October 18th — Philemon 11: The “Usefulness” of Puns

(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)

–Philemon 11 (ESV)

I performed for many years with a local Shakespeare company, and one of my favorite roles was Mercutio from Romeo and Juliet.  The character is pure testosterone: unbridled, manic, and so, so funny.  He kind of starts to take over the play, so much so that Shakespeare is forced to kill him off at the start of Act 3 in order to get on with the tragedy.  Indeed, what makes Romeo and Juliet so effective is this turn from a hilarious romantic comedy in Acts 1 & 2 to the profound sorrow of the bloody ending.  I would argue that the play turns on one line.  Mercutio, a Montague, has just been stabbed by the hotheaded Tybalt of the rival Capulets.  Romeo, in a bit of wishful thinking, says, “Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much.”  But Mercutio replies: “no, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve: ask for me to-morrow and you shall find me a grave man” (3.1.96-98).  Even while dying, Mercutio can’t resist a pun.  But it’s a pun that turns the play.  For although the line gets a laugh (or at least a groan), things are about to turn “grave” indeed, in both senses of the word.  This is a masterpiece of a pun: totally in character, funny, pathetic, heartbreaking, and kinda corny.  I loved saying it every night — it never failed to get a reaction.  Puns are like that.

Every study bible you can find will flag Philemon 11, and poke a proverbial elbow into your ribs in the footnotes.  “Hey,” these esteemed scholars will whisper, “it’s a joke, you see, because the name Onesimus means ‘useful’.  Isn’t that hilarious?”  The joke, sadly, is lost in translation.  What is interesting to me is less the pun itself, than that Paul decides that here is a good place to drop a joke.  Is a pun really the right strategy with a man’s life literally hanging in the balance?  Well, yes.  Just as in Romeo and Juliet, this well-placed pun turns the entire book.  Paul is rather cleverly getting into Philemon’s mentality and showing him how his thinking is wrong.  But by softening the blow with a “dad joke”, he manages to take much of the sting out of what could have sounded like a rebuke.  He may not be Shakespeare, but Paul is delivering his own masterclass in the power of puns here.

Let’s start at the beginning for a change — “formerly, he was useless to you”.  Here, Paul is acknowledging the problem: Onesimus was not a model slave; indeed, he was a thief.  I may be reading too much into this, but I do wonder if there’s a little dig in this phrase at Philemon.  He, a Christian, has treated Onesimus as an object, to be judged on his usefulness.  The Bible clearly teaches that we are not to treat our fellow man in such a utilitarian way.  The prophets constantly cried out against Israel for its treatment of the poor and the foreigner (see, e.g., the book of Amos).  God makes ample provision for the needy, and the law required the release of slaves and prisoners every 50 years on the Year of Jubilee (see Leviticus 25).  In Psalm 15, among the qualities of a person “who shall dwell on your holy hill” (v. 1) is one “who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent” (v. 5).  Above all, taking advantage of another’s circumstances for personal profit violates the greatest commandment, to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, cf. Leviticus 19:9).  Loving someone means not judging them on their “usefulness”, but seeing them as image-bearers of God for whom Christ died.

Paul continues, “but now he is useful to you and to me”.  Onesimus has changed.  Paul is preaching the gospel with this little pun.  He is declaring Onesimus a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) in Christ.  The word “useful” here is the Greek euchrēston, which also means “serviceable” and “profitable”.  Jesus has made this slave a son, not so that he could sit around, but so that he could do profitable service for the kingdom of God.  “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).  In this sense, we are all to make ourselves “useful”.  We are still servants, not of men, but of God.  “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21, emphasis mine).  Furthermore, if we are useful to God, we will, by default, be useful to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  That “and to me” which ends the verse demonstrates that Paul has seen Onesimus doing the work of God already, and it has helped Paul in his apostolic ministry.  We are to serve one another, not out of compulsion, but out of love for one another and a desire to build up the Body of Christ.  While we should never view others as tools for our use, we ought to be willing to make our gifts and talents available to one another so that the whole Church might benefit (see Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4).  If we are on this side of the grave, we have work to do, and there is much to be done; there is no excuse for idleness (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12).  So let us make ourselves useful to one another.

I was going to end on that note, but it felt quite serious for a verse that is essentially a joke.  For while the work of the Kingdom is serious business, we are not to be solemn and funereal as Christians.  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice,” Paul wrote from prison (Philippians 4:4).  In a beautiful paradox, we are to be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).  Our Lord, a “man of sorrows”, conveyed the message of the kingdom of God in funny little stories called parables, and as Frederick Buechner reminds us, “with parables and jokes both, if you’ve got to have them explained, don’t bother.”  You have been saved from death and given a new life, glorious and eternal, in Jesus Christ.  There is nothing you can do to make God love you any more or any less.  So lighten up — laugh, tell jokes, throw parties, enjoy a good novel or movie.  The work of the kingdom is a work of joy that we get to share together like a good joke is shared.  Anyway, I hope this has all proved useful.

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October 17th — Philemon 10: Children in the Faith

I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.

–Philemon 10 (ESV)

Yesterday, we talked about the obligation of the young toward the old, of children to their parents.  In today’s verse, we see the reverse demonstrated.  Paul cares for the young man Onesimus as if he were his own child.  This is a remarkable characterization.  Paul calls only two other people his “child”: Timothy (1 Timothy 1:2) and Titus (Titus 1:4).  Both of these men were bishops and missionaries (Titus is thought to have been the bishop of Crete).  Onesimus, meanwhile, is a young runaway slave.  To call him his “child” is to put him on the same level as the leaders of the Church.  So who is this guy?

