November 4th — Philemon 25: The Gift of Grace

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

–Philemon 25 (ESV)

In a piece of music, grace notes are added, not because they are needed to make the melody, but because they make the melody more beautiful.  The Graces of Greek mythology, Aglaea (“Splendor”), Euphrosyne (“Mirth”), and Thalia (“Good Cheer”), bring charm, beauty, human creativity, and fertility.  People who are considerate or thoughtful are said to have “good grace”.  A particularly skilled dancer is said to be “graceful”, while an agreeable or charming personal quality is sometimes called a “saving grace”.  You can sometimes receive something unexpected through another’s “good graces”.  Archbishops are referred to as “Your Grace”.  Are you starting to see the picture?

The Greek word charis, as we’ve already discussed, means gratitude, favor, joy, and goodwill.  The English word “grace” comes from the Latin gratia which means favor, charm, and thanks.  It is, for my money, the most beautiful word in our language, and one that has remained uncorrupted.  To hear this word is to breathe a sigh of relief, to relax one’s shoulders, to even let a smile creep across our lips.  Grace is not necessary for life, but what is life without it?  Without grace, we are mere animals, slaves to the instinct to destroy and hoard, living lives that are nasty, brutish, and short.  The world leads us to expect nothing but tragedy.  Grace is the spirit of comedy, the unforeseen joy so absurd that we cannot help but laugh.  Grace opens us to creativity and adventure; every newborn baby is grace incarnate.  If you’ve ever caught your breath at a beautiful sunset or gotten lost in a conversation over a cup of coffee or danced to your favorite song or had a really good cry, you’ve experienced just a taste of grace.  It is the most superfluous thing in the world; it is the most essential thing in the world.  Trying to define it is like trying to remember a dream after you wake up.  “For by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:8).  It’s about so much more than heaven.  It’s about being saved: from misery and death, from failure and despair, from the mundane and ordinary, even from ourselves.  It’s what our faith is all about.

Paul ends his letter as he began it, wishing grace upon Philemon or, more specifically, on his spirit.  In Greek, that last word is pneumatos, which means spirit but also wind and breath.  Our spirit is as insubstantial and essential as our breath.  As Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit”  (John 3:8).  Grace speaks to that part of ourselves that we cannot get a hold of, just as you cannot catch the wind.  Paul wants, more than anything, for Philemon to experience grace, because only through that experience can he truly welcome Onesimus back as a brother.  More than that, it is only through grace that all of them — Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon — can enter everlasting life.  For the Holy Spirit is offered as a free gift by our Heavenly Father through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  It is a foretaste of heaven.  In the words of Jonathan Edwards, “Grace is but Glory begun, and Glory is but Grace perfected”.  Eternal life does not begin when we die; it starts today.  Instead of telling the world about heaven, wouldn’t it be better to give them a taste of heaven by showing them grace?  Maybe we should start by offering it to ourselves.

Only Christianity is foolish enough to make the love of God unconditional.  But that is our message for the world.  Even if you are a thief and a runaway, even if you are a rich man making money off the backs of the poor, even if you are a prisoner condemned to die, God loves you.  God loves you, God has forgiven you, God is not mad at you, and God will never leave you nor forsake you.  Let us allow the grace of God into our spirits so that we may offer it to a world literally dying for it.  Author and minister Frederick Buechner summarizes my point better than I could ever hope to:

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

The grace of God means something like: “Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.

Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too. (Wishful Thinking, p. 38-39)

May the grace of Jesus Christ be with all of you.



November 3rd — Philemon 24: Four Portraits of the Christian Life

…and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

–Philemon 24 (ESV)

In the introduction to this series, I mentioned that Philemon contains a surprisingly large cast of characters.  Tucked away in this verse-long greeting from Paul are four fascinating biographies.  Studying history is its own reward (said the history major), but I think they also have lessons to teach us today.

