"Understand All The Blessings"
By Rev. James A. Splitt
Sermon September 6, 1998
How often do you receive a letter from someone who thanks God for you and offers a special prayer for you? If you scan through Paul's letters you will usually find the words, "I thank God for you! and I pray for your ... " In Paul's letter to Philemon he tells the readers of this letter that he always thanks God upon every remembrance of them. Paul also shares with his readers that he is praying for them. This prayer is the topic for the sermon this morning. Paul prays:
. . and I pray that the sharing of your faith may promote the knowledge of all the good that is ours in Christ." (vs. 6).
A prayer that we might have the knowledge of all the good that is ours in Christ, a prayer that we might understand all the blessings that are ours in Christ. Paul has a reason for this prayer. This letter is much different than his epistles to the churches. It is a short letter with only 25 verses. This letter is also from Timothy, and it is written to more than Philemon. It is also addressed to Apphia and Archippus and the others who come to worship at Philemon's home. It is a personal letter of Paul and Timothy to the household of Philemon. Paul and Timothy begin with thanksgiving and prayer before making a very special request involving theservant Onesimus.
It is important to keep this prayer in mind. A prayer that Philemon and his household will understand all the blessings they have in Christ! It is this prayer that sets the stage for a very special request made on the behalf of this servant Onesimus. Onesimus has been a special blessing to Paul while he has been in prison, and undoubtedly a help to Timothy in his ministry. But Onesimus ran away from the home of Philemon and came to Paul where his own life in Christ has become a blessing. Now Onesimus is on his way back to Philemon with a special blessing from Paul.
Paul cleverly draws upon the community of believers to add leverage to his request of Philemon by inviting them as witnesses to his communication of that request. And what is it that Paul is requesting of Philemon? It isn't completely clear, especially upon a quick reading. But when one takes some time to study this letter it is quite fascinating. Paul includes a whole lot more than would be expected in 25 short verses. I have little doubt that Philemon got the message that to us is quite subtle, but to him may have seemed more blatant and bold. I believe that Paul's message to Philemon was, in a nutshell, "understand your blessings!" He said it with much more finesse however, saying "For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you." Paul speaks of Philemon as a blessing to him and all the saints. This compliment precedes a stern request.
Let's see how this request unfolds in the short verses of this letter and discover how we might understand all the blessings we have in Christ. Our unity in Christ is a blessing! In the first verse Paul reminds Philemon that the Christian church is a church without hierarchy, a community where all believers are equal. He does this by declaring himself a "prisoner of Christ Jesus," suggesting that he is not a prisoner of any worldly hierarchy or government, even though he was actually imprisoned at the time of his writing, according to verses 10 and 13. Furthermore, Paul reminds Philemon of this equality in the church by using words like friend, co-worker, r sister, and fellow-soldier. There is no indication of higher status in anyof these terms.
I am led to images of experiences I have had at Wildwood and similar camp and spiritual retreats where there is a shared joy in fellowship, and the typical king-of-the-mountain kinds of life games are set aside for a time. Paul wanted Philemon to hold this image in his mind. The image was emphasized by the fact that the letter was likely read during a gathering time for worship on the Sabbath so that Apphia, Archippus and other members of the house church would be present to hear it. Philemon, while the head of the household is not to be regarded in higher status in his own faith community.
Paul was well aware of our human tendency to be "one up". We pride ourselves on status and we seek to elevate ourselves in the company of others when ever we can. We have this tendency to slide into comfortable ways of being that oppress those with less economic and/or worldly power. Paul knew that he could address Philemon in the community of his home \par church where he could be held accountable.
Paul's purpose in writing this letter was to elicit sympathy and compassion from Philemon for his servant, Onesimus. Onesimus had apparently fled from Philemon. There are no details given about how or why Onesimus had done so, or even if it was deliberate. But somehow, Onesimus had departed from Philemon and found his way to Paul. It may be that he fled \par because Philemon was a hard taskmaster. Or it may be more simple and innocent. Perhaps Onesimus was on an errand for Philemon and fell upon trouble. But for one reason or another he was abandoned from Philemon's oversight and found himself in Paul's presence. Paul makes a powerful request for Onesimus's freedom when Philemon might otherwise severly punish him upon his return
As Kathleen and I discussed this text, she offered some particular insight into the nuances of the Greek language that makes it quite interesting. One interesting clue to Paul's purpose in this letter is in his word play on the Greek words for useful and useless. The Greek meaning of the name Onh/simoj, (the name Onesimus) is, interestingly enough, useful. It was a common name for slaves. Another common name was Chrestos, which also means useful. Paul describes Onesimus as previously useless (acrhston), but now useful (eucrhhston). The prefix "a" means without, and the prefix "eu" means good. So these two words literally mean "without use," and "good use" respectively. There is a play on the words and the similarity in sound they have to the word that means "without Christ" (aCriston) and the word meaning "good Christian" (euChriston). The similarity in the sounds of these words is undoubtedly in Paul's mind as he incorporates them into his letter to Philemon. The implication he makes with this word play is that prior to Onesimus's arrival and time spent with Paul, Onesimus was without Christ ... and thus useless ... and now he has become a good Christian ... therefore very useful.