First off, we probably don’t know what his mother called him.  “Onesimus” means “useful” or “profitable” and was common as the sort of name given to slaves.  The way people became slaves were many and various, although it was often due to Roman military conquest.  When we hear the word slave today, we think of the horrors of American chattel slavery and the Middle Passage from Africa.  Roman slavery was different.  Firstly, it was not based on race.  Also, although many slaves did live short and brutal lives filled with manual labor, there was much more variety to the typical slave’s duties.  Some slaves performed domestic chores, while others even filled the professions like accounting and medicine.  Jobs included barber, butler, hairdresser, cook, handmaid, wet-nurse, teacher, secretary, seamstress, shoemaker, baker and mule driver.  Some slaves even owned property.  One historian has estimated that slaves accounted for 10-15% of the population of the Empire, which was somewhere around 5 million people.  Wealthy Romans could own hundreds of people.  It seems likely that Philemon was one of these rich men, and it seems likely that he treated his slaves well.  This was by no means the norm, as slaves had no rights and were basically considered non-persons.  They could not testify in court and had no recourse if accused of breaking the law.

Onesimus probably stole something from Philemon and then fled, fearing reprisals.  Being a fugitive slave was just about the most dangerous place to be during this period of Roman history.  The Pax Romana of the early Roman Empire meant that the supply of slaves from conquest had begun to dry up.  Therefore, the retention of slaves and the capture of fugitives became paramount.  It was illegal to harbor a fugitive, and one could hire a professional slave-catcher to track down a runaway.  If caught, a fugitive slave could expect a severe whipping, and they were branded on their foreheads with the letters FUG for fugitivus.  Often, a metal collar would be permanently riveted around their neck to discourage future escape attempts.  They could even be executed, sometimes by crucifixion if part of a larger slave revolt (e.g. Spartacus).  Onesimus was a marked man, and he knew it.  But he must have also remembered the man who had converted his master, and somehow heard that he was in Rome.  In an incredible 1300 mile journey, Onesimus traveled from Colossae to Rome and threw himself at the feet of Paul.  The apostle was under a legal obligation to send him immediately back to his owner to be punished.  Indeed, Paul was already in prison and needed to stay on his best behavior to keep his privileges (and his head).  Logic would argue for sending Onesimus back, if nothing else so that Paul could continue his ministry in Rome.

But grace had other ideas.  Paul instead seems to have taken on Onesimus as his personal slave, protecting him.  He discipled him in the faith and clearly grew close to the young man.  So Paul and Onesimus lived out the gospel.  Just as God is the Father of us all, Paul became a father to Onesimus.  As the apostle put it in Romans, “you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (8:15-16).  All of those who receive Christ, slave or free, become children of God (John 1:12; Galatians 3:28).  Of course, in Roman times, children were little better than slaves of their parents.  So was Onesimus trading one form of bondage for another?  No, he was so much more than that.  He became, by virtue of his baptism, an heir of the kingdom:

I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 4:1-7)

What a comfort these words must have been to Onesimus!  Indeed, Jesus himself goes further in saying that not only are we no longer slaves or children, but we are His friends (John 15:15).  Our Heavenly Father is not a distant, uncaring parent.  He is intimately connected to our lives.  Jesus said, “which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13).  Our Father gives us the gift of Himself, and calls on us to share that gift with others.  

One final note:  although I have a good relationship with my earthly father, I know that you may not.  Onesimus may not have had any relationship with his biological father, and his theft from and abandonment of Philemon severed whatever relationship they may have had.  Human fathers can be distant or cruel or abusive or just absent.  If that is the case (or even if it isn’t), it is hugely important to find strong, faithful men who can be fathers in the faith to you, just as Paul was to Onesimus.  They should be men of grace who will forgive your past mistakes and help you move forward.  And for those of us who are men in the Church, we should look for opportunities to mentor young people, particularly young men, in the faith.  These relationships are vital in keeping the Church strong and allowing God to do his fathering work among us.  May the example of Paul and Onesimus challenge and inspire all of us today.

October 16th — Philemon 9: An Appeal to Love

…yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus

–Philemon 9 (ESV)

You’ve watched this scene a million times in t.v. and movies.  A cop brings a suspect into an interrogation room.  He offers him a cup of coffee, asks after his family, shares a personal anecdote.  Then, slowly, the cop begins to ask about the crime.  The suspect clams up — “I ain’t tellin’ you nothin’, copper”.  “That’s too bad,” replies the cop, “because while I’m a compassionate guy, my partner here,” he gestures to his silent companion, a giant officer with his arms crossed, “he’s not so understanding”.  The suspect continues resisting, so the big cop pounds his fists on the table, gets right in the suspect’s face and screams, “if you don’t tell us what you know, so help me, I’ll rip you limb from limb where you sit”.  All the while the first cop shakes his head ruefully, sipping his coffee.  It’s the “good cop, bad cop” routine, and it’s become such a cliché that it’s only ever seen in comedies now.  Real police never actually try this gambit, because it doesn’t actually work.  But as a rhetorical device…

Paul is finally getting to the point of his letter.  But first, he’s putting his thumb on the scales.  In yesterday’s verse, he reminded Philemon that he could just order him to do what it right.  Instead, he says in verse 9 that he would rather appeal to the love that exists between them which he spent the first seven verses establishing.  To top it all off, the apostle once again references his circumstances, laying a guilt trip about how old he is and that he’s a prisoner to boot.  In essence, Paul is playing “good cop, bad cop”, except that he’s both cops.  “I want you to do the right thing because I like you, Philemon,” he says, “but if I have to order you around, I’m not afraid to”.  Paul’s being a little tricky here (Jesus did say to be “wise as serpents” [Matthew 10:16]), but there are some good principles underlying this rhetorical gambit.  Let’s break it down.