Mark:  The first time we meet Mark, he’s naked.  At least, it is traditionally thought to be Mark in this memorable passage from his own gospel, set in the Garden of Gethsemane: “And a young man followed [Jesus], with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked” (14:52-53).  Following Jesus isn’t always glamorous.  This young man’s full name is John Mark, who is presumably the same as Mark the evangelist, author of the gospel, who is presumably the same as the Mark in today’s verse.  One early church historian (Hippolytus of Rome) claims that they were three different people, but that is not the scholarly consensus anymore.  So I’m going to treat all of these “Marks” as the same person.  With both a Semitic name (John) and a Greco-Roman one (Mark), he, like many early Christians, straddled two worlds.  He was born in Jerusalem to a woman named Mary, whose was influential enough to be Peter’s first stop after his miraculous escape from prison (Acts 12:12).  Mark joined his cousin Barnabas (Colossians 4:10) and Paul on their first mission to Jerusalem (Acts 12:25).  He then accompanied the two apostles on their first missionary journey, but turned back for reasons unknown at Perga and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13).  This caused a major rift between Paul and Barnabas, with Paul accusing Mark of desertion while Barnabas stuck up for his cousin (Acts 15:36-40).  The argument was so divisive that Paul took Silas on his second missionary journey instead of Barnabas, while Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus.  Some speculate that the real reason for the division was Paul insisting that Gentile converts like Mark did not have to abide by Jewish law, which had been a point of contention between Paul and Barnabas (Galatians 2:13).

But Mark’s story ends happily.  There was clearly a reconciliation between the two leading to Mark assisting Paul in Rome.  Colossians 4:10 indicates that Paul expected Mark to make his way to Colossae, and he commands that they “welcome him”, while in 2 Timothy he calls Mark “very useful to me for ministry” (4:11).  We can see, once again, the power of Christ to reconcile even bitter divisions.  Race, family loyalties, and theological differences can lead to great divisions if we allow them to.  But the work of the Kingdom is bigger than that.  We should be bigger than that, too.

Aristarchus:  As the name suggests, Aristarchus was a Greek — Macedonian, to be more specific (Acts 27:2).  He hailed from Thessalonica (Acts 20:4) and is listed as one of Paul’s “traveling companions” on his third missionary journey (Acts 19:29).  On that trip, he got to be a part of one of my favorite incidents in the New Testament (Acts 19).  In Ephesus, a silversmith named Demetrius is angry that his sales on shrines to Artemis are hurting due to all the people converting to Christianity.  So he decides to whip up a mob on the pretext that Artemis is being blasphemed.  Poor Aristarchus gets swept up in the mob which pours into the theater in the city (meanwhile Paul has to be held back from joining the riot).  Most people have no idea why they’re there, but rioting is always fun, am I right?  For two hours, the crowd screams about Artemis until finally the town clerk (of all people) quiets the ruckus with the simple argument that there are courts for this sort of thing, people.  Despite this brush with death, Aristarchus continued on with Paul into his native Macedonia (Acts 20:4).  As today’s verse indicates, he stayed with Paul all the way to Rome.  Perseverance, even in the face of great persecution, can reap great rewards.  Aristarchus should inspire us to not let tribulation or persecution deter us from preaching the gospel.

Demas:  Demas was, like Aristarchus, probably a native of Thessalonica.  His first appearance is in today’s verse and its parallel in Colossians 4:14, indicating that he was one of the many faithful ministers working in Rome with Paul.  Unfortunately, just a couple of years later, Paul writes, “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:10).  With that, Demas disappears from history.  He began well, but he was like the seeds sown among thorns in Jesus’ parable: “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22).  He is a mirror image of Mark, who rejected worldly things that had separated him from Paul in order to pursue his ministry of reconciliation.  Unlike Demas, our life and our love must be singularly focused:

  • You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.  (James 4:4)
  • Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him…and the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 12:15, 17)

We must put God first and reject any worldly thing, no matter how noble, that puts itself in His place.  To do anything else is adultery against our first love and a desertion of our calling.  May Demas be a warning to us all.

Luke:  Luke was a Gentile physician.  He was likely converted by Paul and was a companion with him on his missionary journeys.  This is indicated in the book of Acts, the second book of his two-part series that begins with the gospel bearing his name.  The book of Acts has a bizarre tendency to slip into first person, which seems to indicate that Luke was adding his own memories to the story (as opposed to his gospel, which is obviously based on interviews, particularly with Mary and Peter).  He seems to have spent a long time in Philippi, ministering there until Paul’s journey to Rome, which is why he shows up in today’s verse.  He would be one of the few people to stick with Paul to the end of the latter’s life (“only Luke is with me” [2 Timothy 4:11]).

