"Laboring Hands"

September 6, 1998 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Philemon 1:1-21

Several years back I led a Drama workshop at a Youth camp. As part of this week-long class, we wrote a play entitled, "Phil and Joe," which was based on the story behind the letter of Paul to Philemon. In it there was a character named "Phil Lemon," which sounds a bit like "Philemon," the biblical slaveholder who was also a follower of Christ. There was also a "Joe Nesmus" in the drama. In the New Testament letter, "Onesimus" was Philemonís runaway slave.

Of course, it wasnít the best of dramas, and the humor in this youth written and directed play was a bit thin. To this day, though, the names I associate with this New Testament letter are the ones those young people came up with. This morning, letís recall the biblical story of "Phil and Joe." This is a tale of transformation, how God took a bit of clay and refashioned it into something of great value. On the surface it may seem to be a story about only one man, or maybe two. However, the claymaking of the Master Potter is far more than merely a personal affair. You see, this is also the tale of a much greater transformation, beginning with two people: Phil and Joe.

Phil and Joe. To put them together like that implies that they were good buddies. Well, they may have been friends, but there was a basic difference between them. One of them owned the other. Is a person a piece of property that another can possess? Thatís a modern day question to which we would loudly say "no" today, but back then it was a part of the way things were. Joe was Philís slave, pure and simple. One the one hand, he may have been someone Phil had doing all sorts of dirty work. On the other hand he might have been a trusted servant that Phil sent on business trips in his name. We donít know. The basic fact we do know is that Joe was a slave, like one out of every five persons were back then, and he was owned by Phil.

Somewhere along the line, Joe broke out of this mold. Did he escape in the dark of night, perhaps taking a few of the familyís things when he went, in order to pay for his way out? Did he just not return from a business journey on which he was sent? That detail we also donít know. We do know, however, that somewhere along the way of his escape from slavery Joe ran into a fellow named Paul. A funny thing happened when he encountered this guy. Paul introduced him to someone who could truly set him free.

Maybe this is where the story really begins. At the time, this Paul character was in prison. Interesting, isnít it? It was through a fellow in jail that Joe discovered freedom. Think about it. For a person running away from the confines of slavery, prison would be the last place Joe would expect to find what he really needed. Isnít that how it often is, though?

We donít know whether Joe was in jail himself, or just happened across this fellow who couldnít be contained in a prison cell. We do know that that jail had a liberal leave policy for Paul. After all, Paul was not some violent felon. At the most, the charge against him was probably "disturbing the peace," since he couldnít keep his mouth shut about a certain Jesus he claimed to be Savior and Lord. Or, perhaps, it had something to do with the treasonous act of lifting up a ruler higher than Caesar. Paul spent a fair amount of time in various jails, for various reasons, either as a resident or a visitor, that we donít know for certain which prison this was. All that we know is that Joe met Paul while this apostle was in "the big house." A good thing that he did.

You see, something happened to Joe in that jail. He stopped running away. Weíre not told much of the details of his transformation. We could conjure up "before" and "after" pictures which are drastically different, or ones where the change is more subtle. How we envision the story at this point may depend upon our own experience, how God has been at work in us. For some, the hand of the Master Potter really does a number on the clay of their lives, dramatically refashioning it into a completely new vessel. For others, the process seems more gradual and subtle - but no less real.

Not knowing all the details behind a story allows us to step into it. How are we like Joe? Are we really any more free than he was? Granted, we may not be owned by any other human being, though when the bills come piling in we may wonder about that. Perhaps itís bad habits or wrong influences that chain us up, unhealthy attitudes or empty beliefs. We might be caged in by substances harmless in small quantities, or ones harmful in any quantity. Could be that our slavery is just to circumstances that seem beyond our control. Are there things that can enslave us, as surely as Joe was enslaved by Phil? You bet! Maybe weíve been trying to escape them all our lives, or only just recently. Running away can get awful tiring.

Joeís new, jailhouse friend, Paul, had an interesting take on all of this. Real freedom depends upon knowing who your true Master is. When he was in jail, you know what heíd say? "I am a prisoner of Jesus Christ" (vs. 9). Not, "I am a prisoner of the authorities here," but "I am a prisoner of Jesus Christ." His "imprisonment" was "for the gospel," he said (vs. 13). Knowing who your real Master is makes all the difference in the world. Itís not so much a matter of exchanging one owner for another, going for the highest bid on the auction block from the guy with the biggest pockets. Elsewhere, Paul wrote that he was a "servant," literally a "slave" of this Jesus. But you know what else he wrote? Jesus himself became a slave, a prisoner, by choice not accident. No chain could hold this Son of God, however. No prison could contain him, even the jailhouse called "death." Jesus sets people free. "I am a slave of the One who breaks every chain, a prisoner of the One no cage can contain." Thatís what Paul said.

