Slaves and Other Brothers

March 2, 2018

57.PHILEMON.1

The apostle Paul’s New Testament letter we recognize as Philemon, carries incredible impact for such a brief correspondence. Its messages are revolutionary and transformational. It is a deeply personal letter. It is all about a slave named Onesimus.

First let’s identify Philemon. He was likely a wealthy man due to slaves within his household. He was non-Jewish and known by Paul. He lived in a city named Colossae and obviously was a very crucial part of the church there since it met in his house.

Now, let’s briefly consider this church. It most probably was planted by a man named Epaphras (Colossians 1:7; 4:12; Philemon 23) and/or by Philemon himself. Either could have heard the gospel during Paul’s ministry stay in Ephesus and then returned home to Colossae to start the church. However it occurred, Philemon became a friend and co-worker of not only Epaphras but of Paul also.

Slavery in Ancient Rome

This brings us back to Onesimus. He was a slave owned by Philemon, thus making him a part of his household and subject to whatever jobs or duties Philemon chose. Slavery in the Roman context was not racially driven. Slaves could be any nationality. Many were losers in border wars in the ever-expanding Roman Empire. Some volunteered enslavement to pay off debt. Others were the product of generational slavery—the offspring of slaves. Numerous unfortunate pathways could take someone to the slave block in Rome. However Onesimus got there—he was there. He had extremely limited rights; was the sole property of and at the complete mercy (or often lack thereof) of his owner. His value lay in whatever he produced for his owner. The hope of buying himself out of slavery (a practice called “manumission”) existed, but only a small percentage of slaves were ever able to do so. Onesimus certainly benefited from having a Christian owner, but still a slave’s life in Rome was a slave’s life—it was not their own.

So Onesimus ran away from home and from Philemon (which was far from legal and put Onesimus in great danger if caught). He ran to Rome and eventually to Philemon’s friend Paul, who was himself imprisoned there. Influenced by Paul, Onesimus became a Christian and a significant aid to Paul (vss. 11-12). This then created a dilemma—what to do with the now-Christian runaway slave of a friend and brother?

Legally Paul could have been complicit in harboring Onesimus. It was a tricky situation. Paul’s answer? Suggest something quite revolutionary!

“ As a Dear Brother”

Paul’s solution to this dilemma on the surface sounds quite simple. He asked Philemon to accept Onesimus back not as a slave, “but better than a slave, as a dear brother…even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (vs. 15-16). This simple request, however, masked many complexities and certainly challenged Philemon to reconsider relationships in the Lord.

In the Roman context slaves were in no way socially equal to their owners. In no area of life did the barrier between slave and owner not exist. Slaves were property—no more, no less. An owner would never view a slave as his equal; never treat him like a brother. To do so would have been scandalous and no proper Roman would ever consider it for the briefest of moment.

Add to that the fact that Onesimus had cheated Philemon in some manner before he ran away. Perhaps he stole something on his way out or had been slack in performing his job. The specifics are not clear, but Paul recognizes the situation. Certainly Onesimus had briefed him on it.

So stop to consider what Paul is asking of Philemon—to not only receive back this slave who cheated him and ran away from him; but also to receive him back without penalty or punishment AND no longer as a slave but as a brother–an equal! What an incredible request!

On what basis could Paul request such a scandalous action? On something actually more scandalous—the cross of Christ! While not specifically mentioned, it underscores Paul’s reasoning to Philemon. First, it changed and redefined Onesimus just as it had Philemon. Onesimus was now a new man—from slave to free in Jesus; a son and dear brother to Paul and therefore to Philemon. Second, Christ was the very reason Paul and Philemon were friends and co-workers in the faith—now Onesimus shared in this partnership. Third, Paul was willing to pay the ransom (just as Christ had paid for all) for the transgression of Onesimus. “Charge it to me” says Paul (vs. 18). Paul put himself in the role of redeemer and reconciler–at least in regards to the wrong committed by Onesimus against Philemon.

