TEXT: Philemon 8-9; 1 Corinthians 13:1-7
Last week we began a four-week series on the letter to Philemon. Philemon was the leader of a house church and greatly esteemed by the Apostle Paul. Last week we looked at Paul’s words of appreciation and noted that even a “good man” or a “good Christian” can have a blind spot. While there is no evidence that Philemon mistreated his slave, Onesimus, he overlooked his dignity as a human being and the kind of challenge Christian faith brought to bear on his culture.
With different words and actions, Paul is writing to challenge Philemon that, as he would write elsewhere, in Christ there is now no distinction to be made between Jew and Greek, male or female, slave or free. We saw last week that even in his opening words, Paul lifted up a prayer that Philemon would come to know this new kind of fellowship, made effective through knowing God’s will in Christ (v. 6). Today, we will just look at two more verses, but see how Paul approaches this blind spot in order to spur Philemon on to this new vision of society and human worth.
Confidence to Order the Right (v. 8)
So I realize the actual “situation” hasn’t been revealed yet in the letter, but I’ll remind you of enough of a preview to understand the context. Onesimus is a slave to Philemon and has run far away, fleeing his debt and making himself a criminal in the eyes of the law and culture. Philemon is a Christian leader and, by all accounts, a “good man.” Paul is going to urge Onesimus to go back to Philemon and make good the debt. But it’s not just that. Paul has written and taught of a Gospel that holds no distinction of worth between “slave and free.” In addition, Onesimus is a follower of Christ and so also a “brother” to Paul and Philemon. So, Paul is trying to reconnect and restore the two men.
Now, he is sure of this Gospel and what God would want between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul also carries a special authority among the early Christians because he has started almost all of the churches, likely including the one in Philemon’s household. In other words, Paul has the credentials and the rightness to simply tell Philemon what he should do. As he writes, “…I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper…” (v. 8). He’s not just saying, “I could boss you around.” He actually has the authority and the truth on his side. He even drops a bit of those credentials at the end of the sentence: “…since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” (v. 9) But that’s not the route Paul goes; he chooses another way.
I think about being a parent. Often we also have authority and truth on our side. And often the easiest thing to do with our children is to just “order [our kids] to do what is proper.” I think about it being a pastor. There is an authority that comes with this role, acknowledged by you calling me here and then showing up. And more times than not, it is relatively clear what scripture is saying. It would be easy – and many pastors take this approach – to just “order you to do what is proper.” But… Paul chooses another way, and it is one I would commend to you and try to use myself.
Does it Count if Truth isn’t Heard? (1 Corinthians 13)
As I considered Paul’s approach, I was reminded of 1 Corinthians 13 (which Paul also wrote). We often turn to that chapter at weddings or other occasions to read about the meaning of love. There’s so much there that I think we often miss the great application in the first three verses. “If I speak with the tongues of men and angels… if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge” – that’s truth and authority of the highest order. And even if you do extraordinary works – “give all my possessions to feed the poor… surrender my body” – love is essential.
Why is that? Isn’t it enough to be right? To have truth on your side? It is tempting to think so, but from what I read in scripture and from my own experience, the answer is ‘no.’ This passage says that you can have all the truth, authority, and good deeds in the world, but without love they are nothing. In fact, they can be worse than nothing… they can be a “noisy gong or clanging cymbal.” That’s not nothing; that’s rude and annoying! That can even turn people away from truth!
There is no where you can see this more clearly than in modern discourse, especially online. As one of our members has said more than once, “How many times have you changed your mind about something after seeing a Facebook post?” I’ll go one further; if online posts are typically love-less, don’t even think about looking in the comment section. People are screaming the truth in expletive-laden ALL-CAPS; but is truth being heard? Do we rest easy at night thinking, “Well I said my piece; that’s all I can do. The rest is up to them.”
Does truth count if it isn’t heard? I think Paul would say, ‘no.’ It is on you, especially as a Christ-follower, to speak in such a way that folks can hear the truth and receive God’s mercy. And Paul writes that way is love.
Think again about the relationship of parent and child. I was going to say parent and teen, but really it applies at any age. A parent can ‘order’ behavior. A parent can even enforce behavior. That’s authority and truth (assuming it’s the right behavior). But if you want to really speak to a child’s heart, or another person’s heart, speak in love. Truly have their best at heart and consider how they will best hear and receive what they need to hear and receive. That doesn’t mean excusing behavior or being a wimpy parent. But it does mean putting love at the forefront – and that sometimes takes a lot of work.
It’s harder to do in public discourse, because often you are interacting with strangers (but not always!). But that’s just who Jesus would have you love, not put off with clanging rhetoric. That lesson is at the heart of our GRACE & TRUTH banner… grace is another word for love… they have to hang together.
An Appeal for Love’s Sake (v. 9)
That brings us back to Paul and Philemon. Paul could have ordered Philemon to do what is proper. But he wants more than a certain behavior; he wants a change of heart. And so, he continues, “…yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you.”
That small thing passes so quickly in a letter that’s already short, but it is needed more than ever these days. If we are followers of Christ, are we not committed to loving our neighbors, even our enemies? It is an easy out for our conscience to fling God’s truth out upon the world and even hope for God’s judgment. But through Paul’s teaching and example with Philemon and in his other writings, we can see there is a better way.
Now to play the devil’s advocate, aren’t there sometimes when you can’t beat around the bush and simply need to be directive, shout orders, and get the truth out there? I mean, what if someone was standing on a train track and didn’t see an oncoming train. There is not time to make friends and make a winsome and loving appeal from the heart.
Yes; sometimes the time is short and the need immediate. But even then, you have to consider whether you will be heard. If you need to shout, “Look out!” but begin that with “Hey idiot! Look out!” then you actually put the person at risk. It’s not enough to speak the truth – to warn of the train. That’s at the heart of this: what does it take to be heard? What does it take for a message or action to sink in and really make a difference?
Paul has a challenging truth to speak to Philemon. He’s a good man with a blind spot who has an opportunity to grow deep in faith and in relationship. Paul urgently wants him to HEAR the news of a gospel of dignity, mercy, and grace. So Paul decides not to order him to do what is right, but rather to appeal to him for love’s sake.
I pray that you hear God’s Word to you this morning. Amen.