Can’t Buy Me Love ~ September 08, 2019 ~ Philemon 1:8-12
Alright, we are in Paul’s letter to Philemon this morning. I will set the scene a little bit for us. Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote this letter to Philemon. Philemon was a believer in the church at Colossae. Philemon owned a slave by the name of Onesimus. Now, every time I preach on the subject of slavery in the New Testament, I think it’s important to identify a little bit of a difference. When you hear the word slavery, when I hear the work slavery, or slave, there’s an image that almost instantaneously pops into my mind – Roots, or the Amistad. The chattel human slavery that was practiced in this country in the 16, 17 and 1800s, when Portuguese slave traders sailed to the African continent, put people in chains, and brought them back to this country. That is not, primarily, the slavery that is taking place in 1st century Judea. In 1st century Judea, slavery was more similar to indentured servitude. There was no public social services safety net in the 1st century. You had to provide for yourself. If you were ill or handicapped in any way; if you couldn’t get food, there was no welfare, there was no Husky care. There was no place to go. So, you oftentimes contracted with someone to be their servant, if you will, for a certain length of time, and then when you completed that time, you were given the opportunity to be released. It was more like a servant in a household like Downton Abbey.
Now, there were some legitimate slaves, especially those who were sent to the mines and the agricultural fields; those were usually the prisoners of war, where other lands, other armies are defeated and captured, and they were brought back. They were used more in the typical fashion of slaves. So, every time you hear of slavery in the New Testament, do not immediately go to Kunta Kinte, because it most likely is not the case.
Similarly, Onesimus is a slave to Philemon. Onesimus flees Philemon. We’re never told why. We don’t know if Philemon was a cruel master. We don’t know if Onesimus just wanted his freedom. There were some scholars who claim that he stole something from Philemon and was fleeing, although I don’t see any evidence of that here in the text. We don’t know why. It’s a question that remains unanswered. All we know is that Onesimus flees. He eventually meets up with Paul in prison in Rome. Paul does what Paul always does – he shares the gospel with him. Onesimus receives the Word and accepts Jesus as his Lord and Savior – becomes a Christian.
Paul writes this to Philemon, in verse 4, he says:
I always thank my God when I pray for you, Philemon, because I keep hearing about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people. And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith…
Actions speak louder than words.
… as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ. Your love has given me much joy and comfort, my brother, for your kindness has often refreshed the hearts of God’s people.
So, we recognize that Philemon is a believer, but Paul knows something that Philemon does not yet. He knows that Onesimus, his slave, is now also a believer. So, Paul asks Philemon one more thing. That’s our reading this morning. Would you join me in the unison prayer as we prepare to study the Word of God? Let us pray.
Lord, upon the pages of this book is Your story. It is also our story. Open our eyes that we may see, our ears that we may hear, our minds that we may understand, and our hearts that they may be transformed. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
So, Paul writes to Philemon:
That is why I am boldly asking a favor of you. I could demand it in the name of Christ because it is the right thing for you to do. But because of our love, I prefer simply to ask you. Consider this as a request from me – Paul, an old man and now also a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus.
I appeal to you to show kindness
to my child, Onesimus. I became his father in the faith while here in prison. Onesimus
hasn’t been of much use to you in the past, but now he is very useful to both
of us. I am sending him back to you, and with him comes my own heart.
I’m going to explain that in a minute. God bless to us the reading and understanding of His holy and inspired Word.
I believe the Bible is very clear on the issue of slavery. Exodus 3:7, the Lord says to Moses:
“I have certainly seen the
oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cries of distress because
of their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering. So I have
come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and lead them out of Egypt
into their own fertile and spacious land.”
God’s anti-slavery. In Exodus 21:16, it says:
“Kidnappers must be put to
death, whether they care caught in possession of their victims or have already
sold them as slaves.”
Paul specifically condemns slave traders in 1 Timothy 1:10. And even if one did find it necessary to sell themselves into slavery, Deuteronomy is pretty clear on the issue.
“If a fellow Hebrew sells himself or herself to be your servant and serves you for six years, in the seventh year you must set that servant free.”
Does that sound like the kind of slavery that was practiced in the south? No.
“When you release a male
servant, do not send him away empty-handed. Give him a generous farewell gift
from your flock, your threshing floor, and your winepress. Share with him some
of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you
were once slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you! That is
why I am giving you this command.”
