What follows is a manuscript from a sermon I have preached on a few occasions. I walk through the whole book of Philemon. Love to have you follow along in this series. My prayer is that it will inspire you to “forgive as you have been forgiven…” The rest of the 5 part series is here.
20I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
Not only is Paul confident that Philemon will “refresh” him I the Lord, but he is confident that his request will be followed through. And here is the key line in regards to slavery in this letter: “…knowing that you will do even more than I ask.” What Paul seems to be hinting at is that: If you will receive Onesimus as if he were me… If you are a “partner” in the business of the gospel… If you believe that as Christians we are called to a ministry of reconciliation… If you believe that all Christians should be in fellowship with one another and therefore are called to sit at the same table… Then you will “do even more than I ask…” You will give this slave his freedom!
This is what radical forgiveness is all about. Total forgiveness leads to reconciled relationships that help us show the world around us what radical love looks like. Then, as our culture observes how we love and forgive in irrational ways, perhaps they will be pointed to God!
We were all reminded of this back in October of 2006. Five girls were shot and killed in the Amish Schoolhouse Massacre by a gunman named Charles Roberts. But what was unbelievable, was not the act of violence, but the act of compassionate forgiveness and reconciliation that followed the event.
A Roberts family spokesman said an Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. Amish community members visited and comforted Roberts’ widow, parents, and parents-in-law. One Amish man held Roberts’ sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him. The Amish have also set up a charitable fund for the family of the shooter. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts’ funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims. Marie Roberts wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbors thanking them for their forgiveness, grace, and mercy. She wrote, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”
I want to close by turning our attention back to Philemon for a moment. Historically, we don’t know exactly how the scenario played out. Based on the letter, it’s assumed by many scholars that Onesimus was eventually forgiven by Philemon and that he was set free. In fact, about fifty years later, we have a letter that was written to the Church in Ephesus (near Colossae) by an early church father (named Ignatius) that gives us a remarkable clue about what happened. Ignatius wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus in about 110 AD, and makes several references to their beloved Bishop named Onesimus. He even employs a similar pun on Onesimus’ name… as one scholar puts it: “…he is Onesimus by name and Onesimus by nature, the profitable one to Christ.” Could it be that this runaway slave became the bishop or pastor of Ephesus? We may not know for sure, but what this does demonstrate: is that radical forgiveness leads to radical reconciliation, which leads to new possibilities for the kingdom of God.
Are we going to be the people whom God uses to show the world what it looks like to be reconciled to God and each other through the power of forgiveness? Partners in the business of the gospel belong at the same table… we must desire to be united together in the way of Jesus. God longs to “reconcile all things” and we have the opportunity to live this out as we choose to “forgive as the Lord forgave us.”
Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), N.T. Wright
Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters : Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, N.T. (Tom) Wright
Abingdon New Testament Commentary – Philippians and Philemon (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), Carolyn Osiek
Colossians Philemon (Believers Church Bible Commentary), Ernest D. Martin
The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon: The New Daily Study Bible, William Barclay