ‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart.’”
“It’s no use” may be an expression of defiance (“it doesn’t matter what you say, God!”) or an expression of despair (“we’ve gone too far to turn back”). The result is the same. We will pursue our plans, no matter what God plans. The ancient struggle of wills goes on and on, because our hearts are evil and stubborn. God may claim to be sovereign, but, in fact, we are. So, go to hell, God. I know, that is blasphemy. But that is, finally, what rebellion against God is.
Who can blame God for finally ending it with Israel? Except God didn’t end it, not completely. There was a terrible punishment, but it lasted for “only” 70 years. Even after that, however, the struggle continued, until God did a shocking thing. In an act as dramatic as shaping humanity out of clay at the beginning (Genesis 2:7), God sent his Son to become a lump of clay (John 1:14), so that those who believe in him could have a whole new beginning, “the right to become children of God.” That Son, thrust into the age-old struggle of the wills, submitted himself to the will of God (Matthew 26:39) and the will of evil men who “did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen (Acts 4: ).”
Yes, this whole matter of the will of God and the will of individual humans remains a mysterious matter. But because of Christ, we know definitively that the will of God for us sinners is better than our own willful plans. Knowing that, we can trust God in Christ. As Paul put it in Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things.”
Attempts to solve the paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility have twisted many a theologian in knots and resulted in some unfortunate doctrinal aberrations. I like the way my grandfather, a simple country preacher, put it. “God is both 100% sovereign and we are 100% responsible to choose. How do we reconcile those two? We don’t. We hold them together. It’s like two gigantic redwoods on the coast of California. They grow up together, parallel, but never touching, at least as far we can see. But up there in the fog, the marine layer, into which they disappear, unseen by human eyes they meet and their branches interlace.”
Early in this piece I quoted a bit of an old hymn, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.” Maybe it’s too old for your church, but it’s a lovely piece of poetry that captures an attitude the exact opposite of Israel’s in verse 12.
“Have thine one way, Lord, have thine own way,
Thou art the Potter, I am the clay.
Mold me and make me, after thy will,
While I am waiting, yielded and still.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
It’s not by accident. It wasn’t editorial happenstance. No one flipped a coin to decide which Hebrew poem to turn into Psalm 1 in this collection. Rather, the Hebrew Psalter is a carefully edited, thoughtfully and intentionally put together collection of poems. The design of the larger book is evident in many ways (for instance, the last verse at the conclusion of each of the 5 internal books is some version of “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting, Amen.” Cf. Psalms 40:13, 72:19, 89:52, 105:48). The whole book crescendos dramatically with Psalm 150’s exuberant call for everything that has breath to praise the God of Israel.
But we begin with Psalms 1 and 2. These are the tone-setting poems, the poetic pace car that gets the whole race rolling, the Key or Legend that unlocks the larger map of the poetic landscape to come. In the case of Psalm 1, what we have sketched for us here is nothing short of an entirely integrated world-and-life view. If you are going to understand any or all of the psalms to come, you have to be able to view the world through the finely ground lens of Psalm 1.
What’s more, the picture that emerges here is pretty simple: there are two classes of people in the world: the Righteous and the Wicked. Apparently there is not much in between by way of spiritual categories. Make no mistake: you are not misreading this psalm if you take away from it a fairly black-or-white picture of reality. You also will not be incorrect if you keep noticing this pattern popping up all over the 149 psalms to come.
In terms of poetic imagery, Psalm 1 is straightforward: the Righteous are pictures of stability and faithfulness. They are nearly motionless in their pious repose. They do NOT walk with, stand with, or sit with the Wicked. They exhibit all the movement of a well-planted tree. They have roots and as such are stable, strong, quite literally well grounded. But the Wicked? Just the opposite. They are forever running down, standing in, taking their seat in all the wrong paths and in all the wrong places. They are frenetic, a blur of motion, but since they lack the rootedness of the Righteous, they also finally just blow away. There is, in the end, no substance to these people. There is no “there there.”
The Righteous, though, are planted next to an ever-flowing stream that just is the ways and laws and realities of God. They soak up the nutrients of the reality God created in the beginning and this leads to growth, to substance, to an everlasting firmness and solidity. The choice is yours, Psalm 1 as much as says: you can be established forever or spend your days running around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, making waves and appearing to be always on the move toward something better, always appearing to be building something of substance but . . . in the end, it will all vanish like the morning mist. It will be, to evoke Shakespeare, full of sound and fury but signifying finally nothing.