There is simply no justification for slavery, period, at any time in history or for any reason. Yet, in spite of all the laws against it, slavery still exists. It does. It is estimated that over 40 million people around the world, including over 400,000 people in the United States alone, are considered slaves today – in the form of domestic servants who are unable to leave, sex traffickers trapped in hotel rooms, forced labor, child labor. Forty million.
But this letter is really not about slavery. That’s not the point of Philemon. Certainly, I am anti-slavery; but taking a position against slavery is really not all that courageous. It’s kind of easy to do. It’s like saying I am anti-war, or I am anti-fat-guys-wearing-speedos. Right? Who isn’t? We don’t need to see that! That’s an easy call. I don’t know anybody walking around saying, “hey, we need ourselves a good war!” or “Hey, we need some more pot-bellied Canadians coming down with skimpy speedos on!” It’s easy to take a stance against things like that. Slavery is not the main point here.
Paul clearly wants Onesimus to be set free, but he is in a delicate position. See, in Roman society, Christians were already being viewed as subversive to the good order of society. They were not a positive influence. Why? Well, first of all, they invited women into their worship, and into leadership positions. Phoebe was a deaconess in the church. That was unheard of. That was going to rock the apple cart. Secondly, they showed mercy and love and welcomed the outcast and the marginalized. Society cast out lepers and such people for a reason, they thought. Christians embraced them. Christians forgave. They treated slaves as equals, and behavior like this raised suspicions about Christians in general, that they were undermining the order in society, and they might help slaves in escaping.
Paul understands that as a Christian, he is under a microscope. For some, the Christian movement is being judged by what he says and does; and friends, that hasn’t really changed all that much in 2000 years. You could say the same about us. Many people will determine the validity of the Christian faith in totality, fairly or unfairly, based upon what they see in you and me. Do they see us love one another as Christ loved us, as our Book tells us to? Do they see us standing up for the marginalized and the outcast? Do they see us reaching out and serving those in need? Are we different than the rest of our culture and society, or can they not see any difference? What we say, the language we use or not use, how we treat our spouses and our children – all of this is being looked at by non-believers, and they’re making a judgment about the Christian faith. Paul understood it. We should as well. That is why – although it’s not always possible to avoid it – Paul tries to the best of his ability not to offend. In fact, 1 Corinthians 9, Paul writes this:
When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ.
I didn’t want to offend them.
When I was with the Gentiles,
I lived like a Gentile, so I could bring them to Christ. When I am with those
who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes,
I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some.
I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings.
(1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
Now, this is where we get the phrase, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Now, don’t get me wrong. We never compromise our faith, ever! But we also try not to offend. Nobody responds to pointing a finger and yelling and screaming at people and condemning and judging. You try to work within the system that you find yourself in.
Slavery was widespread throughout the Roman empire, and in these early days, Christians did not have the political power to change the system. So, Onesimus had agreed to serve Philemon for a certain length of time; Paul understands he needs to honor it. As much as he may be against slavery, Onesimus made a commitment, he needs to see it through. That’s why he sends him back.
We never compromise our faith – absolutely not – but sometimes we have to work within the system that exists. That’s what Gandhi did in India. That’s what Martin Luther King Jr. did here. They didn’t pick up guns and start a war. They showed people a better way – the right way.
Like William Wilberforce did in England. William Wilberforce campaigned against the British slave trade for twenty years, until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. This film, Amazing Grace, I would highly recommend. It’s an excellent movie, well done. Tells the story of William Wilberforce and his campaign to stop slavery in England. They eventually did pass a law in 1807 outlawing slavery. Wilberforce was able to win over hearts and minds. It doesn’t always work. We had to fight a Civil War. We had to lose 600,000 Americans before we got it right. However, we should always try to win over hearts and minds first; because you cannot force someone to become a Christian. You cannot demand someone enter the kingdom of heaven. That’s why Paul doesn’t demand that Philemon free Onesimus. He says, “I could demand it in the name of Christ because it’s the right thing to do. I prefer to ask you.” He appeals to Philemon and his Christian faith. He says, “Philemon, look, Jesus says at the last supper, ‘I am giving you a new commandment – love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.’” The reverse is true as well. If we don’t love one another, especially as fellow Christians, we’re not Christ’s disciples. Philemon – Onesimus is now a brother in Christ, and you should love him as such.
