etching of Paul in prison studying with the slave Onesimus

Onesimus and Perfection

The letter to Philemon is one of the most fascinating books in the New Testament. It’s among the shortest books in the Bible, but it’s incredibly dense in terms of practical applications. It’s also a book that stirs my curiosity; there’s so much unspoken backstory that I really want to understand.  But there’s only one thing I want to focus on right now: Onesimus’s legal status when he was baptized.

Onesimus, Paul, and Roman Law

Onesimus didn’t just break household rules when he fled Philemon’s household. He broke the law. The Roman government was paranoid about the possibility of a slave rebellion, so laws regarding slaves were harsh. Not only was it illegal for a slave to travel any distance without permission from their master, but it was also illegal for slaves to gather in groups, and it was illegal to harbor an escaped slave. A Roman’s civic duty was to immediately turn in any slaves suspected of escape.

It was illegal for Onesimus to be with Paul. That’s important to understand when thinking about the implications of his conversion since it’s obvious that Onesimus was baptized by Paul before he reconciled with Philemon. Verse 10 says, “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” So what does this mean for us when we come to Christ for salvation?

Baptism, Repentance, and Perfection

We often break salvation down into tidy steps: hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. I don’t think it’s wrong to put repentance before baptism, but I think we need to consider what repentance really means. We often associate repentance with being sinless; nothing could be farther from the truth. Repentance is a process; it doesn’t mean that we have fixed everything. If it did, we could never repent enough before baptism.

Onesimus had not yet fixed his legal status or his relationship with Philemon when Paul baptized him. He was still a fugitive. He was yet to completely correct these sins in his life when baptized, but Paul did not let that stand in the way of salvation. Onesimus was not perfect when baptized, but he did have this: he had repented. He had a plan to set things right.

When you or I come to Christ, we don’t have to have our lives in perfect order. All we need is a heart ready to make things right. We need to repent — meaning we recognize the error in our lives and are willing to change. Onesimus would return to Philemon; with Paul’s support, he would fix his standing with his owner and with the law. But that repentance was a process for him, and it’s a process for us.

If some standard of perfection is holding you back from baptism in Christ, I would invite you to go forward with it despite any shortcomings. Christ wants you to come to Him broken, in need of His grace, and willing to start anew. Baptism is the beginning of your journey, not the end. Wherever you are, take that first step, knowing that Christ will forgive you in your imperfections and that your new family in Christ is there to help you on your journey.

 

Regret

ducks on a misty pond
image by Goran Vučićević

I recently ran into somebody whom I haven’t seen in years. Actually “running into” may be exaggerating things. It was more like seeing her in passing, taking ten or so seconds to actually recognize her, and then getting hit with a small tsunami of regret.

I have to admit, that last part surprised me.

When I knew this person, I was not in a good place in my life. I was mentally and spiritually struggling, and I did not treat her well as a friend or Christian should. We had a pretty bad falling out, and it was entirely my fault. This happened half a lifetime ago. I’d like to think I’ve made a good deal of progress as a person since then. I’m much closer to Christ now than I was then, and I’ve prayed over those errors of my past. I thought I’d moved on. I was surprised how little it took to open that old wound again.

Demoralizing Regret

That’s the trouble with worldly regret. Paul speaks about godly regret that leads to repentance in II Corinthians 7:10, and certainly the regret I felt over how I treated this individual prompted me to repent and seek to better myself. But the regret that kicked me the other day wasn’t that kind of regret. It was harsher, demoralizing, and spiritually weakening. It was the grief that produces death in the second half of II Corinthians 7:10.

Removing Regret’s Power

We simply cannot let regret have power over us as Christians — no more than we allow anger, fear, or hatred have such power. Certainly Peter regretted denying Christ. He certainly regretted his behavior leading up to the cross. I’m sure he had plenty of time to dwell on that regret prior to the resurrection, but he never let that regret consume him like Judas had.

By John 21, Peter is moving on with his life. When Christ then reveals His identity to Peter by way of a miracle identical to that of Luke 5:1 – 11, Peter doesn’t shirk away. Instead, he jumps in the water and swims ashore, so he can get to Jesus as quickly as possible. He had sinned. He had regretted, but now he was ready to move on and heal.

Even when it catches us by surprise, regret does not have to consume us, nor should we be afraid of or ashamed of it. We have to face it. Where Judas shows us an extreme example of the dangers of regret, Peter shows us another way. We can lean on God in our times of regret and grow stronger by working through those feelings. Like Peter, we may need to lean on Christ or fellow Christians to help us on the journey.

Every regret is a spiritual challenge to do better, and we move past that regret by facing the challenge and overcoming.

