2021 – The Other
Last week, we began a new year and a new series of sermons… The Others. This theme has a duel meaning…
--It is connecting back to last year’s study in Romans…The glory we give to God when we, along with the Others, live in harmony; welcome one another; speak with one voice. This year we are going to study how we interrelate with the Others to bring glory to God!
--The theme is also connected to my life-goal of preaching the entire New Testament; exegetically. I hope to knock out 5 of the last 10 books I haven’t preached. We’ll see where we end up going… But it will be great!
We began last week in the shortest of Paul’s letters in the Bible… Philemon.
This morning, I want to read to you two letters.
--These two letters have a common subject.
--Our two letters are written at, roughly, the same time.
--Both letters are written from one man to another man about a third man. There are three characters in both our dramas.
--But our two letters have completely opposing views of the Others.
--The similarities of the two letters, yet opposite views of the Others, will be the point of this sermon. AND the next principle we will need to apply to our interrelations with the Others.
Let me add a footnote here. Much of the information about the two letters, I am going to share with you, comes from the first chapter of N.T. Wright’s massive three volumes book set… “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”.
--The first letter was written about 70 years after the resurrection of our LORD.
--Our first letter is written from Bithynia… A region in what is today northern Turkey. At the time, part of the Roman Empire.
--This first letter was written by a man named Pliny. Historians have named our guy… Pliny the Younger to distinguish him from his more famous uncle… Pliny the Elder. Not to creative in their naming. Pliny The Younger – from now on just Pliny – was a lawyer, a senator of Rome… an important bureaucrat in the Roman Government.
--Pliny was sent by the Emperor Trajan to Bithynia as his personal representative to help with the unrest in the Empire there. So, picture Pliny as a high up muckety-muck in the Roman Empire. He was in the upper part of the upper class of Roman society.
--Our first letter was written by Pliny to a second man named… Sa-bin-i-an-us. Sabin for short. We don’t know much about Sabin, other than he was a friend of Pliny and wealthy enough to own slaves. So, picture Sabin as a middle-class wealthy guy… but well beneath Pliny in the Roman social pecking order.
--Now, Pliny is writing to Sabin about a third man. Unfortunately, we don’t know his name. He is so far down the Roman pecking order that his name was unimportant. All we know is that he had been a slave which Sabin had set free. Let’s call him Freeman. So, picture, Freeman, as next to the bottom of the social order; right above slaves. But he is still very much dependent upon Sabin, his former master now boss, for his existence.
--Here’s the setting for the first letter. Freeman has gotten himself in trouble. He knows Sabin well enough to know he is most likely going to get a beatin’, or worse. But Freeman also knows that Pliny is a friend of Sabin. So, Freeman goes to Pliny begging him to intervene on his behalf with Sabin.
We are all on the same page. Pliny; high up muckety-muck is writing a letter to Sabin; middle of pecking order, on behalf of bottom of the barrel; Freeman, who is in trouble.
Here is the letter…
You told me you had been angry with a freedman of yours, and now he’s come to see me! He threw himself at my feet and clung on to me as though I were you. He wept a lot, he asked for a lot, though he kept quiet about a lot, too. To sum it up, he made me believe that he was genuinely sorry. I think he is a changed character, because he really feels that he did wrong.
Yes, I know you are angry; and I know, too, that you have a right to be angry. But mercy earns most praise when anger is fully justified. Once you loved this fellow, and I hope you will love him again; for the moment, it’s enough, if you let yourself be placated. You can always be angry again if he deserves it, and you’ll have all the more reason if you’ve been placated now. He’s young, he’s in tears, and you have a kind heart – make all that count. Don’t torture him, and don’t torture yourself either; anger is always torture for a soft heart like yours.
I am afraid it will look as though I’m putting pressure on you, not simply making a request, if I join my prayers to his. But I’m going to do it anyway, and all the more fully and thoroughly because I’ve given him a sharp and severe talking to, and I’ve warned him clearly that I won’t make such a request again. (This is because he needed a good fright.)
Wow, quite the letter. Another footnote… We know Sabin granted Pliny’s request because we have another letter from Pliny to Sabin thanking him. Not that Sabin had any real choice in the matter. If Sabin wanted to keep in the graces of his high up muckety-muck friend, he had to do what Pliny “requested”.
In terms of the customs of the time, Freeman was amazingly lucky. Punishment was often quick and more often brutal. To get Pliny to write this letter, on his behalf, was remarkable.
But let me give you a clue as to the point of this sermon… No one changed social positions. No one really gave up anything. Pliny is still high up muckety-muck and Sabin is still looking up to Pliny and down to the bottom of the social latter at Freeman. Just a dab of mercy offered to a nobody. Nothing has really changed.
Now, let’s get to the, more interesting, second letter. The situation is remarkably similar…
--It occurs about half way between the resurrection of our LORD and the first letter.
--It happens in about the same area of the Roman Empire. Just 400 miles, give or take, to the west… in Ephesus; still in what we call… Turkey.
--Our second letter is written by Paul; nowhere near the top of the social order of the Roman Empire… maybe about the same social level as Freeman. In fact, Paul is in prison for preaching Christ. Paul is in trouble, as he writes the letter.
