• Introduction: It is not typical for something to go from being useless to useful.  Usually, it’s the other way around.  For example, our previous stove decided, at Thanksgiving time no less, to not get up to 350°.  We let it take an hour to preheat, but eventually had to settle for whatever it would give us.  The next time we used the oven, it never got close to the set temperature.  The oven became useless for cooking food!  It was long in the tooth and since it came with the house when I bought it in 2009, who knows how old it was?
    • Our message for today bucks the reality that something grows from useless to useful, at least without some restoration effort. The “something” in our message for today is actually a “someone” named Onesimus.  He was a runaway slave of a slaveowner named Philemon.  A useful slave becomes useless once the slave is gone.  The owner may go after the slave to get him back, but not just because the owner lost out on the work the slave was doing.  If the slave stole something in the process of fleeing, there is added motivation to get the slave back.
    • There are tremendous parallels between the scenario of this shortest book of the NT, Philemon, and our relationship with God our Father before Jesus came and fixed our broken relationship. 
  • Let Us Pray: Lord Jesus, we thank You for the perfect example of love You gave us.  In full submission to the authority of Your Father, You won us the victory over sin, death, and the devil we could not win for ourselves.  Please send your Spirit to inspire us to gladly hear and learn of Your love and salvation in this scenario of Onesimus and Philemon, so that we are also moved to commit acts of faith.  Bless us in being useful in Your kingdom.  We pray this through You Lord Jesus, who reigns with Your Father who is our Father, and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.
  • Background: The NT book named for the recipient of an epistle from the Apostle Paul is only 335 words long in the original Greek.
    • BTW, when we use the word “epistle”, this word is taken from the original Greek and means “letter” in English. 335 words is definitely a short letter, much less a book!
      • The letter seems to be a personal letter from one writer to another, but the spiritual implications are not something to be kept between a few people in the 1st century. The early church fathers in the 4th century when the books comprising the Bible were finalized, realized there is a major theme of God’s salvation being played out in the relationship between Philemon and his runaway slave, Onesimus.
      • There is also the minor theme of faith without good works is a dead faith.  The Book of James, written by Jesus half-brother, has this concept written very clearly - 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (Jam 2:17 ESV)  After giving some examples of OT heroes in the faith, James doubles down on this concept of faith without good works is dead when he wrote at the end of Jam Ch#2 - 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
    • Philemon was written about the same time as the letter to the church at Colossae.  We’ve spent most of the summer exploring God’s word in the epistles of the NT, and we discussed a couple times the Book of Colossians before looking into Hebrews.
      • Many theologians believe as do I these letters were written around 60-61 AD when Paul was under house arrest in Rome.
      • Paul was beheaded in Rome around 67AD and though Rome is quite a distance from Colossae were Onesimus lived (and thereby his slave owner, Philemon), it still would have been only about 5wks to travel from Rome to Colossae, not as big a deal in those times as it would seem.
        • Colossae was near Laodicea, both of which were in the southwestern part of what we know as the country of Turkey. Much of the journey from Rome to Colossae could be done by ship over the Mediterranean Sea.
        • This is important to understand, because Paul does mention he will be visiting with Philemon.  We read from v22 - 22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.
        • Paul had at least 5yrs to make a trip to Colossae so this scenario is totally plausible.
  • The Epistle to Philemon has a similar structure to what you would expect a letter to have (if we still wrote letters to each other).  There are four parts to the letter.
    • The first is an opening greeting. As Paul does with the beginning of his letters, he offers grace and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
      • We could adapt from Paul our greetings to people with whom we interact, couldn’t we?  We can be deliverers of God’s grace, mercy, and peace, whether we say that to anyone, or just show it.
    • The second part of the letter to Philemon is thanksgiving for Philemon’s faith and love.  Philemon must have been a convert of Paul’s from Paul’s earlier mission trips.  Philemon grew in the faith such that good works were evidently flowing from faith to the point it was evident to people interacting with him.  Word of his conduct apparently got back to Paul and so Paul was encouraging Philemon to continue growing in the faith and producing good works.
