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Category Archives: Basic Christianity

It is true that we are all, in some sense, unique. Not only do we have different physical features, different life stories, but we also are gifted uniquely, differently. The Spirit does not distribute to each the same gift. The Lord does not anticipate that we will all serve in the same way. (For examples, see Romans 12:4–5; 1 Peter 4:10.)

This is a good thing. It is what makes the body work as a body. The differences, the uniqueness, should be celebrated. But, there is a potential downside to this diversity.

We might come to think of ourselves as so “one of a kind” that we don’t see how we really are like others in the body. We might overlook that there is a sense that we are like others in the body.

That over-priviledged sense of self-uniqueness can result in us creating distance between ourselves and others. It can result in our thinking of ourselves as breathing a rarer air than others. We might think “too much” of ourselves.

It is fascinating that the apostle Paul (who most would argue was marvelously uniquely gifted and called!) did not see himself that way. He  saw himself much like others–as is evident in what he writes at the close of his letter to his friend Philemon.

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers. (Philemon 23–24)

Although Epaphras was not sharing in Paul’s imprisonment in an identical way, nevertheless Paul identifies him as a “fellow prisoner.” Paul sees himself as a “worker” for the Gospel (1 Corinthians 3:9), and he is not hesitant to identify others like Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke as “fellow workers.” Two of these–Mark and Luke–are better known, although though they didn’t have ministries that paralleled Paul’s; two of these–Aristarchus and Demas–are seemingly “minor characters” in the New Testament story. But Paul identifies all four as fellow workers.

The unique and marvelously gifted apostle Paul was not reluctant to see others in the same light as he saw himself.

There is something healthy about thinking of one’s uniqueness as not requiring the conclusion that there aren’t others who really are like us.

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Paul is writing to his friend Philemon. He is exploring, with Philemon, what to do about a run-away slave, Onesimus. Onesimus had fled from Philemon, ended up in Rome where he encountered Paul in prison, and after being led to Jesus by Paul, Onesimus is being sent back to Philemon by the apostle.

Paul’s basic desire is for Philemon to welcome back his run-away slave not as a slave but as a brother in the Lord. He has invited Philemon to see things differently–to see the relationship he has with Onesimus as having been altered because of what Jesus has done.

And in writing about this, Paul mentions the benefit that he will receive through what he hopes Philemon will do.

Let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ (Philemon 20).

What is so intriguing about this is that Paul is not the direct beneficiary of what he is asking of Philemon. He is asking Philemon to treat Onesimus differently. And yet he says that if Philemon ends up doing that, he (Paul) will be refreshed in Christ. Paul insists that he would be “benefitted” in the Lord and he would be “refreshed” in Christ by Philemon treating Onesimus as a brother in Christ.

Sadly, I tend to live as if my soul refreshment comes only if and when someone treats me better. Typically, I am so caught up with others’ treatment of me, that I give almost no thought to how they are treating someone else. And even if I noticed that some friend of mine was treating another friend of mine in gracious, good, and Christ-honoring ways,  I don’t typically think of that as personally “refreshing.”

I wonder if this is because, for Paul, being “part of the body” is not just a “kind of nice idea”–he really does live there. So, “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” 1 Corinthians 12:26).  And in that way, the good done to Onesimus does bring refreshment to Paul’s soul.

Philemon. It’s a short, simple letter written by Paul. He probably wrote it from prison in Rome; around the time he wrote Colossians and Ephesians. Twenty-five verses in total. Not nearly as powerful as Romans or as strongly worded as Galatians on 1 Corinthians. But it is Scripture . . . and that leads me to ask: What’s with this letter? What’s the point in having it in the New Testament? What value could it be to me?

So, I’m thinking through this little letter. It starts the way most of Paul’s letters do–an opening greeting:

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. (Philemon 1-3)

The “great apostle” sends a simple letter to Philemon . . . who is . . . well, just an “average believer.” There seems almost nothing to mark Philemon out–except (as we’ll see in this letter) that he was slave owner. Paul is in jail “for the sake of the Gospel,” Philemon is apparently living at home, in the comfort of his own house.

And I notice. Paul doesn’t breathe a rarer air than Philemon. At least that’s now how Paul describes himself. He doesn’t lead with “I’m an apostle.” He’s a “prisoner of Christ Jesus.” And Paul identifies Timothy as a “brother” and Philemon himself as a “brother” as well as “fellow worker.” Sure, it makes sense to identify Timothy as a “brother” in the ministry and a “fellow worker” (as in 1 Thessalonians 3:2); after all, Timothy was something of an “apostolic delegate” sent by Paul on official apostolic important “stuff.”  But Philemon? “Fellow worker”?

It seems that Paul doesn’t seem himself as “all that.” He’s just “another brother,” a “fellow worker,” one member of the larger community of those who follow Jesus. And he writes to Philemon in such a way that suggests he doesn’t see a gap between himself and this simple home owner and slave keeper.

To me, that’s refreshing! When it is necessary (as when correcting doctrinal error in the letter to the Galatians), Paul might refer to himself as “an apostle.” But Paul doesn’t seem to parade that around–when writing a simple letter such a claim doesn’t matter.

