He knocked on the door, wondering how he’d be received when the door was opened. His name was Onesimus, and he was a slave who had run away and was now returning.
Returning to what he wasn’t sure. We don’t know a whole lot about what happened between the time Onesimus had escaped from slavery and the point that he returned. What we do know is found in the letter to Philemon, part of which was read this morning.
We know that Philemon is the 18th book of the New Testament, and the author of the book was Paul, we know historically it was written around AD 61, and we know that Philemon lived in the city of Colosse, which is located in modern-day Turkey. And the reason the letter was written was to ask for grace and forgiveness for Onesimus.
This is the last week of our Who Am I series, and over the past couple of months, we’ve looked at our identity. Our identity as created beings and our identity in Christ. When I spoke about what makes us human, I noted that we were created special, that we were created as social beings, sexual beings, moral beings and spiritual beings.
Pastor Rob has talked about our image in Christ, and last week we celebrated two baptisms at our Windgate location.
In this book, we have 25 verses to tell us the story and this is what we know. Onesimus was a slave who belonged to Philemon. He escaped and ran to Rome to lose himself in the largest city in the world at that time. We know that somehow, he ended up in prison with Paul and during that time, Paul introduced him to Jesus.
And we know that eventually, the story came out that Onesimus, which means useful by the way, a very common name for slaves back then, belonged to a friend or at least an acquaintance of Paul’s and a fellow Christian.
And we know that Paul, and we presume Onesimus, felt they had to do the right thing and that Onesimus would need to be returned to his rightful owner. And to that end, Onesimus was sent with this letter, which by the way, is only one of two personal letters in the Bible.
I know that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are personal letters, but they are different types of personal.
Those letters more accurately are pastoral letters and were sent to the leaders of a church with advice about leading the church. This was a letter sent to a friend with a personal request.
And maybe you’re sitting there bristling, wondering why Paul didn’t write Philemon and tell him how wrong slavery was, berate him for owning slaves and inform him that he wasn’t sending Onesimus back, no way no how. And the reason would be that at this point Christianity was still very young and slavery was an institution in the culture they were in.
Today slavery is thought of as being an isolated part of American history. Something associated with the American south. As a matter of fact, slavery was an institution in every culture at the time.
Slavery has been around ever since someone decided they were willing to sell another human being and someone else was willing to buy a human being.
And slavery is still a reality in many parts of the world today, and human trafficking happens in our own city. And part of the budget at Cornerstone is directed toward stopping that trade, both locally and internationally.
But that was an aside. 2000 years ago, Slavery was simply a part of life.
You could become a slave if you were taken prisoner of war. If you owed a large debt that you could not pay, if your parents owed a large debt they could not pay or if you were born into slavery.
Had Christianity, in those days started denouncing this institution that had existed since the beginning of recorded history and demanded an end to slavery, Christianity itself would have been destroyed.
Instead, they did something almost as radical, they demanded that slaves be treated fairly and kindly and, in the case, where both the master and the slave were Christ-followers they insisted that the relationship go beyond that to a spiritual kinship and that was just bizarre.
And that is the situation that Onesimus and Philemon find themselves in. Onesimus the escaped slave, and his former master, reunited not as slave and master but as brothers in Christ.
It is interesting to note that when Ignatius was on his way to be martyred, he spoke of the Bishop in Ephesus, a man by the name of Onesimus. The same man? We don’t know; however, church tradition has held that they were one and the same.
So, what would be the changes that both master and slave would notice in their relationship?
Paul sums it up when he writes in Philemon 16 He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.
And so, all of a sudden Philemon discovers that Onesimus was no longer simply a slave, he was part of the family.
So, first of all, we need to discover what a family is.
And how does it really relate to our Christian walk and those around us?
Collins dictionary defines family as; “a social unit consisting of parents and their children, the children of the same parents, or a group of people related by ancestry or marriage.”
Let us begin our spiritual dissertation this morning with a deep and profound thought. You realize as well as I do that we are not always impressed with our family. They are not always our favourite people and sometimes they’re not the type of people that your mother would want you to hang around with.
Right? Are you still with me? I’m sorry Denn, that may be what your family is like, but my family is not like that I am proud of everyone in my family. It was Thomas Fuller who said, “He that has no fools, knaves nor beggars in his family must have been begot by a flash of lightning.”
Look admit it, every family tree has some sap running through it. You sake any family tree hard enough and some nuts are going to fall out.
