Today we are finishing up our series on partnership with God. We have walked around this concept, inviting processing of the many complexities in partnership with God.
Our first story was the feeding of the 5000. We talked about how easy it is to assume that God just needs us to get out of the way. The reality that is shown over and over and over again in scripture is that while God knows our issues, shortcomings, weaknesses, limitations, and struggles, He still persists in partnership with us. While God could do it all, He entrusts and empowers us.
In this story, Jesus was surrounded by thousands of people. The need for them to eat something was obvious to all. The disciples saw the impossibility. But Jesus, in partnership, took what they had–what a boy had–5 loaves and 2 fish. He had the disciples distribute it and collect the leftovers. Jesus could have rolled his eyes at the perspective and attitude of the disciples and just “zap” fed all the people, or He could have rolled his eyes at what the boy had and “zap” a buffet line appeared. Jesus could have said, “You wait here.” But instead, the pattern that happens over and over and over again in scripture is a clear partnership between humanity and God.
Next, we looked at Joseph’s life, the incredible ups and downs, the successes and failures, the unexpected roadblocks and the unexpected favor, all leading to this moment of provision for his family as famine was crushing the area.
It is so easy to give up–but even when we give up it’s not over. It is so easy to feel like we are failing–but even when we are failing it's not over. It is so easy to feel like our failures have doomed us–but even when they have it’s not over. It is so easy to feel like everyone is against us–but even when they are it’s not over. It is so easy to feel like our past is coming back to bite us–but even when it is it’s not over.
Joseph’s story is a story of it not being over in partnership with God. Our story is a story of partnership with God, and it’s not over!
The following week, we looked at Jacob, a person that was declared to be blessed and set apart even before his birth. And then for the rest of his life, he works, fights, steals, and buys what was already given to him.
In the first week we saw how easy it is to think that God can’t use us: “You wait here.” But in Jacob’s story, we see him looking at God and saying, “You wait here. I got this.” We saw how partnership with God is His entrusting us, but it is also our entrusting Him.
Then last week we looked at the narrative of some friends and/or family bringing a paralyzed man and getting him before Jesus. This is a story of Jesus’ power showing He is truly God, truly the Messiah. But it is also a story of persistent help from others. Our partnership with God has impact on others.
It is so easy to come up with excuses. It is so easy to give up or to see things as a sign that it should not happen. It is so easy to give it some effort, but quit just a little early. We see in the narrative an intense drive to get their friend/family member before Jesus. And in our partnership with God, our persistence is key and it has impact on others–an impact on our local.
Before we jump into today, I want you to think a little about who you are: your personality, temperament, and tendencies. There are many different personality tests, but I just want you to think about whether you’re more task-oriented or people-oriented, and whether you’re more outgoing or reserved. Where do you fall in these descriptions?
Task-oriented and outgoing: Results, Competitive, Direct
Task-oriented and reserved: Accurate, Cautious, Contemplative
People-oriented and outgoing: Enthusiastic, Friendly, Optimistic
People-oriented and reserved: Sincere, Patient, Modest
Which of these sounds most like you? Are you between two or three of them?
Now we are going to dialogue for a moment, but not really about your personality. Instead, who is complementary in partnership with someone like you? You are working on a project, or you are building something. You are assembling the team.
What type of person is complementary in partnership with someone like you when working on a project?
Today, our last week in this series, we are looking at a short letter Paul wrote to Philemon. It’s just one chapter, 25 verses. Paul wrote a letter to the church of Colossae–Colossians–and along with that came a note to Philemon. In this short letter, Paul points out a key attribute to partnership with God and it is partnership with each other–not just being willing to work with each other but also seeing each other as valuable, equal, important, essential, with no superiority complexes.
Before we jump into this text, let me ask you a few questions to help us process what we are looking at today. We already talked about ideal partners in working on a project. Now let’s process some less-than-ideal partner moments.
How does it impact you when you are partnered on a project with someone who thinks they are superior to you in every way? How does it impact the project?
How does it impact you when you are partnered on a project with someone you are “obviously” superior to in every way? How does it impact the project?
Now after a superiority complex moment when partnership has been broken or hasn’t really worked–now what? Is it over forever? Is there opportunity to recover, to become healthy? Is there opportunity to change?
How does a partnership recover / become healthy after there was a superiority complex moment?
Today we’re talking about a broken relationship between a guy named Onesimus and a guy named Philemon. And it’s a complicated discussion because it involves a slave, slavery, and his owner.
This is in Roman times–the story of Onesimus takes place around A.D. 55, a time when slavery was commonplace in Rome. Somewhere between 10% and 33% of the people living in Rome at that time were slaves. People might be born into slavery; they might have been on the losing side of a war; they may have become a slave because of debt.
Slavery was a group of people without rights, seen as property to another group of people.
And while there are some scholars that say some slave owners treated their slaves well or like part of the family, they were still seen as property.
And we wish in this letter Paul would have declared how horrific slavery was and ended it in the Christian communities. But he didn’t. What he did do is call for a deeper change in the heart, rather than just a change of law–a move from slavery: owning, oppression, and superiority to partnership: connection, valued, cherished, forgiven, relationship.
We don’t know the full story of Onesimus, but we do know he ran away from his owner Philemon, in Colossae. He ran away knowing it could be punishable by death. And he might have grabbed some cash on the way out the door, something to survive on. And he shows up in Rome, running into Paul while Paul was under house arrest.
