Watch the livestream beginning at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday. After the livestream is finished, the video will be available to watch at any time.
- CW 705 Oh, That the Lord Would Guide My Ways
- CW 694 Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken
- CW 711 Jesus Calls Us o’er the Tumult
- CW 704 Let Us Ever Walk with Jesus
I admire people that can fix things. You know, the person who can take a 15-year-old lawn mower that’s been gathering dust for the last 10 years and make it run like new. Or a person who can just listen to a clothes dryer, know immediately what’s wrong, and then actually do something about it. Give people like that a roll of duct tape and a can of WD-40 and the world is working again. I’ve been blessed over the years to have a number of members of church like that and I know already there are a few of you here at Salem. Trust me, I’ll find you. You’re useful to have around!
When we say this morning that God makes the useless useful we’re obviously not talking about that kind of usefulness. Paul’s letter to a Christian man named Philemon tells a story of betrayal, compassion, and forgiveness. What we find in this letter about a runaway slave is a story of God taking someone completely useless and making him into someone useful. And if the story of Onesimus strikes us as a little familiar, there’s a reason: In many ways, the story of Onesimus is the story of us.
The Story of Onesimus
Let me be clear that when I say “story” this morning, I don’t at all mean that the events Paul writes about are made up. Onesimus and Philemon were real people and the events that Paul describes actually happened, but even so the events described here would have made a great movie. Onesimus was the slave of a Christian man named Philemon. They lived in the city of Colosse and… Wait, what? What is a Christian doing with a slave? We know that slavery is wrong, right? Well, although the Bible talks about slavery in a couple places it never outright condemns it. Both Paul and Peter encouraged slaves to obey their masters and urged masters to treat their slaves well, but they never exactly speak out against it.
I suppose it’s because they lived in a different time and culture. The fact of the matter is that slavery was a huge and normal part of society at the time. Depending on which researcher you believe, at the time of Paul slaves made up 50-75% of the population of the Roman Empire. There were more slaves than free citizens!
But if you’re a student of history at all you know that things aren’t always the same between different times and cultures. Slavery in the Roman empire wasn’t like slavery in America’s history. Roman slavery wasn’t based on prejudice and race, but on economics and war. Men, women, and children became slaves either by capture in war or by selling themselves for a time to pay off debts. In fact, history records that some of Rome’s finest artisans and tradesmen were slaves. Some slaves were considered members of the family even. But still, to own another person? Rather than issue an edict to change the laws of society, Paul and the Apostles preached the gospel to change the hearts of people one at a time. Just like we see in this letter to Philemon. That’s something to take note of as we think of the roles of the church and the state. The purpose of the church is to preach the gospel of Jesus, not to set up a Christian state or society. Our interest, like Paul’s, is to change hearts not laws. And if enough hearts are changed, sometimes those laws get changed on their own.
Anyway, back to the story. The name “Onesimus” means useful or profitable. Ironic because when this slave ran away he had become exactly the opposite. He wasn’t useful, but rather useless in the eyes of his master. Now we can’t say why Onesimus ran away from Philemon but the fact is he did, and probably stole money or possessions in the process. Looking for safety and maybe a place to be anonymous, Onesimus flees Colosse and travels to the great city of Rome. It’s here that we see God’s hand at work. Paul and Onesimus come into contact and Paul began doing what he always did. He preached to Onesimus the message of God’s law and God’s gospel. No doubt Paul pointed out to Onesimus the sinfulness of disobeying the authority God had set over him, but also the forgiveness God offers in our Savior Jesus. By the Holy Spirit’s grace and power, Onesimus the useless slave believed. And after his conversion Onesimus apparently lived up to his name and became a reliable helper to Paul as he labored under house arrest. A useless runaway slave? Not any more. By the grace of God this runaway slave was made useful for God’s work.