It’s not terribly difficult to discern this picture as it emerges from Psalm 1. What may be quite difficult, however, is to square this picture with what you can actually see with your eyes. I can think of at least a few things people in our congregations might say when confronted with this singular way of looking at the world:
~~Many people are more of a mixed bag. There are many non-Christians whom you could not write off as merely “wicked” but who exhibit great kindness and love. There are also too many Christians who are themselves hardly a picture of well-rooted stability and who can also be altogether too nasty a good bit of the time. Unbelievers are often nice people. Believers are sometimes not.
~~Maybe in the end the wicked blow away like fluff but for now . . . a lot of them seem to be doing quite nicely, thank you very much.
~~ And maybe in the end the righteous will be revealed as rock solid but for now, many of them are suffering quite terribly and don’t feel nearly as well-planted along a living stream as they might wish.
~~While we’re at it and similar to first point above, in a world characterized by nuance, by ambiguity, and by many moral shades of gray, are we really well served by adopting so black-or-white a worldview? Is this too simple, too reductionistic?
It would be difficult definitively to argue against any of these counter observations in the face of Psalm 1. So what are we preachers to do if we want to proclaim the truth of this psalm, which is also (as we just noted) the tone- and pace-setter for the entire Hebrew Psalter and all of its 150 poems?
A couple of ideas: First, maybe this seems like a too-easy way out but there is the option of taking the long look. Psalm 1 describes what the nature of reality will be revealed to be when the day finally comes when God is all in all. The things we so readily can see and observe now will be shown to be incorrect, only a partial view, sometimes even the sturdiest of things will be revealed as hollow on the inside after all even as the meekest of all people will prove sturdy enough to inherit the earth.
Second and of more immediate value perhaps: we can view Psalm 1 as a way to make us pause in order to probe more deeply into what C.S. Lewis called the deep structures of things, the deep magic of the universe. Yes, in the sweet by and by we will see clearly but even for now and well short of that ultimate picture of God’s kingdom fully come we can perceive the shallowness of so much of what passes for pop wisdom. Many of the methods people use furiously to get ahead in life are self-defeating. In an effort to make a life for themselves, so many people fail actually to live life fully and well. Marriages get shipwrecked, relationships with children go sour, people literally ruin their physical health all in some mad and desperate rush to seize the brass ring. Even now there is often a deeper peace and contentment in saintly people who may or may not count as being among “the beautiful people” of fame, riches and success as the world defines those things but who exhibit far more repose than those very people.
So yes, let’s not let Psalm 1’s simple picture of who’s who and what’s what distort things for us or cause us to make snap judgments and assessments that may run roughshod over life’s gray areas. Let’s not let some claim to be among “the Righteous” of the world become an excuse for moral sloppiness or other unpleasant behaviors too often exhibited by believers. But let’s allow Psalm 1 to remind us that there is a reality beyond the reality we can see with our eyes most any day. The New York Times might print all the news that fit to print but it can still miss the biggest truths of God. CNN can “bring you the world” and yet miss the real nature of that world as the creation of a good and loving God who still exists as the bright center of all existence.
And really, given the sad and broken nature of this world and the disturbing stuff that makes up the news headlines of any given day, is it such a bad thing that Psalm 1 can remind us to embrace a larger world?
Regular users of Calvin Theological Seminary’s Center for Excellence in Preaching—and careful observers of our website at that—might recognize that the Psalm 1 image of a tree planted beside a stream of water is our logo. It is also the stained glass window that is the centerpiece of the Student Center at the Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We chose this image for the preaching center years ago because this is at base what we all believe preaching to be and hope it actually is a lifelong nurture and feeding of God’s people with God’s Word.
The stability, the everlasting repose, the rock-solid certainty of being on the right side of reality exhibited by Psalm 1—and then furthered by the following 149 psalms that follow Psalm 1’s lead—all depends on that lifelong, abiding meditation on God’s Word, on God’s precepts, on God’s Law. Ultimately it is a lifelong and abiding meditation on the Gospel of grace that climaxes the Word of God and that brings us final salvation.