Is it wrong for a church leader to identify himself as “The Right Reverend Doctor Pastor Smith” or “Apostle and Presiding Bishop Jones”? Maybe not . . . maybe not. But if those titles–particularly if leveraged by the claimants to such titles–end up creating distance between the “average saints” and the “saintly leaders,” something is amiss.

The best of saints, the prominently gifted, amazingly used apostle Paul could freely refer to himself as “brother” and “fellow worker,” humbly connecting with an “regular” Christian. And in those opening words in his letter to Philemon I see a “great man of God” modeling for us real and “great” humility.

How would you speak of those you labor in “ministry”? Those who give themselves to the work of service are sometimes referred to as “ministers” or “workers” or “servants” or . . .

Reflecting on the closing verses of Colossians, I was intrigued by the reference to Archippus (Colossians 4:17)–as noted in a previous post. That drove me to spend a little more time looking into his story. And I realized there is very little. Except for a very intriguing “call.”

Archippus is mentioned in only two passages in the New Testament:

 Say to Archippus, “Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it.” (Colossians 4:17)

And [give our greetings] to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house. (Philemon 2)

Having thought through some of the implications of the Colossians reference, I’ve been giving some attention to the simple reference in Philemon. And what intrigues me is the reference to Archippus as a “fellow soldier.”

In the New Testament, only Epaphraditus is identified by Paul as a “fellow soldier” (Philippians 2:25). In writing to Timothy, Paul refers to him as a “soldier,” using the same root word but not the identical compound word (1 Timothy 1:18; 2 Timothy 2:3, 4). The related words are only used a few times in the New Testament. One notable place comes in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. (2 Corinthians 10:3)

So, where does this lead us? What is the point? It seems to me that one of the ways that Paul thought about those who ministered with him is to think in terms of “warfare.” He thinks in terms of soldiers, fighters, those engaged in battle.

And that causes me to wonder. Why don’t I think about those who serve the cause of Christ–and that rightly includes all those who name the name of Jesus–in terms of the battle? The spiritual battle, the battle for truth, the fight for the faith–that seems to often be off my radar. It’s not that this idea is the only way to think about ministry and service and church and the faith–but it is one aspect of it . . . and one aspect that I seem to often overlook.

 

Augustine, in The Confessions, addresses a profound and simply prayer to God: “O God, command what you will, and give what you command.”

I think what he captures in that short cry is becoming increasingly more important to my understanding of how God intends to draw us into a full and rich experience of intimate life. And I think it is when I miss the simple insight of Augustine’s short petition that keeps me faltering in my journey with Jesus.

Where do I see this? In the response that arises in my soul when I hear Jesus speak–through his Word, by his Spirit, to my soul. For example.

Jesus calls us to forgive those who have wronged us (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:21-22; Mark 11:25). And I hear those words. I know what Jesus is calling me to. And I often respond, “I can’t do that! I don’t feel ‘forgiving’ toward that person. That’s not in my heart.” And I act as if Jesus is commanding something that he is not or will not or cannot also provide. He calls me to forgive and I resist.

Jesus calls husbands to love their wives and wives to respect and value their husbands (Ephesians 5:33; Titus 2:4; 1 Peter 3:7). And we hear those words. I know what Jesus is calling me into in my marriage. But it is easy to respond, “But she (or he) isn’t loving me. I’m not getting from my spouse what I deserve. It doesn’t feel right to just love without reciprocation. I just can’t do that.” And I act as if Jesus is commanding something of me that he is not or will not or cannot also provide. He calls me to my role as spouse and I resist.

And behind all such resistance is the thinking that something has to happen in me before I give into the call. And it is there that my thinking might just be a bit off.

Maybe Jesus issues such calls and extends such commands because it is in the command that the empowerment comes. In other words, it is because it isn’t me to live that way–it isn’t in me to love or forgive the way he intends–that Jesus commands it. He commands what he does in our lives so as to make possible our living the way he wants us to. For apart from the command it just won’t ever happen.

Perhaps we can picture it this way.

Why does Jesus command Lazarus to arise and come out of the tomb? Yes, Lazarus is dead. But why the command? Jesus is not suggesting Lazarus consider “becoming alive.” Jesus is commanding what Lazarus needs. Lazarus needs to live, so Jesus commands, “Lazarus, arise!”

Why does Jesus call the man with the withered hand to stretch out his hand? Because the man’s hand is withered. Jesus is not suggesting that the man think about whether he wants his hand restored. Jesus is commanding what the man needs. In such instances, Jesus commands what cannot happen apart from his command–the very command is Jesus’ means of bringing about the end he intends.

Maybe it is in hearing and responding to Jesus’ call that the very thing I think I lack will be found. Maybe it is in the giving in to the call of Jesus that I will discover that what he is commanding he is also providing. Maybe it is in the inclining of my heart to affirm what he is calling for that I will realize that the reason he commands such seemingly impossible things in my life is that without the command I will never be different.

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