September 8 2019 Philemon 1-21 “Charge It!” Pastor Jacqueline Hines
Philemon is the name of a letter in the bible written to a fellow Christian by the apostle Paul while he was in prison after being judged by a religious court. [slide # 1 Philemon] Even today the Vatican in Rome has its own government and its own jail system. Not too long ago there was news of the Pope’s Benedict’s butler being jailed in Rome’s Vatican for stealing papers off the Pope’s desk. [slide # 2 prison] As you know, our United Methodist church has its own religious trials and courts and punishments, though we have no jails. A stat this week says that 5% of our churches have prison ministries and Bethel has been a part of that. We also know that mentoring is caring and it reduces the recidivism rate! That is a word for the wise.
Rev. Samuel Wesley [ slide # 3 Samuel Wesley] quite the scholar and writer, was the father of our United Methodist church founder Rev. John Wesley went to prison. He had 19 children with his wife Susanna. Ten survived and you know what it costs to feed, clothe, house, and educate a family in any age. When he could not pay his bills, he was sent to debtor’s prison. His son John learned much from his father’s mistakes and decided he would earn all he could, give all he could, and save all he could. John Wesley was convicted to live simply so that others could simply live, which is radical thinking. [slide # 4 give all…]
Apostle Paul was in prison because he was a radical Christian. He was the type of Christian who did not hesitate do attend protest rallies and join crowds for the cause of justice. Paul was not afraid to die. He was not afraid to get beat up. He was not afraid of being tortured. Paul was an extremist, like Jesus, he was detained and sentenced.
I am not that kind of Christian. I like things calm and quiet. I lean more toward being a conservative Christian, unlike members of the church I served in Germantown who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and were jailed overnight in order to send a message that legal inequality was against God’s laws and that the Lord calls some of us to resist evil and confront the wicked.
Paul wrote four letters to churches while he was incarcerated. They are in the bible as Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and this morning’s scripture – a letter to one of Paul’s supporters named Philemon.
We all know what it is like to be detained, restricted or trapped in one way or another. Those impacted by Storm Dorian may feel imprisoned by whatever circumstances they are facing. Those in Phoenixville hospital are detained until the medical staff releases them. Even in a growing economy, our finances may restrict us. We have all tasted and seen for ourselves, in one way or another, what prison is like.
I smile when I read Paul’s letter to Philemon because Paul is in his sweet pastoral mode. He says he is setting his tough guy mode aside. He starts off by reminding them that he is a prisoner while they are enjoying the luxury of freedom, guilting them a little. He greets them personally by name and adds a little prayer for God’s grace in their lives. He writes that he is praying for them and hopes their ministry is an effective one. He tells them what a great blessing they have been to him. Then he gets to his main point. He wants to talk to them about their runaway slave named Onesimus.
Throughout history slavery has taken on many forms, some worse than others. American slavery from 1619 to the end of the 1800’s is said to have been the cruelest in the world. If you are not aware of today’s markets and institutions of slavery, just Google and prepare to get sick at the stomach. In every form slavery, even slavery to sin, is a horrible institution whose government is Satan. Every Christian knows.
It is funny how we are all sinners, all transgressors, all guilty, all fall short of the glory of God, and we are usually not in a hurry to admit it. Like children and puppies, with crumbs all over our face, we quickly deny that we stole the cookie from the cookie jar. It is our nature to avoid being caught. [slide # 5 rabbit with cookie] It is our nature to run when we are being chased and held accountable. It is our nature to hide when we are stripped of our defenses, when a spotlight reveals our weaknesses.
Sin is a delicate issue, it is a personal issue, and most times it is a terrible issue. Sin ruins relationship and rots our connection to God. Scripture tells us in James 5.16 confess our faults to one another other and pray for each other so that we may be healed. [slide # 6 confess] I John 1.9 tells us if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just not only to forgive our sins but to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. [slide # 7 God is just…]
Paul wrote a letter to Philemon in an effort to keep him from the sin of rejecting and oppressing another human being. Paul was not trying to be in anyone’s face about their sins. He was taking a back door approach, hoping it would be effective. He was hoping that he could reason with his Christian brothers and sisters and that they would do the right thing and not treat Onesimus as a slave but as a brother.
The apostle Paul was suffering in prison, yet he was concerned about the possibility that this runaway slave Onesimus was about to be beat down as stolen property, for trying to escape abuse, for breaking the laws of slavery – which were wicked, unjust, and ungodly laws. Paul knew what great things God could do with the those the world calls low-lifes and low-class. That attitude got Paul a life sentence.
Acts 16.23 tells us Paul along with Silas was imprisoned after delivering a slave girl who was a profit maker for her owners by doing fortune telling. Their feet were in stocks [ slide # 8 stocks].
Acts 23 tells us that after Paul was assaulted in the Jerusalem Temple for sharing his conversion to Christ; the mob went crazy and Paul was arrested for disturbing the peace. One hearing led to another and he was put on a boat with other prisoners to set sale for Rome. In Rome he was sent to Herod’s praetorium which may have been a space in or near Herod’s palace. It reminds me of the Vatican jail which is probably pretty posh compared to some. Paul was basically on house arrest there for two years, according to Acts 28. He probably had a guard chained to him 24 hours a day, but he could host visitors freely and he continued to share the testimony of how he met Jesus on the road to Damascus and how Jesus delivered him from the sin of hating on Christians and working to see them killed for converting to Christianity.
Later, Paul is said to have been executed. While preparing for execution, he was probably in an underground cave scheduled to be strangled or thrown off of a cliff.
Paul knew his Christian friends could put more loving on Onesimus and provide more for him than Paul could because he had limited resources in prison. Paul said he could use a slave since he was in prison. Instead, he wanted to send him to Christians who were able to bless him in the ways he needed the most. He asked Philemon to take good care of Onesimus and charge it to his spiritual credit card. In verse 18 Paul says “if this slave has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” Paul knew that he and God had blessed Philemon and others in so many ways that Philemon could not in good conscience deny Paul or Onesimus. Onesimus [slide # 9 Onesimus] whose name means “useful” became a saint. I think of him as the saint of prison ministry.
Paul’s costly love is a dramatic example for us, too. When we are called to bless and not curse, to receive and not reject, and to be humble and not haughty, we too can do what Paul did and say, charge it! Put it on my tab. I’ll gladly pay the price for loving you. When others sin against us, when others owe us, the Sprit may be calling us to do what Paul did, charge it. [slide # 10 God calling…] Put it on our account. Listen closely to the Spirit’s guidance and pay the price that love pays. Listen closely for God’s call to pay the price of loving whom the world calls the low-lifes and the low class. In God’s economy, our very life may depend on it. Amen. [slide # 11 God reveals to heal]