As is my wont, let’s start at the end, since the sentence is kind of structured backwards anyway.  Paul’s apostolic appeal, instead of coming from the authority we talked about yesterday, comes as “an old man and a prisoner for Christ Jesus”.  First, he is asking Philemon to think of him as an elder.  The Bible commends the respect for those who are older for the simple reason that they are older (bullet list!):

  • You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:32)
  • Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land”. (Ephesians 6:1-3)
  • Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a fatherolder women as mothers. (1 Timothy 5:1-2)

As a society, we are obsessed with youth and find older people to be useless, objects of pity or scorn.  But the Bible teaches us in the commandment to honor our father and mother (Exodus 20:12) that our elders deserve respect and deference.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that they are always right or always need to be heeded.  But I think we need to recover some of the dignity of the elderly, and to be humble enough to learn from them, even if we feel that society has “evolved” past them.  They have been on this earth longer than us, and they have seen much, so we ought to learn from them and honor their journey.  Paul then proceeds to call himself a prisoner once again (see my meditation on verse 1a).  He is showing Philemon his bona fides as an apostle — he has literally put his life on the line for Christ and the gospel.  If Paul could go to such lengths for Christ, surely Philemon could go the extra mile, too.

The key word in this verse is “appeal (to you)” which is the Greek parakalō.  That word is variously translated as: beg, pray, implore, exhort, urge, beseech, and appeal.  There is an earnestness here, and a deep desire.  Rather than using his position to subjugate Philemon, Paul is doing the opposite.  He is metaphorically getting on his knees in front of Philemon to beg him to listen.  This is a very different way to exercise authority from the rest of the world.  But it is how Jesus said to do it:

Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

Servant leadership exercises authority through parakalō rather than force.  Paul sees himself as a servant of the servants of Christ, and thus he calls on the better angels of Philemon’s nature through an earnest appeal.

This appeal is done “for love’s sake”.  It’s not clear whether this means for the sake of Paul’s love for Philemon or vice versa.  Or perhaps it refers to the love of God.  I think it’s probably a bit of all three.  In the words of John, “in this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11).  Or, as Paul himself succinctly put it, “let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14).  Our motivation for serving others is not to get the carrot or avoid the stick, to please a “good cop, bad cop” God.  No, we will only be able to serve one another when we learn to love one another.  May we hear and heed Christ’s appeal to us for the sake of His love.

 

October 15th — Philemon 8: Apostolic Authority

Editorial Note:  Due to a busy weekend, I’ve had to modify the schedule a bit.  We will now be wrapping things up on November 1st, with the stand-alone “Slavery and the Bible” meditation to be published later in November as a two-parter (I need more time on that one anyway).  Thanks for your patience!

 

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required…

–Philemon 8 (ESV)

Authority is a dirty word in the American lexicon.  Our national mythology centers on Pilgrims resisting the authority of Church and Crown and setting off for the New World.  Our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, declares no authority but the conscience of the individual or, at least, “the will of the governed” as defined by democracy.  The Constitution derives its authority from “we, the people”.  Americans have a great distrust for people who would give us any kind of command.  Sure, we recognize that our rights are endowed by our Creator, but we get to define the nature of our Creator for ourselves.  God gives rights, not commands.  Anybody who tells us what to do must secretly want to take away our rights.

Perhaps all of that is a caricature, but it does go a long way to explaining why we become so uncomfortable with the idea that the Church and her leaders may have some say over our personal lives.  But without apostolic authority and the accountability of our fellow believers, we are left prey to our own ignorance, prejudices, and whims.  This is why Paul instructs us to “[submit] to one another out of reverence to Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).  Here we get into a knotty issue: we have a crisis in authority in the Church.  Some would blame the Protestant Reformation, but I would point even further back to the Great Schism of 1054 in which the Eastern and Western churches refused to recognize the authority of the other.  Either way, who gets to speak for God has been a fraught issue for at least a millennium.  That said, the forces of modernism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment to the cataclysms of the 20th century (see my blog post here for more details) have torn down any vestige of authority that the Church might have over the lives of individual Christians.  If someone like Paul deigned to tell us that he could command us to do something, we would leave and go to the “seeker-sensitive” church down the road.  No wonder so many churches look like shopping malls: we have traded the Church’s role as a prophetic voice in the world for catering to the selfish desires of individuals and their “itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3).

