Onesimus: A Portrait (Philemon 1-21)

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 4, 2016

Text: Philemon 1-21

 

The story of Philemon and his slave, Onesimus is one of redemption.  Cultural background: slavery is integral to households in the Roman world.  Masters, even though they owned their household servants, were responsible for their wellbeing.  In turn, slaves served their masters in a variety of ways and kept busy households functioning.  Onesimus, however, was a wicked slave who run away for his own selfish reasons, having lied to and probably stolen from Philemon, his master.

 

Philemon may have been a believer when it happened.  Perhaps that’s why Onesimus gets away.  Whatever the case was, Philemon has become a leader in the Church because a congregation gathers at his house (v. 2).

 

But while he’s away, Onesimus meets Paul of Tarsus.  After hearing Paul preach about the Lord Jesus Christ, Onesimus is brought to faith and baptized.  As Paul would write to the church in Corinth, “he who is called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:22).  But having died with Christ and risen, Onesimus begins to realize there’s unfinished business with his former master.  Paul, who has become like a father in the faith to Onesimus, writes a letter of appeal to Philemon.  In it, he addresses Philemon, not just as Onesimus’ owner, but as a brother in the Lord.  So we have as part of the God-breathed Scriptures, the Book of Philemon.

 

It’s funny that Onesimus never really caught on as a name, considering how much biblical names are in our society.  But what you and I should realize is that this is our story too—after all the Holy Spirit inspired this Epistle to be written for our learning.

 

God has appointed us to be His servants, from the moment He created our human race.  But, in our vocation as servants of God, we have acted wickedly.  When it was His will for us to lead a pleasing life, we chose our own path.  When He has called out to us, we have fled (Gen. 3:8-9).  Think about all the times we’ve lied to Him—promising to do better after we’re caught but then going right back to our evil.

 

In our flight from Him, we’ve also broken ties of friendship and household, too proud to admit our selfish ambition.  Like Onesimus, we have left a wake of destruction behind us by our sin.

 

But Jesus found us in our flight from God.  His Word came to us through a pastor, a parent, or a friend.  We were baptized, joined to our Savior’s death and resurrection.  He redeemed us from the slavery of sin that we foolishly mistook for freedom.

 

Out of households broken by our sin, He has made us each to be members of a new household: God is our Father and Jesus our Brother and Lord.  In His household, we are a new kind of slave: “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the doctrine to which you were committed, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness(Rom. 6:17-18).

 

With the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, our service to our heavenly Master is not merely with our lips or our hands.  It is a service from the heart we love our Master.  “Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into His presence with singing!” (Ps. 100:2)  This could only be possible because of the peace which God made with us through Jesus and our union with Him!

 

Think about those whom you have hurt in your own sinful wake of destruction.  Would you willingly stand in front of them?  Like Onesimus before his betrayed master, Philemon, would we be able to approach those we have wronged?   But like Onesimus, you have been baptized into Christ.  Your guilt and shame has been nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14).  The debt you owed to God has been canceled because Christ said to His Father, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (Phm. 18).

 

God has given you a new heart along with washing away your sin and canceling your debt.  He has given you confidence to stand before God, forgiven with all your misdeeds covered.  It’s out of this that Onesimus approached his former master, and it’s out of that which we are able to approach those we have wronged in the past to make peace—to ask forgiveness for hurtful words, to restore what we stole, and to heal the rifts which can only be closed by the blood shed by Jesus.  This is what it looks like to fulfill what St. Paul writes to all of us, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).

 

Even though very few are named Onesimus, we can see that his story of redemption is also our story.  Slave or free, Greek or American, man or woman—we all have one Lord who has redeemed us from the prison house of sin and death and made us servants of a gracious Master.  Truly we too can say, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23:6).

Beauty Runs Faith Deep (Luke 14:1-14)

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost + August 28, 2016

Text: Luke 14:1-14

 

As you stand in the checkout line, what sort of people look back at you from magazine covers?  Pretty people having fun.  We’re drawn to youth, health, and say that these are what makes someone beautiful.

 

In the Gospel reading today, we see that spill over into the Church:

 

One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy.

 

Picture this: Jesus is having dinner with the religious elite.  The ones who are invited to this meal are those who, by all appearances, have everything going for them.  They know the Scriptures inside and out, they keep the Law flawlessly, and—just to put another feather in their hat—they’ve invited this popular teacher to show how welcoming they are.  They are adorned with much beauty in the eyes of man.

 

But in contrast to all this, there’s a man with dropsy, or as we know it today, edema.  Outwardly, he’s not a pretty sight, with one or more parts of his body grossly enlarged with fluid retention.  He’s grotesque, and he’s standing against this backdrop of men who, whether they’re young or old, have the appearance of wellness.

 

Then Jesus helps us to see wellness and sickness in a spiritual light when He asks, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?”  Why would Jesus connect the Sabbath with healing?  Wasn’t it just about not doing work and gathering at the Temple?  From the Small Catechism, don’t we learn that the Sabbath is about “not despising preaching and God’s Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it”?  What does that have to do with healing?

 

You see, for God, bodily health isn’t just a matter of hereditary traits and healthy choices.  Sickness and death entered the world because of sin.  Every illness, disease, and deformity remind us that we are fallen creatures living in a world that is corrupt.  When we witness illness in ourselves or others, our conscience is stirred up to remember what St. Paul said in Romans 5, “death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12).