Luke is a favorite of mine, as he ably combined education and a deft writing style with deep empathy.  Luke’s gospel highlights women in a way unique to the Bible, and the evangelist seems to have a particular sympathy for the outcast, perhaps because of his work as a physician or his Gentile status or both.  He has a sly sense of humor and a historians eye for the telling detail.  Luke experienced neither the highs and lows of Mark and Demas nor the dramatic events of Aristarchus.  Instead, his life shows us the value of steadfastness, of careful study, and of faithfulness.  Our lives may seem quotidian, but if we give our talents to God, as Luke the physician did, we can bear tremendous fruit.  If you’re having a boring or tedious day, think of Luke quietly toiling away on his gospel or tending to the sick, and do whatever small task you have in front of you for the Lord.  You may be surprised what he can do with just a mustard seed of faith.

November 2nd — Philemon 22: Compassionate Living

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you

–Philemon 22 (ESV)

When we ask someone to have compassion, we are making a serious request.  The word “compassion” is derived from the Latin compassio from the roots com (“with”) and pati (“to suffer”).  To have compassion is to suffer with someone, to experience their pain along with them.  I once joked that my church should have the seeker-friendly slogan “come suffer with us” because that’s what the Christian life is really about.  We “rejoice with those who rejoice, [and] weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).  This goes beyond mere empathy, which is simply understanding how another feels.  Compassion means walking with someone through their suffering, becoming a part of their experience.  That is what it means to be part of the Body of Christ.  We are mystically part of a single organism, for we have all died and all now live in Christ.  So, as Paul says elsewhere, “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).  If the book of Philemon has taught us anything, it is that the Christian life is not meant to be a solitary affair.  It is lived in community, for good and for ill.

This theme is picked up by the author to the Hebrews when he says, “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (13:3).  Thus we come to today’s verse.  Paul has completed his appeal to Philemon and is now sending greetings to the church at Colossae (to whom the letter would be read; see verse 2).  Primacy of place is given to Epaphras.  This saint is mentioned in two other places, both in the book of Colossians:

  • Just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit. (1:7-8)
  • Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.  For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. (4:12-13)

These verses are all we have to go on, but they do paint a picture.  Epaphras was a native or at least a resident, of Colossae.  He was probably converted by Paul, perhaps (like Philemon) while Paul was ministering at Ephesus and went on to found the Colossian church.  The title of “servant” here is sometimes Pauline code for “bishop”.  If Philemon was a bishop, it seems odd that there would be two (though ecclesiastical hierarchy was in its infancy), but Epaphras was obviously a clergyman of some kind.  He was also a faithful man of prayer who embodied the full meaning of compassion.  He worked as a missionary or travelling clergyman in two other cities, and he was the one who brought Paul the report about Colossae that inspired the writing of the letter to the Colossians.  At the writing of Philemon, he is clearly with Paul in Rome.  Like Philemon, he is one of the quiet servants of God who would have gone unnoticed to history were it not for these brief mentions.

What are we to make of Paul calling Epaphras “my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus”?  The most obvious explanation is that Epaphras had been arrested in Rome for preaching the gospel.  This is possible, of course, but it seems unlikely to me.  The Romans mostly left Christians alone before the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD.  It seems more plausible to me that Epaphras was staying with Paul while he was under house arrest and supporting his ministry, just as Onesimus was.  Either way, he chose imprisonment over freedom for the sake of the gospel.  Moreover, as I mentioned in my meditation on Paul as prisoner, he was a prisoner in Christ Jesus (en Christō Iēsou).  That little word “in” could be translated “into Christ Jesus.  He, like Paul, had been baptized into the death of Christ (Romans 6:3) and now lived as a bondservant of Christ.  He is living out compassion, suffering with Paul and striving in prayer on behalf of his beloved Colossian church.

Let’s not ignore the end of the verse, in which Epaphras sends greetings.  In our age of instant communication, it has paradoxically become easier to disconnect from people.  Because we can talk to someone in an instant, we often don’t actually bother to do so.  But a crucial part of a compassionate life is remaining in contact with others, particularly our brothers and sisters in Christ.  If the Lord brings someone to mind that you haven’t seen or talked to recently, send greetings.  It doesn’t really matter if it’s a call or a text or an email or a Facebook message or a carrier pigeon, just let them know you’re thinking about them and that you care.  Loneliness is an epidemic in our country, and deaths of despair are on the rise.  A simple greeting can be literally life saving.  Moreover, it builds up the body of Christ, just as our circulatory and nervous systems keep our physical bodies living and connected.  So, like Epaphras, let us show compassion to one another today.


November 1st — Philemon 22: Preparing a Room

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.

