Slavery, Freedom, and Forgiveness

-By Thomas E. Brewton

Vengeful anger is spiritual slavery from which we are delivered by Christian love and forgiveness.

Sermons this Sunday and last Sunday at Black Rock-Long Ridge Congregational Church (North Stamford, Connecticut) were based upon Philemon, one of the shortest books in the Bible. These sermons were parts one and two of a three-part series on the subjects of duty, Christian love, and forgiveness.

Pastor Steve Treash focused today upon the need, and the immense benefit, of forgiving and releasing feelings of anger and revenge that too often we nurture when we believe that someone has wronged us. Last Sunday’s sermon dwelt upon the paradox of physical slavery and spiritual freedom and of the necessity to face up to wrongs we have done to others.

The book of Philemon is the Apostle Paul’s short letter to Philemon, to be delivered to him by his runaway slave Onesimus. Philemon was a well-to-do citizen of Colosse in Asia Minor, in whose home the church founded by Paul met for worship.

Though Paul does not state it explicitly, the probability is that at some earlier time Philemon’s slave Onesimus had stolen something from Philemon and run away to Rome, seeking physical freedom. There he had come into contact with and been converted to Christianity by Paul, who was then in chains in a Roman prison. Paul evidently had convinced Onesimus that his Christian duty required him to return to his former master, to confront the wrong done to him, and to make amends.

Paul’s letter is a masterly play upon the names Onesimus, which means useful or used, and Philemon, which means loving or affectionate.

Paul writes to Philemon that Onesimus had, by the grace of God, been spiritually transformed:

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

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. 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. (Philemon, verses 8-16)

On the one hand, the runaway slave Onesimus has a duty to face his former master, admit his wrongdoing, and to make amends. On the other, Philemon the master has an obligation to receive his former slave as a spiritual brother in Christ.

Paradox is interwoven with paradox.

Paul, chained in prison and “now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus,” is liberating Onesimus from his moral slavery by returning him to his former physical slavery. Philemon’s loss from Onesimus’s theft and flight is repaid by gaining a spiritual brother in Christ. Onesimus was used as a slave, but becomes useful as a fellow Christian. Philemon was wronged, but is urged by Paul to forgive in Christian love.

The lesson for each of us is to stop running away from our own challenges, to stop and to face up to them. Strength to do so comes from faith in Jesus Christ.

For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7)

Don’t ignore challenges; unresolved conflict doesn’t improve with neglect. Don’t blame others for problems of our own making, problems that have roots in our own anger or self-centeredness.

Instead, face the problem and pray for guidance to act, regardless of the personal cost, for the glory of God. As Paul said to the assembled elders of the church at Ephesus:

You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. (Acts 20:20-24)

In all of this, forgiveness is essential. The medical profession tells us that anger and lust for revenge exact physical tolls upon the body. The Bible tells us that these emotions inflict equally great spiritual damage.

Paul asks Philemon to accept Onesimus’s return in a spirit of loving forgiveness, emulating the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross to atone for our sins.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philemon, verse 3)

Onesimus, in facing up to his challenge to do the right thing, and Philemon, in receiving Onesimus in Christian love, both gain the serenity and peace of soul afforded by our faith in Jesus Christ. The key for us is dealing face-to-face with those we believe have wronged us.

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. (Matthew 18:15)

Don’t demand pay-back. There are likely to be two sides to every conflict. Paul writes Philemon:

If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. (Philemon, verse 18)

Our failure to deal face-to-face with those who have angered us and failure to empathize with their side of the dispute leaves us in moral slavery and physical corrosion.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37)
Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.

His weblog is THE VIEW FROM 1776

Feel free to contact him with any comments or questions : EMAIL Thomas E. Brewton

Copyright Publius Forum 2001