Let’s be clear here: the Bible absolutely teaches that the apostles of Jesus were given the authority of Christ on earth.  In Matthew 28, after His Resurrection, Jesus says, “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (v.19-20).  Jesus says to all His disciples (not just Peter, by the way), “truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18).  This tremendous power to disciple, baptize, and teach was codified in the role of the bishop in the early Church.  This authority even included financial authority, as people would bring the money from land purchases to the apostles to distribute to the poor (Acts 4:34-35).  In the first two chapters of Galatians, Paul defends his right to work as an apostle because of the revelation of Jesus and the acceptance of other apostles like James, John, and Peter.  The apostolic office of bishop is not, as some Protestant historians like to claim, a corruption of biblical ideals, but an attempt (however imperfect) to live them out.

This brings up the whole issue of apostolic succession.  I can’t cover that issue in a short blog post, but I will simply say that it’s not magic.  Being consecrated by someone who was consecrated by someone who was…(etc., etc., etc.) all the way back to Peter or James does not make a person infallible.  This sort of thinking has led to the current disaster that is the Roman Catholic Church, where men in apostolic succession used the authority of Christ to prey on the innocent (or to cover such abuse up).  Indeed, the abuse of apostolic authority was the reason for the Protestant Reformation in the first place.  I’m not here to argue that we all have to join the Catholic or Orthodox or Episcopal churches to be good Christians.  I am arguing that we must have legitimate, apostolic authority structures within the Church in order to carry out the will of Christ in the world with any kind of effectiveness.  Many Protestants recognize no authority other than the Bible, saying that all the rest of it is just “tradition” and men in funny hats.  But the canon of the Bible itself was ratified by tradition and the men in the funny hats.  The Christianity that you believe, Protestant or Catholic, was codified by the councils of the early Church, led by those in apostolic authority.  The fracturing of that authority is a tragedy, for the Church can no longer speak in a unified voice.  And, despite the ardent hopes of some traditionalist Catholics, I don’t think it will again before Christ returns.

So what do we do?  How do we hear the commands of Christ in a Church divided?  First, I think we must be committed to finding a church whose leadership is accountable, and thus worthy to be submitted to.  And once you’ve found that church, actually listen and obey those in authority over you.  Second, we must always weigh the teachings of any church against the clear commands of Scripture and the consensus of Christian tradition.  If you believe your church leaders are abusing their authority or teaching heresy, you must confront them, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).  If necessary, you may have to leave that church in order to follow Christ.  This leads to the third point, and the crux of today’s verse:  what is the command of Christ?  On the Thursday of Holy Week, we celebrate Maundy Thursday.  Maundy is derived from the Latin “mandatum”, which means “command”.  Christ gave us three commands that night before He died that should guide us in the Church at all times.  Those commands are:  (1) “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19); (2) “wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14); and (3) “love one another” (John 13:34).  So, we are to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, worshiping together in Word and Sacrament.  We are to serve one another and the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40).  And, above all, we are to love one another as Christ loved us.  If you are in a church that practices these three principles, you can feel confident in submitting to the authority of the elders there.  Paul is telling Philemon that he could command him to do the right thing because (notice that word “accordingly”) they are bound together by the love of Christ (cf. verse 7).  So let us submit to the Church so long as it commands us to love God with all that we have and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40).  Which brings us to the next verse…

 

October 10th — Philemon 7: Being Refreshed

For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.

–Philemon 7 (ESV)

In these meditations I’ve been giving Paul a hard time for buttering Philemon up.  Make no mistake, the apostle is using every weapon in his rhetorical arsenal to win Philemon to his side.  But that does not mean he isn’t genuine.  Today’s verse is among the warmest and most heartfelt that Paul ever wrote.  Clearly, he feels genuine affection and love for Philemon and counts him a friend.  That “my brother” is emphatic and personal.  Perhaps the two of them worked together closely while Paul was in Ephesus.  Whatever the case, this letter is not written in the tone of official Church business or a superior reprimanding his subordinate.  This is an intimate, personal appeal.

I want to concentrate on just one word today: “refreshed”.  In English, it means: (1)  to restore strength and animation to: revive; (2) to freshen up: renovate; (3) to restore or maintain by renewing supply: replenish (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).  All three definitions apply here.  First, a good leader “revives” the saints, building up those who are bowed down and strengthening the weak (cf. Psalm 145:14).  When a website does not load correctly, we “refresh” the page, giving it a second opportunity to work correctly.  Secondly, Philemon has “renovated” the Church.  Refreshment does not mean just amplifying what already exists, but finding new ways to do things and new talents and abilities within each saint.  Think of how a fresh coat of paint can change the entire atmosphere of a room.  Third, refreshment involves replenishing.  After an event, “refreshments” are often offered in order to restore people’s energy and foster conversation, and a waiter will often offer to “refresh” your drink, meaning to refill it.  Ministry drains people, and we are called to refresh one another with encouragement, comfort, and joy.

The word “have been refreshed” (anapepautai) here is the same word that Our Lord used when He said, “come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (anapausō)” (Matthew 11:28)*.  This brings to mind Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want./He makes me lie down in green pastures./He leads me beside still waters./He restores my soul” (v.1-3).  Rest and refreshment go hand-in-hand.  As the old saying goes, “if the devil can’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy”.  The only way to be refreshed in the faith is to rest every once in a while, at least once a week.  In fact, God had a plan for that — he called it the Sabbath.  Indeed the observation the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11).  God takes rest very seriously, and if we do not, we will burn ourselves out and be unable to help refresh our brothers and sisters in Christ.  For true refreshment can only come from Jesus, the well of living water that never runs dry (John 4:13-14).  Look at those three definitions of “refresh” again:  Jesus replenishes what we have lost, and He revives what has lain dormant, and He renovates our lives to bring it into accord with His perfect will.  But He can only do that work if we let Him.  In the words of St. Augustine, “thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee”.  God can do this work in and through us if we allow Him to have control.  So much of our busyness is predicated on the idea that we are in charge.  If we let God run the world and just take care of what He is calling us to do today (cf. Matthew 6:34), we will find refreshment.  Let us, like Philemon, refresh the hearts of others by offering the joy and comfort of Christ and His Holy Spirit.        

