Philemon Love

(A response to a question)

I don’t recall ever hearing a sermon based on Philemon, and I probably wouldn’t have started this study but for this question from a friend: 
“verse 7 says, ‘Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.’[1]  So, what was Philemon doing that refreshed the hearts of the people?”  
Thank you, Joan Remnant, for drawing my attention to this significant epistle. [2]  

However, before I answer Joan’s question, I must address a matter that will worry many people – slavery.  Paul sent the letter by the hand of Onesimus, who had been Philemon’s household slave.  Why didn’t Paul condemn slavery?  Feelings about slavery remain strong today, and with good reason.  The transatlantic slave trade was a shameful exercise of racism and greed.  The racism hasn’t yet been eradicated, and the commercial greed is only just being fully acknowledged.  But slavery in the Roman empire wasn’t seen in the same light.  Owning a slave was regarded as normal, and as a “right”, much as we regard the owning of a motor vehicle.  Rather than campaigning for abolition, Christians argued for good treatment of slaves – and Philemon seems to have been a kind master.[3]

Philemon’s name isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, and this short letter from Paul has little doctrinal content – so what can we learn from it?  Paul didn’t talk about Philemon’s actions.  Rather, he focused on his motivation.  Philemon loved, and his love refreshed God’s people.  That raises a question about how we relate to our church and the tasks we undertake in it.  Many of us serve, but what motivates our service?  We are not told what Philemon did in the church.  He doesn’t seem to have been a church elder, there’s no evidence that he had a teaching or prophetic ministry, and there’s no hint that the local church might have met in his home.  All we are told is that he loved the people.

Churches can be busy.  There’s a lot to organise and a lot to do.  We sometimes hear the doers complaining that there aren’t enough volunteers to keep up with the work.  But that is to look on the outward appearance.  The important question isn’t, “What job do you do?”, but, “Do you love God’s people?”  Those who love God’s people will be motivated to express their love in service, but what sort of service?  It may be that we take on those duties that are thought to be essential to the running of the church.  But we may be called to provide services that are unseen or unnoticed, like encouraging, or hospitality, or prayer.  Who sees the time that you spend in prayer?  If we love God’s people, we will serve them as God intends.  Service should follow the same rules as giving.  Remember Paul’s advice – not that God loves a giver, but that he loves a cheerful giver [4] – yes, he does, and a cheerful doer too.

So how did Philemon’s love refresh the people?  It wasn’t just that he served them, but the fact that it was the right service.  When we serve from the heart (meaning, with love) we don’t just tick off tasks from a list.  We spread God’s grace.  We bring his very presence into the area we occupy.  There may be times when we are asked to take on a task or accept an appointment and the right response is to say, “No”, so as to keep ourselves free to obey our calling.  Ask yourself, “Is this a job I will be able to do with cheerfulness, without complaining?”  Each of us has a ministry that God specifically means us to do, and for which he has given us the right talents.  A calling is a skill provoked by love.

Paul had spent time in Philemon’s House. He knew what Philemon could do well, and he knew what attitudes Philemon brought to his service.  He recognised Philemon’s love and saw how that warmed the hearts of those around him.  His love built their faith.  His love refreshed them.  For those of us who may be “just members” of the church, it’s encouraging to know how much difference we can make by “simply” loving our companions in faith. Love affects how we look, how we speak, and how we pray – and it refreshes the church.

© Derrick Phillips 2022

[1] Philemon 7 (New King James version)
[2] Many thanks to Mrs Joan Remnant of Orpington, a long term friend.
[3] This is implied by the fact that Onesimus was returning voluntarily, without an escort.
[4] 2 Corinthians 9:7

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