Once more we reach the middle of another week and I invite you as in previous weeks to set aside some time to pray about what is going on in the wider world and our own land, as well as for ourselves and the local community in which we live.
Philemon 17 …welcome him as you would welcome me.
Where do I begin in living out my faith in a context of institutional racism and a total disregard for the poor and marginalised? This was the social context in the Roman world in which the Christian faith began and spread across the urban centres of the empire in the first century AD.
When we add into the mix that most Christians at that time were enslaved persons with no rights at all as human beings under Roman law then there appears to be no chance they can contribute anything to the public debate.
We might add, how should American Christians respond to the appalling and tragic events unfolding in their country just now in the light of the killing of George Floyd? Or how should we as Christians serve our communities during the Covid-19 virus pandemic? There is a book of the New Testament that speaks powerfully into the social content then and now and suggests a way to move these issues forward in our local communities today.
This letter of Paul has a special place in his writings as it is not a formal treatise to a congregation or group of congregations covering a range of doctrinal and practical topics. Instead, it is a personal letter that may have been intended to be a private communication to this man and his family.
Its survival almost certainly results from the success of Paul’s request that the two men are reconciled. Ignatius the bishop of Antioch martyred approximately 108AD wrote a letter referring to Onesimus as the current Bishop (pastor) of the Church in Ephesus (Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians 1:3).
This would imply that at a date unknown Philemon had set him free to serve in wider Christian work in the neighbouring country of Turkey. Had I been in Onesimus’ shoes I would have wanted a personal copy of it as his life and future depended on the success of Paul’s plea to his friend and fellow Christian concerning Onesimus, legally a slave in the possession of Philemon, but now officially a fugitive on the run from his master and potentially at risk of being killed if captured before he arrived back at his owner’s home. There are other letters in the Bible, for example 2 John and 3 John, but none carry the incredible social implications invested in this short communication between two friends.
What is it that Paul asks here? He asks this man to welcome home a young man who is very likely to have behaved inappropriately in the past, incidents of which Philemon will be able to recall with ease, but now as Onesimus has been converted to the Christian faith his actions reflect his name. Useless has truly become ‘useful’.
Paul admits that he would like to keep Onesimus with him to assist in his work. Maybe he was even hoping that his friend would suggest that. But what is not in dispute is that Paul was asking Philemon to put to one side Onesimus’ failures from the past and going forward to treat him as if he was Paul himself coming to that home.
These words speak powerfully to our lives and how we conduct relationships with one another. Do I keep retaining negative feelings to another believer because of their past failings, even though they may have apologised at the time or sometime later? If the answer is ‘yes’, then I need to ask myself to reflect on the wonderful gospel of grace we proclaim and challenge myself to live more closely to it in my daily life.
Paul does not ask for Onesimus to be freed, although he believed enslavement was wrong; instead he asks for something greater. Treat Onesimus in your home as if he were me your long lost friend! Allow him to stay in your home as a brother in Christ not as a slave. This was an explosive request! Like a soldier pulling the pin out of a hand grenade and tossing it around in an ammunition factory! It was also a Christian request.
The letter to Philemon shows that the gospel has significant applications to our daily lives. We are called to live out our faith not just when it is easy, but also when it is incredibly hard as well. For example, in a context of institutionalised racism to ask how can I help break down the barriers? In this context a Christian might ask: Do I have any friends or acquaintances of a different ethnic background and if not can I make friends with someone from whom I might learn so much about their understanding of current affairs? If we don’t it becomes significantly more difficult to ‘stand in someone else’s shoes’ and see things from their perspective.
A local church might ask how can we identify with the poor and needy? It was an obvious step to take when our church was invited to be a partner in our local food bank during the current Covid-19 virus pandemic. Do you need to ask for prayer concerning issues over which you are struggling right now?
All of us at times know the right course of action to take, but wonder how on earth we can actually accomplish it! Thinking of the society in which we live, is there an issue or situation in our land where the gospel brings a deep challenge to the majority view in our nation? Is there something I can do to make a difference whether it is something small or something much larger? Remember the significance of this one letter from Paul to Philemon – you can be a world-changer one person at a time!
Our song for reflection today is: ‘Filled with compassion’
Pointers for our Prayers
• For whom or what are you particularly thankful this week? Let the Lord know!
• Continue to pray for the Government in Scotland and in the wider UK and for their clinical and scientific advisers, that they may have wisdom to lead us effectively especially now as we are starting to emerge out of lock down.
• Pray for the political, religious and other community leaders in the USA as they seek to navigate a way through the tragic events that have engulfed their country. Pray for individual Americans as they seek through friendships to build bridges across the ethnic divides that exist in many communities. Pray for people in other countries including our own that we also seek to model good relationships with people of different ethnic or cultural backgrounds.
• Pray for our NHS and Social Care Staff as they continue to serve so willingly the many people under their care. We particularly remember Hannah A and the social care staff who have been caring for very vulnerable people under extreme pressures in the last few weeks. We pray that they and all other workers in our country may be renewed in their health and strength.
• Pray for John G’s daughters Nicola and Alison and their families at this time as they prepare for his funeral on 6 June. We thank God for the short time John was a member of our congregation while living in Lochleven Care Home.
• Pray for Jan and Mark F and other members of Jim’s family at this time. We also pray for Betty and Scott R, Betty W, Eloise P, Elizabeth F and their families following recent bereavements.
• Pray for those in the church undergoing tests or treatments in hospitals as well as those in need of tests or other forms of treatment including surgery who are having to wait much longer to get the medical support they need.
• Pray for those ill with the Covid-19 virus that they may soon regain their health and strength. We pray also for people with other health conditions that they may also have access to the medical care they require at this time. We continue to remember older members who are required to be at home or in care homes that they may not feel discouraged or forgotten by their friends and families who are unable to visit them. We pray also for Ali T’s parents, Jude R’s grandma and Isdale A’s dad;
• Pray for teachers and pupils, and lecturers and students, at different levels of education especially those known to you. That they may be able to work adequately online. Help them to overcome the challenges of technology and the difficulties of communicating effectively through online learning. Help parents also trying to work from home alongside supporting their children doing schoolwork.
• We pray for the emotional and mental health of our nation, especially those of whatever age who are particularly struggling to cope with the lock down and the inability to meet with their families or friends.
• Pray for ourselves that we always make time each day to read His word and spend time in His presence.
• Pray in advance for the online meetings and activities throughout this week and the service next Sunday