 

Day One

This is a sermon I recently delivered at the Westfield Church of Christ.

Paul’s Moment

In Acts 9, Paul wasn’t planning on his life changing. In fact, it was quite the opposite, for Paul had been traveling to Damascus with one thing in mind – to capture and imprison as many Christians as he could.

Acts 9:1 – 9:

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

And he said, “Who are you, Lord?”

And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

The road to Damascus became a road to change for Paul, but this was not enough. Sometimes, we refer to these events as the conversion of Saul, but his true conversion did not happen for another three days, and that’s recorded in verses 10 – 19.

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.

From this point forward, Paul’s life took an entirely different trajectory. The moment he came out of the waters of baptism, Paul was made new. And he lived like it. He would even write later that his past counted nothing to him compared to his new life in Christ. That day Paul confessed the name of Jesus and submitted to baptism became his Day One moment. It became Day One of a new life.

Introduction

A Day One experience is an event that changes the course of your life forever. It’s a moment when you take control of your own story to take it in new and exciting directions. For Paul, it looked like rejecting all that he had been raised to believe and striking out on a path he had formerly rejected and even persecuted. It was a complete one-eighty.

Esther’s Moment

Another example of a Day One experience happens in Esther.

Ester 4:12 – 16:

Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.  For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”  Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai,  “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”

Esther does more than resolve to go to the king. She sees it through. In Esther 7 not only does she reveal the plot against the Jews, but she reveals at last to the king that she herself is a Jew! Then she accuses Haman, the king’s highest officer, of orchestrating the impending genocide. Think of the the risks she took! Think of the consequences that could have befallen her. But she boldly steps into the first day of the rest of her life, and, in so doing, she not only changes her own life forever, but she saves the lives of countless others. Their lives hung on the resolve of one person and her willingness to take the control of her story out of the hands of others.

The salvation Esther brings to God’s people is still memorialized in an observance called Purim, as is written in Esther 9:23 – 29:

So the Jews accepted what they had started to do, and what Mordecai had written to them.  For Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur (that is, cast lots), to crush and to destroy them.  But when it came before the king, he gave orders in writing that his evil plan that he had devised against the Jews should return on his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows.  Therefore they called these days Purim, after the term Pur. Therefore, because of all that was written in this letter, and of what they had faced in this matter, and of what had happened to them,  the Jews firmly obligated themselves and their offspring and all who joined them, that without fail they would keep these two days according to what was written and at the time appointed every year,  that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every clan, province, and city, and that these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.

That remembrance comes from the selfless and courageous actions of one woman in a day when women were hardly empowered. Esther stands an as example to all of us that one voice can shape great events.

Peter’s Moment

Not all Day One moments are visibly momentous, however. Some are quiet but every bit as powerful. Take Peter as an example in John 21:15 – 19:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

Peter  said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

Jesus  said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  He said to Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”  He said to Peter the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.  Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”  (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

This comes after Jesus appears to the other apostles. This is after Jesus strengthens Thomas’ faith. Think of the pressure on Peter. Yes, Peter runs to the tomb when he learns it is empty. Yes, Peter jumps from the boat when He sees Jesus, but there is still something big between them – the fact that Peter had forcibly denied Jesus in His hour of need. In these verses, Jesus and Peter mend their relationship, and it becomes a Day One moment for Peter.

From this point, Peter will go forward to preach the first gospel message to the assembly at Pentecost. He will be the first to preach to the Gentiles. He will live a life dedicated to Christ, and he will write, near the end of his days in II Peter 3:8 – 9:

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.  The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

Peter could write so confidently of the Lord’s patience for repentance because He was once a recipient of that same patience. To him, that restoration was his Day One moment.

Elements of Day One

These individuals all had three things in common:

  • Each faced a crisis. For Paul and Peter, it was a crisis of faith. For Esther, it was a crisis of impending disaster.
  • Each took control. Esther takes control from Haman. Paul from his past, and Peter from his regret.
  • Each gave control to God. This is the important part. All of these took control, but they didn’t claim total ownership. Instead, each seized control and handed it over to God. They placed their trust in Him.

Your Day One

What will be your Day One moment? II Corinthians 5:16 -17 says:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

Being a Christian is all about being new. The day you put Christ on in baptism becomes Day One of a new life, but the challenge is that we must constantly renew ourselves. We all fall. We all slip into – for lack of a better term – oldness of life from time to time. We all face crises that threaten to take control of our lives. It may be a crisis that threatens disaster to chip away at our faith. It might be a spiritual crisis where we come to question what we believe. Whatever it is, the crisis is not the end of the story. Instead, it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to take control from the crisis, purge the old, and become new again.

