Monday, September 30, 2013

St. Michael and All Angels (Daniel 10:10-14, 12:1-3)

“At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there will be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this festival of St. Michael and All Angels comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the tenth and twelfth chapters of the prophet Daniel. Dear friends in Christ, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, may angels watch me through the night, and keep me till the morning light, Amen.” “Let your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me, Amen.” Angels have a prominent place in our prayers, especially the prayers that we say at night; the idea of a guardian angel is a popular one, and we heard of them from Jesus’ own lips in our Gospel lesson: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”

But do we really believe in guardian angels, or any kind of angels for that matter? Living in a modern, scientific world, angels are a bit embarrassing, to say the least. Those around us will more readily believe in some sort of God than they will believe in an entire unseen realm of good and evil, acting for or against us. God we can keep up in heaven, but the angels are supposed to be right with us, as we teach the children to pray, and people will think that you are a bit crazy if you claim to have an angel following you around. And so the angels become only the subject of beautiful, sentimental stories and artwork. We give them wings, even though most angels in Scripture are not described with wings, we make them women or little children, forgetting that angels, being spirits, have no gender, but are often described as men in the Bible. We even claim that we will become angels, even though Scripture certainly says no such thing. I think, and this is only a theory, that the reason why we sentimentalize angels is because we are embarrassed by them, and deep down, we have trouble believing that they exist.

We humans, especially we modern humans, are much better at dealing with those things that we can see. And what we can see is the fulfillment of what Christ said to Daniel. “And there shall be a time of trouble, such has never been since there was a nation till our time.” Jesus is speaking to Daniel about the latter days, the time that we are living in right now, between Christ’s first coming and His second. We know the truth of what the Son of God is saying: these are truly troubled times. It seems as if we cannot go very long without another shooting, another terror attack, another natural disaster. The entire planet seems to be writhing in pain, and our fellow Christians certainly are suffering terribly. The gunmen at the mall in Nairobi killed immediately all who professed the name of Christ, and just last week a bomb killed almost a hundred Christians outside of a church in Pakistan. Closer to home, we deal with cancer and other diseases, we are in car accidents, we are surrounded by death. Relationships are torn apart by words and actions; we fear for our children, threatened by bullies and predators. It’s a scary world out there!

But there is more going on here than meets the eyes. In fact, if we simply rely on our eyes to tell us about this time of trouble, we are missing the point, and we are unaware of the real danger. The Scriptures show us the reality; in our text, Jesus pulls back the veil to teach us who is truly at work in all the troubles of this troubled world. He explains His delay in coming to Daniel by telling the prophet He was fighting a battle. “The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me for twenty-one days.” This is no earthly prince; this is a demon, a servant of Satan, operating in the unseen realm to thwart the purposes of God. What we see with our eyes is terror, rampart immorality, and trouble on every side. What we don’t see is the one who is working behind the scenes, in the invisible realm, working toward his own purposes. Satan is active behind every terror attack and natural disaster; he is a liar and a murderer from the beginning, and he delights in human suffering.

Satan is after our faith; he wants to isolate us, to divide us from our God, dragging us to hell with him. The biggest threat of this troubled world is not against our body or life, but against our soul. St. Paul teaches us in Ephesians: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Satan enjoys watching Christians suffer and even die, but if they die in faith, all is lost. He would rather see us live comfortable lives in unbelief than troubled lives in faith. The main attack is not what you can see, it is what is unseen, and that unseen assault makes all the difference, for behind the veil, you are dealing with issues of heaven and hell.

