A Place To Call Home (Insights From Philemon)

God has placed within us all a longing to belong. Sometimes we feel it in our families; sometimes we don’t. The same goes for school, work, social circles, and church. We long for that place that will always take care of us and never leave us.  A place where we don’t have to wear make-up, and we can wear sweats until supper time. In this sense, home is something bigger than “house” or “family” or “what I know.” Home is a place we want to go, and when we leave, we want to return.  

When Paul writes to Philemon about how Philemon was to welcome Onesimus back, he’s talking about building a home, a koinonos, a community of  people with common interests, feelings, work and heart (v.17)). It’s an active word, an event word, a group word. It is not passive, solo or selfish.  It’s about life together in Christ within a church community. And in order for that life to be a meaningful reflection of God's heart for the world,several key things must be in place.

Equality (in Christ)

 Paul wrote to Philemon, “Open your heart to [Onesimus] as you would welcome me…accept him as a brother…” There are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. We all bear his image. Christ died for all of us. We all are made righteous because of what Christ has done, not what we can offer. None of us can earn our way into heaven or grace. True church community doesn’t elevate men or women, rich or poor, extroverts or introverts, blue-collar or white-collar, single or married, pastor or parishioner.  True church community doesn’t put people on a pedestal based on background or education.

 This can be hard. We might want to be noticed. We might want to believe we simply are better than others. We might want to be able to rule… but that’s not communion. That’s not self-sacrificial, broken living for the sake of those around us. We give up our right to pride, to be noticed, to be seen. We give up pointing out our background or degree or importance. We give up our expectations that others serve us. We give our claims to power. 

In a church community of genuine communion, we will do our best to make sure the ground is level at the foot of the Cross.  When we look up, all we should see above us is Christ.  When we look down, all we should see below us is dirt. All around – those whom Christ loves. That, I think, would feel like home.

Trust (in Christ)

Paul noted that God may have been at work in this situation in ways that Philemon did not understand: “Perhaps that is why [Onesimus] is parted from you.”  The verb in Greek indicates that God parted Onesimus from Philemon. In other words, God is often at work in ways we don’t understand. We should be actively looking to see what good God is bringing out of situations that look bad – which also means actively looking to see what God is doing in even those who have hurt and offended us.

This is not easy. It’s one thing to look for how Christ is working in the beautiful people who make you happy, but the ugly ones who tick you off? Really? The person who gossiped about me? Overlooked me? Said some things that really hurt me? Shamed me? Who betrayed me? We must give up our right to anger, judgment, bearing a grudge, giving excuses, getting even, hoping for something bad to happen. 

Trust reminds us that God might be working in their life too. This good news for all of us. For every time I trust God in the midst of a situation like that, someone else is trusting God about me in the midst of a situation that I cause. We are all in this together. This doesn’t mean that God causes every situation.  And trusting that God is present and working is different from not speaking truth or enabling ongoing bad behavior around us. But I think we would be surprised at the things that are redeemable.

In a church community of genuine communion, everyone will be looking to see God at work in the lives of others in the midst of their sins and imperfections. That, I think, would feel like home.

Love (from Christ)

 The Greeks always had a pragmatic reason for doing loving things:

  • hospitality made trade and travel safer
  • self-sacrifice in war helped create military machines
  • the love of children or parents kept households together
  • male friendships were the basis of politics and business.

 Paul had a different approach. He says, “I choose to appeal to you on account of love” and then shows Philemon what the love Paul was talking about looks like. “And if he has wronged you or owes you anything, charge it to me. Look, I’ll put it here in my own handwriting: I, Paul, promise to repay you everything.”

 “Charge it to me,” is a commercial term of paying the debt of another. When Paul “wrote with his own hand” (v.19), it was a legal promissory note that Philemon could use in a civil suit and sue Paul for the money (or Paul’s estate, if Paul died).  Who would show love for the sake of showing love? Who would embrace someone else as part of their family if there was no practical payoff? Where did Paul get the idea that a third party could pay the debt of another? From Christ, or course, who died for us all while we were sinners, dead in our trespasses and sins.

One sign that we understand the gospel is that we don’t simply know about it – we live it. We try to find ways to embody Christ’s commitment, love and sacrifice for those around us.  We are committed to a life that imitates Christ’s death by being broken and spilled out so that others may live. When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he had quite a bit to say about love. Among other things he wrote, “Love patient, love is kind; love is not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. It does insist on its own way, and it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

But there’s an interesting twist when it comes to translations. In 1 Corinthians 13, there are no adjectives in the Greek. We translate them that way (“Love is patient”), but in the Greek it’s a mass of verbs, things love does and does not do. At one point Paul even takes what would normally be two Greek adjectives and makes a new verb. It should read something like this: “Love patients; love kinds; love does not envy, boast, act arrogantly or rudely. It does not insist on its own way; it does not act irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

 That’s the kind of love where people are breaking off a piece of their heart constantly for others. It’s not a place where you show up and take and absorb and simply accept the sacrifice of others. It’s a place where you accept and give.  You receive to pass it on. It’s a church community where we seek to bear burdens that are not ours, to pick up the pieces when we didn’t break it.  It’s a church community where we say, “Charge it to me. I will spend time in nursery with kids that aren’t mine, and bring food to a potluck when I know others don’t, and mentor someone who should have known better.”

It’s a church community where we choose to bear the weight of grace not because there is something in it for us, but because Christ bore the ultimate weight of our sins and gave us the greatest grace of forgiveness and salvation – and we have opportunity to do what we can in remembrance of Him. 

That, I think, would feel like home.