A Request for Help: A sermon based on Philemon 1:1-3
That was a short Scripture reading. I wonder if anyone has ever before heard an entire sermon based on just the introductory greeting of a letter? Today we’re going to begin a new four week sermon series on Paul’s letter to Philemon. Its a short letter, so we’ve got to milk it for all its worth, hence only reading the introduction. I’m only joking, every paragraph in this short letter speaks an incredibly important message to our church today, and that includes the greeting we just read. At its heart, this letter concerns people in conflict, and I believe that though the letter God has something to say about how we conflict each other. This letter concerns a conflict between a slave owner named Philemon, and his slave Onesimus. This letter concerns two people angry with each other, two people disappointed in one another, two people who feel cheated by one another. Conflict is why this letter was written, but this letter is about something bigger. This letter is about God being glorified when his children work through their problems. This letter is about how working through conflict leads us closer to King Jesus. Its all in this letter. Paul helps these two people work through conflict, and God glorified as a result. When we study this letter, we can learn godly ways of working through conflict. Why is that important? Why should we learn about godly ways of fighting with people? Let me answer that question, by asking another question? What is the number one way that Satan tears apart the church and destroys human flourishing? What do you think is Satan’s number one tool to destroy the people of God? Its not demon possession. Its not through books like Harry Potter. I strongly believe that the number one tool Satan uses to tear down the church and destroys human flourishing is through unresolved conflict. Much conflict can be good, but unresolved conflict is toxic. As a pastor, I have seen no greater tactic of Satan than to weaken the body of Christ and to destroy human flourishing through toxic, unresolved conflict. Satan destroys the church by destroying relationships. Satan’s destroys relationships because its our unity that glorifies God! Paul says in Ephesians 3 that God shows off his wisdom through a church defined by really different people in loving fellowship with one another. When diverse people love each other in the church, God is glorified throughout the heavens. That’s why conflict is a huge tactic of Satan to tear apart God’s church and destroy the lives of God’s people. Through our conflict, Satan attempts to frustrate the wisdom of God. But that’s not inevitable. Because through conflict, God can bring us into deeper intimacy with the person we’re fighting with and with God. The goal isn’t never to fight, the goal is to learn how to fight well. God is invested in seeing us conflict well with one another. Through conflict, God can lead us deeper into the heart of the King. That’s the reason why we’ll spend the next four weeks learning what Paul has to say to both Philemon and Onesimus.
Let’s begin by acquainting ourselves with the background of this letter. As I mentioned, this letter is addressing a conflict between a slave-owner named Onesimus, and a slave named, Philemon. A central part of this conflict is slavery. Its easy to look back and simplistically judge Philemon for being a slave owner. Before we do, lets have some perspective about our own situation. Think about this: in the Greco-Roman world, slavery fueled the economy fueled the economy in the same way that oil and electricity fuels ours. That’s a significant analogy, because it helps us put our judgment in check. In 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the social damage of carbon costs about $47 per ton. Every ton of carbon does $47 in damages. In 2017, Global CO2 emissions was a record 32.5 billion tons. At $47 per ton, that’s one and a half trillion dollars of damages done in 2017 alone. Philemon’s economy was based on slaves, just as ours is based on fossil fuels. Future generations look back on our use of fossil fuels with moral judgment, just as we look in judgment on the slave economy. I don’t say this to excuse slavery, just to help us recognize how being a part of an unjust economy can feel like just the way things are.
Slaves in the Roman world were comprised of all different ethnicities. Generally, a slave owner wouldn’t have a slave from his own ethnic background, but anyone could be a slave. Not all slaves were created equal. Slaves that worked in the mines had the most miserable existence possible. There were all sorts of slaves who had terrible lives, but not all of them. Other slaves had great responsibility as overseers of their master’s household. There were different classes of slaves: some slaves were owned, others were working off debt. Some slaves were given freedom. Most slaves were in fact worse off once they were freed. Slaves had no rights and no protection, so things went bad for them when they ran away. A slave which ran away could be branded in the face, or even killed.
We don’t exactly know what happened between Onesimus and Philemon, but it seems that Onesimus ran away. Paul doesn’t tell us why he ran away, but it seems that he ran away to seek Paul’s help. Perhaps Onesimus had a falling out with his master, and was asking Paul to be a mediator. Later in the letter, Paul promised that he would pay back anything Onesimus owed Philemon, so its possible that Onesimus had stolen money from Philemon before he ran away. In any case, Onesimus went to search out his master’s friend Paul, who was in prison. A strange thing happened when Onesimus began spending time with Paul. Onesimus wasn’t a Christian when he went to Paul for help. Through Paul, Onesimus began to know Jesus, and soon confessed Jesus as Lord of His life.
