A quick note - "cliff notes" are at the end...
This week I had intended to write a bit each day about this time of year. In part it was going to be a time of reflecting on our cultural Christmas and how what it emphasizes is a far cry from the Bible and the reality of Emmanuel (God with us). BUT alas it is now Friday and here is the first entry. So, the thoughts I had for the week will not make their way into this entry (maybe later), it would be far too lengthy. Instead I will highlight a few things from the letter to Philemon.
Now I realize Philemon may not seem like a "Christmas text" - but the truths found within it flow out of the reality of the entire Christ Event (Jesus' birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and longed for 2nd coming), of which the Christmas season is a part.
1) We are family. For many the "holiday season" brings desires for enjoying time with family. You know the drill; everyone makes it home for Christmas, a wonderful meal is shared along with laughter and the general sharing of life. Our culture (as warped at it is) puts this forth as ideal. Hmmm...perhaps our culture may not be that bad after all... Yet the reality is, this idealistic picture is not reality for the majority of people. E.g., the emptiness of missing a deceased loved one (recent or past), actual tension within the family, even dread of who will show up and say the wrong thing this time. In thinking about this...I suppose our culture is up to its modus operandi (i.e., "M.O." - mode of operating) by "elevating family" during this time of year because that is where thoughts can drift (and let's face it, thinking of family is not bad in and of itself). Yet in overemphasizing a 'good thing' a focus on Emmanuel is lost and we turn to fretting over family issues instead of being joyous concerning the truth of the Gospel and the impact it is to have. (Please note, if your family situation is "ideal" then do not feel guilty...just be aware this is not reality for the majority of people.)
Therefore it is foundational to remember we are family "in Christ". Paul uses the term "brother" (vs1,7,16,20) and "sister" (v2) in Philemon. Interestingly both Philemon (vs7,20) and Onesimus (v16) are designated as "brother". This is interesting because Philemon is a master and Onesimus is his slave...the social structures of our world (any culture) are flipped on their head due to the Christ Event.
2) Our lives are to impact the world. Somehow we have taken the idea of "peace" and changed it to be something internal and subjective. The same is true with "faith" and "love" - things which we take to be very individualistic. If "faith" and "love" and "peace" are individualistic...then the Christ Event does not impact the world as it was intended to do.
On the other hand, looking in Philemon, we can see Philemon was wealthy (v2 indicates he not only owned a home, but it was large enough for "the church" to meet there) and used his wealth for the Kingdom of God. While it is true we do not know what he was like before coming into the Kingdom of God, we know his life after that fact was marked by "love" for God's people and "faith" in the Lord Jesus (v5). Obviously this faith and love were not privatized, otherwise Paul would not have known of it. Philemon's love and faith prompted him to do things for the Kingdom of God - which impacted the world.
Paul uses "Jesus" to refer to Jesus of Nazareth 212 times in his letters. I find it interesting (and instructive for us) how all but 12 of them include "Lord" or "Christ" (or a combination of the two) in conjunction with Jesus' name. As we continue to grow in our understanding of what "Lord" and "Christ" mean...there is no option but for our faith to impact the world. And this leads us to the fact of...
3) Love is the only sustainable force for change there is. Our culture puts forth a variety of things as driving forces for change - e.g., desire for more, guilt, wanting to please someone else, coercsion. None of those will sustain change in the long term.
The structure of Philemon is chiastic (at least it seems so to me).
I won't go into all of those details except to point out how Paul could have commanded Philemon to do what he should have done (v8). This is a reality of the Christian faith. We serve a Lord (not a genie) and He demands we do things. However, we must note all of those demands are undergirded by a statement of fact (e.g., 'be holy' in 1 Peter 1:16 because God is holy in Leviticus 11:44). Dr. Lowery (a former professor of mine at Lincoln Christian University) would refer to this as "under every imperative there is an indicative" (or something phrased similar to that).
So, we see how Paul could have commanded Philemon to "do the right thing," but instead he appeals to love...the only force that will sustain the change in Philemon Paul (and God) desired. In that mode of thinking, to whom within the family of Christ can/should you write to affirm (vs4-7)? We do not do this enough - I am convinced of this fact.
In the reality of Emmanuel we see how Jesus left the riches of heaven to invade the slums of earth. Why did He do this? Because of love (and to establish a Kingdom). So my question, what will the love of Christ compel us to do? What will it compel us to do not just in this time of year...but throughout the year. Because after all, if Christmas is true...then it changes everything.
The Christmas season has been greatly distorted. The reality of the Christ Event ought to impact everything. In Paul's letter to Philemon we can see three truths which are inherent to this time of year.
1) We are family.
2) Our lives are to impact the world.
3) Love is the only sustainable force for change there is.
3.a) So...write a letter (but read Philemon first).