Onesimus is afraid and he’s looking for help. He stays with Paul for a while. Paul builds a relationship with Onesimus, and he walks with Onesimus into the faith as a follower of Jesus. He learns that Onesimus ran away from Colossae, from a man named Philemon, a person who Paul had just happened to lead to faith on a visit to Ephesus and who was a leader in the church in Colossae.
Paul and Onesimus become so close that Paul sees Onesimus as his son. At a time when Paul is alone in Rome, under house arrest, Onesimus shows up bringing friendship and family.
But Paul also sees the story of Jesus as a story of reconciliation: restoring relationship; restoring relationship with God. Paul doesn’t see this as something for other people–he sees it in and for himself.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15-16)
And that grace from Jesus is a call to be gracious to others. Paul talks about it in Romans 12:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:17-20)
So coming back to this letter, Philemon–Paul believes Onesimus needs to return to Philemon and reconcile the broken relationship between himself and Philemon. And really, this could be a lose-lose-lose situation. Paul loses his friend, this person that has become a son to him. Onesimus is punished, possibly even killed. Philemon is angry, hurts others and his church community, and he’s put in an awkward situation.
But Paul believes that reconciliation and community must be aimed for. He sends this letter to Philemon, along with Onesimus and Tychicus in hopes to secure a safe return to Colossae for Onesimus. In this letter, we see that Paul is thankful for Philemon, for his faith and love. He holds him in high regard, and he’s encouraged by him.
In verse 6, Paul writes that he prays that the partnership that springs forth from your faith may effectively lead you to recognize all the good things at work in us, leading us to the Messiah. This partnership Paul writes about comes from the Greek word koinonia. Paul is talking about more than business partners or co-workers. This is more of a family–a family that goes beyond any traditional stereotypes or cultural norms. This is a partnership for all the followers of Christ, that ALL followers are equal partners, sharing in the gift of God’s grace and love.
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your (Philemon) partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. (Philemon 1:4-7)
He tells Philemon that Onesimus has become like a son to him, that sending Onesimus to Philemon is like sending his very heart.
I appeal to you to show kindness to my child, Onesimus. I became his father in the faith while here in prison. Onesimus hasn’t been of much use to you in the past, but now he is very useful to both of us. I am sending him back to you, and with him comes my own heart. (Philemon 1:10-12)
And in spite of the fact that Philemon owned Onesimus and Onesimus ran away and stole Philemon’s money, Paul asks Philemon to not only forgive Onesimus, but he says Onesimus is no longer a slave and he asks Philemon to welcome him as a brother.
He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. (Philemon 1:16)
He asks Philemon to welcome him as he would welcome Paul, because of their partnership. Again the same word koinonia is used because they are equal partners, because they are family, because they share in the gift of God’s love and grace.
Welcome Onesimus as you would me. Onesimus is an equal partner, he’s part of the family, he shares in the gift of God’s love and grace.
So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. (Philemon 1:17)
And then Paul goes one step further–he agrees to absorb any cost that Philemon is owed because of anything Onesimus has stolen.
Now if he has defrauded you of anything or owes you anything, charge what he owes to me. (Philemon 1:18)
Paul reenacts what Jesus did for us, reconciling Onesimus to Philemon. Paul takes on any costs that Onesimus incurred when he took from Philemon, so they can be reconciled.
What do you feel and/or how do you respond when you are not seen as an equal?
What do you feel and/or how do you respond when you are seen as an equal?
At the same time this letter to Philemon was delivered, another letter was delivered to the Colossian church. This letter gives some guidance to how to live your life as a follower of Christ. But a section that stands out to me, in light of the letter written to Philemon, is in Colossians 3.
Here there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all. (Colossians 3:11)
And quickly following this is this beautiful list of how we care about each other.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14)
I imagine this letter to the Colossians was read first, quickly followed by the letter to Philemon.
Paul gives instructions to the whole church on how to live together in partnership, how to treat each other, and how they see each other–preparing Philemon’s heart for the difficult letter he’s about to receive, guiding him specifically on forgiving and welcoming Onesimus as his brother.
Both of them are being asked to let go of the wrongs done to them in the past.
And when we look at Jesus with His disciples, He set the example of what it looks like to live in this partnership. He told his disciples that they are loved, and that they are to love each other as Jesus had loved them. He included them in his family: “You are my friends.”
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:9-15)
We see Paul directing the Colossians to live in partnership together, to work through their differences, and to see each other as family. We see Jesus counting the disciples as His friends. Now we reflect on our own communities. What does our community look like when we reflect these qualities? When we love each other as Jesus loved us, with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. When we bring new people in and treat them as friends, not excluding anyone. When we see each other as equals. When we see that Christ is in all and for all. When we have grace for each other’s differences. When we are made complete in each other’s differences.
So let’s step into this last question about when someone has treated you in the way laid out in Colossians 3.
What do you feel and/or how do you respond when you experience grace for your inferiority?
Take It Deeper Questions
- Read Philemon 1 and Colossians 3:1-14.
- Check out the Bible Project video on Philemon on bibleproject.com.
- What makes someone avoid another person at the grocery store?
- Have you experienced a conflict that felt too difficult to work through?
- What needed to happen to help resolve the conflict?
- How did your relationship feel after working through tough things?
- What does our community look like when we work through and accept differences?
Bible Reading Plan
- 1 Kings 13
- 1 Kings 14
- 1 Kings 15
- 1 Kings 16
- 1 Kings 17