An invisible attack can only be countered by an invisible defense. This is where St. Michael and All Angels come in. Jesus tells Daniel: “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people.” St. Michael leads the angels in defense of the saints; they fight for us against all the forces of evil arrayed around us. When we think of a guardian angel, we usually think of a stoic, kind face, watching us peacefully. The popular conception is that these watchful angels spring into action when we are threatened by physical danger, like a car accident or fire. But the picture that Scripture gives us is much different. While God and His angels are certainly concerned with physical danger, much more important are the spiritual threats. Jesus teaches this in Matthew chapter ten: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Our picture of these angels then needs to be adjusted as well; these creatures, servants of God most high, do worship God in the peace and glory of heaven, but in this troubled world, they are made for combat, combat against Satan and for us; we should see a face of steel, a face of terror to his foes, and a drawn sword.

These warrior angels have only one goal, and it is the goal of God Himself: our salvation. “At that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.” The angels are to protect us in this world of trouble from every attack of our demonic enemies, guarding Christ’s little flock until they reach the eternal green pastures. They go to war for us with only one goal: our salvation. “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”

God pulls back the veil for us in the book of Revelation; we see what is really happening behind the scenes in the invisible realm, namely victory, the victory of St. Michael and all angels against the dragon and all of our foes. But their victory in the invisible realm, behind the veil, is only won because of what happens in the visible realm. The picture of triumphant victory in heaven is simply the result of what happened on earth, upon a cross, on a Friday we call good. This victory isn’t won by St. Michael’s might, but by Jesus’ suffering. “And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.’” It is Christ’s victory in visible suffering that gives the angels victory in an invisible war.

St. Michael and all angels are simply enacting in heaven what was accomplished on earth: Christ’s death on your behalf, conquering Satan once and for all. He can no longer accuse you before your Father in heaven, he can no longer condemn you to hell; even death itself is robbed of its power, it has no hold on God’s saints. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of sky above, and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” On the Last Day, we won’t become angels, but truly human, resurrected to live bodily forever, joining the angels in praise to our God for eternity. The distinction between the invisible and visible realms will be no more, the veil will be torn, forever.

St. Michael’s name means “Who is like God?” and you can imagine his mighty voice shouting that question as his battle cry as he drove Satan from the holy environs of heaven. Who is like God, the creator of the universe? Who is like God, who in loving mercy promised redemption after the world was plunged into sin? Who is like God, who hung upon the cross for the salvation of all? Who is like God, who sends His holy ones to protect His people, and then, on the Last Day, will raise them all up to live with Him forever? Who is like God? No one. So don’t get rid of your angel statues and artwork; the angels are worthy of celebration and honor, but remember why: they are dread warriors of God most high, who engage your enemies on your behalf, defending you from spiritual attack. They bear not a harp in this troubled world, but a mighty sword; their face is not peace, but terror to their foes. And they go to war for you with confidence in ultimate victory, not by their own strength, but only because of Christ. Their victory in heaven’s war was only possible by the shed blood of the Lamb; they can only triumph in their combat in these latter days because they fight an enemy who is already defeated, whose days are numbered. Who is like God, who sends us the angels, to protect us, to fight for us, to worship with us, now and forever? In the name of Jesus, the Lamb who was slain to give the angels victory, to give us victory, now and forever, Amen.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The importance of the external Word

More on the importance of the external Word, again from Against the Heavenly Prophets.  This is largely a treatise on the external Word, over against those who would base their doctrines on examples from Christ and the saints (see the last post) or on the 'inner voice of the Spirit,' setting them against God's external Word as revealed in the Scripture.  Luther's insights are as applicable today as they were when Luther first penned them.

"When God sends forth His Holy Gospel He deals with us in a twofold manner, first outwardly, then inwardly.  Outwardly He deals with us through the oral Word of the Gospel and through material signs, that is, Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar.  Inwardly He deals with us through the Holy Spirit, faith, and other gifts.  But whatever their measure or order the outward factors should and must precede.  The inward experience follows and is effected by the outward.  God has determined to give the inward to no one except through the outward.  For He wants to give no one the Spirit or faith outside of the outward Word and sign instituted by Him, for He says in Luke 16:29, 'Let them hear Moses and the prophets.'"

(Luther's Works, Vol. 40, pg. 146)

Christ as example?