Now let’s hear about Philemon. Feel this tension: He was a slave owner and his was a life transformed by Jesus. Philemon hosted a church in the courtyard of his household. Paul calls Philemon a colleague and partner, which is a term he uses for people who do ministry with him. This godly man is no doubt disappointed in his runaway slave.
Let’s pause for the moment and just note how messy this is. Our sympathies go with Onesimus, the runaway slave. But what about what he stole from Philemon? Isn’t that against one of the Ten Commandments? And Philemon, how difficult it is for us to say, “He was a slave owner, and he lived a life transformed by Jesus.” From our vantage point, we can’t imagine how anyone would keep slaves and love Jesus. Recognizing this tension and messiness lays a very good foundation for this conversation on conflict. People are messy. Conflicts are messy. We don’t fight with perfect people. We fight with people who think they’re perfect, but all of us fight because we’re imperfect. The people we fight with have good qualities melted in with the bad, and so do we. That makes heated conflicts all the more volatile.
With all this said, let’s look specifically at the passage we read this morning. First, Paul identifies himself as a prisoner of Jesus. Paul, is in prison because of his preaching about Jesus Christ, and he’s trying to serve as a mediator between Philemon and Onesimus. But Paul is not alone in his concerns for Philemon and Onesimus. While its very evident that this letter is personally from Paul, its also coming from Timothy. Paul and Timothy both want to help them work through this conflict. Next, Paul tells us who this letter is for. Of course, this letter is addressed to Philemon, but did you notice that the letter is also addressed to Apphia? Apphia is probably Philemon’s wife. And this letter is also addressed to Archippus, most people speculate that he was Philemon’s son, but we can’t really know. This letter is also addressed to the church that meets in Philemon’s house. Count the characters involved in this conflict. Philemon and Onesimus. Their mediators, Paul and Timothy. The immediate family, Apphia and Archippus. Then also the house church. Not only that, but at the end of the letter we see that Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, send their greetings, and are probably also invested in seeing this conflict resolved.
This illustrates two things about conflict. First, we’re fooling ourselves if we think our conflicts only impact the one person we’re having it out with. Maybe Onesimus stole from Philemon’s wife. Maybe Philemon’s son Archippus is the one most impacted by Onesimus’ absence. Surely there are other slaves in the house church, and surely they are eager to find out how their Christian brother and owner will respond to Philemon’s absence. Everyone is impacted in one way or another. This conflict impacts the whole family, it impacts the whole church. We’re fooling ourselves if say, “Oh, its only a private affair.”
The second thing the multiple people involved in this letter suggests is that we’re also fooling ourselves if we think that we can resolve all conflicts on our own. There comes a point where a conflict gets too big for any two people to work through. There comes a point where people need to realize that the relationship needs outside help. The sad part of it, most people in conflict often wait far too long. Like Philemon, many people in conflict wait until the person has left before deciding its time to get help. Many people in conflict wait until the crisis is fully blown, and other people are brought in whether you want their help or not.
The perils of waiting too long to ask for help are deadly. Deadly for your own personal flourishing, deadly for the relationship, and deadly to those in the periphery. I began this sermon saying that Satan uses unresolved conflict to destroy the flourishing of the people of God, and to strangle the growth of the church, is unresolved conflict. Let’s not wait too long, because the fruit is there as well. Later in his letter, Paul tells Philemon his prayer that this conflict will lead him to King Jesus. When it comes to resolving conflict, none of us will have a perfect track record this side of heaven. But our hope is that when we face conflict together, when we have help, the way will be opened to deeper relationships. This opens the way for the powers of evil to be defeated and for the wisdom of God to shine forth! But, like the slave Onesimus, we need to ask for help. We need to ask for help until we find help.
Every single one of us are in conflict. Every single one of us is likely in a conflict that hasn’t resolved and is beyond our ability to make better. Every single one of us is likely in a conflict with someone that has a mixture of good and not-so-good qualities, and those not-so good qualities have created a real big problem. For some of us, the conflict might be in your face. Others may have just moved across the country so we don’t have to deal with it.
When a conflict is bigger than us, we need to ask for help until we find help. Let’s ask for help from God. I invite you to bring the person you’re in conflict with before God. Confess to God the problem. Confess to God your need for help.
You may have asked God for help before, and the conflict may be just as bad or worse. Remember, we need to ask for help until we find help.
Now let’s take a moment and ask God to reveal a person you should ask for help from. Who do you need to talk to? What do you need to say? When will you talk? These things are so important.
We need to ask for help until we find help. Our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.