Saturday, May 9, 2009

Active Faith, Full Understanding

I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

                        Philemon 6

Believing and Behaving

“Faith without works is dead,” James famously wrote, encapsulating dozens of other apostolic admonitions for us to put some muscle behind our mouths. The purpose is overt. Grace is given to us not only for our personal benefit, but also to encourage us as ambassadors of reconciliation with God. Whether or not we assume evangelical responsibility to “spread the Word,” our lives bear witness to God’s unconditional love and acceptance. In Paul’s letter to Philemon, however, we find an equally important, yet less obvious, reason why believing and behaving perfectly complement one another. Paul writes that actively sharing our faith brings us “full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.”

This brief note—just 25 verses in length and the oldest Pauline epistle on record—broaches a very delicate, personal matter in which Paul seeks to persuade his good partner in Christ to do something very unusual, unheard of, actually. And it’s important to note Paul’s prayer that Philemon “may be active in sharing your faith” specifically refers to deed, not declaration. In the previous verse, Paul remarks that Philemon’s “faith in the Lord Jesus and [his] love for all the saints” is well known. In recognizing Philemon’s renowned faith and love up front, Paul frustrates any possibility his plea might be read as an appeal to his friend’s vanity or concern about public reputation. “Everyone knows you’re a true believer and good man, Philemon,” Paul says. “Consider this as a way to increase your understanding of Christ.”

A Prime Opportunity

We know only enough of Philemon and the epistle’s back-story to want more. Paul addresses the letter to him, “Apphia our sister”—perhaps Philemon’s wife—“Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home.” Since Paul also includes a personal message to Archippus in Colossians 4.17, it’s assumed Philemon is also Colossian and the reference to his home as the church’s meeting place lends credibility to his image as a man of means. As a matter of fact, property sits at the crux of Paul’s note in the person of Onesimus, a runaway slave of Philemon’s who now serves Paul during his imprisonment in either Ephesus or Rome. The epistle functions as a transmittal letter: “Dear Philemon, enclosed please find Onesimus…” Paul entreats Philemon to ignore legally sanctioned punishment for Onesimus, begging him to welcome the fugitive into his household as a free man and fellow believer. In this context, “active in sharing your faith” means forgiving and accepting one who has grievously—criminally—wronged him. Onesimus’s return provides a prime opportunity for Philemon to share his faith in the highest, most sincere manner by transcending laws of man to fulfill the Law of Christ.


The name “Onesimus” translates as “Useful,” which Paul underscores in verse 11: “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” Paul blatantly states the proposed reconciliation with his master redefines the former servant’s status and usefulness, however. In verses 15 and 16, he writes: “Perhaps the reason he 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.” Onesimus’s return goes beyond restoring property. He comes back to Philemon a changed man, a brother and equal in Christ. He’s back for good, for Philemon’s good. He returns as more than a useful domestic. He’s useful in opening his former master’s full understanding of Christ’s love and forgiveness beyond principle. Through Onesimus, Philemon can grasp the totality of Christ in practice—actively sharing his faith via an unprecedented act of mercy.

Active faith brings full understanding of Christ’s goodness because it compels us to behave in keeping with our belief. The grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation we accept by faith gains tremendous meaning and gravity when our faith obliges us to offer the same to those who wrong us. It’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s not natural. It’s not supposed to come naturally. Actively sharing our faith requires uncommon—unheard of—sacrifice. It asks us to overlook our humiliation and resentment and outrage to embrace those who, knowingly or naïvely, caused it. It turns our thoughts away from justifiable retribution to fix our hearts on merciful reconciliation. It asks us to replace expectations based on past performance with hope for future improvement. Onesimus’s faithlessness gave Philemon no reason to anticipate he was worthy of trust and respect, yet Paul’s letter makes an airtight case against the one man’s failures costing the other’s fulfillment. We get a taste of how difficult this idea must be for Philemon to stomach near the end of the letter when Paul personally offers to repay for any debt or wrong Onesimus owes, adding, “not to mention that you owe me your very self.” (v19) When we fully understand the goodness of Jesus, debts owed and wrongs done to us pale in comparison to our indebtedness to Him. Active faith recalibrates our sense of scale. What looks so impossible to do for others seems like hardly enough to compensate for what Christ did for us.

Actively sharing our faith is useful to enrich our understanding of what reconciliation means and how it works. (Maurice Harron: Hands Across the Divide, Craigavon Bridge, Derry, Northern Ireland)

(Tomorrow: Hannah and Her Sisters)

Postscript: Dedicated to the Moms

He Knows How Much We Can Bear – Mahalia Jackson

This being Mother’s Day weekend, there’s only one appropriate gospel artist to feature—Mahalia Jackson, gospel’s great matriarch. Though not the first great female gospel artist (Rosetta Tharpe, Sallie Martin, Clara Ward, Roberta Martin, and a half-dozen other legends precede her), Mahalia gave gospel to the world at large. As a young feisty gospel fan growing up in Chicago, I was blessed to hear her sing live a number of times. No surviving film or video comes close to capturing her forcefulness and spirit. Beyond her talent, Mahalia’s local reputation was built on her being the “real deal.” She sang with great conviction because every word and every note expressed her soul. There will never be anyone to equal her.

I dedicate this clip to every wonderful mother who gathers here—and there are so many of you, including my own mom! God bless you for all the love, strength, and wisdom you’ve given to your children. How we love you!

Lyrics (Roberta Martin)

We are our heavenly Father’s children,

And we all know that He loves us one and all;

Yet there are times when we find we answer

Another’s voice and call;

If we are willing, He will teach us,

His voice only to obey no matter where,

And He knows; yes, He knows,

Just how much we can bear.

Tho’ the load gets heavy

You’re never left alone to bear it all;

Just ask for strength and keep on toiling,

Tho’ the teardrops fall.

You have the joy of this assurance;

The heavenly Father will always answer prayer,

And He knows; yes, He knows,

Just how much you can bear.  


Cuboid Master said...

Oh, I needed Mahalia tonight! Thank you for your beautiful sermon and for the gorgeous clip. I had a wonderful mother's day, and I hope your mom did, too.

Tim said...

CM, you make my heart glad! I couldn't be more pleased to hear you had a great day--nor could I be more happy for your children that they've got such a terrific mom!

Joy always,