This course of action recommended by Paul undermined all social norms and supported his call for a brand new community—one not bound by earthly constructs but defined by heavenly values. One he described to Philemon and the church that met in his house as:

Here there is no Greek or Jew; circumcised or uncircumcised; barbarian; Scythian; slave or free, but Christ is all and in all. (Colossians 3:11. See also Galatians 3:28)

Now was test time for Philemon. Could he live this out? Would he be courageous enough to put this to practice? Would he run the risk to his reputation and to his household to honor Paul’s revolutionary request? Could he ever see a slave as his equal in Christ?

Will We?

Think about the transformational themes within the brief book:

  • Forgiveness
  • Redemption
  • Reconciliation
  • Equality

These are among the hallmarks of the new community of Christ. This community exists to destroy the harmful, artificial, and oppressive culture of the world and replace it with a community of grace, justice and mercy–a community where all are equally welcome based upon freedom in Christ. Only through Christ can this ever be accomplished.

This still presents quite the challenge to our way of thinking. Christ levels the playing field. The same grace that saves me—saves everyone. I am in no way superior than anyone else. My relationship with others in Christ should trump all accepted social and cultural norms. Being ashamed of your sister or brother (Romans 1:16; Galatians 2:11) is not acceptable. In Christ we are all one—all equal— as slaves and other friends and brothers. That is the revolutionary nature of God’s community to which Philemon and us were called to live out.

Advertisements

The Kingdom Perspective

November 13, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #8

 Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 1 Corinthians 6:7

At the heart of the lawsuit that “defeated” the Corinthian church was a self-centered short sightedness. Lost in the dispute was the greater good and larger vision of the kingdom. It is not difficult to see why. Likely an injustice had been done; feelings were hurt; rights were violated; money or something of monetary value was likely involved (which always seems to ratchet up the stakes); the church had failed in peacefully resolving the issue; and as a consequence all thoughts of the kingdom were shoved aside. No kingdom revolution breaking out here—just business as the unbelieving world defined it—thus their defeat.

Which is why into this Paul reintroduced the kingdom perspective. There was another way to handle this dispute—a revolutionary way of taking the loss; being wronged and cheated—for the sake of kingdom peace and prosperity. Nowhere else would this be put forth as a solution. Yes, the kingdom is more important than personal rights. Yes, the kingdom is worth more than monetary gain. Something bigger than just me is going on here.

It is an Eternal Perspective

Another way to frame the Corinthian dispute is to view it through an eternal verses temporal lens. Those engaged in the lawsuit were merely reacting to and being driven by the moment. That, then, led to disastrous results. The kingdom perspective, which Paul taught, had the eternal component. Making decisions based upon that perspective changes things—how we feel, react, process, and behave in any given circumstance. He would remind the Corinthians of this in another letter:

Therefore do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Contextually Paul offered this kingdom perspective to the Corinthians as a part of his teaching on his ministry of reconciliation and how he personally processed challenges. Applying it to their earlier lawsuit problem it fits in seamlessly with his advice to take the loss. The lawsuit should have been considered a “light and momentary” trouble. Being wronged and cheated—the revolutionary kingdom approach—would have merely then been an investment into achieving eternal glory, which in comparison made the loss insignificant. This could have been done only by swallowing up the seen into the unseen and discerning the eternal out of the temporary. Once the bigger picture was given precedent, the lawsuit along with the heated emotions that triggered it, would have faded away in favor of the values of the kingdom.

Nothing to Gain Here

Recall Christ’s teaching about gaining the entire world but losing our souls in Matthew 16:25-27. This reflects the temporal versus eternal tension also. If we give into the moment to gain its rewards, but lose sight of the eternal will and perspective of God, what have we really accomplished? Was winning a lawsuit against another believer while bringing defeat and shame upon the church really worth it? Not much upside to that from a kingdom perspective.