This fascinating quotation from Luther comes from his treatise Against the Heavenly Prophets.  Is Christ our example?  Not apart from His Word.

"We are of the opinion that it is not necessary to do or refrain from doing all that Christ has done or refrained from doing...  We will admit no example, not even from Christ Himself, much less from other saints, for it must be accompanied by God's Word, which explains to us in what sense we are to follow or not to follow it.  We do not consider works and examples adequate, indeed we do not want to follow any example: we want the Word, for the sake of which all works, examples, and miracles occur.  For certainly He is sufficiently wise and articulate, and able to anticipate the future so as to indicate in words everything which is commanded or forbidden."

(Luther's Works, Vol. 40, pgs. 131-132)

Monday, September 16, 2013

Proper 19 of Series C (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of Paul’s first letter to Saint Timothy. Dear friends in Christ, imagine that you are in prison. Now this prison is filled with hardened criminals, each one of them, including you, condemned to death. Let me repeat: every prisoner in that building is on death row. But there is one that is worse than others. One of the prisoners is a heinous criminal, who has committed unspeakable acts. Everyone in that prison knows who he is; everyone knows what he has done, and there is no question that of all the many prisoners in that place, he is most deserving of death. You may be condemned to death, but you know that when the warden starts carrying out those sentences, that man will be first in line. Now imagine that the governor sets forth a proclamation that every person in that prison has been set free; he has pardoned everyone. The rumor of this pardon has come into the prison: will you believe it? It seems too good to be true. And so all eyes turn to the high security cell, where that worst of criminals is kept. If he is set free, then you can know with confidence that the governor’s proclamation is true; if you watch him leave a free man, you will rejoice that you are now free, too.

That worst of prisoners has a name: Paul. His crimes? Persecution and blasphemy of God Himself, the governor who proclaimed pardon. This governor came in the flesh to win pardon and Paul refused to recognize Him. He knew of Jesus, and he rejected Him. Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I AM?” The whole world is confronted with this question, you, me, and even Paul, and he gave this answer: “You are a false teacher.” And so Paul persecuted the Church; he raged in violence against those who with Peter gave the right answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” He threw Jesus’ followers in prison, he made their lives miserable. He sought them out and disrupted their gatherings. He even supervised the stoning of Stephen, holding the murderer’s cloaks. It wasn’t enough for him to simply say, “You’re wrong,” he had to persecute them, he set himself to stamp out this heresy once and for all, to eliminate the Church just as the Sanhedrin had eliminated Jesus.

Throughout His life, this Jesus made many powerful declarations of His identity, saying, “I AM the light of the world, I AM the bread of life, I AM the Good Shepherd.” Now in prison, Paul has an ‘I am’ statement of his own: “I am the foremost.” The foremost what? The foremost sinner. Paul had all the human righteousness a man could have, he followed the Law to the letter, he was a Pharisee of Pharisees. His righteous life was undeniable, an example to follow. But his righteous life couldn’t save him from prison, for he rejected Jesus, the very Son of God, he even persecuted His Church, he gave the wrong answer to Christ’s vital question, “Who do you say that I AM?” And for that he is condemned, for that he says of himself, “I am the foremost.”

If there is anyone in that prison who doesn’t deserve pardon, it’s Paul. He is lost, estranged from his Creator. But before we look down on our fellow prisoner, a little self-examination is in order. Paul may call himself the foremost sinner, he may be in the high-security cell, but remember, you are under the same condemnation as him. You, too, are under the sentence of death. Paul at least obeyed the Law to the letter, he was careful to follow all that the Lord set forth. How are you doing with that? Take a trip through the Ten Commandments and examine your life, as you should do each and every day. And don’t just look at the outward meaning; go with Jesus to the heart of the commandments. Haven’t killed anyone lately? How about hatred? Haven’t slept with someone who isn’t your spouse? What about lust? Have you hurt your neighbor’s reputation; do you gladly hear God’s Word? Or the big one: what kind of gods have you made for yourself? Why are you in the prison in the first place? You have been condemned to death because you have violated God’s Law in every way. You were conceived with the sin of your parents, and you have added to your bill ever since. Sinning isn’t a competition, God doesn’t grade on a curve; you aren’t better off because someone else seems worse than you.