If you finish the rest of the letter (which isn’t that long), you will read that Paul subtly continues to advocate for Onesimus’ freedom; but he wants Philemon to see on his own, not by force, to see what the right thing to do is. Paul wants his heart to change. That’s the only way it really sticks. It has to come from within.
There was a great song everybody knows by the group The Beatles back in 1964 called, “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Right? Everybody knows that song. They were right! You can’t buy love.
Look, before I went into ministry, most of you know I was a Postmaster of a small town in Salisbury, Massachusetts. The Post Office in Salisbury, Massachusetts is in a small little strip mall right in the center of town. Right next to me was a bank. On the other side of the bank was a coin dealer – the Wayside Coin Dealer – owned by a gentleman for years when I was there. One of the things about being Postmaster in a small town is you get to know people. It was very much like Mayberry RFD. And as people came in to get their mail out of their mailboxes, you’d start conversations and you’d create friendships or relationships anyway, and there was this one young lady that I got to know and was friendly. And over time she revealed to me that she was a dancer down at Salisbury Beach. Let’s call it an exotic dancer. She seemed to be a nice young lady. Told me the reason she was doing it is because she had a handicapped younger brother which she had to provide for, she didn’t have anybody else to help. I learned a lot from her. She told me that she was from New Jersey, and that a lot of young girls travel the circuit from New Jersey up to the Northeast because they don’t want to dance in front of people that they know. The same was for girls in the Northeast. Girls in the Northeast would travel down to New Jersey, and down south, so they would dance in front of people they did not know.
Well, the owner of the coin shop was convinced that this young woman just adored him; that they were going to live happily ever after. He spent a lot of money on her. He frequented the so-called gentleman’s club (I don’t know why they call it that, because there’s no gentleman I know that would ever find themselves in a place like that, but anyway). He frequented it and invested in her – including some surgical enhancements, if you know what I mean! He paid for them! And he was convinced that she loved him. Do you think she loved him? Do you think that was real on any level? He was deluded! You can’t buy love. If love is purchased, is it really love? Likewise, if forgiveness is coerced – “tell your sister you’re sorry!” – is it really forgiveness?
The thing that separates humans from animals is the ability to think and reason. For instance, we were blessed to have the best dog ever in the history of humankind. Her name was Sierra. Now, I know there are people out there thinking, “No, that’s not true. My dog is the best dog.” You’re wrong. We had the best dog ever, that ever lived. We had her for fourteen years. She was awesome. She had a spatial problem, meaning she thought she was a small dog. She’d try to jump on your lap. She’d sit on the couch on her hind legs, push herself up and just sit there like a person. It was amazing. However, three times in Sierra’s life, she got skunked. And I’m thinking, “Wait a minute. All the science classes I ever took said that dogs’ noses are like 14,000 times better than a human’s?” So, when you smelled that…. She made a b-line right for it. Three times! You’d figure after the first time, next time her nose smelled it, she’d say, “Oh, I know what that’s about.” No. It’s instinctive, gotta go after it. She cost me a couch! She came in once after being skunked, jumped up on the living room couch, rubbing around trying to get it off. I spent hundreds of dollars, Service Master, couldn’t get the smell out. I had to throw the couch away! Greatest dog ever.
But she’s an animal. She wasn’t given a choice. It was instinct. On the other hand, when we smell skunks, we think, and we reason – “I’m heading in the other direction! I want nothing to do with this, roll up the windows, close the doors, make sure the animals are in the house.” We can figure it out. We can think, we can reason, we can make a choice. That’s what it’s called – choice. Freewill. And God gave it only to us humans because He wants us to love Him, but not by force. So, He gives us freewill.
Unfortunately, it’s a double-edged sword. Freewill is also the reason there is so much pain and suffering in the world. Why there is still slavery in the world; because some people don’t choose love. They don’t choose God. I’ve said before, the reason there are still hungry children in the world is not because we don’t produce enough. That’s simply not true. A 2012 study by McGill University and the University of Minnesota revealed that the world already produces enough food to feed 10 billion people. In 2012, we were producing enough food to feed 10 billion people. Do you know what the population of the earth is? Seven billion people. So, we produce enough food to feed everybody one and half times! So, why are there still starving people in the world? Choice. We choose not to feed them. Either we don’t want to produce as much as we should because that would flood the market and lower the prices so we couldn’t make a profit on it; or people are used as political pawns. There are countries that we will not send food into, because they’re our enemies! And then there are countries that will not receive food from other countries because they don’t want to receive help from their enemies; and people are caught in the middle of political games. That’s why people go hungry. Because we want them to. It’s a choice.