That is why we preach. Psalm 1 reminds us of that fine truth, too!
Author: Chelsey Harmon
What a gift this little letter from Paul is to the church! Though all of Paul’s letters in the New Testament are about practical matters of life and faith, and though all of his guidance, advice, teachings and admonitions are rooted in a deeply Christological theology, none of the other letters quite show Paul’s personal theology and faith in action as this one to Philemon.
Consider the backstory. Philemon and Paul have a history: Philemon came to faith in Christ because of Paul’s ministry. Philemon has a slave named Onesimus and there appears to have been some sort of falling out between master and servant. It isn’t clear what happened, just that Onesimus left (either he ran away because he made some sort of mistake and/or stole from his master, or he ran away because he was being mistreated by Philemon). Eventually Onesimus ended up at Paul’s doorstep. Like he did for Philemon, Paul leads Onesimus to faith, describing himself in the letter as Onesimus’s “father” and Onesimus as “my child”. Now, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter in hand, in order to live out his role in the gospel’s call to reconciliation, hoping that Philemon will do the same. Furthermore, this letter is written and sent in very close proximity to the letter known to us as Colossians. Philemon is a member of that faith community, and though the little letter is addressed to him and a couple of other people by name, the phrasing and grammar at the beginning and the end of this letter show that it was meant to be read aloud to the entire house church. In other words, the decision on what to do was Philemon’s, but it would be made in public in a space where Paul’s other letter was echoing in the people’s minds.
What would they have heard in the letter to the Colossae church? Two of the major themes of Colossians is that “all things hold together in [Christ]” (Col 1.17) and that the gospel is reconciliation as Jesus does that work for us with God, and as Jesus establishes a new family of equals: “there is no longer Greek or Jew… slave or free… but Christ is all and in all!” (Col 3.11) As evidenced in Paul’s pleas about Onesimus, these are the exact theological themes that he is trying to practice and invite Onesimus and Philemon to live as well.
Paul sees that now that Onesimus has come to faith, Jesus has ushered Onesimus into the family of faith and made him a brother—an equal! Paul believes that this changed status in Christ ought to be reflected in their community and relationships. Though Onesimus is Philemon’s slave and Philemon is his master, the basis of their relationship is now their shared sonship. We modern readers may wish that this would have led Paul to be bolder (as he claims he could do with his instructions to Philemon in verse 8) and command Philemon to free Onesimus from servitude, but we need to appreciate how radical Paul’s words are—he is upsetting the social order by claiming that a slave could, in any way, be an equal with a master. Furthermore, Paul’s appeal on the basis of love, his description of Onesimus as “beloved brother”, even his sort of who knows? statement in verse 16—that maybe this situation all happened so that Onesimus might join the “forever” family of God—really is radical and transforming.
To underscore this, Paul hints that he could use his position of authority and power as well as his role as the one who Philemon owes his own knowledge of salvation to, but Paul says that he won’t do that. In fact, Paul doesn’t refer to himself as an apostle at all—which is a key way he identifies himself in his other letters. Instead, Paul says that he appeals to love and the faith that is working itself out daily in their community, and Paul refers to himself by his suffering as a prisoner and old man. By placing all of them, Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, on equal ground as brothers in Christ, Paul is urging Philemon to continue the ministry that he has started with Onesimus by not only having Philemon and the church welcome Onesimus back, but to do so as a family member, and therefore to be reconciled to one another. Philemon, as the Master, must choose that path or it will not happen.
Along with placing Onesimus in the family of faith as an equal, Paul follows the example of Christ and identifies with Onesimus and his difficult situation. Paul very clearly wants Philemon to see Paul when he sees Onesimus. “Welcome him as you would welcome me” he pleads in verse 17. Paul commands Philemon to put whatever financial cost he has incurred because of Onesimus on Paul’s account. Paul writes “I will repay it!” with his own handwriting to emphasize how passionately he is committed to standing with Onesimus in the work of reconciliation. Paul calls Onesimus “his very heart” and Philemon his “partner,” inviting them to be part of this particular manifestation of reconciliation. In her commentary on Colossians and Philemon in The Two Horizons series, Marianne Meye Thompson writes, “Paul follows his Lord’s example of self-giving love and identification with the weak and helpless, regardless of their guilt, or perhaps because of it! Who is to blame or who is at fault is not a primary concern for Paul: what matters is that the gospel can reconcile those at odds with each other, even if one has a rightful claim against the other.” Paul advocates for the person with less power in the relationship, the person who is likely at fault. He takes on the responsibility associated with their guilt, showing a willingness to join them in their suffering. (Though one could wonder how worse things could get for Paul… he’s already under house arrest!) And all of this is because “Christ is all and in all”! Christ is in Paul, Christ is in Onesimus, Christ is in Philemon, and that ought to show.