      • Isn’t it interesting how you can guess if someone is a practicing Christian despite not knowing anything about them?  This has happened time & time again in my experience with meeting people throughout the world.  I became friends with one of my clients when I was working in Taiwan, and apparently there was something in my conduct which led this client to open up about his faith. This was very interesting because Taiwan is only 4% Christian.  It was evident in his life and the lives of his wife and two boys their household was one of grace, mercy, and peace.
    • The third part of the letter is an appeal to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus.  There was a lot in play with this appeal, so I will only briefly touch on some salient points:
      • Philemon was an early convert to Christianity by the work of the Holy Spirit through Paul.  It isn’t said, but I am certain Philemon was baptized, given the importance Paul speaks of baptism in several of his letters to churches. Once baptized, the Holy Spirit continues to work in us daily to drown out our sins, and bring forth a new person who lives under the Gospel with a circumcised heart.
      • Paul was appealing to Philemon to live under the Gospel by showing the same grace, mercy, and peace Jesus showed to him and to others.  One of the “others” in Philemon’s life was Onesimus, a runaway slave who by rights under the law should be put to death.  Paul is reminding Philemon that by rights, Philemon too should be put to eternal death for his sinfulness in the presence of God.  None of us is clean in the presence of the Lord apart from Jesus being our cleansing agent working on our behalf.  It is through Jesus we were cleansed, and it is through the Holy Spirit we are kept on a path of sanctification that motivates us to do good works in the sight of our Lord.
      • In this sense, we go from being useless to being something useful in the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul is calling upon Philemon to be useful in the Lord’s kingdom by granting mercy to Philemon’s former slave, Onesimus – out of love for God and for others – and not under compulsion. Paul as pastor and overseer of the faith could by his office order Philemon to forgive Onesimus, but rather than compel under the Law, Paul appeals to Philemon by calling him to action under the Gospel.
    • The fourth aspect of Paul’s letter to Philemon concludes with plans to visit, and greetings from others with Paul at the time of writing the letter.  There are some key verses at the end of the letter which are an exhortation by Paul for Philemon to become useful in the Kingdom of our Lord - 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart (σπλάγχνα) in Christ.  21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say
      • Paul is providing a surety that he will repay any costs to Philemon he suffered as a result of Onesimus’ theft and subsequent escape.  This surety is seen in the emphasis by Paul he is writing with his own hand.
        • Jesus gave us the sacrifice of the shedding of His own innocent blood.  This was necessary, because we had no way to pay the debt of our sin; both the original sin we inherited and the sins we continue to commit.
        • Because while we are in this sinful Age, at our baptism, we received the deposit of the Holy Spirit in our soul to continue to work in us as a guarantee of what is to come.  There is a day in your life when you will walk through the gate into Heaven where God the Father is eagerly awaiting your arrival. You will gain admission into His home because of the free pass Jesus won for you.  The Holy Spirit is that surety in your soul to guarantee this will happen. You can screw it up by turning from the faith, but let the Holy Spirit reign in you and stay in the Word.  Jesus was quoted in the Gospel of Mark as saying, “16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
        • Perhaps you can now see how the story of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus, and an intermediary in Paul, is a microcosm of mankind’s relationship with our Lord.  Can you see how we transform from being useless to being useful in the Kingdom of our Lord, when we bear fruit in leading a life of good works as a result of faith working in us?
        • Paul made the statement I emphasized a moment ago and will repeat now - 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart(-felt love) in Christ.  Paul is exhorting Philemon to bear fruits of faith by showing mercy to his slave, Onesimus.  However, it doesn’t stop there.  Paul is exhorting us to do the same in showing mercy to one another. Paul referred to himself in Rom Ch#1 as a slave for Christ and it would be good to picture ourselves as slaves in the true meaning of that word in 1st century terms – a bond servant. We are bonded to God by love, not by compulsion.  The Holy Spirit working in us makes us formerly useless and worthless people into someone very useful in proclaiming the grace, mercy, and peace that God has shown us, and wants to show those around us His love through our words and actions.