Freewill is also why there is so much violence in the world. Because some people do not choose peace. Some people do not choose the Prince of Peace. Some people choose to pick up a gun, pull out a knife, make a bomb. They choose differently. I know that there are those who say, “But God shouldn’t allow people to make those choices.” But limiting choice is the same as no choice at all. You can’t.
For instance, when I grew up, I grew up in the middle of the Cold War between the United States and the USSR – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Soviet Union. Did you know that in the Soviet Union, ever since its inception in 1917, there have always been “free and fair elections.” (Now, for those who are going to listen to this on a CD later, I am using air quotes around “free and fair”). It’s true. Every Soviet citizen had always had the right to vote. So, they’d go to the local polling place. They were handed a ballot, and they looked down on the ballot, and there’s one name for president; one name for Prime Minister; and everybody on the ballot belongs to the Communist Party.
That’s not choice. Limiting choice is the same as having no choice at all. God gave to us, humans, and only to us, choice. Freewill. Because He wants us to choose Him willingly, not by force. And that is risky, because some people will not make good choices.
Paul wants Philemon to set Onesimus free – willingly, by choice, not by force. God gave us freewill, folks. We can make decisions. You can choose to work on your marriage or you can choose to walk away. Now, I understand not all marriages are salvageable. That’s a reality. It’s a fact of life. But it’s a choice to try, or not. Parents, I hate to say this guys, but especially dads – you can choose to love your children by giving them what they want most. You. Not stuff. Anybody can give them stuff. I can give them stuff. I cannot be you. Make a choice to give them what they want most – you. Your time.
It’s a choice. Is there someone you have chosen not to forgive? Have you noticed that simply makes you angry and bitter? It makes you a slave to anger and bitterness? Your whole attitude has changed? You’re not happy anymore? Your vision has become blurred – suddenly all you see is the negative. All you see is people’s faults and failures. The glass is half empty now. Bitterness and anger eat away from inside. Now, we can blame the person who hurt, who offended us, and we can hold onto that resentment and that rage; or, we can forgive and be set free. “But they don’t deserve it! Besides, I didn’t do anything!” Neither did Jesus, but He still forgave you and me, and He wants us to choose to forgive others.
Now, we could pass a law demanding that people come to Sparrow on Saturday mornings and feed the hungry here in Hartford. And force people to work out their differences or face consequences, face prison. Does that work? Does that ever work?
Have you ever wondered why – I have – when Jesus came, what did the Jews expect him to do? They expected Him to overthrow the Romans, right? To create a Jewish monarchy again, as it was in David’s time. He didn’t. Why? He could have! He’s God! All He had to do was snap His fingers and all the Romans could fall dead. Then you could install a friendly government who is pro-Israel. Why didn’t He do that? Because even Jesus knows theocracies don’t work. You cannot force people to be good. You cannot force people to be godly any more than you can buy love. People have to choose, so He gives us freewill.
We like choice, right? We like having 500 different channels that we could choose on the television (and still there’s nothing good on, but anyway…) We love choice. We love walking into Baskin Robbins and having 31 different choices. For those in my generation, remember this? “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us, all we ask is that you let us serve it your way. Have it your way, have it your way! Have it your way at Burger King!” We love choice! But not everybody chooses properly, and we have to live with that.
Interestingly, Paul never mentions in this letter what Philemon ended up doing with Onesimus. We are left to wonder. You and I, on the other hand, we still have an opportunity to write how our story will go. How will you choose? What will you choose? Who will you choose? God leaves it up to you.
Today is Rally Day. Now, I don’t quite understand the concept, because I was never aware that Christians took the summer off. But apparently, it does happen, so we’ll roll with it. You’re all invited to the picnic afterwards. We’re going to kick off the season with a wonderful time of fellowship, and you can all have whatever is out there to eat. But more than that, you are invited not just to the picnic. You are invited to join us here at South Congregational Church in representing Christ in this community and beyond. It’s your choice. Let’s give God thanks in the spirit of prayer. Would you stand and pray?