Just as Paul doesn’t emphasize his rights as an apostle, he doesn’t make his case on what should happen between Onesimus and Philemon based on Philemon’s rights as a master. He holds Philemon to a higher standard: obedience exhibited in love for God’s people and faithfulness to the Lord Jesus. Onesimus had a choice… he could have taken off and headed in the other direction as soon as Paul sent him on the road with the letter in hand. But, we assume, he didn’t. He committed himself to being reconciled as part of living his newfound faith and he showed up in Colossae, carrying letters and prayers that things could be made right and a new reality could be ushered in. Philemon, too, had a choice—albeit one that would be made very much in public. In all of this, the church in Colossae was given a real life opportunity to live out the teachings they have received from Paul and therefore from Christ. It was time to see what they really believed, beginning with Philemon.
Onesimus’ name is a play on the word “useful”. In the Greco-Roman world, this was a common name masters gave to their slaves—along with naming them after the cities where they were purchased or indentured. Paul uses Onesimus’s name and other versions of the word “useful” throughout his letter. In verse 11, he plays with the idea that by running away Onesimus became “useless” to Philemon, but by coming to faith Onesimus has become “useful” to both Paul and Philemon. Some scholars believe that the underlying request that Paul is making in this letter is that Philemon will be reconciled with Onesimus, free him, and send him back to serve Paul; this interpretation isn’t necessary for the playfulness with the word “useful” to hold its weight. In fact, what if an even greater argument about someone’s worth was being made here? What if Paul is emphasizing personhood in Christ as the thing that matters most about someone—not our rights to ownership or control over them? The temptation to interpret the use of the word “useful” as Paul wanting Onesimus back likely stems from the last play on the word found in verse 20 where Paul writes, “Let me have this benefit from you in the Lord!” (“Benefit” is the same word as Onesimus’s name!) “Refresh my heart in Christ.” But even here, what if Paul’s hopes for refreshment are in seeing his spiritual children growing and maturing in their faith? The moments in ministry that I feel my heart being refreshed are when I see the transforming work of God naturally show up in someone’s life. Paul’s hopes are that Christ will work in Philemon and the community to welcome someone who was estranged and likely disdained, as one who is loved, cherished, and enfolded with honour.
Point to Ponder
Reconciliation within the family of faith is a real need in our world today. Advocating and identifying with fellow brothers and sisters, even if they are guilty, continues to be a huge challenge for Christian communities. We still haven’t escaped arguments and justifications about rights, and we can easily fail to live to the higher standard of the cruciform Christ. In fact, we tend to outsource our advocacy and solidarity with the marginalized to frontline workers, non-profit groups, and those with more zeal, time and resources than we do.
In our current political climate, these questions about what’s right are rising to the forefront. Right now, for instance, what is the Christian response to immigration outside of the parameters of the law? What matters more: our citizenship and status, or our belonging to Christ? And does that mean we only stand in solidarity with professing Christians? Further, why does it seem easier for our North American churches to pray for the persecution of a brother or sister in faith in a house church in Asia than it is for us to receive and be reconciled with someone who has come to the country through illegal means?
Or what about a little closer to home? What of that business partner that you see each Sunday but haven’t spoken to since that falling out over a contract? What about the recently released convict who starts to attend your church? It’s quite easy to imagine the reasons Philemon would have been angry and downright reluctant to do the Christlike thing towards Onesimus. But, we are called to be people who live out of our reconciliation with the Godhead and seek to see the world, with all of its individual pieces and people, reconciled as well. Forgive… bear with one another… take off the old self and be clothed in the new… seek the things that are above—these are just some of the things that Paul wrote to the Colossians, these are just some of the words that describe what it takes for us to be reconciled with one another.
Rev. Doug Bratt is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2019, but will return to his work and his regular writing of these sermon starters in December.