  • Interpretation:  When you think of something useless, what comes to mind? 
    • There was a good contrast of useful with useless in our Psalmody for today - 3He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.  In all that he does, he prospers.  4The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. (Psm 1:3-4 ESV)  I don’t think wheat chaff is even good for consumable fiber.
    • Jesus said -  I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
      • I think we can agree a withered branch isn’t useful for anything.  Some creative people might make something artistic out of a withered branch, but you can’t make anything out of the branch that would be useful. 
    • Jesus said in our Gospel reading for today (Luke 14:34-35) - 34 “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? 35 It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
      • Some people have to watch how much sodium they consume.  Anything that isn’t an acid or a base is salt.  This makes it easy to produce a table salt substitute for sodium chloride.  There have been many salt substitutes on the market and I would imagine some are more useful than others for improving the saltiness of food.  But what good are any of these substitutes if they don’t make your food taste better?
  • Onesimus crossed over from death to life when he became a believer in Jesus Christ.  He experienced similarly to what we experienced at our baptism.
    • Baptism levels the playing field so to speak as all of us fall short of the glory of God.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1Co 12:13) - 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.) 
    • This emphasis on baptism by Paul is also seen in what he wrote to the Colossians (Col 2:11-14) - 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 
    • Back at the end of June, we looked into the Greek word, παιδαγωγὸς.  We looked into Gal 3:23-28 which was instructive on the conversion which takes place in our baptism - 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
      • Paul was making this latter point with Philemon that he and Onesimus are now brothers in Christ and will remain that way forever.  They are no better or worse in the Lord’s eyes, because they were each redeemed in the same way.  Paul made this point in his letter to Philemon when he wrote in vv15-16 - 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.  Onesimus apparently converted to Christianity and was baptized when with Paul.
  • With this conversion came a new way of thinking and acting in the Spirit and not in the flesh.  This is why it does *not* seem strange for a personal letter to become a book of Bible.  There is a lesson for us here in Onesimus’ conduct.
    • Onesimus, in returning to his slave owner, took to heart the message in our Gospel today regarding costs of discipleship.  He was convicted of his sin of fleeing his owner and in true repentance, turned his actions around in life to be more in alignment with the Lord’s word.
    • He faced death if caught as a runaway slave.  Paul was not out of the woods on this situation either.   Paul had a duty of citizenship to return this runaway, despite Onesimus becoming very useful to his ministry.  He no doubt convinced Onesimus to do what was right even to Paul’s and possibly Onesimus’ detriment.  This is what integrity looks like in the presence of the Lord.
    • Without knowing, Onesimus faced cruelty, possibly to the point of death, by returning to Philemon and being obedient to him.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit was testifying in Onesimus’ soul Jesus’ words from the Luke reading for today? Luke 14:27 - 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
  • Conclusion: God can make good out of anything bad.  We know this because of the bad situation our parents Adam & Eve put us in. However, we do a mighty fine job of messing things up on our own.  This is exactly why God sent His one and only Son who would faithfully live a perfect life so He could shed innocent blood on the cross that would be the one sacrifice to end all sacrifices.  God the Father accepted Jesus’ sacrifice in our place so we could get a free pass into heaven.
    • We sang about this very commissioning in our opening hymn on today in stanza five I repeat here – God said to His beloved Son; It’s time to have compassion. Then go, bright jewel of My crown, and bring to all salvation.  From sin and sorrow set them free; slay bitter death for them that they may live with You forever!
    • Onesimus turned from his sinful fleeing from God’s word and went back to Philemon.  Paul as his advocate advised him in the correct interpretation of God’s word and encouraged both of them to be reconciled with each other and in doing so, worshipping the Lord in actions.  When we follow such an example, we too are being very useful in accomplishing the Lord’s purposes in this Age.  There could not be a more satisfying endeavor in life than to do what is right and pleasing in the sight of our Lord.  May His Spirit work in you to do all to His glory!  Amen.