–Philemon 22 (ESV)

There is an old Yiddish proverb:  “we plan; God laughs”.  There is a special melancholy to this for the Jews, who are such meticulous record-keepers and planners, and yet who throughout history have their plans upended by God and man.  But they do not give up hope.  To pick just one example, at the Seder dinner at Passover, the fifth ceremonial cup of wine is left untouched because it is Elijah’s cup.  The door to the room is left ajar while Scripture is read, in hopes that Elijah will arrive and announce the coming of the Messiah.  To my knowledge, he has yet to make a physical appearance (although he is said to attend every circumcision ceremony; an empty chair is left out for that purpose).  But here we see the confluence of expectation and hospitality that hearkens back to the birth of the faith.  For Abraham entertained three strangers by the oaks of Mamre, and in return for his hospitality he was promised a child and an everlasting heritage (Genesis 18).  As the book of Hebrews reminds us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (13:2).  So the Jews continue to make room for God to arrive, a hospitality born of hope.  Just this week, we have seen the Jewish community of Pittsburgh come together in the wake of the slaughter of 11 of their own.  They have taken turns every hour day and night sitting in the morgue with the bodies, as Jewish tradition dictates that bodies cannot be left unaccompanied until after they are buried.  So we see that hope and hospitality do not end even in death.  We Christians could probably learn something from this.

Paul clearly had big plans.  The lax nature of his imprisonment and the lack of seriousness with which the Romans were taking his “crimes” meant that surely he would be released soon (cf. Philippians 2:24).  He hopes to make another missionary journey through Asia Minor and visit Philemon, so he asks for a guest room.  He may well have made it.  Tradition has it that Paul was released from prison, only to be arrested once again under Nero’s persecution after the Great Fire of 64 AD, which we’ve already discussed.  He had hoped to make it to Spain (Romans 15:24, 28), but it’s unclear if he ever got that far.  Either way, his expectations for a second act in his ministry proved short lived.  He would be beheaded on the Via Appia sometime between 64 and 68 AD.  We plan; God laughs.  Even so, Philemon preparing for Paul’s arrival would put him in the proper attitude to receive Onesimus, which was probably Paul’s motive all along.

The Bible constantly commands us to be hospitable, to strangers and especially to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Since they all say roughly the same thing, I’ll spare you a bullet list but here are some citations to meditate on: Leviticus 19:34; Isaiah 58:7; Romans 12:13; Titus 1:8; 1 Peter 4:9.  Jesus said, “whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (Matthew 10:42).  Hospitality is welcoming all, and doing the least act of service, as if it were for Christ Himself.  This is scarier than it sounds.  I have said that the home is a center of Christian life, a “haven of blessing and peace”.  To open that haven to others is to make yourself vulnerable.  But it is a crucial virtue to combat the tendency to isolate ourselves from others.  Especially in the 21st century, it is very easy to bunker down in our homes and insular communities and only interact with others superficially and sparingly.  The command to hospitality forces us to open our lives to others in ways that may make us uncomfortable, but will also help us to grow more into the image of Christ.  Indeed, Jesus says that, when we throw a banquet, we are not to invite our friends and families and other well-off people, but instead “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13).  Our houses (and our churches) should be spaces where people feel welcomed and safe.  Unlike the innkeeper in Bethlehem (Luke 2:7), we are always to have room for the poor, because you might be welcoming Christ Himself.

But why be hospitable?  Won’t people take advantage of us?  Isn’t it just a lot of trouble?  Well, yes to both those questions.  But don’t forget that Jesus mentioned a reward.  Our Lord says, “in my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3).  In short, we are to prepare room for Christ in others because Christ is preparing a room for us.  Just as we are to forgive because we have been forgiven, so we are to prepare a room for others because God is preparing a room for us.  Just like the Jews, we practice hospitality because we have hope.  Yes, hospitality is a lot of trouble, but remember that Jesus said, “in the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).  Despite all the common sense reasons for not doing so, we open our doors to strangers because that is the only way that Christ can reach some people.  The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh opened their doors and now 11 of them are dead.  Yet they will, I’m sure, continue to welcome others, because it is what the Law requires.  We, too, should continue to welcome others because it is what love requires.  We cannot let hope be drowned by fear.  So let us prepare room for one another, not only in our homes but in our hearts, so that at Christ’s return He “may find in us a mansion prepared for himself” (Book of Common Prayer, collect for 4 Advent, p. 212).