Nothing says “fun blog reading” like racism, privilege and human trafficking. And yet I have been immersed in those tricky topics recently as I study the book of Philemon in the Bible for an upcoming mission trip to Africa.
The entire book of Philemon is only one chapter. In it, the apostle Paul is making an appeal to the slave owner Philemon to set free his runaway slave, Onesimus, when he returns. Onesimus had evidently stolen from his master, Philemon, and made his way to Rome, where he became a Christian -- likely under Paul’s teaching. Though the world viewed him as little more than a bonded servant, Onesimus became a fellow worker with Paul in the spread of the gospel; in fact, Paul calls him “my very heart.”
In an interesting turn of events, Paul sends Onesimus back to his master Philemon for reconciliation, knowing that the flip side of that attempt at reconciliation could have been death. Paul and Onesimus seem to have concluded that, for the good of the body of Christ, this was a necessary move; they didn’t want to risk a rift within the church.
Let’s look at this letter from Philemon’s side. In the culture of the time, slavery was a very common and accepted practice. Philemon’s choice would not have been an easy one. To let a runaway slave go free would anger Philemon’s peer group. Other slave owners would see it as a bad precedent and it would upset the established class system in their society. This would be a very counter-cultural move on Philemon’s part. Yet, to punish the runaway slave harshly would not be consistent with the gospel.
Paul does a good job persuading, but not commanding, Philemon to let the slave go free. Though verse 3 seems merely a part of the letter’s salutation, it is actually so much more than that. When Paul says, “Grace and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” he is subtly reminding Philemon that he, Philemon, had personally experienced this grace from Christ, and the essence of grace is that it is undeserved. It’s NOT something we earn; it is unmerited favor.
Paul doesn’t just remind Philemon of grace, Paul offers to demonstrate it himself. In verses 18-19, Paul puts himself on the line for Onesimus. He says, “If he [Onesimus] has done you any wrong or owes you [Philemon] anything, charge it to me.” Paul is willing to pay Onesimus’ debt, no matter what the cost! Philemon couldn’t have missed this parallel to what Jesus had done for Him -- payed His sin debt in full. Paul is prompting Philemon to recall the free gift that he had been given and is asking him to extend that same grace to Onesimus.
Philemon is probably not the only one who needs such reminders. I know that I have received Christ’s completely unmerited gifts, and yet I continue to struggle to extend grace to others.
I recently had a person re-enter my life that had been absent for most of the past decade. This person had hurt me and disappointed me on numerous occasions. When he wanted to come see me, I was hesitant to extend the invitation. I didn’t want to put myself out there emotionally just to be hurt again. Eventually I relented, but not fully. I let him visit, but I didn’t open my heart to this person.
Then one day he went on an interview where many of his wrongdoings (poor credit scores), driving records (questionable), employment history (weak)) of the last 10 years were laid out before him so he could explain each issue. I was so struck by the thought, “What would it be like to have all my wrongdoings laid out in front of me -- or worse yet, in front of others?” This struck me like a smack in the face! I realized that Jesus stands before a holy God and says, “I see all that stuff, but it’s okay. I’ve forgiven all those things. If she owes anything, charge it to me!” Jesus paid a debt he did not owe so I could live a life I don’t deserve. This is what he wants me to remember in my dealings with others. This is why I must offer my friend grace!
In light of what we’ve been given, what are we extending to others? I am glad I have been forgiven, but am I quick to forgive others? Forgiving others the wrongs they have done TO me is the least I can do when I consider what Jesus has done FOR me!
Welcome to summer! Check out the events for women during July and August at both campuses. Click here: EVENTS