Peter certainly had the kingdom perspective in mind when he wrote concerning end times:

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed it’s coming. (2 Peter 3:11-12)

He speaks of the ultimate temporal versus eternal tension that will be permanently resolved on the day of Christ’s coming. The treasure we lay up on earth? Gone. Our light and momentary problems? Over. All the losses we endured for the kingdom’s sake? Rewarded. This is the overarching and revolutionary backdrop upon which to place our entire approach to life. Holy and godly living combined with an ever-present anticipation of the kingdom fully coming completely changes things. With this type of kingdom perspective even the idea of a lawsuit would have never surfaced in Corinth. In the big picture of the kingdom there was nothing at all to gain from it.

Not My Will

Of course, Christ personified perfectly this kingdom perspective. It is what governed his life; it is how he came to make personal decisions; it is what enabled him to carry out completely the will of the Father. Note what the Hebrew writer says of him while encouraging us to “fix our eyes” on his example:

Who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not lose heart. (Hebrews 12:2-3)

What joy was found in a Roman cross? Absolutely none. It offered nothing but excruciating agony. In the moment no one desires that—even Christ. But he knew joy within it from the kingdom perspective. He took the loss so that we could achieve greater glory. That was the only way he could approach and finish it. The moment itself was too disheartening (as are many moments) but against anticipating the “joy set before him” he endured it. He gave up his rights; he did not insist on his way. He subjected his will to the Father’s (Luke 22:42) so that none of us would be defeated.

So to conclude this section of text—the simplest way to understand the kingdom perspective embedded within it is for us to let the Father’s will have preeminence in all we do—even if that means taking the loss; being wronged and cheated for the kingdom’s sake. It is not about insisting on getting my way and pursuing my rights; creating strife, division, or turmoil in the body of Christ; about temporary gain at the cost of the kingdom. It is about discerning the difference between temporary and eternal while living holy and godly lives with that framing and driving our decisions; it is about knowing that the only way to overcome the defeatism of the moment is to invest ourselves and our recourses into the eternal. It is about fixing our eyes on the unseen—on Christ—and always living in the moment with the eternal in mind. This is the kingdom revolution that indeed changes everything!


Four Ways to Protest–Kingdom Style

September 25, 2017

 

protest clip

Jesus was not overtly political, but his teachings were dangerously subversive to existing cultural, social and political norms. His enemies easily recognized it—so much so they colluded to kill him.

He leaves then a legacy of protest in the form of his kingdom teachings. It is not, however about taking knees, political posturing, engaging in social media warfare, patriotism or lack thereof.

What he taught was radical, revolutionary, and scandalous even—it eventually changed an empire.

Want to protest? Want to really make a kingdom difference? Really want to change the world for the better and shake power bases to their core? Forget about boycotting. Try this:

  • Identify first with the kingdom. Not with a sports team; not with a political party; not even a nation—with the kingdom of God. Seek it first. Treasure above all else citizenship in the kingdom for which Christ died. Put behind you the old way of identification and be made completely new in your thinking—new goals, new priorities, new ways to relate to others. Let go of the anger and replace it with grace. Let go of the bitterness and let grace abound. Protest loudly through the quiet gentleness and mercy of Christ.
  • Love your enemies. Really. Stop yelling at them—if even on social media. Stop escalating the fury. Just stop. Step back. Turn the other cheek. Pray for those who you dislike. Disarm those who oppose  you with the love and compassion of God. It is a quite subversive and potentially transformational protest. Jesus did it willingly on the cross and it changed the world forever.
  • Go the extra mile. Jesus meant it literally when he spoke it. He still does. Don’t return evil for evil; shout for shout; anger for anger; or hate for hate. Give back what is completely unexpected and then some—an extra mile’s worth of blessings. Protest the kingdom way and do it willingly, joyfully, in the name of Jesus and for his sake—making the teaching about Christ that much more attractive in the process.
  • Be faithful unto death. Don’t ever quit protesting. Don’t give up. Be salt and light. Don’t grow discouraged. Our citizenship in God’s kingdom trumps all! The Spirit of God empowers. Our life here is but a vapor. Bigger and better things are in store. It does not matter our nationality; the colors of our flags; what political party is in power; Jesus just wants to find faith when he comes. And faith is the victory!

