Thursday, July 31, 2014

Faith not belief - Philemon 1-7

"Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ's sake. For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother." (Philemon 1-7)
The letter of Paul to Philemon is a letter that is full of relational sentiment. In this letter, we can see the deep bonds of fraternity and brotherhood that existed among the early saints. People were not only Christians, they were brothers and sisters; members of one family. Here, in his introduction, Paul refers to Timothy as "our" brother, not "my son" or "my associate", but "our" brother, yours and mine. Even though Paul and Philemon were on different journeys in their Christian walk, they were still brothers with each other and with the universal church of Christ.

It was not uncommon for early believers to meet in homes. In truth, most new converts were poor or even slaves. By most estimates there were more slaves than free people during the time of Paul within the Roman Empire. The early church could not afford elaborate buildings and monuments to their existence. Furthermore, what money they did have was often used in benevolence to the poor and needy among them. However, even when meeting in modest means, they still demonstrated the vibrancy and power of the Holy Spirit as they worshiped God as one family. We must not let ourselves be deceived by the American idea that bigger is better. That, somehow, if we can grow our numbers and buy a nice big building then we will be a better church and exceed our former glory as when we were small. The size and location does not matter. What matters is the genuineness of those who call themselves brethren.

Paul commends both Philemon's love and faith towards God and the church. In doing so he is not speaking of abstract concepts or ideas, he is not talking about a faith that is mere knowledge or belief, but faith and love that are verbs and actions; faith that is lived out in good works towards others. Many people have "faith" but if that faith never becomes action, then it is dead. As James said, "Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself." (James 2:17) Paul never ceases to give thanks to God for Philemon, not because he acknowledged and believed in the truth, but because the truth became a part of him, regulating and motivating all he did. James taught us to "receive the word implanted" (James 1:21) which speaks of a deliberate planting or grafting in of the word into our lives; a planting that is intended to bear fruit. It was evident to all that this implanting in Philemon produced the good works of the Kingdom that lead to his kindly service to his fellow saints.

However, Paul not only congratulates Philemon but prays for him that his participation in the faith will continue to be effective among those he lived with and served. One of the keys to effectiveness is the acknowledgement of every good thing that is within us. James tells us that, "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights." (James 1:17) Whatever measure of good that is within us has been placed there by the Father. It is only by recognizing and acknowledging what has been given to us by God that we can become effective stewards of those gifts. Unfortunately, most of us prefer to acknowledge the gifts in other people, wishing to be them or at least like them, but we fail to recognize the unique gifts and abilities that God has given us. While wishing for what another has we waist the preciousness and usefulness of what we already possess. We can only be effective with what we have and it is our responsibility, as stewards of God, to use what we have for the benefit of all. This is what Philemon did and this is what we must do as well.

David Robison

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