From Bondservant to Bishop

Let me tell you about a great unknown. Not only do we not hear a lot about him from the pulpit, but we don’t know a whole lot about him in the first place. His name is Onesimus.

chains-19176_1920Onesimus is the slave of a wealthy man named Philemon. Almost everyone has heard the name of Philemon, even if you know nothing about him. It’s the title of one of the books in the Bible. But it’s not really a book. We can barely even call it a chapter. It’s a letter, and a very personal letter at that. As we look at Paul’s letter to Philemon we learn a little bit about the story of Onesimus, and a little bit about ourselves as well.

This is Onesimus’ story. This story has to do not so much with theology as it does with the application of Christian truth to life. That is to say, how does our Christian faith play out in reality? It’s one thing to say that you’re a believer in Jesus – it’s another thing to let your beliefs influence how you behave. It’s in this letter that Paul writes to his friend Philemon and shows him how a Christian ought to behave and what it looks like to practically love your neighbor as yourself.

One time Jesus was approached by a scholar of Torah and the scholar asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” All of the law and prophets can be summed up in those two words about love. Love God with everything we are, and love others the way we love ourselves. In this great big world of ours people are always searching for meaning, for purpose. But everyone has a purpose – every church has a purpose.

If there is anything that is supposed to give us meaning, that is supposed to be part of our purpose, our very reason to exist, it’s these words of Jesus – Love God, and love others. This is one of the reasons the church exists. If the church is not doing this, if we are not loving God and loving on people, we are missing part of our God-given purpose!

As Paul is writing to Philemon, he’s telling Philemon part of God’s purpose for all believers – that we love people in a way that goes beyond what the world considers “normal.” Let me break it down for you. Paul is a traveling evangelist. He goes from town to town telling people about the good news of Jesus Christ. He’s had a good bit of success preaching to the Colossians, and he starts up a church in their town. The patron of the church, the man in whose house they meet and one of the chief benefactors of the young church, is Philemon. Paul says that he keeps “hearing about your love and the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints” (v.5) Paul goes on to say, “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective as you fully acknowledge every blessing that is ours in Christ.”

The term “fellowship” or “sharing” was often used for business partnerships or for sharing possessions. Philemon acts as a patron for the church. The sharing of the faith is a reference to the extending of material resources. Paul is talking about the generosity which springs from Philemon’s faith.

Often times when we become Christians we turn our hearts over to God but not our wallets and checkbooks! Even though all of us are not blessed to give support the way that Philemon was, or the way other wealthy Christians are, there is a reminder here that we recognize that we are stewards, not owners, of all God has given us. It is because of his faith that Philemon is able to be generous with the church and with other believers. Are our hearts generous, or are we bound up by material possessions?

But that isn’t Paul’s main concern. His main concern is about a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus has received a bad rap from a lot of people for a long time. He’s been accused of being a thief and a runaway slave. Have you ever been accused of something that you didn’t do but you couldn’t convince anyone that it wasn’t true? How does it make you feel to be unjustly blamed? Christian writers and preachers have accused Onesimus of being this scoundrel, a runaway slave who stole from Philemon before heading out. And while he was on his way he comes across Paul and Paul leads Onesimus to Jesus. Hallelujah, isn’t God good!? But that is just conjecture. We are not told anything about the circumstances that brought Paul and Onesimus together. There are clues, however, in Paul’s letter. These clues point us to see that Onesimus wasn’t a runaway, and he wasn’t a thief. And then Paul’s letter points us to the right way to live as Christians.

8For this reason, although in Christ I have complete freedom to order you to do what is proper, 9I prefer to make my appeal on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an old man and now a prisoner of Christ Jesus, 10appeal to you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.

First of all, Paul shows us that true Christian behavior is not about authority, who is right, or who has the best way to do something. #1: Christian behavior is motivated by love. Have you ever had a conflict with someone over something and you know they should be doing it your way? Even if you have the freedom to order that they do it your way, Paul would say, “make an appeal on the basis of love.” Look at how you act towards people. Is it loving? Look at how you talk to people. Is it loving? Look at how you talk ABOUT people. Is it loving? One of our purposes as Christians is to love people. Are we doing it?

Paul has been spending time with Onesimus, and now Onesimus has become a Christian. Paul led him to faith. That’s what he means when he writes, “Whose father I have become….” Paul is a spiritual parent and considers all of his converts his children in the faith. What a heart of a shepherd! He cares about the people with whom he comes into contact.