So please keep that in your mind as you engrave this deep thought-provoking concept deep into your memory, you ready? Got your pen out? Right, here goes, “You can pick your friends, but you are stuck with your relatives.” And folks that profound thought goes double for the relatives you have in the family of God.
They may not be your friends, but they’ll always be a part of your family. So, let’s look at families.
1) Families are related. Deep, isn’t it? Sometimes I wonder where I come up with them. If you are family, then you are related, somehow, somewhere you are related. It might be by birth or by adoption but you are related.
Angela and I were at a pastor’s retreat this past week sponsored by the Billy Graham Association. We were at the registration table right after Jay and Sharon Guptill and someone asked us if we were related. And the answer of course is yes. We are third cousins, which isn’t all that close. Our great, great grandfathers were brothers. But we are still related.
Most of you know that I fell in love with my weird family history a few years ago. One of the many twists I discovered was that my 8th great-grandmother was convicted of witchcraft in Salem. Then I discovered when I did the math and discovered that I actually have 1024 8th great grandmothers, and I’m related to all of them.
In the gospel of John, we read, John 1:12–13 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.
Now what John is saying is this, “that if Jesus is our Lord, then God is our father and if we as children all have common parentage then that makes us brothers and sisters. Now then I want you to turn to the person next to you and say, “hello brother”, or “hello sister” now do the same with the person on the other side of you.
Now sometimes we think that we’re brothers and sisters because we all attend the same church, that we are Wesleyan brothers and sisters. And those other people who attend the church down the road, why I know that they are related but like they’re third cousins, on the left, four times removed, I mean they are kin, but not real close kin.
But they are! The Christian believers at EBC, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Full Gospel Church, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church up the road are every bit your brothers and sisters as the person sitting next to you. And they ain’t just in-laws, they are related to you by blood, the blood of Jesus Christ, that was shed for each one of us.
Now sometimes it is hard to comprehend and to be truthful sometimes it’s even harder to accept, but the fact of the matter is it’s not doctrine that makes us brothers and sisters, and it’s not theology that makes us brothers and sisters, and it’s not church affiliation that makes us brothers and sisters. It is Jesus that makes us brothers and sisters. You see when someone comes to Christ with a contrite heart and asks for forgiveness and accepts the salvation that only Christ can give, then they become part of the family, they’re brothers and sisters.
Now hang on to your seats. Are you ready for this? You have brothers and sisters who speak in tongues, and you got some brothers and sisters who believe in eternal security, and you got some brothers and sisters who are pre-post-or a millennial, and you even got some brothers and sisters who call themselves Catholic and Orthodox.
And you may not like them, but Christ said that if they have repented of their sins and accepted his forgiveness that they are brothers and sisters. And I think that that is a hoot. Now you are saying “Pastor you are way off base.” uh-huh, it’s scriptural, because even in the Corinthian church, which was the most carnal, most pagan, unrighteous church in the New Testament Paul still found brothers and sisters in Christ.
I’m pretty sure that neither the slave Onesimus or his master Philemon ever thought of themselves as related, but now they were brothers.
The second thing we learn about family comes from Galatians 6:2 Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.
2) Families Care About Each Other, or should I say families are supposed to care about each other.
I remember a song from when I was growing up that had a line in it that said, “He ain’t heavy he’s, my brother.” When it comes to bearing the burdens of one another in the family of God that needs to become our motto, the world says, “he’s too heavy he ain’t my brother.” But as we look around at the heartaches and needs in the family of God, we need to say, “They ain’t heavy they’re my brother or sister”
Now listen up, If you focus on the load it will be too heavy to carry. If every step of the way you whinge and whine about having to carry brother so and so’s load, it will soon become too-too-too heavy for you to carry. But Christ said in John 15:17 This is my command: Love each other.
And love is nothing but a word until it proves itself in service. You can say, I love that person, or I love this person, but love isn’t love until it cost something. Until you reach over and help the person bear their burden you haven’t loved them.
You say “But Denn, I’ve got burdens of my own and I’m waiting until someone lifts my burden!” Nope, that’s not the way it’s supposed to work. Jesus had already accepted the burden of your sins when Simon of Cyrene accepted the burden of Jesus’ cross.
Our responsibility isn’t “who is going to carry my burden”, instead it needs to be whose burden can I carry. There is somebody in this congregation who needs you to lift a burden from their shoulders.