 

*Quick grammar footnote: Once again, I don’t know Greek, but I’m sure those two words look different because they are in completely different tenses — the first, past perfect progressive tense and the second, future tense.

October 9th — Philemon 6: Sharing the Faith

…and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.

–Philemon 6 (ESV)

When we think of “sharing the faith”, we usually think of evangelism.  We often forget the importance of sharing the faith with other believers, to strengthen, encourage, and uphold one another.  Indeed, we can only truly share the faith with the world when we are working together.  Without the support of our fellow believers, any work of evangelism will fall flat.  The Holy Trinity is not me, Jesus, and my bible.  Individual faith is not enough.  Jesus always intended for us to be a community, just as the actual Holy Trinity is a perfect union of three Persons.  That is why He prayed “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

At last, here in verse six, Paul has finished clearing his throat and begins to get to the content of his letter.  In verse 4, he says that he is praying for Philemon, and in verse 5 he tells Philemon why he is praying for him.  This verse is Paul’s prayer and it’s…confusing.  Translations of this verse are kind of all over the place, but I think I’ve got a handle on it.  Let’s break it down piece-by-piece.  First off, “the sharing of your faith”.  This phrase is variously translated “your partnership with us in the faith” (NIV), “the generosity that comes from your faith” (NLT), “the fellowship of your faith” (NASB), and “the communication of thy faith” (KJV).  Taken together, Paul seems to be asking Philemon to share his faith in an open and honest way with his fellow believers.  The Greek word here, koinonia,  involves generosity, fellowship, and good communication.  It’s the same word Paul uses when he commends the Philippians for their “partnership in the gospel” (Phil. 1:5).  He is telling Philemon to join the team and work together with him for the faith.

Next, “may become effective”.  The Greek word here is energes, and it conveys the idea of active, engaged, energetic.  The feeling here is like plugging in an appliance.  His faith exists, but it needs to become active and effective.  He wants Philemon to put his faith into practice (cf. James 2:17).  Side note: this is why people trying to pit Paul and James against each other are missing the point.  Paul argues that works cannot save you, while James says that faith without works isn’t faith.  These are not in opposition.  While works do not avail for salvation, a life devoid of good works demonstrates a lack of faith, and thus of salvation.  Paul is essentially making that point in this verse.  Effective (energes) faith does not negate grace; it applies grace into our lives and our world.

So Paul prays that Philemon may have an effective, energetic faith that is shared with his fellow believers.  But why?  “For the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us”.  We have spent the past few days discussing the traits of a Christian: grace, peace, love, and faith.  Those are the good things within us.  It is tempting, when beset by habitual sin, to get down on ourselves and believe that there is nothing good in us.  But Paul reminds us that we have, through the free gift of grace, “every good thing”.  Indeed, Jesus has given us the greatest gift of all:  God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit (see John 20:22).  We have been born again by the Spirit (John 3), and now we live in the Spirit (Romans 8).  And that Spirit brings gifts (1 Corinthians 12), which bear fruits in our lives: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).  So the work God requires of us is simply to acknowledge and activate that which is already within us.

Lastly, we have “for the sake of Christ”.  I don’t really like the ESV translation here.  It carries a kind of “what would Jesus do?” vibe to it.  The evangelical movement often seems to be living out a non-existent Bible verse where Jesus looks down from the cross and, quoting Ronald Reagan, says with His final breath “go out there and win people for the Gipper”.  If that’s how evangelism works, Jesus might as well still be dead.  No, the Greek here is eis Christon — “in Christ” (hat tip to the KJV, RSV, and NLT for getting this one right).  We aren’t living out our faith, acknowledging the good within us, to be some kind of glorified cheerleader for Jesus.  No, the Bible calls us to be in Christ:

  • It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20)
  • Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
  • For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3)

You get the idea.  We share the faith of Christ with our fellow believers because we all share the same life.  This is why the Holy Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord is so vital: it reminds us (and indeed actualizes for us) our unity in Christ.  We are the Body because we have all been given new life in Christ’s blood.

So let’s put it all together:  Paul prays that Philemon may share his faith in fellowship with other believers in order to activate that faith and make it effectual so that they may all know the good things God has given them in their new life in Christ.  Paul is about to make a big ask for Philemon, the acceptance of a fugitive slave back into the fellowship.  So he must lay the groundwork for why Philemon should do that. By sharing his faith generously, Philemon activates the good things within Himself and becomes “conformed to the image of [Christ]” (Romans 8:29).  We share our faith with others, not just out of humility or obligation, but so that we may be strengthened in our own faith and see the fruits of the Spirit in our personal lives.  So let us share the faith with one another today.