11Once he was useless to you, but now he is very useful both to you and to me. 12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep him with me so that he could serve me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel. 14Yet I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be something forced, but voluntary.

It seems that Onesimus had been considered useless to his master. Perhaps that’s why Philemon sent Onesimus away ~ he would be better put to use serving Paul than working back home. It’s in this passage that we really see that Onesimus isn’t a scoundrel, but a servant. He has been sent by Philemon to take care of Paul while Paul is in prison. And now it is time for Onesimus to return, but he is returning a new man. Paul is making a play on words here. He writes, “Once he was achrestos, useless, but now he is euchrestos, useful. Now, does anyone else like word plays and puns? I love them. The words Paul is using to call Onesimus useless and useful sound like the words for “without Christ” and “good Christian.” Before, Onesimus was without Christ and useless. Now Paul is sending him back useful and as a good Christian.

Here’s point #2 – it is only in Christ that we find real fulfillment of purpose and become useful. My friends, God has a use and a purpose for every individual here. God has a use and purpose for this church. It is in Christ that we discover that purpose and find real meaning to life. Have you ever wondered about your God-given purpose? Christ told us part of what that purpose is. The greatest commandment is to…Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”

15Perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a while, so that you could have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave but better than a slave-as a dear brother, especially to me, but even more so to you, both as a person and as a believer. 17So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.

Here we see a clear picture that Onesimus isn’t a runaway thief. Paul is using a passive voice, “he was separated from you” and is not saying that Onesimus separated himself, but that he was separated by someone else; that is, he did not run away but was sent away. Onesimus was acting as a direct agent for his master. And it is here we see the biggest theme of the letter ~ the insignificance of hierarchy within the Christian community. This request for a possibly wealthy slave owner to treat his slave as an equal would be not only uncustomary but also humbling. Think about Paul’s relationship to Philemon. Paul is the evangelist who brought the gospel message to Philemon’s city. Paul founded the church in Philemon’s home. Philemon could count Paul as a spiritual father. There was undoubtedly a bond of trust, of respect, of honor. And now Paul is saying, “Welcome Onesimus the same way you would welcome me.”

We’ve already seen how Philemon acts towards other Christians. The love which Philemon had for God was translated into loving actions toward others. Now Paul is asking Philemon to take that love to the next level. Here we see point #3: Love to the point of equality is necessary to the unity of the church. Social distinctions and past grievances should count for nothing. Does someone owe you anything? That shouldn’t affect how you treat him? Has someone wronged you in the past? That shouldn’t affect your Christian behavior. Does someone not show you proper respect? That shouldn’t change your own attitude or behavior. Jesus calls us to be better than that.

18If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to my account. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. (I will not mention to you that you owe me your very life.) 20Yes, brother, I desire this favor from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ! 21Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you because I know that you will do even more than I ask.

This is a beautiful example of point #4: Christian love sacrifices self to serve others. When Jesus says that part of our purpose is to love people, he’s not talking about how we feel. He’s talking about how we minister to and how we serve other people. Paul takes Onesimus’ debt upon his own shoulders. That debt is probably why Onesimus was a slave in the first place – he was a debtor working off what he owed. Paul’s language is standard legal language for the ancient world, suggesting that when Paul says he will repay and notes that he is writing by his own hand, he seems to be accepting Onesimus’ debt as his own in a formal way.

The ultimate outcome would be Onesimus’ freedom from debt, therefore his freedom from slavery. It’s easy to say, “I love you.” But can you show it? Do your actions and your behavior confirm what you say? What Paul expects of Philemon actually undermined the dominant values upon which the whole structure of their ancient society was founded. Now, because of their religious convictions, masters were to treat their slaves like brothers or even as honored guests. In expecting a fundamental change in the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus, Paul was actually asking for something far more radical than setting slaves free.

The outcome of Paul’s request is unknown. However, THE CONSTITUTION OF THE HOLY APOSTLES, written around A.D. 340-60, contains a list of all the men who had been ordained as bishops during the apostles’ lifetime. Within the list it says, “Of Colossae, Philemon. Of Borea of Macedonia, Onesimus, once the servant of Philemon.” Onesimus not only had been forgiven and freed but also eventually became a bishop. Christian love can take a man bound in slavery and turn him into a bishop.

love-903178_1920So many people in life ask, “What am I supposed to be doing? What’s my purpose?” Just read the book. Jesus says, “Part of your purpose is this: love people.”

#1 ~ Christian behavior is motivated by love
#2 ~ It is only in Christ that we find real fulfillment of purpose and become useful
#3 ~ Love to the point of equality is necessary to the unity of the church
#4 ~ Christian love sacrifices self to serve others

How do you stack up?

