Sermon Text: Mr. Useful
If I see a movie I really like on a DVD, I admit that I will also enjoy all the extras they put on DVDs and blu-rays. I like getting the background from the director, the writers, the special effects people, and the actors.
Anybody else like to see that stuff? Okay, maybe I’m a nerd. Actually, I’m sure I’m a nerd. I mean, I have loved studying the New Testament since I was about 18. That’s pretty nerdy, right?
The New Testament is a fascinating collection of 27 documents. And today, I want to give you a behind-the-scenes extra on one of those documents. Maybe we can package this as an extra for a future New Testament DVD.
We just heard the letter of Paul to Philemon. It’s a real letter to a real person, so we’re reading someone else’s mail. Let me take you behind the scenes of how it was written.
Paul wrote it from jail. He was often in trouble for his preaching. While he was in jail, he met a young man named Onesimus. Onesimus was a runaway slave. Paul happened to know the owner of Onesimus. The slaveowner’s name was Philemon, and Philemon is the one to whom Paul is writing this short letter.
The letter was apparently treasured and saved, and eventually was included in the NT documents. After all, it came from the hand of Paul the apostle!
Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon, and he wrote this note for Onesimus to take along. So Paul writes to Philemon that while he and Onesimus shared a cell, Paul led Onesimus to become a Christian. And now this boy is like a son to him, Paul says. Sending him away is like giving his own heart away.
Paul even makes a joke about the slave’s name. The word “Onesimus” means “useful.” Paul writes to Philemon that young Mr. Useful is so useful, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do without him.
Now, Paul does not come right out and SAY what he wants Philemon to do, but he drops some pretty broad hints. Paul writes, “I wanted to keep him with me, so he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel....But I prefer to do nothing without your consent.” Hint, hint, hint.
Then Paul writes, “Yes, my brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord....Refresh my heart in Christ.” Hint, hint, hint. Paul wants Philemon to welcome Onesimus home not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ.
Now, Paul sometimes drives me crazy. Why didn’t he come out and say that slavery is an evil abomination? He seems to accept slavery in all his writings with no qualms. (In fact, Jesus seems to do the same thing.) It took human beings centuries of struggle and growth to realize that slavery is evil. I guess Paul was just a man of his own time.
So...what did Philemon do? We don’t know. However, since the letter was saved and eventually included in our sacred writings, at least we are sure the letter was honored and treasured.
And now I come to the extras, the behind-the-scenes information for our extended edition blu-ray of the New Testament. Years after the apostle Paul had died, another Christian leader was in jail. His name was Ignatius, and he was a bishop.
It was about the year 110. Ignatius wrote some letters from his jail cell, like Paul did. Seven of those letters survive, and they are among the first Christian writings after the New Testament.
While Ignatius was in prison, he had some visitors. They were sent by another bishop, the bishop of Ephesus. Ignatius was thankful for the visit, and he wrote his thanks to the bishop of Ephesus. And he asked if a couple of them could stay longer.
This is where it gets interesting. Ignatius used some of the same words and phrases that Paul had used in his letter from jail to Philemon. Must be Ignatius wanted the bishop of Ephesus to remember that old letter to Philemon about the slave boy Onesimus.
And here’s the cool part: The name of the bishop of Ephesus to whom Ignatius was writing?
Of course, it might not be the same person. But Onesimus was not all that common a name. So maybe — just maybe — the slave boy Onesimus who became a Christian was now grown old and became bishop of Ephesus.
I love that! It means that Onesimus, Mr. Useful, was very, very useful indeed. Paul had been kind to Philemon. Philemon was kind to Paul by freeing Onesimus. And Onesimus passed the kindness on by refreshing the hearts of two great Christian leaders all those years apart: Paul and Ignatius, both in prison.
So there’s a point to this extra background for our NT blu-ray.
Kindness spreads. It’s like ripples in a pond. It’s contagious. An act of kindness is given, and then passed on to someone else, who passes it on to someone else.
Paul to Onesimus, Onesimus to Philemon, Philemon to Paul, Onesimus to Ignatius.
Now, I don’t know about you, but a lot of people have been very kind to me. I need kindness to get by. So do you. And so does everyone else.
Paying it back is not as important as paying it forward. I hope we can keep the ripples of kindness and compassion moving outward.
Maybe that’s the way God wants to change the world. That’s not just a program on a DVD. That’s a program for the whole world.