He knocked on the door wondering how he’d be received when the door was opened. His name was Onesimus and he was a slave who had run away and was now returning, returning to what he wasn’t sure. We don’t know a whole lot about what happened between the time Onesimus had escaped from slavery and the point that he returned, what we do know is found in the letter to Philemon, part of which was read this morning.
And the reason the letter was written was to ask for grace and forgiveness for Onesimus.
We have 25 verses to tell us the story and this is what we know. Onesimus was a slave who belonged to Philemon, he escaped and ran to the Rome to lose himself in the largest city in the world at that time. We know that somehow he ended up in prison with Paul and during that time Paul introduced him to Jesus. And we know that eventually the story came out that Onesimus, which means useful, which by the way was a very common name for slaves back then, belonged to a friend or at least an acquaintance of Paul’s and a fellow Christian.
And so Paul and we presume Onesimus felt they had to do the right thing and that Onesimus would need to be returned to his rightful owner. And to that end Onesimus was sent with this letter, which by the way is only one of two personal letters in the Bible.
I know that I had said that 1 and 2 Timothy were personal letters, but they were a different type of personal. Those letters more properly called pastoral letters were sent to the leaders of the church with advice about leading the church. This was a letter sent to a friend with a personal request.
You are probably wondering why Paul didn’t write Philemon and tell him how wrong slavery was, berate him for owning slaves and inform him that he wasn’t sending Onesimus back, no way no how. And the reason would be that at this point Christianity was still very young and slavery was an institution in the culture they were in. As a matter of fact slavery was an institution in every culture at the time. Slaves were a part of life.
You could become a slave if you were taken prisoner is war, if you owed a large debt that you could not pay, if your parents owed a large debt they could not pay or if you were born into slavery. Had Christianity, in those days started denouncing this institution that had existed since the beginning of recorded history and demanded an end to slavery Christianity itself would have been destroyed.
Instead they did something almost as radical, they demanded that slaves be treated fairly and kindly and in the case where both the master and the slave were Christ followers they insisted that the relationship go beyond that to a spiritual kinship and that was just bizarre.
And that is the situation that Onesimus and Philemon find themselves in. Onesimus the escaped slave, and his former master, reunited not as slave and master but as brothers.
It is interesting to note that when Ignatius was on his way to be martyred he spoke of the Bishop in Ephesus, a man by the name of Onesimus, the same man? We don’t know, however church tradition has held that they were one and the same.
So what would be the changes that both master and slave would notice in their relationship? Now that they were family? Well I suppose to answer that first of all we need to discover what a family is.
What is a family? And does it really relate to our Christian walk and those around us?
Collins dictionary defines family as; “a social unit consisting of parents and their children, the children of the same parents, or a group of people related by ancestry or marriage.”
Let us begin our spiritual dissertation this morning with a deep and profound thought. You realize as well as I do that we are not always impressed with our family. They are not always our favourite people and sometimes they're not the type of people that your mother would want you to hang around with. Right, you still with me? I'm sorry Denn, that may be what your family is like but my family is not like that I am proud of everyone in my family. Thomas fuller said, “He that has no fools, knaves nor beggars in his family must have been begot by a flash of lightning.”
Look admit it, every family tree has some sap running through it. So please keep that in your mind as your engrave this deep thought provoking concept deep into your memory, you ready? Got your pen out? Right, here goes, “You can pick your friends, but you are stuck with your relatives.” And folks that profound thought goes double for the relatives you have in the family of God.
They may not be your friends but they'll always be a part of your family. So let's look at families.
1) Families are related. Deep isn't it, sometimes I wonder where I come up with them. If you are family, then you are related, somehow, somewhere you are related. Now you can talk about third cousins on the left four times removed but they are still related to you.
My family is from a little island in the middle of the Bay of Fundy. Now I love Grand Manan Island, it's our traditional family home and even though I have never lived there I am considered an islander, on the other hand if you went there as a child of four and lived there until you were a hundred and two you would always be a stranger from off the island. And everybody on the island is related, which if you know anything about Grand Manan probably explains a lot. But whenever I introduce myself, and I’m always: “oh right, your father was one of the twins and your mother is Steve Bradbury’s girl” and then they explain why I am related to them, “Oh, well your mothers father's brother was my sister's husband's cousin's nephew's first cousin six times removed so we are related.”
For example because Angela’s mother is an islander as well, Angela and I are related, you see Angela’s mother's, father's great uncle was my father's mother's great uncle's brother. In other words our great, great, great grandfathers were both the same fellow. We don’t have a family tree we have a wreath. I mean that's how I am related to my wife but the question still remains, how am I related to you? John 1:12-13 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.