Movie Review: Zootopia is Really a Race Relations Morality Story in Disguise!

Like most Americans alive today, I had seen the trailer for Disney’s Zootopia. If you live in a cave and HAVEN’T yet seen it, here it is:

So it was with great anticipation that my wife and I took our three kids, ages 9, 6, and 4, to go see it. And it was NOT was I was expecting.

Sure, it had the funny scene from the trailer. Who hasn’t been stuck in a DMV line and thought about the incredible slowness with which the employees move?!?

But Zootopia is much more than some funny scenes strung together. It was actually a VERY well-done story that tackles some tough issues in a way that is accessible to children and adults alike.

Character_zootopia_judyThe basic premise of the movie is that a cute and lovable rabbit named Judy Hopps moves to the big city of Zootopia to become a police officer. She has big dreams for making the world a better place and sees Zootopia as a wonderful place where animals have moved beyond their preditor/prey natures and live together in harmony. If you’re not a literary sort of person, there is a loose reference to Thomas More’s Utopia, which is about a perfect society but whose name literally means “no place.”

Anyway, while there she runs into a fox who is cleverly named Nick (nick being an American slang term for cheating or taking something from someone – just ask Dora) who tells her that the world isn’t great and that they don’t all hold hands and sing Kumbayah.

I won’t give out any spoilers, but Officer Hopps and Nick go on an adventure trying to solve a case that shows the true nature of reality – that underneath a smooth exterior of love and acceptance, deep down at the core there is real friction between different groups. This is where the story really shines as an example of American culture.

On the surface we like to pretend that our society has evolved beyond some of the old racist attitudes and expressions that used to be so commonplace. I’ve even heard some (white) people say, “Of course there’s no racism any more – we have a black president.” This sentiment is really quite stupid and naive. Like the cute bunny, we’re often blind to the reality that there is raw friction between groups and the fact that racism is still prevalent in our world.

Case in point: racial tensions in America. Just yesterday at a political rally, violence broke out as minorities demonstrating against a political candidate squared off against the candidate’s supporters. Then the candidate publicly proclaimed many of the protesters to be “thugs.”

I confess that I don’t know the background of all of the protesters, but labeling them as “thugs” seems to be an easy way now for white people to dismiss people of color with whom they disagree. An angry black man isn’t necessarily a thug – he could just be an angry black man.

This is part of what Zootopia addresses. When we expect others to be bad (and label them thus), we end up being small-minded jerks and do damage to others. This is where the teaching of Jesus practically screams at us:

Treat others the way you want them to treat you!

It seems so simple, yet we’re so far away from living in a culture that can actually do this. Instead we yell, scream, and throw punches at each other. By the end of the movie, Officer Judy Hopps tells the audience:

Life’s a little bit messy. We all make mistakes. No matter what type of animal you are, change starts with you.

The Bible actually talks about equality. About fairness. About one-ness. And we do damage to the faith we claim to hold to when refuse to make the kind of change that brings the world to see all of us through the same lens. We can’t hide behind out politics and our family upbringing. There is no excuse for treating anyone poorly, no matter who or what they are or believe.

It’s time for those of us who claim to follow Christ to leave the garbage behind and make moves towards love, peace, and reconciliation among ALL people.

The Cool Kids

Sometimes it seems our world has lost it’s ever-lovin’ mind. We split into divisions and factions. We see people as “like us” or “other-than us.”

Whites Only

Here’s the thing – I don’t think it’s biblical to see people as “other than.” It diminishes the other and treats people sinfully. This is what happens with discrimination.

Every kid in the world knows what it’s like to play favorites. Have you ever played kickball on the school field? Every kid who has ever been part of picking teams knows first-hand what discrimination looks like.

I have never ever been one of the cool kids. All my life I was always on the outside looking in but I’ve always been moreCool Kids Club of a nerd (before nerds were cool, so I guess I’m an original hipster). When you’re picking teams on the field who are the first to get picked? The cool kids. Then the athletes. Then, standing off to the sidelines, are the rest of us.


Picked last.

Now 6 and 7 year olds don’t go around saying, “You know, I’m gonna discriminate today based on athletic ability and the cool factor.”

The biblical writer James has something to say about how we segregate and differentiate. While James specifically talks about discrimination based on wealth or poverty, the Bible would have us understand that discrimination isn’t cool. For any reason. James 2:1-13 says:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

In our society we have a belief that I can break one law while still obeying other laws. We may not cheat on our taxes, but we speed. We differentiate our lawbreaking and lawkeeping. But Jews understood The Law to be a unified concept. If you break any part of the law you’re breaking all of the law.