You can only draw one conclusion: maybe Paul was a bit hasty in calling himself the foremost sinner. It seems like we may have a claim to that title. I am the foremost sinner, and so are you. We confessed it once again this morning as we began this service. If sinning is a competition, then it’s a strange one, because we’re all in first place; we all deserve the prize of everlasting death. Each one of us is the sheep that went astray, the coin that was lost; not one of us is righteous, no not one.

And so the governor’s proclamation of pardon has filled our prison with nervous hope. You wonder if this message of grace and mercy could possibly be true. How could you be pardoned, how could you be delivered from the sentence of death? You know who you are, you know what you’ve done, and you know that you deserve this prison, this condemnation that has been placed upon you. But then you watch the doors of the high security cell open and that hardened criminal, that worst of vile offenders, Paul himself, is set free. He has been pardoned, he has been released; the man who called himself the foremost sinner has been delivered from his condemnation! How could this happen? Paul himself, that foremost sinner, tells us in our text. “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus showed Paul mercy; He sought out His lost sheep and carried him home upon His shoulders. More than that, Jesus even makes Paul a minister of the Gospel, appointing him to proclaim the message of freedom to the rest of the prisoners condemned to death. When the prisoner is put into a palace, when he receives such a mission, there can be no doubt that he has received undeserved mercy. Paul had nothing to do with it; it is all Jesus. See who’s running the verbs in our text: it’s all Jesus! Jesus gives Paul strength, Jesus judges him faithful, Jesus appoints him to this service, Jesus shows mercy, and more than mercy: grace, faith, and love. Paul hasn’t just been spared from punishment, he has been given every good gift! His cup overflows with faith and love; he now has an eternal treasure in place of his chains, life in place of death, freedom forever in the halls of heaven!

Paul is sent to the other prisoners, you and me, with a message of hope and freedom, mercy and grace: “Because Christ has saved me, let no one doubt their salvation.” “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” Jesus did everything: He came, He saved, and now He displays Paul, He shows him forth as the greatest example of grace and love. If Jesus can save Paul, if He can seek out and find that lost sheep, then He can save you, me, and all people. Why? Because Christ died for all people, He died for all sins. Jesus made himself the worst of sinners; He said to the Father on Good Friday: “I AM the foremost sinner.” And He was, for on that day He carried the weight of the world’s sin upon Himself and bore it to the cross. There is not a single sin that Jesus did not die for; while many may reject His forgiveness, there is not a single sinner outside of His grace. Jesus made himself sin for us, and He nailed that sin to the cross. There He died in your place, in Paul’s place. He died the death that everyone in the prison was condemned to die, and with your penalty paid for, you are set free.

Jesus walked out of that tomb victorious over death to seek lost sheep, to open the doors of our prison and set us all free. His open tomb means an open prison and an open heaven. He left that open tomb to seek out Paul and He found him, creating faith within him on the Damascus road, making him an apostle to carry that message of release to the nations. He left that open tomb to seek out you and He found you, in no less dramatic fashion, creating faith within you through the proclamation of His powerful Word and the washing of Holy Baptism. He is the Good Shepherd who seeks out His lost sheep, and He sought out you and showed you mercy, He spared you from death. But more than that, your cup runs over with grace and favor; you have been given an eternal treasure. Take heart; if Jesus can save Paul, that hardened persecutor of the Church, He can save you, and he has saved you, carrying you upon His shoulders back to the Father’s house.