Of course, freedom isnít a matter of running around in circles like a chicken with its head cut off. Thatís how some folks see it, though they might not put it quite that way. True freedom is choosing to place the clay of your life in the hands of the Master Potter. "Have thine own way, Lord," we sing. "Thou art the potter, I am the clay." Thatís apparently what Joe did when he encountered Paul, and through this "prisoner of the Lord," he met Jesus Christ. As I said, we donít have before and after pictures, but Paul wrote that formerly Joe was "useless," but now he was "useful." It might help to know that in the language Paul was using, this was a bit of good humor that pointed to some good news. You see, the name "Onesimus" in Greek means "useful." It was a common slave name. The Master Potter took that slave, though, and molded him into what he was really created to be: a free man whose usefulness was now far greater than any earthly slave master could comprehend.

The story doesnít end with Paul and Joe in jail. The two of them became very good friends. Paul wouldíve liked Joe to stay with him, to work alongside him. That didnít seem to be the direction of the Master Potter, though. They decided to sent Joe back to Phil. I say "they" because Paul was in no position to force Joe to do anything against his will, nor would he have. Joe must have agreed. Paul wrote a letter to Phil, which Ian read earlier, a letter to be delivered by Joe himself.

Did Paul personally know Phil? The letter almost sounds like it, though there is no record of the two ever meeting. Phil was a follower of Christ in the city of Colossae. The church there met in his house. It was to these folks that another New Testament letter was sent: Colossians. We think a colleague of Paul, by the name of Epaphras, helped to start this congregation. Epaphras, on Paulís behalf, introduced these people to Jesus Christ. When Paul, in this morningís letter, speaks of Phil as "owing" him his "very life," he is referring to the life Phil discovered in Christ through the ministry of Epaphras.

With this letter Paul sought to reunite these two men, but not as slave and master. They had both been touched by the hands of the Potter, and this touch transforms everything. Paul encouraged that now they see each other as brothers. Joeís usefulness to Phil was no longer as a "go fetch it" slave. His usefulness was as a friend in Christ, a co-worker in what really matters. Paul didnít demand that Phil see things this way. He didnít call up Philís debt to Paul as a person who was lost before Paul sent a lifeline. He didnít say, "do this or Godís going to punish you." His appeal was the only one that followers of Christ can truly make, an appeal through love. Obedience to a command would have made Phil a slave to Paul. Down the road bitterness over this lack of choice on Philís part might break down this relationship rather than set it free and make it whole.

Our known story of Phil and Joe ends at this point. We donít know what happened. Did Phil respond to the call to love Joe as a brother? What ramifications might that have had in Philís household, in the church that met in his home, in the city where he lived, in the larger society? You see, the touch of the Master Potter is not just an individual affair. Yes, it is very personal, but God is at work on the bigger picture as well - shaping, fashioning, molding the clay to set free a world enslaved by sin, to transform it into a vessel that might carry the Kingdom of God, a new heaven and earth transformed by the laboring hands of the Master Potter.

When the Potter molds us as individuals, it is for a larger purpose. When we freely allow our lives to be "melted," "molded," and "filled" by the Spirit of the Living God, it affects every other part of our lives. Our relationships change. Our world changes. Maybe not in spectacular ways, but the transformation is no less real. The laboring hands of God have the whole world on the Potterís wheel.

We donít know exactly what happened between Phil and Joe back in Colossae. We do know that a fellow named "Onesimus" became a key leader, a "bishop" of the church in Ephesus, a city down the road from Colossae. Was it the same Joe? We donít know. We have, though, received this letter in our Bible. That Philemon became a part of the New Testament, passed down from generation to generation, says a great deal about the laboring hands of God. When our Brethren forbearers became convinced long before any anti-slavery movement that it was not right for a Christian to own another human being, it was to texts such as Philemon that they looked.

This letter, however, is not about ending slavery. Itís about freely placing our lives into the laboring hands of the Master Potter. The story of Phil and Joe goes on, in the life of:  ___________ (read off a list of people present, written down during the offertory).

©1998Peter L. Haynes

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