Sermon the 14th Sunday after Pentecost 
(Proper 18)

Text: Philemon 15-17
It may be that Onesimus was away from you for a short time so that you might have him back for all time. And now he is not just a slave, but much more than a slave: he is a dear brother in Christ. How much he means to me! And how much more he will mean to you, both as a slave and as a brother in the Lord! So, if you think of me as your partner, welcome him back just as you would welcome me.

When people separate

There is a story about a congregation that was plagued with conflict. The two sides could never agree on anything. It so happened that the congregation needed to call for a new pastor. The two groups could not agree and so two pastors were called. On Sunday, the congregation gathered with the aisle separating the opposing sides. Both ministers got up at the same time. Both spoke simultaneously, each trying to shout above the other. Both announced the hymns, and the congregation sang two different hymns Ė each side trying to drown out the other. The two preachers tried to shout above the other delivering their sermons. Then the groups began shouting at each other. Hymnbooks were raised in anger. The Sunday morning service turned into an uproar. Eventually the police were called and everyone was told to go home. The rivals filed out, still arguing.

A sad story, but one that is repeated over and over again. Broken relationships are the cause of so much pain and anxiety.

Where once two people enjoyed one anotherís company and shared many good times together there is now only tension, anger or silence;
where there was once a bond of love and intimacy, now there is only hurt because of the deep rift between them.

The question is this: what is the solution to the disagreement and relationship breakdowns that happen in our lives? Is there anything we can do about it?

To help us with this letís go to the Bible reading from Philemon. It is an interesting story about a fugitive from justice who had gone to the apostle Paul. By this time Paul was an old man and most likely living under house arrest in Rome (that means he couldnít go out but people could come and go). One of those who came to see the apostle was Onesimus, a runaway slave. It seems that Onesimus had stolen from his master, Philemon, and when this was discovered, he fled for his life. Under Roman law, the actions of Onesimus could be punished by death.

Perhaps Onesimus had met Paul on one of the apostleís visits to Colossae. Church gatherings had been held at Philemonís place and in his letter Paul calls Philemon a "dear friend and fellow worker". There was no place to hide in Colossae so Onesimus looks for Paul in Rome. We donít know if Onesimus was a Christian before this time but we do know that the two men became very close. Paul shared the gospel with Onesimus and the runaway slave became a valuable helper for Paul. Paul was quite old and perhaps Onesimus helped him with tasks that required more energy and were more demanding.

But as much as Paul wanted to keep this new friend and helper with him, he knew that there was still a matter that needed to be resolved Ė Onesimus had offended his master and no doubt Philemon was very angry about what had happened, perhaps so angry that he would have Onesimus executed. It was hard for Onesimus to go back and so Paul wrote a letter to his good friend Philemon and tactfully appealed to Philemon to take back the slave. He doesnít ask that Onesimus be freed from slavery. He asks that he would regard him as "a dear brother" and "to welcome him back just as you would welcome me". He is asking him to forgive his slave and welcome him back not only as a forgiven slave but as a Christian brother.

As Paul wrote this letter and gave it to Onesimus to give to his master on his return, he knew that Philemon would see red when his slave returned. The question that arises is: Should he react according to his anger and punish this slave as required by Roman law, after all he had been badly wronged and he had every right to be angry and to inflict the worst punishment? Or should he forgive him and put this whole matter behind them?

Does this kind of choice sound familiar to you? The first choice is to let our emotions Ė our anger and resentment Ė that have resulted from a disagreement take control and fan the flames of a broken relationship. You can allow yourself to be so consumed with bitterness that you wouldnít entertain any thought of getting over it and restoring the friendship. You most certainly wouldnít consider taking the first step toward any reconciliation. After all, you were the person who had been wronged.
The second choice is to let the grace of God guide you in reaching out and restoring the relationship. God has been so gracious, understanding and kind and has reached out to you with his forgiveness. He has done this even though you have deserved not one iota of his love. Likewise you are urged to do this same thing. Forgive others as God has forgiven you Ė generously, graciously, warmly, and sympathetically.