Now what John is saying is this, “that if Jesus is our Lord then God is our father and if we as children all have common parentage then that makes us brothers and sisters. Now then I want you to turn to the person next to you and say “hello brother”, or “hello sister” now do the same with the person on the other side of you.
Now sometimes we think that we're brothers and sisters because we all attend the same church, that we are Wesleyan brothers and sisters. And those other people who attend the church down the road, why I know that they are related but they're like third cousins, on the left, four times removed, I mean they are kin, but not real close kin.
People sometimes ask if Jay Guptill the Pastor at Hillside Wesleyan is my brother, and the answer is no, I don’t have a brother. So then they dig a little deeper and ask if we are related, and the answer is yes. All Guptills are related. So then they want to know how we are related. Our great grand fathers were brothers, and I have no idea what that make us, I think friends.
But in a spiritual sense we are brothers. And I’m a brother to the Christian believers at the Full Gospel, and Emmanuel Baptist and St. James and St. Johns. And those believers are every bit your brothers and sisters as the person sitting next to you. And they ain't just in-laws, they are related to you by blood, the blood of Jesus Christ.
Now sometimes it is hard to comprehend, and to be truthful sometimes it's even harder to accept, but the fact of the matter is it's not doctrine that makes us brothers and sisters, and it's not theology that makes us brothers and sisters, and it's not church affiliation that makes us brothers and sisters. It is Jesus that makes us brothers and sisters.
You see when someone comes to Christ with a contrite heart and asks for forgiveness and accepts the salvation that only Christ can give, then they become part of the family, they’re brothers and sisters.
And sure we might be different. It’s like my sister and I. We both have grey hair but there was a time that I had light brown hair and she had dark brown hair, and I have our mother’s nose and she has our father’s nose, and I have 0- blood and she has a+ blood, and I’m easy to get along with and cuddly and lovable and she's well we won't get into that right now. The fact is that we are different as day and night but I’m still her brother and she's still my sister and we will never be able to change that. We might say that we aren't we might deny our relationship but we will always be brothers and sisters.
Now hang on to your seats you ready for this you got brothers and sisters who profess to speaking in tongues, and you got some brothers and sisters who embrace reform theology, and you got some brothers and sisters who are pre-post-or a millennial, and you even got some brothers and sisters who call themselves Catholic. And you may not like them, but Christ said that if they have repented of their sins, and accepted his forgiveness that they are brothers and sisters. And I think that that is a hoot. Now you are saying “Pastor you are way off base.” uh-huh, it's scriptural, because even in the Corinthian church which was the most carnal, most pagan, unrighteous church in the New Testament Paul still found brothers and sisters in Christ.
And you might be thinking, so we are related, so what?
Galatians 6:2 Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.
2) Families Care About Each Other, or should I say families are supposed to care about each other.
I remember a song from when I was growing up that had a line in it that said, “He ain't heavy he's my brother.” When it comes to bearing the burdens of one another in the family of God that needs to become our motto, the world says “he's too heavy he ain't my brother.” But as we look around at the heartaches and needs in the family of God, we need to say, “They ain't heavy they’re my brother, or sister”
Now listen up, if'n you focus on the load it will be too heavy to carry. If every step of the way you whinge and whine about having to carry brother so and so's load, it will soon become too-too-too heavy for you to carry. But Christ said in John 15:17 This is my command: Love each other.
And love is nothing but a word until it proves itself in service. You can say, I love that person or I love this person, but love isn't love until it cost something, until you reach over and help the person bear his burden you haven't loved him.
You say “But Denn, I’ve got burdens of my own and I’m waiting until someone lifts my burden!” Nope that’s not the way it's supposed to work. Jesus had already accepted the burden of your sins, when Simon of Cyrene accepted the burden of Jesus cross.
Our responsibility isn't “who is going to carry my burden”, instead it needs to be whose burden can I carry? There is somebody in this congregation who needs you to lift a burden from their shoulders.
Maybe it's a spiritual burden: you ever feel to pray for someone, you don't know why, all you know is that you feel that you need to pray, don't hesitate my friend pray. That person may be waging a spiritual battle and your prayer will be the turning point, the point of victory. It might be an emotional burden, and all they may need today is for someone to tell them how special they are, they may simply need to be affirmed, to be thanked for what they do or who they are.
Sometimes we feel, “I wish I had of told that person how much they meant to me.” Tell them now, don't wait, they won't be able to smell the bouquets that you throw when they're dead. When I first went to Truro there was an old preacher who dropped in from time to time to encourage me, and Lawrence would tell me how wonderful I was, and what a great job I was doing and would agree with my dreams and pray with me. And do you know when I realized how much that meant, and acknowledged the debt I owed him? When I delivered the eulogy at his funeral, a little late.