--He is writing to a man named Philemon. Who, I’m going to guess, is about the same social standing as Sabin. Philemon is a wealthy land owner. He owns slaves. We will picture him… middle class Roman semi-wealthy person.
--Just like our first letter, Paul is writing to Philemon about a third man who is in trouble with Philemon. We do know his name; Onesimus. Only Onesimus is a runaway slave! Yikes! Most likely, he also stole money from Philemon when he ran off. Onesimus ran from Colossi, where Philemon lived, to Ephesus, where Paul was in prison. Onesimus is at the bottom of the Roman social status… Picture runaway slave; nothing lower.
--The story is the same. Onesimus comes to Paul to intercede on his behalf with Philemon!
Wow… Isn’t this fun? I can see you smiling on Facebook! Let’s read the second letter…
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you- I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus- I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will.
For this, perhaps, is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as 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, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.
I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it- to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.
Wow… The setting is much the same. Paul’s request of forgiveness for Onesimus is much the same as Pliny’s to Sabin. But the underlying social structures have been completely upset! Paul’s view of the pecking order of Roman society is… revolutionary!
Quote from N.T. Wright…
But the main impression, once we study the two letters side by side, is that they breathe a different air. They are a world apart. Indeed, this letter, the shortest of all of Paul’s writings, gives us a clear, sharp little window onto a phenomenon that demands a historical explanation. It is stretching the point, only a little, to suggest that, if we had no other first-century evidence for the movement that came to be called Christianity, this letter ought to make us think: Something is going on here. Something is different. People don’t say this sort of thing. That isn’t how the world works. A new way of life is being attempted.
Let’s breath this different air. Let’s look through this sharp little window. Let’s explore what is different. Let’s attempt to understand this “new way of life”.
Let’s breathe this… Different Air…
Pliny…(paraphrased) Now, Sabin, let me tell you what to do with this, not too bright guy, Freeman…
Paul… Now, my brother; Philemon, let me tell you about my newborn child, Onesimus…
Pliny, believed he was at the top of the social order. Pliny believed Freeman was still at the bottom. Pliny was a superior, mercifully interceding for an inferior. The air of this letter is… condescension.
Paul… speaks of Onesimus as if he were his newborn child, more than just equal, but precious!
The air in the second letter is fresh. It’s clean. It’s real!
Colossians 3:11-14 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
A new kind of air!
Look through the sharp little windows…
Pliny… I’ve given him a sharp and severe talking to, and I’ve warned him clearly that I won’t make such a request again. (This is because he needed a good fright.)
Paul… Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me. I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.
Wow, these two windows reveal different pictures. One picture is arrogance, superiority, power... The other window reveals… humility, the elevation of the Other, a different kind of power… the power of the cross!
The view looking into these two windows reveals a leveling of the social hierarchy. There was stratospheric difference in the social levels of Pliny and Freeman. But to Paul all are of one level in Christ!
Galatians 3:26-28…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one (same social level) in Christ Jesus.
Wow… two different windows!
Let’s explore the something different…
Pliny… I am afraid it will look as though I’m putting pressure on you, not simply making a request, if I join my prayers to his. But I’m going to do it anyway.
Paul… Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you…
Something is different. In Christ, love is all that is required for obedience. In the Roman Empire obedience is based on clout. Pliny had the clout! Sabin had a little. Freeman had none.
In Christ… love compels us.
2 Corinthians 5:14-16For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.
That is different.
Let’s live this new way of life…
Pliny… He threw himself at my feet and clung on to me as though I were you. He wept a lot… To sum it up, he made me believe that he was genuinely sorry. I think he is a changed character, because he really feels that he did wrong.
Paul… or this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother- especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Pliny’s reason for intervening for Freeman was… Freeman was genuinely sorry. He is a changed man. He will never do it again. “Mercy earns most praise when anger is fully justified.”
Paul’s reason for intervening for Onesimus was… we gain a brother in the Lord. Fascinatingly, there are no offers of apology. No promises to do better. No, “he’s learned his lesson”. No appeals to mercy. Paul intervenes because Onesimus is, now, a brother in Christ.
That is a different way of life…
Reconciliation based upon penance; on sorrow; on apologies; on promises to do better. That is the way the world… earns forgiveness!
But in Christ it is a new way of life…
Reconciliation is based on relationship in Christ. Forgiveness is based on connection to Christ! We forgive as Christ has forgiven us.
2 Corinthians 5:17-19Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
That, is an amazingly new way of life.
You cannot read Paul’s letter to Philemon without seeing Paul’s revolutionary theology! Because of Christ, culture was, and continues to be, reshaped. Kings have been dethroned. Prejudice uprooted. Slavery ended. Philanthropy encouraged. Racial, ethnic, social status, and gender bias… have been constantly under attack, for 2,000 years, by Paul’s revolutionary theology…
NTW Philemon 16 … no longer as a slave, but much more than a slave, as a beloved brother, beloved especially to me, but how much more to you, both as part of your household and in the Lord.
Principle #5 Interrelating with the Others…
In Christ all are one!
January 10, 2021
Los Alamos Church of Christ
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