October 8th — Philemon 5: The Saints

…because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints

–Philemon 5 (ESV)

Catholic social worker and activist Dorothy Day once said, “don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily”.  Indeed, when we think of the word “saint”, we think of faces staring placidly forward in icons or stained-glass windows.  We think of semi-legendary figures like St. George slaying a dragon or St. Christopher giving the Christ child a piggyback ride.  Or we think of seemingly superhuman acts of holiness, like Simon Stylites (390-459 AD), who spent 37 years living on top of a pillar.  Saints, whatever else they may be, are different from us.  We can admire them and listen to them and petition their prayers, but we cannot hope to emulate them.  Mostly, I consider it a victory just to successfully feed and clothe myself and my family.  But sainthood?  That’s for people with the time to be holy.  I’m just trying to get by.

Paul has a different vision.  He invariably calls other Christians “saints”, which is the Greek word hagious (whence the English word “hagiography”).  Another way to translate that word is “holy people” (see the NIV for example).  To Paul, followers of Jesus are holy because they are set apart by God.  In modern American Christianity, we like to say we are just “sinners saved by grace”, which is true.  There is a laudable attempt at humility there.  But that can also lead to complacency.  Saying that I’m just a sinner means I have no obligations beyond salvation.  If I’m a saint, however, that means that God has work He wants to do in and through me.  When Paul calls Philemon and the Colossian Christians “saints”, he is reminding them of their nature as God’s children and the work to which they are called.

If you will pardon the grammar nerd in me for a minute, there is something very interesting going on in this verse.  Read it again.  The way it is structured seems to indicate that Paul is thankful for Philemon’s love first of all, and then his faith toward God and the saints.  But wait a second.  Are we supposed to have faith in God and the saints?  Shouldn’t our faith be toward God and our love toward the saints?  Indeed, that’s how Paul puts it in Colossians: “since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints” (1:4).  So is this just a clunky phrase or a bad translation?  No, dear reader, it is actually a chiasmus.  This is when you phrase things kind of like a sandwich, with parallel ideas occurring in an A-B-B-A pattern.  Shakespeare liked to use this: “But O, what damned minutes tells he o’er/Who dotes (A), yet doubts (B) ; suspects (B) , yet strongly loves (A)” (Othello 3.3.167-8).  Or, even more simply:  “fair is foul and foul is fair” (Macbeth 1.1.11).  Once you know about this, you start seeing instances of it everywhere.  Think about John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address:  “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country”.  It’s an enormously effective rhetorical device.

Here Paul is doing something similar.  He is thanking Philemon for his love (A) and faith (B) toward Jesus (B) and the saints (A).  He puts the love and faith together, as they are the qualities Philemon possesses, while putting Jesus and the saints together as the beneficiaries of those qualities.  Also, I think, Paul is using chiasmus to marry Philemon’s love and faith.  Philemon’s love for the saints stems from his faith in Christ, while his faith in Christ is strengthened by his for the saints.  It’s a mutually beneficial cycle, and one cannot exist without the other.  For “if anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).  Or, as James puts it, “someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (2:18).  We demonstrate our faith in God through our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ.  That is what it means to be a saint.  It does not involve some sort of superhuman asceticism or bravery or intelligence.  To be a saint means simply to put our faith in God and to love one another.  In the words of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners”.  Let us participate in this work of God in our lives today.

October 7th — Philemon 4: Thankfulness and Memory

I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers

–Philemon 4 (ESV)

When I was four, my family moved from Texas to North Carolina.  We stayed for a brief time with a retired Episcopal priest, Father Bancroft Smith, and his wife.  Each night, my parents and I would pray before going to bed.  I would pray for a good night’s sleep, and then I asked God to “give Fr. Smith and Mrs. Smith a good night’s sleep, too”.  Soon thereafter, we moved into a rental house and then, still later, into the home where I would spend the rest of my childhood.  But the prayers continued.  Despite not living under the same roof, I would ask God each night to “give Fr. Smith and Mrs. Smith a good night’s sleep, too”.  My parents joked that the Smiths were probably the most well-rested clergy couple in the country (although, as I remember, they both lived to a good old age, so maybe I should get some credit).  To this day, I have warm memories of playing ping-pong with Fr. Smith and eating friendly meals at their table.  Those repeated prayers have kept him and his wife in my memory even though they are gone.

Paul often begins his letters with a word of thanksgiving for the faith of the recipient (minus the notable exception of Galatians, which begins: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ.”  Ouch!).  This thanksgiving is partly just a smart idea in the “win friends and influence people” kind of way.  Paul wants the readers of his letters to be in a receptive mood, given that he often has hard words to convey.  However, gratitude is more than just a strategy — it is essential to the Christian life.  Paul often emphasized the importance of thankfulness (bullet list alert!):

  • Rejoice always, pray without ceasing,  give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonias 5:16-18)
  • And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:15)
  • Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:18b-20)

Prayer was always to include (indeed to begin with) thanksgiving.  Understanding the grace and peace offered in Jesus Christ ought to fill us with gratitude.   “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28).  The trials of life can make it easy to become resentful and ungrateful.  But such resentment closes off the channel of grace and keeps us from the presence of God.  For, as the Psalmist says, “enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations” (100:4-5).  We must begin our prayers with thanksgiving and praise, for that is the doorway to the courts of our God.

