Thursday, September 29, 2005

Mightily Insidious

In Paul's letter to Philemon there is a lesson in tact and elegance.  He uses great carefulness and wisdom, articulating a diplomacy which is not the same as policy and worldly shrewdness.  Not a human normality, this consideration and sympathy springs from a genuine love. It is important to note that he does not at any other time use flattery, or act with double motives (2 Cor. 1:12; 1 Thess. 1:3-5).  Because his walk was clean, so all the courtesy and skill displayed in this letter are shown to be the sincere and unstudied expression of a heart that is sensitive and wise in love, which is the fruit of the Spirit.
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved and fellow-worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in thy house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
After setting the stage by reiterating the relationships they shared he further introduces his awareness of their situations, shared struggles, and progress.  He does this in a forward-looking way preparing him for the entreaties which follow.  It has been well said that "We may never go back, but there is a point from which we will never go onward." The non-obvious failure that becomes possible here is mightily insidious because it can leave the heart unaware and complacent. When Paul heard how the gospel had taken hold in a church or in a Christian and was bearing good fruit, he turned to intercession on their behalf right away.  When someone starts making the right steps, you stop praying for them to get moving and start praying that they keep moving.  (Eph. 1:15-19; 3:14-19).
But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good — no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.
We are previously reminded that Paul could have commanded obedience by virtue of authority, but that would not have the full benefit.  Through these words we see that he is just as concerned with the growth of the master as the life of the slave.

Isn't a small gift better than a large tax?  So much of true affection is the offerings we submit to each other.  When we serve each other from obligation or expectation, it is a sliding slope which leads quickly to resentment.

My own tunnel-vision became apparent here as I realized how far-reaching our vision must be when taking into account the length of forever.  It is one thing to consider your relationships here on earth, but far greater to remember them in perspective to that one day when we gather together to praise Him in the ever-after.

We're not done with Philemon yet...

Monday, September 26, 2005

Severe and Unflinching

My recent quiet time included some study on the book of Philemon.  A short, often overlooked epistle because it's scope appears at first read less volumunious than others.  In reality, it is a mirror reflecting the whole of the Christian walk within a small interaction amongst a few men.

At the heart of the issue driving the letter is that Onesimus, a slave, has run away from his master, Philemon, who is a Christian. Onesimus, the slave, arrives in Rome and there somehow comes into contact with Paul who at the time was a prisoner. Through his contact with Paul he becomes a Believer.  Paul's commentary lays out first and foremost that Onesimus must return to his master.

This straight-forward direction is laden with this meaning and context.  For a slave to be a fugitive was one of the worst offenses possible at the time. It was considered normal and in fact expected that a runaway slaves once caught were to be crucified out of hand.  A simple beating until he was bloody and unconscious would be too light a punishment demanded by the culture and custom.  In light of this, it must be clearly understood that Paul in the writing, Philemon in the reading, and Onesimus in the hearing were all profoundly aware of the specific sacrifices demanded of each.

How can Paul so cleanly apply the gospel to this situation?  How does one deliver such a message?  I'll add more thoughts on this in the next several posts.