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How to Fight: A sermon based on Philemon 1:1-21

This morning we are continuing our series on conflict, using Paul’s letter to Philemon as a case study. Let me quickly review the story. Philemon became a Christian under the guidance of Paul. Philemon grew and grew in his faith, became a partner and colleague of Paul in his ministry. Philemon even established a church in his house. Now, in ancient Rome, slavery fueled the economy. In Philemon’s household, there were slaves. Philemon was a Christian, and he owned slaves. But, Philemon’s view of owning slaves was about to change forever. You see, Philemon had been having a conflict with one of his slaves, Onesimus. The conflict grew to the point where Onesimus took his life in his own hands, and left Philemon’s house to seek help from Paul. In Rome, a slave running away was a capital offense. The slave Onesimus found Paul in prison, and began spending time with him.

Its in this little vignette that we see how totally God turns the important things of this world outside down. God was choosing to do something revolutionary through Paul, a man on house arrest, and a slave. God works through the lowly things of the world. During that time, the prisoner Paul introduces Onesimus to Jesus, and Jesus transforms Onesimus’ life. God works through the lowly things of the world, and through this letter, this letter about conflict, God is going to forever transform the relationship of master and slave. God works through conflict, and so we’ve been looking at this letter primarily as a guide for how God calls his people to work through conflict.

First we explored how sometimes the conflict we’re in is bigger than us, and we need outside help, just as Paul acted as a mediator in the conflict in this letter. Last week we looked at how prayer is Paul’s first step in conflict. Paul prayed constantly not that God would magically take the conflict away, but that God would make the conditions right for reconciliation to take place between Philemon and Onesimus. This week we’re going to look at Paul’s style of conflict, and how God works through this to make possible for reconciliation to take place. It has been my conviction as we have been exploring this book that one of the major messages that God is speaking through this book is that every conflict is an opportunity to grow deeper into Christ.

First, let’s talk about Paul’s goal for Philemon and Onesimus in this conflict. (Slide 7) Verses 15 & 16 spell out Paul’s main goal: Paul’s desire is not just for Onesimus to come back and for things to go back to normal. Paul’s goal is a total transformation of their relationship, so that Philemon sees Onesimus no longer as a slave, but as a beloved brother.” That Koinonia, or fellowship, that Paul was praising Philemon for earlier needs to be extended to his slave, Onesimus. This is a tall order in a culture with a fixed social hierarchy, where slave owners and slaves would never consider themselves brothers. Paul is asking a lot, but notice how he asks this of Philemon. (Slide 8) Paul says, “I could be very bold in the King, and order you to do the right thing. But, because of love, I’d much rather appeal to you”. Here we see Paul opting out of two common modes of conflict, he’s neither passive nor aggressive. Paul chooses not to aggressively order Philemon what to do, and he also chooses not to passively avoid the conversation.

What’s interesting, however, is that Christians have often made a virtue out of both the passive and aggressive modes of conflict. For example, a passive approach to conflict can sometimes be seen as more spiritual, as a way of keeping peace. “I don’t want to rock the boat. I’ll just keep quiet and this will be my cross to bear.” I think traditionally women in the church have been especially expected or pressured to adopt that form of conflict. In fact, making a virtue out of passivity has in fact been a way of silencing the voice of women. Let’s not make a virtue out of passive conflict.

Meanwhile, Christians have also made a virtue out of an aggressive form of conflict. When a Christian believes that they’re right and that God is one their side, it almost becomes an excuse to use any means necessary to get there way. The result is that an aggressive Christian might have gotten his way, but have destroyed relationships in the process. God is not honored when someone bullies others while quoting scripture. But Look at how Paul engages in the conflict. He certainly doesn’t avoid talking about the issue. But he is also very careful not to order Philemon. (Slide 9) Paul is very careful not to force Philemon’s hand, as is evident when he says, “I would have liked to keep Onesimus here with me… but I didn’t want to do anything without you knowing about it.” At every point in this letter, Paul shows great respect for Philemon as a person. Paul recognizes that ultimately it’s Philemon’s choice as to how he will respond. Paul doesn’t do anything to take away that freedom. That’s what it means to be assertive in conflict.