How can you pretend to be righteous when you have your little side sin going on? This is what discrimination is. It breaks God’s law and makes us lawbreakers. But James tells us that we cannot treat Christians differently because of differences.

I’m not so naïve as to think we will ever eliminate distinctions. I’m not advocating some futuristic classless society. The key question is this – can we treat each other equally and fairly in spite of our differences and distinctions?

Jesus is the great equalizer that wipes away the distinctions between us. No, not literally. But the way we treat people who are “different” needs to be the same as we treat the best society has to offer.

Dark skinned.
And on and on and on…

We cannot assign people value based on categories. This is human, but this isn’t what the Kingdom of Heaven is supposed to be like. Today is Martin Luther King Jr. day in America. Take some time to reflect on discrimination and racism. We’ve come a long way.

We still have a long way to go.

Stop looking at people through human eyes. Start seeing people through God’s eyes.


**For Reflection**
How have I faced discrimination in my own life?
How have I discriminated against others?
Am I willing to see beyond the labels and categories and treat people as children of God regardless of their differences?

Related Posts:
Reflections on Racism from a Mixed-Race Couple
America: Still Racist After All These Years
My Kids Don’t Know They’re Black

It’s Great Being White!

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at
Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at

Hooray, I’m White! I wish all of you could be white, too. It’s pretty awesome. I don’t randomly get pulled over by the police when I’m driving. I have a fairly easy time making my way through airport security checkpoints. I get left alone by clerks when I’m shopping and perusing. Heck – I can even wander aimlessly and still not be eyeballed by nosy employees. I’m fairly certain that everyone would choose to be a white guy like me if they knew how many perks and benefits I get.

Yes, being a clean-cut white male is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life…

I hope you are intelligent enough to know that I’m being facetious. As Boromir might say:

Boromir on Racism
Boromir on Racism

Yet we cannot deny that there is unfair treatment towards people of different ethnic groups and different skin tones. Racism is a problem that we will be combating for a long time.

I recently came upon a picture on Facebook that talked about fairness to the gist of: If Black people have Black Pride, why is it wrong for us to have White Pride? The basic sentiment was that these people thought it was unfair for Blacks to have scholarship funds, Pride, and everything else yet it would be racist and politically incorrect to have any of these things for Whites.

The basic flaw with their position is that, as I mentioned earlier, it’s already pretty great being White. Most of American society is geared towards me. Movies, Television, College…and on and on. Heck, when this nation was founded people like me were considered 5/5 of a human. I’m whole! Yay, me!

Not so much for minorities. Most of American society has not been geared towards real equality. When only 3/5 of the Black population was counted for purposes of government representation our founding fathers (you know, those great Christian men who birthed this great Christian nation) created an inherent inequality.

In order to maintain any kind of community cohesion, there has been a necessity for Blacks to pursue avenues like the NAACP, UNCF, and the like. These organizations strive to see Black individuals validated. I have never had to fight for validity – I’m White.

In a perfect world it would not matter what anyone looked like. Jesus was commended for his authenticity and his ability to be real no matter who he was talking to. One time the Pharisees complimented him and said:

“We know you are true and that it doesn’t matter to you who anyone is, for you don’t look at men’s faces.” (Mark 12:14)

We do that – we see who we’re talking to before we act. Not Jesus – he was real no matter who was standing before him. That ought to be our goal. In the meantime, why do we have a problem with organizations that seek to give people a sense of validity?

Those who were complaining were saying, “If we can’t do it then you shouldn’t be able to either.” This is a worldly perspective on fairness and justice. It’s the law of reciprocity. Jesus tries to move us beyond that. If someone insults us by slapping our face – turn the other cheek. If someone imposes on us and forces us to go one mile, choose to go two. If someone asks to borrow from you, don’t be stingy but give generously.

We have a choice – we can perpetuate racist animosity or we can choose to join the cause to seek validation for ALL ethnic groups. So there are groups that exist to help minorities – the Church (and the Christians of the Church) should support such causes. Rather than begrudge people a stepstool, why not help people who are not as fortunate as I am to have picked a White family to be born into? 😛

Many kids in church grow up singing:

Red and Yellow, Black and White – they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.

So should we….

Related Posts:
My Kids Don’t Know They’re Black
Reflections on Racism from a Mixed-Race Couple
America: Still Racist After All These Years

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