Maybe it's a physical need, a senior in the church who needs some work done around the house, a young mother who could use some free baby-sitting so she can get out for an afternoon. At North Point our church in Brisbane Australia we had a lady in the church who had three year old twin girls and every once in a while Angela would take the girls for an afternoon so Tina could go shopping and have a coffee all by herself, you have thought Tina had been given a million dollars. How about those in our congregation who might have a financial need? Remember families care for one another.
1 Corinthians 13:7 NIV Love always protects. 3) Families Protect One Another.
When my sister Dianne and I were growing up we fought like cats and dogs. I still have the scars to prove it. Once we got into it and she threw pepper in my eyes and I couldn't see so I grabbed her and threw her against the wall but missed. Do you have any idea how hard it is to explain what happened to the picture window in the living room when your parents come home and find it on the lawn, in pieces? But I will tell you this, we fought three ways, constantly, consistently, and courageously, but if’n you took one of us on you took both of us on.
I could say anything about her, and did say most of it, but you'd better watch out what you said about her. We had our differences and we had our fights but we were brother and sister and ultimately blood is thicker than water. We don’t see each other as much as we should but thirteen years ago when my niece was killed in a car accident Dianne called me in the middle of the night and I was on my way to New Brunswick just as soon as I could. Why? Because she needed me.
I will never delude myself into believing even for a minute that Cornerstone Wesleyan Church, let alone Christianity as a whole will ever exist in perfect and complete peaceful harmony, we won't.
My mother, she had to come to the point that she accepted the fact that we would never be the Brady Bunch, or the Cleavers, or the Huxtibals, we weren’t even the Simpson but she always, always, always expected us to defend one another. We need to learn to protect one another, and there has to be a loyalty within our spiritual family. When someone badmouths a fellow Christian you'd better be the first one on the spot to stand up for that brother or sister, instead of being the first one to deny them or say, “Oh really tell me more so I can pray for them.” 1 Corinthians 13:6 It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. And when a brother or sister falls, they are still family.
Just because they blow it doesn't mean they aren't kin anymore. I had an uncle who was a drunk, “Oh no pastor, you mean an alcoholic.” No you don't understand I meant what I said, the man was a drunk, he didn’t go to the meetings. My daddy said my uncle saw a sign once that said, “Drink Canada Dry” and that’s what he was trying to do. And he did it right up to fifteen years before he died when he suddenly walked away from booze.
But when he was drinking sometimes he’d wind up in detox, and sometimes he’d wind up in jail, but he was still my uncle, and just because he was down don't mean he wasn’t kinfolk anymore.
And sometime it isn't real easy to protect some of our Christian brothers and sisters, and sometimes we don't even want to admit a relationship. And sometimes I had to go down to the Grand Manan ferry and pick up my uncle to take him to detox, and he walked on the ferry stone sober on one end, and got off my end two hours later dead drunk, and it would have been real easy to turn the car around and drive back to Saint John saying he's no kin of mine, but he was, he is and he will be forever, whether I liked his behaviour, or approved of his behaviour or not.
In the church we never have a shortage of opportunities to defend our brothers and sisters.
Thirty years ago it was the scandals with Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggert. Recently it was the fiasco with Mark Driscoll, a mega church pastor from Seattle. And I am amazed at how quick Christians are to turn their back on fellow believers who have blown it and now with social media how quick and easy it is to condemn. As I have said before, a hanging always attracts a crowd.
And when these types of things blow up we are quick to distance ourselves and say, “Hey they are no kin of mine.” But the fact of the matter is that they are, they are brothers and sisters of yours and you have an obligation to stand up and protect them.
Because remember, where we started, you can pick your friends but you are stuck with your relatives. But how do I defend them, how do I protect them, how do I stand up for them? Good question, when someone is jumping all over them you can affirm the forgiveness of God, and that fact that we are all human and that God is bigger than our sins. You can focus on the positive on the people who have been saved, and touched though the ministry of those men, and it hasn't been all bad.
And what goes for the high profile Christians goes double for the folks in your church. Listen up “If I ever catch you back biting, and tearing down a brother or sister in this congregation I might just ask you to find another church”, cause there ain't nothing I hate worse in my church then sins of the tongue. I know it's not my church it’s Christ’s church but if you know your New Testament you know that I am the elder in charge.
And so you may ask how do I become a part of that family and part of the family of God? Good question, glad you asked, Galatians 3:26-27 For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on the character of Christ, like putting on new clothes.
So where are you at this morning, where do you stand in the family? Perhaps there’s someone in the family that you need to ask forgiveness of, or maybe there’s someone in the family that you need to forgive.