This gratitude extends not just to God, but to others.  Bringing Philemon to mind fills Paul with the spirit of thanksgiving.  Thus, our prayers of thanks should not be only for God and his salvation, but for those around us.  This, I think, is much harder.  “Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre put it in his play No Exit.  Well, yes, of course, but so is heaven.  Jesus is a person, after all.  Speaking words of gratitude for others, indeed “giving thanks always and for everything”, opens our hearts to love and opens others to receive that love.  Being thankful for the ungrateful and loving the unlovable is not only our calling as Christians, it is the only path to peace.  People are starved for a little gratitude in our unforgiving world.  In the words of Norm from the tv show Cheers, “it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and I’m wearing milkbone underwear”.  Perhaps we should all take a moment today to tell someone that we are thankful for them and that we’re praying for them.  I promise that it will brighten both their day and yours.

Thankfulness and memory go hand in hand.  I prayed for Fr. Smith and Mrs. Smith when I was young because I was thankful for their generosity in opening their home to us.  But that thankfulness has kept them in my memory to this day.  Isn’t it funny how seeing an old friend from high school after many years can bring back a flood of long-forgotten memories?  To remember someone is actually to recover a part of yourself.  And remembering someone in your prayers is an essential part of maintaining a close relationship.  For it is very hard to stay angry and alienated from someone for whom you are praying, especially if you do it with an attitude of thanksgiving.  There is an old Eastern Orthodox tradition that we only continue to exist so long as God speaks our name.  As God says in Isaiah, “behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (49:16).  Prayer is our way to respond to God’s mindfulness of us, by returning the favor and by joining him in remembering others.  To pray with thanksgiving for one another is to see other people as the Lord sees them: image-bearers of God who are worthy of love.  May we follow Paul’s example today and thank God always, remembering one another in prayer.     

October 6th — Philemon 3: Grace and Peace

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

–Philemon 3 (ESV)

They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  This is particularly true when writing a letter.  Even in the age of email, I find myself writing and re-writing the opening lines to make sure both the content and tone are representing me in the best possible light.  Your greeting toward someone says a lot about how you view that person and the relationship between the two of you.  “Dear Sir”, “Hi honey”, “To Whom it may Concern”, and “wassup bro” each convey vastly different messages.  Take, for example, this typical beginning of an official Roman correspondence: “Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings” (Acts 23:26).  Introduce yourself; remember the honorary title for your superior; don’t get flowery.  It’s almost funny how abrupt and to-the-point it is.  Just the facts, ma’am was the Roman way.  In his own way, Paul got right to the crux of the matter, too.  Let’s explore.

If you had to summarize the faith in one sentence, could you do it?  Many people would probably pick John 3:16 or talk about justification by faith or (if they’re fancy) quote the Westminster Catechism.  Paul gives a nice, pithy summary of the faith in 1 Corinthians 15, often called the first creed of the Church:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

But I would argue that he had an even more concise statement of the faith: today’s verse.  Paul begins every one of his epistles with this line or a slight variation of it.  This is how the apostle wanted to present himself and his faith to the churches.

Let’s begin, logically enough, at the end.  Paul conveys a greeting from “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”.  Calling God “Father”, in response to Jesus’ command (cf. Matthew 6:9), serves a two-fold purpose.  First, it establishes God as the creator, literally the Father of the universe.  Secondly, it demonstrates the intimacy of our relationship with God.  The Greek word patros is the same word as you would use for a human father.  God wants a relationship with us a father to his children (cf. Galatians 4:6).  Then follows “and the Lord Jesus Christ”.  That “and” equates Jesus with God the Father.  “Lord” (kyriou) designates an owner or master, one in authority.  It’s the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word for God, Yahweh.  “Christ” (Christou) is the Greek word for Messiah, literally “the anointed one”, the savior.  So, in eight words, Paul establishes that God created the world and wanted a relationship with us, that He did so in the person of Jesus, who saved us and shares equally in authority with the Father. Not bad!  Incidentally, this gives the lie to people who say that the Bible does not mention the Trinity — it’s implicit in the equation of Jesus with God.  Paul makes the Trinity even more explicit when he says elsewhere, “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14, see also Matthew 28:19).  In any case, it is quite silly to argue that the council of Nicea came up with the idea that Jesus was God with this verse sitting right here.

While all of this is vital to understand, the identity of God the Father and Jesus do not tell us much about what the faith means to me.  What does a Christian life look like?  Paul identifies the two fundamental qualities that set a Christian apart: grace and peace.  Grace (charis) comes from the same root as the words for “joy” and “to rejoice”.  It is a word, almost unique to Christianity, conveying the unmerited favor found in the free gift of salvation offered by Jesus Christ.  As I’ve mentioned already, Paul could never quite get over how Jesus saved him despite the fact that he had literally been an accessory to the murder of Christians.  We are saved, not because of anything we have done, but because God loves us.  Rejoice, indeed!  The result of receiving grace is peace (eirene).  Knowing that we do not have to earn the grace of God, we can calm down and rest.  Our well-being is assured by a good God.  This inner peace extends out to the world, as peace with God leads to peace in families and friendships and even between nations.  The ultimate goal of God’s grace is to return humanity to Eden, to a land of perfect peace.  God’s peace does not mean the absence of strife in this fallen world (remember that Paul is in prison), but it does mean we can say with Paul, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11).  Peace, deep and everlasting peace, is the desire of every human heart.  And such peace can only be found in the grace of Jesus Christ.