And that change was something Paul wanted slave owner Philemon to see as well. Although Paul would have liked to keep Onesimus on as a trusted servant of the gospel, he sent him back to Colosse. Onesimus was, after all, still Philemon’s slave and if he was truly repentant of running away, he would return and take up his place again as a slave in Philemon’s household. But Paul wanted to make sure that Philemon knew Onesimus was a changed man. He wasn’t returning just as Philemon’s slave, he was now his brother in the faith and Paul wanted Philemon to treat him as such. In verse 17, Paul even urges Philemon to welcome Onesimus as he would have welcomed him. What a comfort that must have been to Onesimus, who would otherwise have faced a lifetime in chains, a brand seared into the flesh of his forehead, or even death. This letter to Philemon is an act of love by Paul for his useful Christian brother Onesimus.
There’s an important thought that comes across as we look at the way Paul speaks to Philemon. A thought that we all should take note of, especially if you find yourself in a leadership role here at Salem. Paul could have demanded all these things from Philemon because they were the right thing to do, but Paul didn’t command. Nor did he beg. He simply expressed his confidence that Philemon would do what he had encouraged him to do and even more. Look at verse 21. “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.” Paul’s attitude is one that we do well to copy here at Salem when we are looking for people to share in our ministry and service. We don’t demand your service, and we really don’t beg either. (At least we try not to.) We simply explain the opportunities and challenges that God has given and trust that God’s people respond. So we don’t require 10 hours a month of service to the church for each member. Or demand a certain percentage of offerings or gifts. Could we get a lot done if that happened? Probably! But God is the one who makes the useless useful. He pulls us out of a meaningless life of slavery to the world and gives us his noble purpose. That message alone is enough motivation for us to serve him in whatever way we can. To put down what we sinfully love of the world and pick up what we would otherwise loathe. That’s the power of the gospel that changed Onesimus from a useless runaway slave to a useful servant of Christ.
The Story of Us
I said at the beginning that the story of Onesimus is the story of us. Do you see the parallels yet? How many times have we run away from our responsibilities? Responsibilities that we have to our employer, our spouse, our children, our teachers, even our church? How often have we failed to fulfill our duties in the roles God has given us? How often have we used our time and our abilities for our own benefit and no one else’s? Every one of us must hang our head in shame at the way we’ve used the time God has given. We have run away from our master in heaven just as Onesimus ran away from Philemon. And that and every other sin made us useless to God. It made us worthy of punishment far beyond branding or execution.
But instead of punishment, God gives us grace .Jesus told his heavenly Father to lay our guilt on him. And because Jesus paid our debt on the cross, we are free from slavery to sin and to the world and free to serve God. That’s what Jesus does for us. You see how much this means, don’t you? You don’t have to run yourself ragged for that promotion, that new car, that vacation home or summer cabin. You don’t have to play those games or pursue those empty goals. You’re free to put down those empty things that we all love by nature. Free to pick up the noble service of God. Free to spend time in his Word instead of in the world’s television. Free to sacrifice and serve!
So what would God have you do? Like Onesimus we begin by trying to undo any harm our sins have caused. If we’ve run away from our obligations as parent or child, boss or employee, teacher or student, we can try to make amends. We will speak kindly to our spouse. We will listen to our parents. We will work to the best of our abilities whether we’re at the head of our company or the bottom. In short, we’ll be as useful as we can in the ways God lets us. But don’t stop there. Tradition says that Onesimus did return to his master and was welcomed back and set free as a brother in Christ by Philemon. Tradition also records that Onesimus went on to become the pastor of the church in Ephesus. The useless runaway, now setting sinners free in Jesus.
Brothers and sisters, make the story of Onesimus your story too. God has set you free to serve him, now do it. There are opportunities all around you. Just look at our church announcements to see a few ways to serve. Think of your coworkers, your neighbors, and your relatives. How can you serve them? By God’s grace we are all useful; each of us is important. So rejoice in the freedom you have to serve. You are no longer a useless slave to sin, but now a useful slave to Christ. And this status we would have loathed, becomes a status that we love. So go live it and show it. Be useful for Christ.