Who is difficult for you? Think about it. Who are the people you really struggle with? Does it seem like it would be awful to welcome them into your life? How should you treat them?
If Paul’s message to Philemon is our guide, then what we do will be self-sacrificial, it will be radical, it will cross the societal lines, and it will overturn conventional ideas. It will be white people, giving up their power, privilege and position for people of color who have been marginalized. It will be a purposeful embrace of the other who is no longer an outsider, but now in Christ a brother or a sister.
As we conclude our series on Philemon, consider, then, what Jesus did. Paul clearly describes how Jesus is an example for us of the very thing Paul is asking Philemon to do:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!Philippians 2:3-8
Other translations say that Jesus “emptied himself”. He gave up his rights, privilege, position and power so that he could reach us. That meant he had to become one of us. Think about that. The one in the position of power and privilege “emptied himself,” as the hymn says, “of all but love, and bled for us.” To save us, he became one us and died for us.
In another place, Paul said that this concept was his modus operandi as well:
“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.” And just a few verses later he says, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”1 Corinthians 9:19-20, 22
Jesus, therefore, is asking you and me the exact same thing that Paul was asking Philemon.
What will you and I do about this? We are the Philemons of our day. The time has come for us to welcome the Onesimuses around us as dear brothers. It might not mean they come to our church. Maybe it will. But what will it mean? Ask God to show you. Ask God to give you his eyes, to see people and situations as he sees them, to act in love to all, because in his eyes all are equal.
So we would do well to ask ourselves, who do we struggle with? Who do we look down on? Who do we think we are better than? There are so many ways Paul’s letter to Philemon can apply.
It could be people of a different ethnicity. And it could be people of a different gender. Perhaps you struggle with people who are of a different generation. How about those of a different socioeconomic status? Maybe people who speak a different language. What about the immigrants, the asylum seekers, the refugees? It could be those struggling with homelessness, divorce, bad choices, or a financial struggle.
Who will you stand beside and welcome? Who will you embrace as a dear brother or sister?
Let’s conclude hearing Paul’s words again, starting:
“[Treat Onesimus] 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. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.”Philemon 16-20