The original kingdom protesters changed an entire, brutal, ungodly empire without political power, social media, ballots or bullets. They were the poor, the meek, the pure, the persecuted, the hungry and the thirsty who stood up to tyranny, injustice, sin, corruption, persecution, hatred, bigotry, and hardship of every kind by simply faithfully living out the kingdom of God. It was a protest of the humble and helpless that was empowered by the scandal of a cross. It was the protest of the kingdom and it changed everything.

Could that happen again?

(Bible verses referenced include: Matthew 5-7; Luke 18:10; Ephesians 4:20-5:1; Philippians 3:20; Titus 2:9-10; James 4:14; Revelation 2:10; 21:1-4)

 


The Cross is Enough

October 21, 2015

It is not my goodness. I have none. I am just a filthy rag.

It is not my ability to keep a law or perform good deeds. I consistently fall short at rule keeping.

It is not my mastery of morality. At this I am a failure. My flesh is weak.

It is not my winning personality; good looks; athletic prowess; charisma or intelligence. Those are all fleeting, inconsistent and limited.

It is not my expert homiletic or exegetical skills. These remind me of what I do not know.

It is not my church and our ability to produce a welcoming atmosphere or quality worship. Another church nearby likely offers something even more appealing.

It is not even the Bible. Yes, it is divine, inspired, and living. It contains the will of God. It is to be heard and heeded, but as essential as the Bible is to our faith–it is not enough.

It is the cross. The old, rugged, bloodstained, despised, and awful cross of Jesus—it is enough.

As Mercy Me sings in their amazing song (check out the entire song below):

No matter the bumps
No matter the bruises
No matter the scars
Still the truth is
The cross has made
The cross has made you flawless
No matter the hurt
Or how deep the wound is
No matter the pain
Still the truth is
The cross has made
The cross has made you flawless

The proclamation of the cross pleases God. The Apostle Paul whose goal was to “preach Christ and him crucified” had this to say:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.*

The power of God to save; to make whole; to transform; to give hope; to heal wounded hearts; to persevere; to vanquish guilt; to discover worth; to mend brokenness; to make you flawless.

By God’s grace the cross is enough.

Praise God the cross is enough.

*To see the entire context of these scripture references read 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5.


Stuck in the Middle with Jesus

January 13, 2015

Middle crossIt was the middle ground; the high ground; the holy ground.

There he was—humiliated, exposed, and dying—up on that hill in-between two thugs. It was bloody ground; unwelcoming ground; it was holy ground

It was holy only because of him. The innocent lamb at the slaughter. He shouldn’t have been there; did not deserve to be there; but there he was. God in the flesh—up there on the middle cross dying under the devastating weight of my sin.

Literally, volumes have been written about Golgotha. I am not going to uncover anything new. I will just share what I see right now:

  • The middle ground—between the thieves. Symbolism aplenty. Jesus in the midst of all of us sinners. We surround him. Will we hold him in contempt as one thief did or will we recognize the Son of God among us and seek his grace as the other one did? Another view of the middle ground—where we are called to live, daily. (See a host of Scripture references—1 Corinthians 9:27; Galatians 5:23; Philippians 4:5; Titus 2:2; 1 Peter 1:5.)
  • The high ground—I think Jesus lived his life here. He never lowered himself to engage in or respond to the manipulative tactics used against him by his enemies. He could have called down legions of angels, but amazingly he refrained. He always did the right thing even though he was tempted otherwise. Of course, we all know the discipline this requires because we have been asked to do likewise. “Let us do good unto all men,” is the exact wording of the Golden Rule type, take-the-high-ground expectation (Galatians 6:10).
  • The holy ground—the best way I know how to express one truth this reveals to us is exactly how Peter did: “But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Being holy is not about being better than anyone else; it is about doing my best to be like Jesus.

I am just as broken as the two criminals who died with Christ that day on Calvary, but I do not want to be stuck in my brokenness—I want to be stuck right in the middle of God’s love with Jesus on that high, bloody, holy ground of grace, forgiveness, mercy, and pardon.

It is my only hope.