Maybe it’s a spiritual burden. Have you ever felt to pray for someone? You don’t know why, all you know is that you feel that you need to pray, don’t hesitate my friend pray. That person may be waging a spiritual battle and your prayer will be the turning point, the point of victory.
It might be an emotional burden, and all they may need today is for someone to tell them how special they are. They may simply need to be affirmed. To be thanked for what they do or who they are.
Sometimes we feel, “I wish I had of told that person how much they meant to me.” tell them now, don’t wait, they won’t be able to smell the bouquets that you throw when they’re dead.
When I first went to Truro there was an old preacher who dropped in from time to time to encourage me, and Lawrence would tell me how wonderful I was, and what a great job I was doing and would agree with my dreams and pray with me. And do you know when I realized how much that meant, and acknowledged the debt I owed him? When I delivered the eulogy at his funeral. Which was a little late.
Maybe it’s a physical need. A senior in the church who needs some work done around the house. A young mother who could use some free babysitting so she can get out for an afternoon. At North Point our church in Brisbane Australia we had a lady in the church who had three-year-old twin girls and every once in a while, Angela would take the girls for an afternoon so Tina could go shopping and have a coffee all by herself. You would have thought Tina had been given a million dollars. How about those in your congregation who might have a financial need? Remember families care for one another.
1 Corinthians 13:7 Love always protects. 3) Families Protect One Another.
When my sister Dianne and I were growing up we fought like cats and dogs. I still have the scars to prove it. Once we got into it and she threw pepper in my eyes, and I couldn’t see so I grabbed her and threw her against the wall but missed.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to explain what happened to the picture window in the living room when your parents come home and find it on the lawn, in pieces? But I will tell you this, we fought three ways, constantly, consistently, and courageously, but if you took one of us on you took both of us on.
I could say anything about her and did say most of it, but you’d better watch out what you said about her. We had our differences, and we had our fights, but we were brother and sister and ultimately blood is thicker than water.
We don’t see each other as much as we should but twenty years ago, when my niece was killed in a car accident, Dianne called me in the middle of the night and I was on my way to Woodstock just as soon as I could. Why? Because she needed me.
I will never delude myself into believing even for a minute that Cornerstone Wesleyan Church, let alone Christianity, as a whole, will ever exist in perfect and complete peaceful harmony, we won’t.
My mother had to come to the point that she accepted the fact that we would never be that perfect family, but she always, always, always expected us to defend one another. We need to learn to protect one another, and there has to be loyalty within our spiritual family.
When someone badmouths a fellow Christian, you’d better be the first one on the spot to stand up for that brother or sister, instead of being the first one to deny them or say, “Oh really tell me more so I can pray for them.” 1 Corinthians 13:6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. And when a brother or sister falls, they are still family.
Just because they blow it doesn’t mean they aren’t kin anymore. We’ve all had those family members who at one time or another disappointed us, but there were still family and still needed us.
And protecting them doesn’t mean excusing their behaviour or finding ways for them to avoid the consequences of their actions.
And you gotta admit that we have had some opportunity to practice the policy of defending our brothers and sisters over the past few years. What with the moral failings and scandals surrounding some of the megachurch and celebrity pastors.
And there sometimes we want to say hey they are no kin of mine. But the fact of the matter is that they are, we might not like their behaviour. And they need to be held accountable for their actions, but they are still family.
Because remember you can pick your friends, but you are stuck with your relatives. But how do I defend them, how do I protect them, how do I stand up for them? Good question. When someone is jumping all over them you can affirm the forgiveness of God and the fact that we are all human and that God is bigger than our sins.
Again, I don’t mean you excuse their behaviour or not hold them accountable, but you can focus on the positive of the people who have been saved, and touched through their ministry, and it hasn’t been all bad.
And what goes for the Brian Houston and Bill Hybels and Bruxey Cavery goes double for the folks in your church. Listen up, if I ever catch you backbiting and tearing down a brother or sister in this congregation, I might just ask you to find another church because there ain’t nothing I hate worse in my church than sins of the tongue.
I know it’s not my church it’s Christ’s church but if you know your New Testament you know that I am the elder in charge.
And so, you may ask, how do I become a part of that family and part of the family of God?
Good question, glad you asked, Galatians 3:26–27 For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes.
So where are you at this morning? Where do you stand in the family? Perhaps there’s someone in the family that you need to ask forgiveness of, or maybe there’s someone in the family that you need to forgive.