Toward the end of the letter Paul writes his final plea to take Onesimus back and receive him as a brother. He writes, 'Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart!" The Greek word for benefit sounds much like the name Onesimus. It is onaimhn (vs20). So when Paul asks for benefit from Philemon it isn't too subtle to the Greek reader that Paul is blessing Onesimus as Onaimen, a benefit to both Paul and Philemon. Paul is aware that Philemon lives comfortably in a world that accepts slavery. Nonetheless, Paul argues for Philemon's "slave" to be freed and sent back to him. He prays for Philemon to understand all the blessings he has in Christ, to live out his Christian faith that honors equality and justice, brotherhood and fellowship.
We are left wondering about Philemon's response to Paul's call to understand all the blessings. As we ponder this we can examine our own lives. Are we willing to "understand all the blessings" we have in Christ. Who will hold us accountable as Paul did? Who will we prepare a guest room for, as Paul asks Philemon to do, so that we can be held accountable to \par those who have greater awareness of our injustices? Who is watching us to see if we practice our faith with integrity?
It isn't easy to give up our comforts for the benefit of others less fortunate than ourselves. We have been privileged to be born into a wealthy country. We are prone to seek status and see ourselves advantaged over those less fortunate. The implication of this letter is to see ourselves blessed by the unity we have in Christ. This single blessing is the blessing that blesses us with so much more. Like the servant Onesimus, we are useless without Christ, but with Christ we are useful, we are of benefit ... we become blessed to be a blessing. From this we are able to understand \par how Christ's power transforms hopelessness into hope, transforms isolation \par and poverty into communities and homes where love abounds.
We need courageous honesty from prophetic voices like Paul's, and an openness to new possibilities like that required of Philemon if he were to envision and facilitate the freedom of his rightfully owned slave. It will take such courageous honesty and openness to new possibilities through Christ to transform our world into a more just world. In order to understand all the blessings we need to take our Christian identity more seriously than we do our identity born of status or privilege. Even here we need to open our eyes to new possibilities for justice.
This past Wednesday I officiated at a funeral service for a respected member of our church who knew what it means to understand all the blessings we have in Christ. Thirty years ago, Ethel Hain recognized that there were children in the school where her children attended who didn't have enough to eat. She planted a seed that began with a dozen boxes of food and clothing for Christmas which has now grown to a very significant ministry run by her friend Mary Miller. Thirty years ago, she as president of the PTA in Milford she made a big difference when she allowed herself toenvision Christ's transformational power at work in her community. We are able to do that when we understand all the blessings we have in Christ!
When we gathered here on Wednesday to remember Ethel, Mary Miller stood during the service and told us of Ethel's vision that lighted the flame which has since become a ministry we are all a part of. Mary was one of the women who helped make those dozen baskets 30 years ago. When Mary delivered some of them to the designated homes, she recognized the inadequacy of that small gift. She took Ethel's vision and with the financial support of the PTA enlarged it to what it has become today. Ethel, like Paul, saw how we might be useful in Christ to one another. And the result has been countless refreshed hearts in the years since then.
I want to leave you with one last image from the book of Philemon. And that is the image from the sermon title. Paul asks Philemon to refresh his heart. There is a particular weight in this plea because Paul has already complimented Philemon on the fact that "the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you." (vs 7). Paul has lifted Philemon up as a heart refresher and now he wants to hold him accountable to that characteristic. Now look at verse 12. After praising Philemon for being a heart refresher Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus is his own heart.
Paul is lifting up the truth of Christianity that we are the very body of Christ. And when one of us suffers we all suffer. When one of us rejoices all of our hearts are refreshed. It is as if we are the hearts of one another. So when Paul asks Philemon to refresh his heart, he is quite directly suggesting that Philemon refresh Onesimus himself.
We need prophets like Paul and like Ethel Hain to show us the way, prophets who have the courage to help us open our eyes to new possibilities and open our hearts to change. But it is important if we understand all the blessings we have in Christ ... the blessing that we are all one in Christ.