Almighty God, faithful and true to your people across the centuries of time, we come into you presence alone, and yet as part of your great worldwide family, to worship and adore you and to give you your rightful place in our lives and in our daily living.
We worship you, the God of creation. In opening our eyes and hearts to you we become aware of the beauty of creation – hill and vale and tree and flower – we glory in the grandeur of the mountains, the blue of the sky and the lochs, the colour and majesty of sunsets. Lord, we worship you from the depth of our being.
We worship you as sustainer of our lives. Not only did you create us in our mother’s womb, the touch of your hand has led us each step of the way through life. You are our Rock and Salvation and we worship you.
Looking back on our lives we become aware of our humanity, the frailty of human flesh. We recall those occasions when we have gone our own way rather than follow your path for life. We haven’t shown the compassion and sensitivity that we should have shown to others. Merciful Father, forgive us and renew us in spirit.
Be with us we pray, in the days of this new week, help us to walk in your way and honour your name, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Hymn – In Christ Alone. Listen here.
Philemon 4–21 (NRSV)
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love – and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
Sermon by Rev. Robert Gemmell: Paul’s Epistle to Philemon – a plea for reconciliation
Paul’s Epistle to Philemon could be described as unique piece of writing within the pages of the New Testament. It is the only private, personal letter from Paul that has survived the passage of time. Philemon was a prominent Christian, probably a member of the church at Colossae. He had also been the owner of a slave named Onesimus, who had managed to escape from his master and at a later date had somehow managed to come into contact with Paul, who was by then a prisoner, probably in Rome, or possibly in Ephesus.
Paul describes Onesimus as ‘his son in Christ’ and he had become his spiritual father. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a plea for reconciliation between slave and master, an appeal for the slave to be welcomed back, not only as a forgiven slave, but also as a brother in Christ. The Epistle presents us with three men caught up in their own dilemmas.
It had been through his teaching and influence that Onesimus had become a Christian. But not only had Onesimus found faith, he had also become almost indispensable to Paul. In the Roman world of his day slavery was widespread; it was an integral part of society and it could be said that society was built around it. Many have questioned as to why Paul didn’t explicitly call for the slave’s freedom or for the abolition of slavery. The recent focus on the slave trade and all involved in it has brought this question into sharp focus once again. Paul, like most early Christians, seems to have accepted the traditional structures of society, including slavery. One commentator has suggested that: “the mission of the early Christians was not to overthrow the structures of society but to see people converted and built up in Christ. In Paul’s consistent emphasis on the importance of Christians living together in forgiveness and mutual love, he was planting the seeds that would one day result in the abolition of slavery.” Perhaps it is too easy for us living in a different world from Paul to be critical of his attitude to slavery. But back to Paul’s dilemma – should he retain the services of someone who had much to offer the Apostle in his work and ministry while in prison or send him back to Philemon?
Even if Paul did send him back to Philemon – should he go? His freedom had been won, probably at quite a cost personally. And a return to Philemon could possibly lead to servitude, to punishment, even to death. No doubt, he had heard Paul preaching about the freedom and liberty to be found in Christ. He must have wondered if such promises applied to him. Must I go back? Onesimus’s dilemma.
Having received his runaway slave back into his home, and having read the accompanying letter from Paul, how would Philemon react? Paul was certainly exerting quite a bit of emotional pressure on him. On the one hand he owed so much spiritually to Paul, but having to overlook his slave’s misdeeds was something that wouldn’t come easily to him. To welcome him back, not just as a forgiven slave, but also as a brother in Christ, must have been seen as quite an “ask” from Paul. He would also have to consider the reaction of any other slaves in his care and also the knock-on effect that such action could have on other households around. Quite a dilemma.
Here is an adaptation of a meditation called “A letter to Phil” written by David Lemmon and included in Angels and Archangels edited by Ruth Burgess and published by the Iona Community.
A letter from Paul – that’s great!
It’s been delivered by Onesimus. I never thought I would see him again.
He used to be our slave and was quite useful at times (that’s what his name means); but then he stole money from me and ran away.
He ended up in Rome and met Paul and now he’s a Christian. I also became a Christian because of Paul.
It seems Onesimus has been useful to Paul and become like a son to him.
Well now, he wants me to welcome him back.
What about justice? He stole from me and ran away!
He owes me! Paul says he’ll pay up if Onesimus owes me anything but I don’t see how he can, because Paul is apparently in prison.
