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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Modelling the Gospel

Preached at St Mary the Virgin, Little Burstead on Sunday 8 September 2013 at 10:30am

Purpose: To understand how Paul modelled the gospel message for Philemon and Onesimus.

Reading Philemon 1:1-21  


Isn't it strange where the Lectionary readings end, what's wrong with the last four verses?  Well perhaps the final greetings could be left out, but v22 is fairly important to the tone of the letter.
We will look at this letter as a whole and examine our reaction to it, deal with some of the issues it raises and finally look at the doctrine of Atonement and especially Substitutionary Atonement.  Academics like using long words to describe things that most of us think are quite straight forward, so please don't switch off as we get towards the second part of the sermon.


So let’s look at the characters and see what we know about them and their situation.  I'll start with Onesimus as he seems to be the focus of attention.  His name means 'useful' and he is a runaway slave.  We have no idea why he ran away.  There are speculations that he was a thief, this is based on verse 18, but this may not be the case. Another speculation is that he was badly treated, but we have no evidence for that at all.
Somehow on his journey he had come into contact with Paul, and at some point converted to Christianity.  That's why he's called 'my son' by Paul in verse 10.  It seems that he has changed (as you'd expect) and is now living up to his name.  He is useful to Paul.
He is also mentioned in Colossians 4:9 where Paul’s writes:
He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.
It's difficult to tell whether this is a result of Onesimus returning and being freed to go and work with Paul, or whether Paul still does not know he is a runaway slave.


The letter is written to Philemon, he and his wife Apphia host a church and Archippus is most probably his son.  Paul clearly knows them all well.


The Apostle Paul was in prison for preaching the Gospel, and therefore 'a prisoner for Christ' not a prisoner of Christ!  Being in prison was something Paul had become familiar with.  The likelihood here is that he was in Rome under house arrest – perhaps one of the better imprisonments.  He couldn't leave, but he could have open communication with his visitors, and have any visitors he liked.

Reactions to the letter

Now that you know a little about the situation, I wonder how you react to the letter.  Put yourself in Philemon's place.  Your slave has run away, perhaps years ago, then he turns up with this letter from Paul – the person who was instrumental in your conversion and helped you found the church.  One commentator I read said they would be hopping mad to have received a letter like that (not the phrase they used exactly).  It is designed to give Philemon very little choice -
v 9&10 “I could be bold and order you … instead I appeal to you in love”
– When is an order not an order?  How ever you phrase your request, it still sounds like an order.
v11 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you.
– He's my closest friend while I'm in prison, but I'm sending him to you ...
v12 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel.
– You're not here helping me as you should be, but he is and I'd like to keep him!
… and he goes on like this until in verse 16 he ups the stakes.  So that you can have him back “better than a slave, as a dear brother”
Finally, in the verse we shouldn't have read there is the hope (threat) that Paul will soon visit Philemon.

Issues – Slavery

Apart from the tone of the letter another major issue that is raised is Slavery.  Nowhere does the Bible condemn slavery, it is part of the status quo.  We should not think of slavery in the same terms as the slave trade though.  Most slaves were either captured prisoners from conquests, or had fallen into debt, or had been born into slavery.
A Roman slave would often have been considered part of the family.  They were paid and were often professional people including doctors and teachers.  Children born into slavery were educated.  A slave who did well could buy his freedom, and many did.  So many that the laws about freeing slaves had to be tightened, but that was well after this period.
Some slaves though were treated poorly, especially those on the farms and in the mines.  Slaves were subject to corporal punishment and it was common for runaways to be executed.  There was a great fear of slave revolts and it was illegal for a Roman citizen to harbour a runaway slave.
Slaves could be traded in the market place or in private sales, in some places they were even sold in shops.  A slave would cost you about the same as a donkey[1], but a good slave might be 500 denarii[2] (500 days wages for a labourer).  Slavery was an important part of the economy of the empire.
Having said all of that we still find the idea that one man can be the owner of another abhorrent.  It goes against everything we believe about a God who loves us as individuals and created us to live for him.  I believe that it is passages like the one that we are looking at today that ultimately undermined the system of slavery, so while the Bible doesn't condemn slavery, it has brought it to an end – at least as a legally and economic process.
FF Bruce “What this epistle does is to bring us into an atmosphere in which the institution could only wilt and die”[3]