There the rejoicing will have no end, as Jesus Himself says: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Joy is the reaction in heaven and on earth to the found sheep, the found coin, the found Paul, and the found you. That is one of the reasons that we gather here every Sunday morning: to rejoice that Christ seeks out His lost sheep, to rejoice that He has found you and me. Paul can’t contain his joy; having spoken of God’s great grace shown to him, the foremost sinner, he gives a doxology: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” God was glorified when Christ put Himself in the place of sinners and bore their penalty even to death; God is glorified when this same Jesus goes out to find lost sinners and bring them back to their Creator. The doors of our cells clang open and we are set free; as we said in the Introit, “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!” In the Name of the One who said of Himself “I AM the foremost sinner” so that He could stand in our place for our salvation, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Proper 18 of Series C (Philemon 1-21)

It’s early Sunday morning; the Lord’s Day. Philemon is busily preparing for the service, getting ready his house, which is the home of the Christ’s Church in Colossae. His wife Apphia is in the other room preparing a meal, their pastor Archippus is in prayer behind him, and Philemon is in prayer as well, conversing with his Lord as he sweeps the room where they will soon celebrate the Lord’s Supper. For no particular reason at all, Philemon glances out the window, and the broom falls to the floor with a clatter. Onesimus is coming. Yes, there is no mistaking it, there is Onesimus, coming down the street, looking a bit awkward and even embarrassed. Philemon feels anger rising deep within him. Onesimus is back. Onesemius, his slave, his servant, the one he relied on, who he trusted. Onesimus, who had betrayed him, who had run away, who had even helped himself to the family treasury. Onesimus, who had wounded him so deeply that Philemon doesn’t plan to ever forget. How dare he show his face back here? How dare he come walking to the house where he once served? Doesn’t he know what kind of place this is? This is a church, the very house of God. Scum like him has no place here, especially on a Sunday morning! Surely he doesn’t think that he’s welcome here? Onesimus has no place in worship, but in prison, feeling the whip on his back. Philemon wants justice, he wants repayment, and he intends to get it, here and now.

Quivering with rage, Philemon goes to the door, with Apphia and Archippus behind him. Standing there is Onesimus, looking sheepish, perhaps even trembling. But Onesimus isn’t alone. He holds before him a letter. Without a word by either man, Philemon snatches it from his hand and opens it. This letter’s from Paul! He reluctantly begins to read it out loud. “Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace and peace—these words have such meaning for Philemon. Paul taught him of grace, the undeserved kindness and love shown to the world through Christ’s sacrificial death upon the cross. He heard of peace, the peace of the resurrection, the eternal peace between God and man when Paul first proclaimed to him the Gospel. These words proclaim to Philemon once again the great truth that he has been reconciled with God through Christ. What joy to be a Christian!

Philemon continues reading, and now it is time to blush: “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints.” Paul remembers me in his prayers, simply for living the Christian life? Philemon knows that the Christian lives his life in two directions: toward God and toward the neighbor. Faith is oriented toward God, as we cling to the promises that He gives through Christ, and love is oriented toward the neighbor, as we serve those around us in any way that we can. Faith and love go together; our love for others flows only from faith.

“I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” What a prayer! Paul wants Philemon’s sharing, his fellowship and participation in the common faith of the Church to reach full flower in a greater knowledge of the treasures of Christ. Philemon cannot help but think about the Lord’s Supper, ready to be celebrated later this morning, where the fellowship of faith finds its highest expression as the entire congregation gathers to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus together. The same Jesus, for all the saints. What a gift Christ has given! Philemon is reconciled with God, at peace through the blood of Christ, and he has fellowship with Jesus and all the saints. “I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” Philemon knows that he deserves none of this praise. He knows his great sins, and thanks to Paul, he knows of Christ’s even greater grace. What else can he do but show love to others, if Christ has shown such love toward him?