 

Outwardly, we might be spared the visible result of our sin.  We might have good health on the outside and look good to others.  We might have poor health and look varying degrees of bad.  No matter which it is, every one of us needs the healing Jesus gives, and that’s a healing that goes greater than skin deep.

 

That’s when the question is turned to each of us, what are we gathered here for?

 

If we’re concerned with outward appearance—of looking “healthy”—then we can show others that we’re good church-going folk.  Shame on those others who slept in this morning or went to the coast.  At least we can maintain our spiritual “physique” by doing what God wants.

 

On the other hand, if we feel the disease of sin, and feel its symptoms day to day—regardless of how we look on the outside—then we are in the right place to find healing.  The Sabbath is nothing but a place for healing those wounded and sick with sin.

 

Our Lord goes on to describe our health in God’s sight with a parable set in a different kind of dinner:

 

When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.

 

This is far more than an etiquette lesson from Jesus.  The lowest place is what God’s Law is supposed to do to our hearts—“You shall have no other gods”; “You shall not misuse the Name of the Lord your God”; “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”  These aren’t a matter of outward action, but a condition of our heart and the Law calls it out and puts us in our place.

 

But One steps into the wedding hall who is worthy.  He took the sinner’s seat, “He took our illness and bore our diseases” (Matt. 8:17).  He became grotesque inside and out before God and man.  Stripped and humiliated, bleeding and dying, He hung on the cross and rose on the Third Day.

 

Now, on His account, the Master says to us, “Friend, move up higher.”  Take the seat of a son, not of an enemy.   This isn’t because you’ve earned it, because you have it together.  It’s a gift.  It’s healing of the soul, delivered through the Word and confirmed with the Sacraments.

 

Then, this wedding feast doesn’t look like a show of outward beauty—the way we expect to see in the world.  This wedding feast is filled with the “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind”: people like us who are sick with our sins, but who have been called forth by the mercy of God in Christ.

 

This is the wedding feast we are invited to at every Lord’s Supper.   To our poor and feeble spirits, Christ our Savior and Physician says, “Take eat; this is My Body, given for you.  Take eat; this is My Blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”  Rise and be healed of your diseases.  Your sins are forgiven, and you have been freed from death.  In Jesus Christ, you are beautiful and perfect in God’s sight.  Amen.

Whose Your Father? What’s Your Inheritance? (Luke 12:12-31)

11th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13C) + July 31, 2016

Text: Luke 12:13-21

 

Lawsuits – what are they over?  Money!  Everyone in the world is so worried about making sure there’s enough for them that they will scratch and step on each other.

 

But what’s at heart in these fights over money?  This one was over an inheritance, something that a person didn’t even earn, but was given.  There’s a clue: They are fighting over something that is really a free gift.

 

So, let’s compare two worldviews:

 

  • We live in a closed universe. Everything that ever has been and ever will be is right here in front of us.  The future of the earth and everyone on it is up to us in a complex form of survival of the fittest.  Who gets to use what resource is a matter of human arrangement.  Some people rise to the top where they get the privilege of controlling a greater share than the next person.  But ultimately, we are each on our own to make sure we get a piece of the fixed pie for ourselves and our family.
  • We live as creatures of a God who creates by His Word. “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.” (Small Catechism, Creed, Article I)

 

In this worldview, we don’t provide for ourselves, but we are provided for by a God who loves and cares about all His creatures.  “The eyes of all look to you [O Lord], and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desires of every living thing.” (Psalm 145:15-16)

 

So what was the worldview of the rich man in the parable?  Certainly he had a lot of stuff, but that wasn’t the problem.   He reveals his worldview when he says, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”  In his closed universe, he’s on top of the heap.  And then he dies, and where does he go?   Well if the universe really is closed and godless, then he just ceases to exist.   Unfortunately for his belief, the heavens and earth are ruled by a God who not only provides, but to whom all people must give account.

 

 

 

What’s the worldview we get taught most of the time?  Save the earth!  Limited resources!  We’ll be out of safe drinking water by the year 2030!  Oh, but before you perish, do everything you can to live the “good life” and the “American dream.”  Raise the minimum wage, break the glass ceilings, all so that by our own abilities we can rise to the top.  Scratching and scrambling over one another, just so we can get a greater share before we die and must leave it to another.

 

But in your Baptism, you were baptized into a different worldview—one where God became your Father.  He is the giver of all good things both temporal and eternal.  The world and universe continue not by accident but by His upholding (Heb. 1:3).  The people on the earth survive not by how fit they are but by Him opening His hand to provide for them.   Life itself is not an accident, but a gift from our Creator.  Every breath, every morsel of food, every member of your family, every safe arrival in a car trip, every morning you wake up—these are all gift from God, given in love.

 

Yet our hearts are inclined to love these gifts and forget the giver, as the Rich Fool did.  All of us so often spiritually look a gift horse in the mouth, are not satisfied with what He’s given and demand more.   Knowing this evil full well, God gave the greatest gift of all when He gave His Son’s life to reopen eternal life to us.  These are the true riches, because the value of redemption and resurrection surpasses that of gold or silver.  These riches outlast even death itself, so that when everything crumbles for both rich and impoverished in this life, those who receive the gift of faith will receive the crown of eternal life.

 

So back to the original prompt, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”  You’ve got the wrong gifts and the wrong father in your heart.  Repent and believe in the Lord who speaks to you today, that God might be your Father and the inheritance you receive would be one of eternal riches.  Amen.