Doctrine: Substitutionary Atonement

Now we must move on to doctrine.  The doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement.
Before I explain it, and why it is worth talking about here is a simple illustration  that will help us all understand what I'm talking about.
A man was caught stealing milk that had been delivered to a shop. He had been arrested and he was taken to court. The judge asked him, “How do you plead?” There was only one way he could plead, because he had been caught in the act. He had to plead guilty. He asked for leniency for he had two small babies at home and nothing to give them and instead of seeing them starve he resorted to stealing. He said, “Judge, I plead for the mercy of the court.” The judge said that since he had pleaded guilty, he had no alternative but to find the man guilty and he assessed a fine. The fine was ten pounds. The man stood there, crestfallen, for he anticipated a jail sentence since he had nothing with which to pay. Then the judge got up, laid down his gavel, walked off the bench, walked over to the clerk’s desk and paid the £10.00 himself, and set the man free. Then, he approached the man and wrote him a cheque for £100 to provide for his need.
There was no question of guilt, nor of the justice of the sentence. And yet the one who had had to find him guilty, was the one who had paid his indebtedness in order that he might go free.

Substitutionary Atonement

That is Substitutionary Atonement.  Someone else pays the price for our failings, and we are free to go.  Substitutionary because it is not us who pays, Atonement because we are put right with the person we have offended.

Substitutionary Atonement – Real Life example

Here's how it works in real life:
During the war between Britain and France, men were conscripted into the French army by a kind of lottery system. When someone’s name was drawn, he had to go off to battle.
There was one exception to this, however. A person could be exempt if another was willing to take his place.
On one occasion the authorities came to a certain man and told him he was among those who had been chosen. He refused to go, saying, "I was shot 2 years ago."
At first they questioned his sanity, but he insisted that this indeed was the case. He claimed that the military records would show that he had been conscripted 2 years previously and that he had been killed in action.
"How can that be?" they questioned. "You are alive now!"
He explained that when his name came up, a close friend said to him, "You have a large family, but I am not married and nobody is dependent upon me. I’ll take your name and address and go in your place." And that is indeed what the record showed.
This rather unusual case was referred to Napoleon Bonaparte, who decided that the country had no legal claim on that man. He was free![5]  Someone else had complete the service he owed and died in his place, the debt had been paid once and could not be due again.

Gospel and the letter to Philemon

It is like that for us.  Jesus has died in our place.  He is the payment for our sins, and because He is the payment, we are free, we are made right with God.
It is exactly the same argument that Paul is using in today's reading when he says to Philemon in verse 18:
“If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me”
We know that Onesimus owed Philemon something, even if he was not a thief, he still owed Philemon the time that he had been missing, or possibly the cost of his replacement.
Whatever it was Paul would pay, because Onesimus couldn't, and Paul loved Onesimus.
Paul also knew the Gospel, he knew that ultimately none of us can pay what we owe.  All of us are reliant on Jesus for our freedom from sin and our acceptance by God.
We can see the parallels with the Gospel in this letter:
Philemon is God, with a legitimate claim on Onesimus (who represents us).  Paul is Christ, paying the price and ensuring that the return is possible.  Paul is being a good Christian and doing what Jesus did. Paul is doing what we are all called to do, but he is taking a risk.

Risks and Costs

Even though he was already in prison, harbouring a runaway slave was punishable by death.  We must assume that only Paul knew who Onesimus really was, otherwise he would have been in big trouble immediately and his guards would have handed him over straight away.  As soon as he found out he would have been thinking about how Onesimus should be returned.
Paul has written a very strong letter to one of his converts demanding a very unpopular and difficult course of action.  There was a chance that Philemon would be offended and not do as Paul wanted, in that case the church that Paul had invested so much effort in would have failed.
Onesimus knew he had to return, if there was any argument it is not recorded.  He also knew he was taking a risk.  Even with the letter in his pocket, perhaps especially with the letter in his pocket, travelling back would be dangerous.  Not nearly as dangerous as arriving though.  It was common for a runaway slave to be put to death immediately they returned as a deterrent to the others.
If Philemon was to accept Onesimus back as a slave and without punishment he would be unpopular with his fellow slave owners.  If he accepts him back and then gives him his freedom he is going to be more than unpopular, he will be seen as encouraging rebellion.


