Prayer and Conflict: A sermon on Philemon 1:1-7
We are in round two of our sermon series in which we are using Paul’s letter to Philemon as a case study for the way God matures his people through conflict. Last week we worked through this first section of the letter. If you missed last weeks sermon, I’d definitely recommend reading it to get a fuller picture of the background of this letter. Paul is working through a conflict between Philemon, and his run away slave, Onesimus.
Last week we noted how there are a lot of people involved in this conflict. Philemon and Onesimus can’t resolve it on their own. Consequently, Onesimus sought out Paul, a neutral third party, to help sort out this conflict. We’re no different, all of us at times are going to need help from a third party in working through conflict. The benefit of bringing in someone else isn’t to just dump our frustrations on someone else, although venting is sometimes needed. The goal is for that third party to help a conversation take place amongst the people in conflict. That’s what we see Paul doing with Philemon and Onesimus throughout this letter.
We also noted last week that working through conflict is important because unresolved conflict is such an effective tactic of Satan to destroy human flourishing, tear apart families, and break down the church. The name “devil” means accuser. That’s one of the devil’s approaches to conflict. Too often we enter conflict in the name of the devil, and not in the name of Christ. I wonder how many of us can think of a conflict where our first tactic was to play the role of the Accuser. Maybe we didn’t begin the fight with accusatory words, maybe we began the fight with silence, or by keeping our distance, or pretending like everything was fine, but meanwhile our thoughts were consumed with accusations. Of course, this isn’t to say that we can never accuse, or talk about wrongs, when it comes to conflict. It just means that accusing shouldn’t be our first approach. Starting with the role of the Accuser is a great way of making things worse. How do you respond any time someone accuses you of something. For me, my walls go up! I go on the defensive! I get ready to fight back!
We can’t let he Accuser set the agenda for our conflicts. We need to be most intentional about following the Advocate, or Holy Spirit, in our conflicts. There is no other area that requires more deliberate, careful, thoughtful, spiritual insight and action. There is no other area than conflict that is more prone to make us handle it in a fleshy, unspiritual manner. This is why we have so many broken relationships, unhealed hurts, and prolonged divsions. Paul shows us a different way. Instead of accusations being the first step, we see his first approach is petitioning God’s help through that of prayer.
Look at the way he begins his letter to Philemon. “I always thank my God when your name comes up in my prayers.” Paul then goes on to describe all the reasons why he’s thankful for Philemon. Paul thanks God for Philemon’s love and faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Paul thanks God for Philemon’s love and faithfulness to his fellow believers. Most of Paul’s letters in the New Testament were written because of some sort of conflict. In the vast majority of these letter, Paul always begins his letter thanking God for the people that he’s in conflict with. The one notable exception is in his conflict with the Galatians, where there is no thanksgiving and in chapter 3 he breaks down and says, “You stupid Galatians!” Even Paul has his limits. Maybe Paul should have gotten a mediator with them. But the exception proves the rule. Most of the time Paul recognizes that accusation and name calling isn’t the way to begin. Prayer and thanksgiving are Paul’s first approach to conflict. His first tactic is not to play the accuser, but the pray-er.
I’d like you to notice something else. Paul says to Philemon, “I always thanks God when your name comes up in my prayers…” This is also something Paul says regularly throughout his other letters too. He’s always telling the people he’s writing to that he’s praying for them. This is one of Paul’s spiritual practices. Paul apparently has quite a prayer list that he works through regularly. His prayer list forces him not only to regularly pray for the people supporting and who love him, like the Philippians, but the prayer list also reminds him to pray for the people he’s in conflict with. I guarantee that the stupid Galatians made it on that list. A while ago I put together a prayer list. Its got the names of everyone here on it, my family, some of my friends, my colleagues in ministry. The goal is to pray through it regularly. I’ve not been super successful. Life gets really busy, I lose the sheet of paper, or I just don’t feel like it. But this is a practice I don’t want to give up on. It was too important for Paul to give up on. Paul knew the impact of his prayers. What would the impact be if we prayed regularly for people in our lives, especially the people we were in conflict with? Maybe we’d discover what it looks like for God to set the agenda of our conflicts, and not the Accuser. Maybe we would begin to see that prayer is the first step to realizing that our conflicts can lead us into deeper relationship with Jesus.
Paul’s prayers aren’t limited to thanking God for Philemon. If we were only allowed to thank God for the people we are fighting with, that would be cruel and unusual punishment. We’re only human. That’s why the next part of Paul’s prayer is so important. In the next verse, Paul prays that the right conditions would take place in Philemon’s heart to make the conflict successful. That’s what’s going on in verse 6.
