SF Gratia Holds Sunday Service Reflecting on Paul’s Exhortation to Philemon

Gratia Community Church of San Francisco held Sunday service together online, full of God’s word, praise, worship, and fellowship. The title of today’s sermon, delivered by Pastor Tzeng was from Philemon 1:16-25 entitled “If he has done you any wrong, charge it to me”. The sermon focused on Paul’s exhortation to Philemon and to all of us to carry each other burdens and live a life in grace.

Here is a summary of the sermon:

We will be studying the Book of Philemon over two sermons, it is a short but meaningful letter from the Apostle Paul. We will look at it in three parts: first the background, then the purpose of the letter, and finally Paul’s interpretation of meaning.

First, in v 1-7, the background to the letter is that Paul is writing a personal letter from prison to a wealthy believer named Philemon, who Paul personally raised in faith. However, who is delivering this letter to Philemon? It is his runaway slave named Onesimus, who also stole from Philemon in the process of running away. In this era, slavery was common place and with the authority of the Roman Empire, they needed to keep order, including strict punishments for runaway slaves. Although we can’t imagine it now, runaway slaves were considered great sinners back then. Philemon must have had mixed feeling, angry at first seeing Onesimus, but excited to read the letter from Apostle Paul. The greatness of Paul was that even though he was a teacher and Apostle to Philemon, he wrote this letter with deep feeling of fellowship and harmony with Philemon. We too, must treat each other in fellowship with the love of Jesus Christ, that is the Kingdom of God.

Next, v8-14, why is Paul writing this letter? He is appealing to Philemon on the basis of love to accept Onesimus. As his teacher, he could order Philemon to do what he should do, but instead the basis of love is what Jesus Christ taught us. Paul is putting down everything, lowering himself to save this one soul Onesimus. Onesimus was probably a useful person to Paul who was old and sick in prison. However, it is Paul who embraced this great sinner, a runaway slave, just Paul himself was a great sinner and embraced by Jesus. Later, Onesimus became a great Bishop of Ephesus, truly used by God for the Kingdom. God doesn’t look at our past, so we also shouldn’t look at the past of the brothers and sisters in Christ. Instead, we should know that God has a plan and uses us all greatly for the Kingdom.

Finally, in v15, Paul interprets the situation to Philemon, saying that perhaps Onesimus ran away for a while so he could be back with you eternally. In faith, we wonder why the people who are around us, our brothers and sisters, spouse, co-workers, leaders are with us. God has his mysterious providence and reason that we do not know. How do Christians look at God’s Providence? There is God’s level which He determines and since He is eternal, we cannot comprehend or fathom. Then, there is our level in this finite world, where God has given us freewill by His love. How do the two levels cohere? Our faith has an “in spite of” aspect, that in spite of all man’s freewill, sin, depravity, broken relationship, there is mystery of God’s providence in everything. Harmony in the world is like the theory of economics, where each person’s selfishness somehow reaches a rational equilibrium of the buyer-seller marketplace. Harmony in God’s love is like Greek “eros” love, where each of us a passionately drawn to God, so it drives all of us brothers and sisters together as one too. It’s a mystery how it all works together, but that is the beautiful harmony in God’s love.

Whoever God has placed with us, especially now when we are all stuck at home, remember that this is the mystery and harmony of God’s providence. Let us not treat each other like master-slave, but treat each other on the basis of love and in this way seeing God’s glory and Kingdom.