So, what happened?  I hate stories where you don't get a proper conclusion to the events, especially when those stories are about real people.  Well we don't know, if there was a record it is lost is history.
Well there was a bishop in Ephesus called Onesimus (after Timothy) who collected together the letters of Paul and this document was in that collection.  There is no evidence that they were the same person, but it makes for a good end to the story.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Be Humble

Purpose: To understand the meaning of humility and how to be humble.


My preparation for this talk started the day before we were to attend the wedding of my God son.  I re-read the passage in the morning before we headed out to the church.  You can imagine I was very careful where I sat in the church.  Once you get to the reception there is nothing to worry about as there are always seating plans and name cards in every place, so I could relax and enjoy the company and the good food.

Seating Plan

Jesus is only using the wedding as an example because he has observed the unholy clamour to find a seat at this dinner party.  They did not sit around a table like we do, but reclined on couches leaning on their left elbow.  
They sat round the table in a 'U' shape with the high status guests at the top of the table and the hosts on their right.  Lower status guests sat on the other side where it was harder to talk to the hosts and less comfortable to eat.
The higher status guests would arrive later (fashionably late!), so that they could be seen to be taking the high status positions, and presumably so that they could see the lower status people humiliated by being moved down the hierarchy to a worse seating position.
Jesus is clearly not impressed by what He has seen.  He knows that He is there to be watched, evaluated, or even trapped, and is going to have His say, so He tells them the parable.  He says they should take the seat that has the lowest position, so that the guests will see them promoted rather than being humiliated by a demotion.  He ends by saying in verse 11:
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Hierarchy in the Classroom

[only if there are children present]
I suspect that most of the time we know our place in the hierarchy.  I remember hearing about a study that said each child in a class knew who was above them and who was below them.  It range true for me.  Is it still like that?
Well I suspect that it is – and that's not what Jesus wants for us, so what can we do about it?
Humble / Humbled – a definition.
[skip if there are children present]
Humble is a very badly misused word.  It means
1. Marked by meekness or modesty in behaviour, attitude, or spirit; not arrogant or prideful.
2. Showing deferential or submissive respect: a humble apology.
3. Low in rank, quality, or station; unpretentious or lowly: a humble cottage.
Which is exactly the way it is used in the gospel reading.
Humbled is also badly misused.  It means:
1. To curtail or destroy the pride of; humiliate.
2. To cause to be meek or modest in spirit.
3. To give a lower condition or station to; abase.

Humble: misuse

Humble and humbled are very often misused
[common section]
So when some actor says that receiving this award is a humbling experience what they really mean is “Is this all I'm getting, I was expecting something better”
or when some dignitary after being knighted tells us what a humbling experience it was, they really mean they expected to be made a Lord, or even King.
No!, you were not humbled, being humbled would mean that your work is trashed, and the things you have are taken away from you.  When Fred Goodwin (formerly head of RBS) and James Crosby (formerly head of HBOS) had their Knighthood removed – THAT was a humbling experience.
Here's how Paul Annet puts it in his blog entry 'Humble Misuse':
If you were at the top of your game but luck dealt you a bad hand and you ended up begging on the street, that would be humbling. If you were at the top of your game but you spent a few days on the streets to raise awareness for a homeless charity, you may find the experience to be humbling in a rewarding, learning-from-it sense.1

Humility for us

For Jesus, and therefore for us it is all about putting others first.  This is what Paul said:
Phil 2:5-8 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!
So for us to be saved Jesus had to humble himself and be obedient to God.
Phil 2:9-11 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Humility will certainly be rewarded in heaven, it is also a good way to live on earth
Pr 25:6-7 Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among great men; it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,” than for him to humiliate you before a nobleman.
If we are obedient to God we will consider others more important than ourselves.
Jim Carey – Bruce Almighty clip
Submission is an act of humility.  If we don't submit to the will of God, then we will end up fighting with Him, and that can only end badly – with us being humiliated.  It should be easy to be humble in front of our creator, but most of us find even that really hard.
There's more to humility than submission to God's will.