As we look at the next verse, I need to first say that this is a very difficult verse to understand, the most difficult in the whole letter. I’m about 80% sure that my interpretation of verse six is on the right track. Every translation you’ll look at will say something a little different. (Slide 7) The reason we didn’t read out of the NIV this morning is that I think that their translation of verse 6 was a bit misleading. They have Paul saying, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” That phrase, “active in sharing your faith,” makes it sound like Paul is praying that through Evangelism, Philemon will grow in his understanding of Christ. That doesn’t make a ton of sense in the context of the letter, and doesn’t quite capture the Greek.
The updated NIV changed their translation of that verse to “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith, may be effective in deepening your understanding.” That’s closer to reflecting the sense of the Greek. What the Old NIV called “sharing,” the New NIV calls partnership. Both are trying to translate the greek word, “Koinonia.” With that word Koinonia, Paul is talking about the “fellowship” or “partnership” that Philemon has with other believers because of their faith. Paul is saying that a special thing happens among the relationships of believers because of their faith. That’s why the translation we read earlier says “My prayer is this: that the partnership which goes with your faith may have its powerful effect…” Through the partnerships between those who share the faith, new things are possible. Things that were before thought to be impossible, are now possible. So Paul prays that this partnership between Philemon and Onesimus would have the desired effect. Paul prays that God would set the right conditions, so that something new and transformative would take place between Philemon and his slave Onesimus. Paul is going to ask Philemon to not only forgive Onesimus for running away, but to view him no longer as a slave, but as a brother. This is a very, very tall order for a slave owner in that culture. But Paul also makes a tall order for a runaway slave. He’s asking Onesimus to go back to Philemon (who will hopefully received him as a brother). Because the potential for conflict is so huge, Paul prays that God will cultivate the right conditions for conflict through prayer. By praying, Paul recognizes that only God can make reconciliation possible. When we pray for those we’re in conflict with, we don’t just thank God for them, we ask God to make the conditions right. We ask God to work in their soul and ours, so that our faith may have its powerful effect.
Now lets look at the next part of this verse, because that tells us what the powerful effect is that Paul expects from his prayer. Paul’s prayer is that in doing the hard of being in relationship, the hard work that koinonia fellowship requires, Philemon will be led into the King. That’s the fruit of being in fellowship with others, that through the hard work to maintain fellowship with each other, we will be lead into the King. That bit about being led into the King is just another way of talking about us being brought into the body of Christ. As we grow in fellowship with one another, as we work through conflict, we will grow more integrated in the body of Christ. That’s what Paul prays will happen with Philemon.
Think of it like an organ transplant. All of us represent organs or limbs transplanted into the body of Christ. Like any transplant, something needs to happen so that the body won’t reject the organ. If a transplant takes place without anti-rejection meds, the body will start attacking that organ. Faith goes deeper than anti-rejection medication, faith changes our DNA. Faith enables all different parts of the body to come together without attacking each other. That’s why in Galatians 3:28 Paul says, “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.” Such different people can be apart of one body, Christ, because of our faith in Christ. Without faith in Christ, these differences would drive us to reject one another. But because of our common faith, we know that these differences are superficial, we’ve undergone a deep, powerful change. Because of our faith, our very DNA has changed. Our DNA says that we are in Christ.
That’s the reality, but it doesn’t mean that bringing together all the rest of us oddballs isn’t messy business. Its hard work. But when we work through our conflicts and differences, when we persevere in our fellowship together, the outcome will be that we’ll realize how much a part of Christ’s body we really are. That’s what we pray for. That’s the good thing Paul hopes Philemon will grow to realize through this conflict. That’s what we trust will happen because of the power of faith. Our experience tells us that this doesn’t happen automatically or easily. It still takes a lot of work. Church history tells us that Christians often fail in conflict. That’s why Paul begins with prayer.
Finally, let’s look at the last verse. (Philemon 1.7) Paul says, “you see my dear brother, your love gives me so much joy and comfort! You have refreshed the hearts of God’s people.” Paul remembers how God has answered this prayer for Philemon in the past. Philemon has been a blessing, a refreshment to the body of Christ. But, Philemon is about to be called on again.
God is likely about to call on all of us again to discover to go deeper into the Body of Christ by working through conflict. What will be your first approach? Let’s not follow the tactic of the accuser, let’s follow the line of Paul, and let’s pray.