According to the “Assertiveness Workbook” by Randy Paterson, “Assertiveness recognizes that you are in charge of your own behavior and that you decide what you will and will not do. Similarly, the assertive style involves recognizing that other people are in charge of their own behavior and does not attempt to take control from them. When we behave assertively, we are able to acknowledge our own thoughts and wishes honestly, without the expectation that other will automatically give in to us. We express respect for the feelings and opinions of others without necessarily adopting their opinions or doing what they expect or demand.” Every commentator I’ve read remarks that Paul engages Philemon in this way. Paul express his thoughts warmly and honestly, even trying to be very persuasive, but he never takes control away from Philemon. At the end of the letter you have the sense that Philemon is entirely free in terms of how to respond.

This is so important, because Paul believes that the work Jesus wants to do is bring brotherhood between master and slave. If Philemon had simply given Onesimus his freedom, but the two never spoke to each other again, Paul would have thought he had failed. That's why he was so assertive. Paul is respectful, warm and kind because the work of God depends on it.

Think about your default way of being in conflict. What would you say is your go to mode of conflict. What is gained by your way of being in conflict? What is lost? Every conflict is an opportunity to grow deeper in Christ, and we miss that opportunity when we avoid conflict or when we conflict in an aggressive way.

This letter models for us how to pursue the will and heart of God in the midst of conflict. This letter models what it will look like to engage in conflict when we are transformed by the Holy Spirit, which for all of us is a work in progress. This is a work in progress because we all still have bits of our old nature clinging to us. A lot of time conflict occurs because these bits of our old nature really annoy or hurt someone else. But when conflict is done well, its an opportunity for people to sharpen each other, to become stripped of those parts of our old human nature, and to present an opportunity to be renewed in the image of the Creator.

When we act passively and don’t address conflict, we all remain the same. There is no growth. When we act aggressively, the relationship is damaged. But when we follow Christ in and through conflict, there is the opportunity for God to use the conflict so that we all can be renewed in the image of the creator. That is what this whole letter is about. Had Paul said nothing, at worst Philemon would have prosecuted Onesimus as a runaway slave. At best, their relationship would have just stayed the same. There would be no growth. No dying of the old self, no being renewed in the image of the creator. Yet because of the conflict, radical new realities emerge. (Slide 10) Philemon is invited to consider Onesimus as no longer “useless,’ but “useful.” The greek words for useless and useful are achreston and euchreston. Paul’s making a pun because those words sound like Christ. So he’s no longer without Christ, but full of Christ. (Slide 11) Because of the conflict, Philemon is invited to consider Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother.

Underlying this whole letter is the story of the Exodus. The story of the Israelites, who were captive in slavery, but were set free by the LORD God. Paul is inviting Philemon to embrace this story as his own. Paul is inviting Philemon to imagine himself in this story, and offer Onesimus the same freedom that God has given him. Through conflict, Onesimus is invited to think through this situation as a Christian. (Slide 12) That’s the opportunity of conflict. None of this would have happened without conflict! What a blessing! But the blessing of conflict must be handled with care, as we see Paul do throughout this letter.

Now, we need to acknowledge a temptation that will always rear its ugly head during conflict. The temptation is to think that the only spiritual work that needs to happen, the only change in perspective that needs to take place, is in the other person. Until I am fully renewed in the image of our creator, I will always have room to grow. I always have room to be wrong. There is always room to challenge me. We must always recognize that we might be needing the transformation just as much as the other person. (Slide 13) Even in this letter, Paul doesn’t assume that he’s got the entire corner on the truth. He says, “Maybe this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you could have him back forever…” That word “maybe” is a big deal. It leaves open the possibility that he may need to be corrected. It leaves open the possibility for Philemon to see things differently. Paul was very sure of his position, I wonder how hard it was to say, “Maybe.”

So, let’s wrap things up. We’ve noted that Paul was not passive in his letter. He was not aggressive. Rather, he appealed to Philemon on the basis of love. He was assertive. He stated his position clearly, with persuasion, but always respectfully, never trying to force Philemon’s hand. This posture towards conflict creates the opportunity for both parties to grow and be changed. In this way, conflict becomes a blessing. It opens up room for the Holy Spirit to challenge everyone involved to shed the sinful habits of their old nature, and become renewed in the image of God. Think of a conflict that you’re working through with someone right now. How might God be challenging you to grow through this conflict? How might God be challenging the other person to grow through this conflict? Imagine the outcome of this conflict that would be most glorifying to God. What power do you need to help you take a step in that direction?

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