AND I am a respectable businessman and a church leader.
I can’t be having criminals and fugitives from justice in my house.
What will people think?
What did Paul tell us once? “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, all are one in Christ Jesus.”
Well that’s OK in theory, but in today’s world it doesn’t work like that, does it?
What should I do?
What do you think I should do?
I think there is one point to bear in mind in all of this. None of these problems would have arisen if the three characters in the narrative hadn’t been Christians. Paul would probably have kept the slave and continued benefiting from what Onesimus could bring to his table. The question of returning to possible servitude and punishment would, I am sure, never have arisen for Onesimus. And as far as Philemon was concerned, the only response to a runaway slave would have been to punish him. It was because of their faith in Christ that the three men found themselves caught up in their first-century dilemmas.
And the end result of Paul’s pleading letter to Philemon over the question of reconciliation with Onesimus? We know how Paul and Onesimus responded. As there is no follow-up to the letter we can only guess as to how Philemon reacted. I have the feeling that this very personal letter would never have found its way into the canon of Scripture if it didn’t have Paul’s desired effect on the slave master.
And our dilemmas today? I suggest that they are many and varied and have increased considerably over the past few months due to the present pandemic in our midst. There are those who suggest to us that we have come through the easier part of our response to the coronavirus during the time of lockdown and that we are now faced with the real dilemmas as the restrictions are gradually eased.
This is certainly true at a church level. While the decision has been made that churches are now free to open for prayer and worship, there are many questions to be answered and practical steps to be taken before we get back to actually holding worship services in our church buildings.
At a more general level, how are we coping with our newfound freedom – do we feel safe shopping, organising a holiday, going out for a meal, going to the pub for a pint?
As the furlough scheme comes eventually to a close, employers are faced with their own dilemmas, regarding those to be kept on the pay roll and those to be made redundant.
And of course there are dilemmas to be faced from time to time in other areas of our lives. For example, as parents on how to react if one of our children informs us that they want to set up house with their partner with no question of marriage being considered, or another agonisingly sharing with us the fact that he/she is gay.
Perhaps one of the most difficult positions we could find ourselves in is how to react to a request for help from someone who is suffering painfully from a terminal illness and asks us to help in the process of ending his/her life. We know what the law says but I wonder how we would respond to that particular dilemma.
From time to time in life we are all faced with the task of responding to different dilemmas. The three characters within Paul’s epistle had decisions to make, none of which were easy, all of which affected others. As far as we are concerned I am sure that there are occasions when we find it difficult to know how to respond within certain situations. On some of those occasions there are no easy answers. It is tempting sometimes to look to the Bible for how to respond in the dilemmas which face us in life, particularly in moral or ethical areas. Frustratingly, specific answers are not there and often that is because the society of Jesus’ day didn’t have to face the kind of dilemmas with which modern science and medicine have presented us. But we are given one guiding principle: Love your neighbour as you love yourself. I don’t think it’s too trivial to compare it to the wearing of face coverings. I wear one to protect you and you wear one to protect me. Faced with the dilemmas life gives us, Jesus instructs us to consider those who will be affected by our decisions. Sometimes how we do that can be a dilemma in itself but it is how we as Christians – from Paul and Onesimus and Philemon down to you and me today – are called to live by the one whom we claim as Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Hymn 557 – O Love that wilt not let me go. Listen here.
Prayer of thanksgiving and intercession
Lord you ask us to pray to You.
I know that You see all, know all
so what would be the point in keeping back any thoughts or feelings?
Help me pour them all out to You.
Lord we pray for our world as we continue to deal with a pandemic.
We pray for all our Leaders and hope that wisdom not vanity drives their decisions
We pray for all medical staff and ancillary workers involved in health care. We are in their debt.
We pray for those charged with keeping law and order, that they do so diligently
but also with compassion.
We pray for all who are ill at this time.
For those for whom treatment has not been possible in these lat few months.
due to other priorities. Be with them Lord and provide comfort.
Lord, help us make a stand for Your ways in this world.
Help us be a force for good, working hard to see Your kingdom come,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Make us an ambassador for inclusion, a bringer of justice, a carrier of forgiveness
and a maker of peace.
May we be a voice for the silenced and a defender of the weak.
Let me view loving Your world as an outpouring of homage to You.
Let my daily choices be part of my daily worship.
In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Adapted from Starters for Sunday, provided by the Church of Scotland