Someone has put it like this:
You have a choice with regard to the relationships in your life. You can choose to become a prisoner of the anger and resentment that results from conflict with others and broken relationships. Or, you can choose to respond as a prisoner of Christ Jesus who sees every relationship as an opportunity to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In his letter to his dear friend, Philemon, Paul is urging him to take the second choice and even though he was the person who was wronged and Onesimus really deserved to be punished. Paul wants him to be like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son. The son had insulted and hurt his father deeply. The son was in the wrong and the father had every right to be angry. But when the son came home his father was so excited that his boy was home that he threw a party to celebrate his return. Thatís how Paul would like to see Philemon welcome Onesimus home. He encourages him to "welcome him back just as you would welcome me".

You and I know which is the easier path to take. It seems that our sinful nature is always interested in how much we have been offended. Itís easier to justify our attitude and blame the other person for the breakdown of the relationship. Itís pride and a sense of being right that keeps us from making any attempt at reconciliation, let alone take the first step and go to the other person. Itís easier to stay right away from that person.

The far harder road is to go to that person and find a way of restoring your friendship with the other person. When we feel that we are the ones in the right, it goes against our grain to be gracious and kind. It seems more right for the person who has offended us to come to us and make things right. Onesimus had wronged Philemon, but it is Philemon who is challenged by Paul to be understanding and forgiving.

Paul is urging Philemon to put into practice what Jesus said, "So if you are about to offer your gift to God at the altar and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift to God"

In short, when there is a need for forgiveness between two people, especially people who are brothers and sisters in Christ, he says, "Deal with it. Make reconciliation top priority". You can hide from the need for reconciliation; you can sweep it under the rug Ė for a while anyway. But itís still there.
You can hold a grudge, or keep resentment hidden inside you, and the other person may not even know about it. But it eats at you. You think about it, you go around trying to avoid them, or their presence gets you all upset. Jesus says, "Deal with it. Go to that person and restore your friendship".

Itís true that some people are easier to along with than others.
In a Peanuts comic strip, the dog Snoopy is feeling great. He comes dancing into the first frame saying: "Sometimes I love life so much I can't express it!" He keeps dancing and says: "I feel that I want to take the first person I meet into my arms and dance merrily through the streets."
Then, into the scene comes grumpy old Lucy. Snoopy freezes, sits and tries to be as inconspicuous as possible. And then in the last frame he's dancing again and saying: "I feel that I want to take the SECOND person I meet into my arms and dance merrily through the streets."

Neither Jesus nor Paul allows us to use the excuse that a particular person is hard to get one with. In just this instance, it is so hard to be a Christian Ė a follower of Jesus. Itís much easier to follow the worldly idea of "what goes round comes round". Whether we like it or not - when a relationship breaks down, regardless of who is at fault, Jesus puts the burden on us - on you and on me - to initiate reconciliation. He does that because you and I have experienced the reconciliation that is ours through the death of Jesus. We know what it is to feel the relief and joy that comes when God closes the gap between him and us and makes friends with us through the blood of Jesus.

Itís here at worship, at the Communion table that we are reminded of how far Jesus was willing to come to fix our broken relationship with God! Even though the breakdown between God and us was our fault, he didn't wait for us to come to him, he took that costly first step towards us, leaving the glory of heaven and sacrificing his life on the cross so that we might be reconciled to God! And he still comes to us today reminding us of his love for us, forgiving us for all of our sin and reclaiming as his children and members of his kingdom. Even though at times we find it hard to be reconciled to those who have hurt us, Jesus only responds with his undeserved love and forgiveness. He responds with grace.

Jesus said that it is by our love that others will know that we are his disciples. It is the love of God that marks the church. Just as we have received the generous and lavish love of God in our lives, God grant us the desire and the means to show that same love others.

 

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
9th September
, 2001
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com 

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Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, revised Australian edition 1994.

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