Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Charged to God’s Account” (Philemon 17-19)
September 8, 2019
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today’s New Testament lesson is from one of the shortest books of the entire Bible, the Letter of Paul to Philemon.  In fact, the reading for today includes all but the final four verses of this entire letter.  Paul likely wrote this letter in the early 60’s A.D., and as he did with his letters to the Philippians, the Ephesians, the Colossians and his Second Letter to Timothy, he wrote them while in prison.  Paul likely wrote the Letter to Philemon during his final imprisonment before his martyrdom in 64 A.D. during the brutal persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Nero, who blamed the great fire of Rome in July of 64 A.D., a fire that destroyed much of the Eternal City, on Christians.

You may wonder why the Letter of Paul to Philemon is included in the New Testament, because it is neither a letter to the entire church, nor to the church in a city, nor to a bishop like Titus and Timothy, but to one specific person: Philemon.  Philemon, a member of the church at Colossae, had been converted to Christianity during the ministry of Paul and was indeed a “dear friend” of Paul (Philemon 1).  Likely Philemon had heard Paul’s Letter to the Colossians read at the church in Colossae, which means he would have heard this passage about the supremacy of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who is both fully divine and fully human:

(Jesus Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created…all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:15-20).

So why would Paul write a letter just to one person, just to Philemon?

Because Philemon, perhaps like some of you, was hung up by a grudge against someone who owed him something, hung up by a grudge against someone who had done him wrong.  And trust me, Philemon is not alone.

Holding a grudge is not good.  You know this.  But you still hold grudges against others don’t you?  If I were to ask you who owes you something, who comes to mind?  If I were to ask you who has wronged you and never even admitted it, let alone apologized, who comes to mind?  I once heard someone quip, “I don’t hold grudges, I hold memories that keep me better prepared for our next encounter” and another person tell me, “I don’t hold grudges; I remember facts.”  There is actually a technical theological term for a person who holds no grudges at all: liar.

But holding grudges is actually dangerous to your health—not just your spiritual health but your physical health as well.  Holding grudges like Philemon, nursing anger against those you think owe you something, nursing anger against those who have done you wrong, in time may eventually yield dire physical consequences like high blood pressure, coronary disease, having a stroke, developing Type 2 diabetes—on and on it goes.  Acclaimed novelist Anne Lamott describes the danger of holding grudges this way, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”

Holding a grudge can turn you into a bitter person.  Each of you can think of someone you know who has been overcome by their grudges and become bitter to the point of being nearly impossible to be around.  Scripture warns, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble” (Hebrews 12:15).  Holding a grudge is like a small nick on the windshield of your car, which if not fixed, will turn to cracks that will eventually cover your entire windshield and distort the image of everything in front of you.

Jesus could not have been any clearer about the danger of holding grudges.  In his Sermon on the Mount he proclaimed, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).  If that does not make you uncomfortable, wait, there’s more, for Jesus also said, “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive” (Luke 17:4)—nothing vague or nebulous about that.

Scripture tells us that because God has forgiven us, we are to forgive others, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32)—and, “Bear with one another and, if it anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you” (Colossians 3:13).

None of this is unfamiliar to you, and yet letting go of grudges and forgiving others can be very difficult.  It was apparently difficult for Philemon, Paul’s “dear friend” and coworker.  Philemon was holding a grudge against his runaway servant Onesimus, who had converted to Christianity under Paul’s ministry while Paul was in prison.  Philemon was angry at Onesimus for running away and leaving him hanging, and felt like Onesimus owed him.  So Paul writes to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus.  Listen to how the apostle refers to this runaway servant:

I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment…I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.  I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.  Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a servant but more than a servant, a beloved brother (Philemon 10, 12-16).

Paul refers to Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway servant, as “my child”, as “my own heart”, as “a beloved brother.”  That is very strong backing from the Apostle Paul.  And Paul does not stop there; he continues:

So if you consider me your partner, welcome (Onesimus) as you would welcome me.  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 (Philemon 17-19).

Paul tells Philemon that he will personally cover for Onesimus—“welcome him as you would welcome me…if has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.”  Enough of the grudges, Philemon, I will cover it.

And that is the gospel in Paul’s Letter to Philemon.  From God’s perspective, in the same way Paul considered Onesimus the runaway servant, his own child, God considers you, his runaway child as well.  In the same way Paul held Onesimus the runaway servant in his own heart, God holds you his own heart as well.  In the same way Paul considered Onesimus the runaway servant a beloved brother, God considers you his beloved brother or sister—as scripture tells us, “For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father.  For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:11).

And there is even more gospel in this letter as in the same way Paul told Philemon to “welcome him as you would welcome me” God welcomes runaway sinners, God welcomes you, no matter what, all the time, every time.  As the late preacher Brennan Manning put it, “God loves you as you are and not as you should be, because no one is as they should be.”

In the same way Paul told Philemon to charge whatever Onesimus owed him “to my account”, on Good Friday Jesus charged everything you owe God, everything you owe others, everything you think others owe you, to his own account.  In the same way Paul told Philemon, “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand” Jesus wrote his promise with his pierced hands on the cross.  In the same way Paul promised Philemon, “I will repay it,” Jesus paid in full the debt you owed God, the debt you owe others, the debt you think others owe you.  The metaphorical credit card statement for all of it reads, “Balance: $0.00…Minimum Due: $0.00.”

In other words, God does not hold a grudge toward you.  Everything you owe has been charged to God’s account.  Jesus’ death has paid your debt in full.  As we read in The Book of Common Prayer, “The Offering of Christ made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone” (874).  Again, as Philemon may have heard from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, “In (Jesus) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”  On Good Friday as Jesus hung up on the cross, he forgave all the grudges that have you hung up.  Jesus did not even the score; he settled the score, once for all.  When it comes to holding grudges, Jesus’ death marks the end of scorekeeping.

And how are we called to respond to that?  Well, near the end of his Letter to Philemon, Paul continues, “Brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord!  Refresh my heart in Christ.  Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (Philemon 20-21).  Paul encourages Philemon to do what he also encouraged the church at Rome to do, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).  Let go of your grudge, Philemon—enough with the scorekeeping already.  Forgive Onesimus as God has already forgiven you.

And Paul concluded his Letter to Philemon in the same way he did all his thirteen New Testament letters, by proclaiming the grace of God: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Philemon 25).  May God replace your root of bitterness with a root of grace.

Not too long after writing to Philemon on behalf of the runaway servant Onesimus, the Apostle Paul was led out of his prison cell by Roman soldiers in late A.D. 64.  The Roman Emperor Nero was himself a master of holding grudges, was himself full of bitterness, so much so that he had his own mother, Agrippina the Younger, executed several years earlier.  Now Nero held a grudge against all Christians, whom he blamed for the Great Fire of July 64 A.D. that destroyed two thirds of the Eternal City.  Out of that grudge he ordered the Apostle Paul to be beheaded.  And as Paul’s life ended in the earthly Eternal City of Rome, his everlasting life began in the actual Eternal City of heaven.

The good news of the gospel is that what was true from Paul to Philemon is true from God to you.  God does not hold any grudges toward you.  All you owe God and others has already been charged to God’s account on Good Friday, has already been already paid in full.

If any of you here today have grudges that have caused a root of bitterness in your heart and cracked the windshield of your life, may the Holy Spirit reassure you that God loves you and has already forgiven you, and transform that root of bitterness into a root of grace.