John Wesley and George Whitefield

I've spoken about John Wesley and George Whitfield before, they were two great preachers of the 18th Century. Here is a story from the two men's lives that illustrates what humility is all about:
2John Wesley and George Whitefield had been great friends at Oxford, but they fell out over the Arminian/Calvinist debate.
The Calvinists say that God chooses us and the Arminians say that we are saved because we choose God
There was quite a bit of animosity between their followers.
Once one of Whitefield’s followers said to him:
"We won’t see John Wesley in the heaven, will we?" 
To which Whitefield humbly replied "Yes, you’re right, we won’t see him in heaven. He will be so close to the Throne of God and we will be so far away, that we won’t be able to see him!".
What a lovely attitude Whitefield had. His humility was real despite profoundly disagreeing with Wesley, Whitefield recognized John Wesley as being a man of God.  He shows us a basic humility that we can all try to copy.

Maximilian Kolbe

Some take it much further.
A catholic priest, Maximilian Kolbe provided shelter to refugees from Greater Poland, including 2,000 Jews whom he hid from Nazi persecution in his friary in Niepokalanów. On 17 February 1941, he was arrested by the German Gestapo and ended up inAuschwitz as prisoner #16670.
A protestant doctor who treated the patients in Kolbe’s block said that Kolbe would not let himself be treated before any other prisoners in that block. He sacrificed himself for the other prisoners. The doctor said about Kolbe: "From my observations, the virtues in the Servant of God were no momentary impulse such as are often found in men, they sprang from a habitual practice, deeply woven into his personality.”4
At the end of July 1941, three prisoners disappeared from the camp, the deputy camp commander, picked 10 men to be starved to death in an underground bunker in order to deter further escape attempts. When one of them, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, "My wife! My children!", Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
In his prison cell, Kolbe celebrated Mass each day. He led the other condemned men in song and prayer.  Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards wanted the bunker emptied and they gave Kolbe a lethal injection. Some who were present at the injection say that he raised his left arm and calmly waited for the injection.
Kolbe considered others more important than himself – even to the point of offering his life in exchange for another.
He is an excellent example to us.  The doctor who treated the prisoners has seen something in Kolbe. Being humble is not part of our natural character.  Like so many other things of God, it must be cultivated until it becomes part of our second nature – our spiritual nature.
If Kolbe can give up his life for someone else, perhaps we can start by:
Inviting the misfit to our birthday party
Inviting those who don't fit in to our church events, and befriending them
Jesus talked about inviting the rejects from society, the poor, crippled, lame and blind, because to be humble means that there can be no pay back.  We probably treat the disabled better than they have ever been treated, but there is still a way to go.  There are also those who are on the fringes of society, those who don't fit in.
After all Jesus invited us to heaven – and we were nowhere near being qualified for entry.


I'm going to finish with story that shows that pay back can come when you're least expecting it.
Late on a stormy night in Philadelphia, an elderly couple walked wearily into a hotel. They approached the night clerk at the desk and practically begged him for a room. Apparently there were three conventions in town, and every hotel was filled to capacity. "Are there any rooms left anywhere?" the old man inquired.
"I’m sorry. All of our rooms are taken," the clerk said. "But I can’t send a nice couple like you out into the street and in the rain at one o’clock in the morning. Would you perhaps be willing to sleep in my room? It may not be what you’re used to, but it will be good enough to make you folks comfortable for the night."
When the couple declined, the young man pressed it."Don’t worry about me; I’ll be just fine,” the clerk said. “Just take my room.” So the couple agreed.
As he paid his bill the next morning, the older man said to the clerk, "You know what?
You are the kind of man who should be the boss of the best hotel in the United States. Maybe someday I’ll build one for you."
The clerk didn’t think much about that, and two years passed. The clerk had almost forgotten the incident when he received a letter from the old man. It recalled that stormy night and enclosed a round-trip ticket to New York, asking the young man to pay them a visit.
The old man met him in New York, and led him to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. He then pointed to a great new building there, a palace of reddish stone, with turrets and watchtowers thrusting up to the sky.
"That," said the older man, "is the hotel I have just built for you to manage."
"You must be joking," the young man said.
"I can assure you that I am not," said the older man, a sly smile playing around his mouth. The old man’s name was William Waldorf Astor, and the magnificent structure was the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

References / Sources