This is a sermon I gave at the student ministry of my high school. It may lose a little of the power if not read aloud.
Imagine you’re walking around school, minding your own business when you see someone running down the hall. You look at them and you recognize them and your heart sinks. You hate that person. Maybe it’s the guy who beat you up as a kid. Maybe it’s the girl who slandered you. Maybe it’s the person who you trusted with all your heart and they abandoned you, you trusted them to have your back and they stepped away. Well whoever it is they are coming at you, and fast. You can’t help but stare at them and as you do they lock eyes with you. You look over your shoulder and the only thing behind you is the wall. They’re looking straight through the crowd and at you. They’re waving this piece of paper and shouting your name. They have the biggest smile on their face, and you know they have something terrible planned for you. You start coming up with what you’re going to do, hit them or insult them or something, and you know you are totally in your rights to do so. When they get to you, they just stick the piece of paper out and just say “Before you do anything, read this.” You look and it’s a letter. You open it up and it’s from your pastor, or some important father figure. The letter says that this person you hate has changed and accepted Christ. Your pastor or father figure tells you all this and then, here is the kicker, that you shouldn’t punish them for what they have done to you, at all. They want you to love and forgive that person.
If you have a bible open up to the book of Philemon. Little book in the New Testament. Philemon is a letter from Paul, to Philemon a church leader. Philemon had a slave, Onesimus. Onesimus and Philemon had some kind of falling out and Onesimus Ran away. While Onesimus was running he met Paul in prison and met Christ. Paul knows that Onesimus needs to be forgiven by Philemon so he sends him back with a letter. The letter tells Philemon to forgive his slave and accept him back as a brother in Christ. This book isn’t only a letter about forgiveness but truly it is a letter about love. It is about both our love for others and about the love of Christ for us. This book shows us three things about the very nature of Love. Love is never forceful, it gives up its rights, and it is willing to be hurt.
Love never forces anyone to do something. Love will convict. Love will persist. But love won’t force someone to do something. Paul shows this in verses 8 through 10. “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul –an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus- that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.” Paul is probably the person who shared the good news with Philemon in the first place, so he is asking the elder son to welcome his younger brother back in love. Much like the father in the story of the prodigal son. Look at Luke 15:31 and 32 “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ” (Luke 15:31, 32 NIV). Now Paul also knows that this probably isn’t what Philemon wants to do. You see, under Roman law a slave was their master’s property and could be beaten or even killed for running away. Paul wants nothing more than for Onesimus to be well received, and yet he doesn’t simply tell Philemon to do so. Why? Because love is not forceful. Verse 14 “But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.” Love ALWAYs has the choice between right and wrong, between love and hate.
The second insight into the nature of love is that love denies its rights. Remember Philemon owned Onesimus and it was entirely in his right to kill Onesimus for running away. Paul is asking Philemon to give up his rights! That’s not fair! Why should he give up his rights and forgive him unconditionally! What is Paul thinking? Who does that? Wait wait wait wait wait wait. Well the answer of course is: Jesus does. Paul is subtly reminding ALL of us that we are all Onesimus and God, like Philemon, has every right to spurn and reject us. Yet in spite of that, here is where we see a love that gives up its rights for those it loves. Look at 1st Corinthians 13:5-7
“ 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Love doesn’t look out for itself first, it puts others first, and it gives up what it deserves, so that someone else doesn’t have to suffer. Paul loves Philemon and Onesimus enough that he is even willing to take Onesimus’s punishment. Verse 18 “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.” When we are told to love those who hurt us, to forgive those who wrong us, to take back those who betrayed us, we have two choices. Hold tight to our rights or let go of them. True love lets go of its rights.
Finally true love is willing to be hurt by and for those it loves. Paul tells Philemon in verse 12 “I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you.” Paul knows Philemon and Onesimus need to be reconciled, but he also knows the risk of it. Remember Philemon, under Roman law can kill Onesimus without any penalty. Paul knows this and he is opening up his heart to be absolutely broken because if Philemon rejects Onesimus, well that is going to wreck Paul. Paul knows this and tells Philemon “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me” (Verse 17). Paul is putting the love and trust he has in Philemon on the line. The original Greek biblical manuscripts mention three kinds of love: Eros, romantic love, Philos brotherly love, and finally Agape, God’s love for people. Christ’s love for us, this Agape love, is the kind of love that not only was he willing to be hurt, but he was willing to die, for a world that hated him. Look at Romans 5:8 “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Christ wasn’t just willing to be hurt, he was willing to DIE! Why? Because that’s what Love does. True love is willing to be hurt.
The bible doesn’t tell us what happened between Onesimus and Philemon, because it isn’t as important. When we love we will face both reactions. We will be rejected and received, ignored and listened to. So the question is will you chose love? Will you chose a love which puts you at risk and which calls you to abandon your rights? Who do you have to be Onesimus to? Who do you need to humble yourself to and ask for forgiveness from? What relationship in your life do you need to go and mend in love and humility? Now the next question may surprise some of you. I could ask “who do you love enough to be hurt for?” If I did that then I’d be cheating you. No the question I’m going to ask is “who DON’T you love enough to hurt for? Who DON’T you love enough to give up your rights for?” Who is Onesimus in your life?” Because those are the people in your life who you can’t show human love to. No those are the people who to love them it is going to require a love bigger than yourself. This is God’s love, Agape, a transcendent love which is willing to die for those it loves. That is the love we are called to show. I love you guys so I’m not going to force you to do anything, I’m simply going to ask you to show those people some love. Because even if your Philemon right now, we were all Onesimus once.
By TKH Hamilton