It is notable that Paul begins this personal letter with the same grand salutation that begins his other epistles.  Clearly, this was not just a theological statement, but a deeply personal one.  Paul loves Philemon, and he can think of no greater gift to offer his friend than the grace and peace of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  The philosophies and religions of the ancient world could offer many things:  meaning and purpose, an order for life, a system of thinking.  But only Christ has what the human heart truly needs.  Paul offers his readers (ourselves included) the greatest gift he could imagine, for it was the greatest gift he had ever received: grace and peace.  So often, we go into the world with a system of belief, with “God’s plan” for people’s lives, or, even worse, with words of judgment and condemnation.  But what we should be offering, what they truly need and desire, is grace.  Without that, our evangelism is just empty words.  Looking around today, I can hardly think of anything the world needs more.  So, no matter our circumstances and feelings, let us proclaim in word and action the grace of God the Father found in Jesus Christ which can bring the only lasting peace to human hearts.

 

 

October 5th — Philemon 2: The (House) Church Militant

…and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house

–Philemon 2 (ESV)

“God settles the solitary in a home,” David says in the Psalms (68:6).  The family and the home have been at the core of Christianity from the very beginning.  The centrality of the family has become almost a cliché in modern Christianity, but it was not so in the ancient world.  Wives were second-class citizens, and children were barely treated as human beings.  So it is kind of funny that the Bible is given such grief for being anti-feminist when it was Christians who did the most to defend the rights of women and children.  The strict teachings of Jesus and Paul regarding divorce and adultery (Matthew 5 & 19), the obligations of both wives and husbands (Ephesians 5), and the respect due to children (Matthew 18:5-6, Ephesians 6:1-4) set a new course for the family in the world.  The family unit would not be defined by obligations and subservience, but by mutual love and respect (cf. Ephesians 5:33).  I love how the blessing of the marriage goes in the wedding service from the Book of Common Prayer: “send therefore your blessing upon these your servants, that they may so love, honor, and cherish each other in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their home may be a haven of blessing and peace.”  The home, inasmuch as it is a part of the larger Body of Christ, is the center of the Christian life.

In the early Church, the distinction between the home and the Church was basically non-existent.  Obviously, no church buildings had been constructed yet, so congregations of believers usually met in the home of a prominent member of the community.  We see this throughout the New Testament, Priscilla and Aquila (Romans 16:5), and Nymphas (Colossians 4:15) being two examples.  A third example is today’s verse.  It seems very likely that Apphia and Archippus are members of Philemon’s family.  Most commentators think that Apphia is Philemon’s wife and Archippus his son.  This would emphasize again how important families were to the Church.  It also shows, once more, how Paul is marshaling literally everyone he can think of to his side to persuade Philemon to see things his way.  By addressing this letter to the church in Philemon’s home, Paul is exerting additional social pressure in a gentle application of the principles of confronting a brother outlined by Our Lord in Matthew 18.  The restoration of the fugitive slave Onesimus (much more on him later) was a matter that involved the entire Christian community.  It also would have a profound effect on the life of Philemon’s wife and child, thus their special inclusion in this verse.  As I said yesterday, no decision we make in the Christian life happens in isolation; what we do has a ripple effect throughout the entire Body.

Apphia, Philemon’s wife, is referred to as “our sister”.  We’ll get into the Christian concept of “brothers and sisters” in another meditation, but for now we should note the status this gives her.  I don’t wish to belabor the point, but it’s hard to overemphasize how remarkable it was in the Roman world to put women on the same playing field as men.  “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” (Galatians 3:28) is a revolutionary statement.  The distinctions which had bound society, had given it structure and meaning, had been destroyed by the Gospel.  Race, class, and gender were of no importance in the kingdom.  Apphia was just as capable of hearing and proclaiming the gospel as her husband.  She was clearly an active and important participant in her house church.  She was not a glorified housekeeper or a trophy for her husband.  She was “our sister”, a full and equal member of the Church.  No wonder women loved this new faith so much.

Archippus is actually mention one other place in the New Testament: “And say to Archippus, ‘see that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord’” (Colossians 4:17).  This would seem to indicate that Archippus is a minister of some kind, perhaps a priest under his bishop father.  Here he is a “fellow soldier”, a Greek word Paul uses only one other time (cf. Philippians 2:25).  Paul loved a good martial metaphor, and with good reason.  In addition to the spiritual warfare with the devil, Paul had many literal encounters with soldiers and often had to run for his life from mobs trying to kill him.  The Christian life is not one of ease and comfort; it is a daily battle against evil.  To Timothy he said, “share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Timothy 2:3-4).  Like soldiers, we must commit ourselves to a single-minded pursuit and throw off everything that hinders us, every “civilian pursuit” that keeps us from serving our Commander (cf. Hebrews 12:1).  Of course, unlike actual military pursuits, our battle is not against other people “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).  The job of the Christian is to tear down the strongholds that enslave people in “this present darkness”.  So, as relatively “small” an issue as the return of Onesimus might be, by calling Archippus a “fellow soldier”, Paul is reminding all of the Colossians of the importance of what they are doing.  All ministry is a battle waged against sin, hatred, and death by the forces by the forces of love and life.  Even the lowly foot soldier has a vital part to play.  So no matter our station in life, be it priest or wife or child or layman, we all have an essential part to play in the battle for the Kingdom.  So let us join with our fellow soldiers, with our brothers and sisters, to battle the darkness today.