One thing I learned without even listening to my dad’s sermons was that a person should be willing to do things outside his comfort zone. You see, my dad wasn’t a pastor—he was an accountant. Early in his career, he went to work for the church as a treasurer for the Nebraska Conference. In addition to his work as treasurer, he was also asked to preach throughout the state, mostly at small churches that shared a pastor.
It was quite a novelty for us, and my mom would sometimes snap pictures of his name on the church sign. Often on Sabbath, he would give the sermon at a small church at 3:00 in the afternoon—after he had already delivered the same sermon to at least one other church that morning. He didn’t have that many sermons, so he wrote the names of the churches on the back side of his sermon so he wouldn’t repeat.
Throughout the years, I have heard so many people restate advice they got from their dads: “Well, as my dad used to say,” they would start out and then share their father’s nugget of wisdom—“Dadisms” such as “It never hurts to ask,” “Don’t make me stop this car,” “I’m not ‘Everyone’s’ father,” “Don’t let Mom hear you,” or “I’ll give you something to cry about.” I don’t remember my dad using these or any other sayings, but I still learned so much from him throughout my life.
My dad died when he was only 54 years old. I thought that was the end of learning from him, but just recently I realized that my dad’s words are still alive in his old sermons. Within these typewritten and handwritten messages, I can still see his beliefs and his faith in God, and I can be reminded of his advice to me. I would like to share with you some of his thoughts from his sermon on Philemon.
Paul wrote two-thirds of the New Testament. Most of his writings were letters to specific churches to provide leadership and guidance, but one exception is the book of Philemon. This was a personal letter written to Philemon, a fellow Christian. Paul wrote it while he was in a Roman prison. While in prison, Paul met a man named Onesimus, a slave from Colossae. Looking at a map, we can see how amazing this really is. Onesimus had run away from his master, Philemon, and had probably stolen from him as well. He continued on to Rome where he was converted to Christ by Paul, who then sent him back to his master.
This is a great story, but that’s not the reason it is in the Bible. Here’s what my dad said:
“As we study Paul’s letter to Philemon, we notice that even in his personal correspondence Paul had a burden for Christian love and fellowship. I believe this is the reason this letter is included in our Bible. It’s easy to preach love and it’s easy to tell others to love one another, but what Paul is talking about is love in action.”
In my dad’s sermon, he used the principles in Paul’s letter to show how employers, church members, and even parents can follow the spirit of Paul’s teachings by treating other people as sons and daughters of Christ.
The first principle is encouragement (truthful praise). Why is encouragement so important? It keeps us going. Think of a parent encouraging a child to take his first steps. The parents cheer the child on because they know how difficult walking can be and they want their child to succeed. Encouragement helps children to keep trying until they master a skill. It is the same with our Christian brothers and sisters. We all need encouragement to continue the Christian walk.
In his letter, Paul identifies Philemon’s specific behaviors that are glorifying God: Faith in the Lord Jesus (verse 5), love toward Paul and all the saints (verse 5), sharing his faith (verse 6), and refreshing the hearts of the saints (verse 7). Only after identifying these behaviors does Paul make his request in verses 15 and 16:
“I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, for perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philemon 1:12, 15-16).
The second Christian principle we see in Paul’s letter to Philemon is generosity. He writes of generosity and the intent behind it in his second letter to the Corinthians: “Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
That is the Christian principle. In Philemon, Paul shows us how to be generous. The request is made: Paul wants Philemon to accept Onesimus back, not as his slave but as a fellow Christian. But Paul doesn’t stop at this; he gets involved. That is sometimes where I err—I may be comfortable making a request, but I leave it there. Instead, I should offer something to help make it happen, as Paul did in this case:
“If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well” (Philemon 1:18-19).
Being generous and taking care of one another. Providing for one another. That’s what Paul is talking about. One of my dad’s colleagues said that my dad “was a true minister’s treasurer. He made them all feel comfortable as they struggled to make ends meet. He made sure they received what was coming to them, whether they knew about it or not.”
But generosity doesn’t need to be void of common sense. At the end of his statement in verse 19, Paul points out to Philemon that while he (Paul) was ready to make things right on Onesimus’ behalf, Philemon should remember the things that had been done on his behalf as well.
This reminds me of a story that a friend told me about my dad. As the finance manager for the church, my father was responsible for approving expenses for the pastors in the area. When one pastor was attacked by his pet alligator, my dad arranged for medical care for him. The pastor was told that church policy did not normally cover medical costs associated with owning non-domestic pets and that he would need to get rid of the gator. But the pastor kept the wild reptile and was attacked again. This time, the pastor paid for his own medical expenses. We should be generous with common sense!
Freedom to Choose
The third Christian principle in Paul’s letter to Philemon is freedom to choose. Paul referred to this freedom in his letter to the Galatians: “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13). In his letter to Philemon, Paul shows us how to respect that freedom in others by leaving the final decision up to Philemon (verses 13, 14). Paul did not threaten, coerce, or bribe Philemon. As my Dad said:
“Paul’s argument for Onesimus was not based on anything other than Christian love. He did not decry the evils of slavery or the unfair treatment of slaves. He did not use many methods which we might class as logical (or persuasive). His appeal was made only in Christian love and brotherhood.”
Paul recognized the law of liberty. He knew that the only way to truly love was to allow freedom of choice. My dad summed it up in this way:
“It is so easy for each of us to make decisions for the other. In our churches we must allow the individual members to be individuals.”
The fourth Christian principle might be the most important but is probably the one we do the least. I call it perseverance, but it really means checking up. Don’t just make a request and forget about it follow up, persevere. Is more help needed? More guidance? More encouragement? Is the person on the right track? Is there more you can do?
In his letter to Philemon, Paul writes, “Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say. At the same time also prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you” (Philemon 1:21 22).
Paul plans to come to Colossae to see how it all worked out. It is not that he distrusts Philemon to do the right thing; he just plans to follow it through to the end.
What a great model of Christian love Paul has shown to us in this letter! We can use this model at church, at home, and at work. Reflecting on this important aspect, my dad said, “Our dealings, whether in business or in the home, should reflect this same attitude. Practice Christian principles and rely on God rather than manipulating the situation to get our desired results. In many cases the results may be noble and pure, but the methods we use to accomplish them are so unChristian that our influence overshadows the results.”
Paul’s letter to Philemon is a lesson about putting Christian principles into practice. Have you ever seen this bumper sticker: “Walk the Talk”? It means that we should put our principles into practice. I pray that will be exactly what we do. As my dad said, “Let’s put our love into action.” “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Philemon 1:25).