Philemon feels refreshed, showed by grace and love. Such wonderful, comforting words, almost enough to make him forget about the man standing before him. Almost. What does Onesimus have to do with all this? “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I Paul, and old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” Philemon looks up at Onesimus, who is staring intently at the ground. He repeats the words: “my child”? Paul can only mean one thing by these words. Onesimus has been baptized. This disloyal, thieving, untrustworthy wretch ran off to Paul, and he baptized him? Doesn’t Paul know who this is? Doesn’t Paul know what he’s done? Anger fills Philemon again, but only for a moment. This day, he has been reminded of the great grace shown to him by Christ. Philemon knows the kind of sinner he is, and God has been reconciled to him through the blood of Christ. Could this same grace and peace be for Onesimus too? Is Onesimus reconciled with God, just like Philemon, just like Paul, just like all Christians?

He continues to read: “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is useful to you and to me.” Philemon can’t help but smile. He knows Paul, and Paul is always ready to put anyone to good use for the extension of the kingdom of God. For Paul, all Christians are useful, they all have some role to play in the proclamation of the Gospel to all the nations. “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you may have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother— especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh, and in the Lord.” So that’s what you’re getting at: you want me to welcome back my slave as a brother and then send him back to you. Philemon may be a Christian, but he’s also a man of means, a man of the world. What about my rights? What about restitution, justice? How can I simply receive him back?

Philemon finds himself answered in Paul’s next words: “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it--to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” Philemon stares at Onesimus, amazed. Paul has taken the sins of this slave upon himself; Paul, the great apostle, the champion of the faith, to whom Philemon owes his very self, is making himself the slave to set Onesimus free. Paul will pay his debt, Paul will right his wrongs, in fact, when Philemon looks at Onesimus, he is supposed to see Paul: “receive him as you would receive me.” Paul has clothed Onesimus with himself. Philemon opens his mouth to object, but closes it just as quickly. Paul is acting toward Onesimus as Christ acted toward him. Jesus said to the Father, “receive Philemon as you would receive me.” He clothed Philemon with himself, with his own righteousness, declaring to God: “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account—I will repay.” And Jesus did repay; He went to the cross to pay for Philemon’s sin, for the sin of the entire world—even the sin of Onesimus. Onesimus and Philemon are united together in the Gospel: both are great sinners, and both have been forgiven that sin by the blood of Christ. Jesus said of the sin of the entire world: “Charge it to my account.” 

Paul is calling on Philemon to renounce his rights, to treat Onesimus as a beloved brother, to release his hold on anger and vengeance and instead show the same forgiveness that Christ showed him. He has been shown mercy, now he is called upon to show mercy. He has a reputation for love, love that has its source in Christ, now it is time to show that love even to his slave. This is nothing else than what Jesus Himself taught about taking up the cross and following him. Philemon is to put his worldly desires to death, to nail them to the cross and leave them there, and then go forth to be reconciled with his brother. And this reconciliation will bring joy to Paul and the entire community. “Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.”

Paul’s final words cut to the heart: “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” Philemon’s hand drops to his side; there is more to this letter, greetings and instructions, but he’ll read it later. He feels exhausted, worn out; reading this short letter has meant a battle, a war between his identity as a man of means, a man of the world, and his greater identity as a Christian. He looks at Onesimus, and he sees Paul, that old apostle, languishing in chains, but more than that, he sees Jesus, who has reconciled them both to the Father. If Christ has paid the price of all Philemon’s sin, ten thousand talents of unpayable debt, then he can forgive the hundred denarii that Onesimus owed to him. With tears in his eyes, Onesimus finally speaks: “I’m so sorry, master, for all that I’ve done to hurt you.” Philemon extends the right hand of fellowship with tears in his own eyes and simply replies: “I forgive you—brother.” Then he looks beyond Onesimus and sees people coming; it’s time for worship. He looks at Apphia and Archippus and then smiles at Onesimus: “Come, brother, let us receive the gifts of Christ our Lord together.” And not long afterward, these two men who have been baptized into one Name, receive together the one Body of their Lord Jesus Christ, reconciled to God and to one another. Amen.