Runaways Return

Sermon 1820 Philemon 1, 7-21 September 4, 2022

“It’s a small world!” a neighbor exclaims as he runs into you on a summer vacation back east. My kids have run into classmates in Spain, neighbors in Chicago and yet, have somehow missed Mom and Dad on a Wisconsin vacation!

The ultimate “It’s a small world” story, however, is found in the Bible! Philemon had a slave, Onesimus. Onesimus was not a good slave. He was useless and reckless. Onesimus ran away from Philemon, even though the penalty for slaves running away could be death. Onesimus heads for Rome betting he can lose himself among its million inhabitants. Before computers, surveillance cameras and named and numbered streets, it was a pretty good bet. For some reason Onesimus came into the home where the Apostle Paul was under house arrest and was conducting Bible classes and worship. Paul didn’t know Onesimus beforehand, but when Onesimus became a believer, he shared his story. He was a runaway slave. He had run away from a master named Philemon of Colosse. Paul knew the man. He had baptized Philemon. Onesimus was now a fellow believer of Philemon.

It’s a small world.

Runaways Return

1. A return to the Lord

2. Means a return to each other.

Every time a person comes to faith, it is a return to the Lord. “We are his people, the sheep of his pasture,” a psalm says. “We are his offspring,” Paul tells the Athenians. We belong to the Lord. But because of sin, we have turned away, run away, from the Lord. Isn’t that what the word trespass means? We enter territory that is forbidden, territory we have no business being in. I am told if you force your way through a locked gate north of town, even though it seems like you are the only one for miles around, within minutes you will be confronted by armed military police. You have trespassed on the bombing range. You have no right being there. You are in trouble.

So often it seems like nobody is watching us. Nobody sees us. Our sins are hidden from man and, we think, hidden from God. But then his wrath appears. Our ill-begotten plans go south. The police knock on our door to investigate. If nothing else, our conscience starts to bother us. God knows. He sees. “There is no peace for the wicked, says my God.”

Transgression demands punishment. That’s why we have a representation of Jesus on the cross in front of our church. The cross is where the punishment was exacted. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53.6).” So every time we repent, every time the Holy Spirit brings us to our senses and leads us to ask for forgiveness, it is a return. We return to the Lord. “You were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls (1 Peter 2.25).”

Runaways return. Philemon had. Paul calls him “our dear friend and fellow worker (1).” Through the Gospel on Paul’s lips Philemon had come to faith. “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ (19-20).” Philemon was a believer who had been turned away from a useless life of worshipping demonic idols. He had returned to God.

The same was true of Onesimus. “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Perhaps the reason Onesimus 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. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord (10, 15-16).”

Runaways return. Here is where the story of Onesimus and Philemon becomes unique. A return to the Lord means a return to each other. Onesimus is returning to Philemon, even though he could be put to death by his unforgiving master as just Roman punishment for running away.

“I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 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. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask (12-14, 21).”

Paul would have liked to have Onesimus stay in Rome and help with the work there, but as a slave, runaway though he was, he belonged to Philemon. You see, even when the law was barbaric, early Christianity obeyed the law. As Jesus did not resist an unjust arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, so the early Christian Church did not resist the institution of slavery. Paul wrote, “Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so (1 Corinthians 7.20-21).” It did note promote slavery—slave traders are consigned by Paul to the same ungodly crew as those who murder parents, adulterers and perjurers (1 Timothy 1). But it also did not rise up and fight against it.

Yet Paul more than tips his hand what he is praying Philemon will do—“even more than I ask.” He is praying Philemon not only spare Onesimus the death penalty, but grant him his freedom!

In doing this, Philemon would imitate Jesus. Jesus taught us, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” As we have been forgiven by God, we will forgive others. Philemon had heard this in the letter Paul wrote to his congregation at Colosse, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you (Colossians 3.13).”

God could have grudgingly granted us forgiveness of sins. He could have turned us into his abject slaves “to teach us a lesson.” After all, on earth so many misdeeds carry severe and lasting consequences. Philemon could have spared the life of Onesimus but made his slavery even more oppressive. But God did not do that. He sent his Son. He sent Jesus. “So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir (Galatians 4.7).” We are God’s family.

So Philemon was to receive Onesimus back, “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother (16).” Instead of punishment, Paul was praying for Philemon to set Onesimus free. A return to the Lord means a return to each other.

The forgiveness we runaways have been given creates a return to each other. The angel predicted God’s forgiveness would “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children (Luke 1.17).” Who can hurt us more than those closest to us, the members of our own families? A return to each other takes place as we forgive each other. We take the first step. Yes, we were wronged. Yes, we were betrayed. But the love of Jesus has set our hearts free. We run in the paths of righteousness. We can take the first step and resolve longstanding grudges.

A lady’s father had been an alcoholic. He had treated her and her mother terribly and finally, when it seemed he could inflict no more harm, he abandoned them. She always prayed that he would repent, would find Christ. Later in life she found out where he was—among the nameless faces in Florida. He was in a nursing home. The years of drinking had taken a toll. He was near death. Uninvited, she booked a flight and visited. They spoke, of his past and of her suffering at his hands. She talked to him about Jesus and how she wanted to forgive him, even after all he had done. With tears in his eyes, he listened. He repented. He confessed his sin and confessed his faith in her God who was now also his God. Within the week he had died. But a part of her was alive again. She had received her runaway father.

Runaways Return

1. A return to the Lord

2. Means a return to each other.

Like so many good stories in the Bible we are left hanging. The Bible doesn’t tell us how the story of Onesimus ends. Did Philemon take him back? Was Onesimus granted his freedom? We don’t know for sure. But there is an interesting side note. An early writer in the Church, Ignatius of Antioch, recorded the list of bishops at the church of Ephesus. He mentions an Onesimus who was the bishop right after the Timothy of the Bible and was martyred in Rome. That Ignatius so matter of factly mentions Onesimus hints no explanation was needed—we already know him! He’s the Onesimus of Philemon. A runaway slave returned to become a freedman and a bishop in God’s church on earth. Amazing things can happen when runaways return.

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