See I Corinthians 5:6 – 8:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?  Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.  Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Paul is writing this to a congregation at the brink of destruction from within. They are divided. They are facing numerous doctrinal challenges, but no crisis is as great as the fact that they have an example of rampant immorality among their number – and not only do they tolerate that immorality, they are celebrating it.

They seem beyond recovery, yet this is the church Paul would address this way in II Corinthians 1:5 – 7:

For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.  If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.  Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

Did you hear that bit: “Our hope for you is unshaken?” This, to the same congregation that had been previously boasting in tolerance of immorality. They faced crisis. They took control away from that crisis, and they gave that control over to God. They emerged from their crisis a better and a stronger church family than when they began. What might have been the end of their story instead became their Day One moment.

Conclusion

That is the challenge to all of us. What will you do when faced with crisis? What will you do with your Day One moment? I challenge you, when things threaten to tear you down, to follow the example we see in Paul, in Esther, and in Peter. Face the crisis, take control away from it, and hand that control over to God. Let it change you for the better and make you new.

Make it Day One for the rest of your life. Step forward like Esther standing before the king. Put your past in the past and strive for a better future like Paul after the Damascus road. Or humbly repent like Peter with Christ, and trade your regrets for hope. Whatever the challenge before you, know that God wants you to succeed. Know that you have all that you need to make today Day One.

Knock Knock

I saw this performance the other day:

As someone who teaches in a low income, urban setting, I can’t even begin to describe what this poem means to me. As someone who still thinks racism is alive and well, as someone who wants better for the next generation, as someone who sees the struggle Mr. Beaty describes unfold every day – words fail me. But I also started thinking about our own spiritual imprisonment and the freedom we have in Christ, so I thought I’d share those thoughts, at least.

One of the hardest things to overcome is the past. We sometimes joke about the Freudian tendency to blame everything on our childhood while we silently act on those lessons and influences of that childhood every day. We are who we were shaped to be, and it can be very difficult to break out of the mold in which we were cast as children. If we were raised in a house where terrible influences were prevalent, our homes will likely be similar. If we saw our parents in bad relationships, we will likely be in bad relationships. If we were in a house where yelling and abuse were prevalent, we may yell and abuse. It can be hard to leap out of those footprints left by our parents or whoever else raised us, and, no matter how hard we try to be individuals, we all have those realizations where we say to ourselves, “Oh my goodness, I am just like my dad (or mom).”

But, if our families were poor influences, we don’t have to suffer those same choices and consequences. We can choose to be better. We can choose to be different. Remember Ezekiel 18:5-18. (I’ve truncated the text below.)

If a man is righteous and does what is just and right…commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully — he is righteous; he shall surely live…

If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things (though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery…He shall not live. He has done all these abominations…

 Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise…obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live…

Yet, as hard as it is to leap free from the trenches dug by the footsteps of those before, harder still is it to escape from our own worn paths. We know, however, that we can. With Christ, it is possible, but it takes effort and dedication. When we convert to Him, we leave behind our former selves. “We may be our fathers’ sons and daughters,” Daniel Beaty proclaims, “but we are no their choices.” Likewise, we may have been one type of person in the past, but we are no longer defined by those values, those priorities, those choices. We are someone new. We have a fresh start. We have a chance to begin again.

Romans 12:1-2 says,

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

We see this transformation in effect with the church at Corinth in I Corinthians 6:9-11 (emphasis mine):

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

At some point, we have all been guilty of murdering Jesus on that cross with our sins. We have all been enclosed in the prison of our sins, isolated from our brothers and sisters, isolated from our God, alone and sad. Every day, Jesus comes into our prison, and he approaches that glass barrier separating Him from us. Knock knock, he says. Knock knock. Unlike the Daniel Beaty’s father, however, we can respond. We can allow Him to remove the barrier. We don’t have to live in isolation. We don’t have to remain a prisoner. We can seek pardon and forgiveness, but we have to make sure we haven’t built up security walls of pride and resentment that will indefinitely keep our Savior out.

Knock knock. Will you answer the call? Knock knock. Will you let Him into your heart and your life? Will you submit to His word? Our Savior is watching and waiting. He is always there, patiently knocking, patiently inviting, patiently waiting. But every one of us is on his or her own death row; we only have so long to respond, and we don’t know when the end will come. Won’t you respond to His invitation? Won’t you let Jesus take you out of prison? Won’t you free yourself from the worn paths of sin and worldliness. You have but to submit to His word and reach out to Him. He will tear down the walls of your prison. He will lift you from the beaten path. He will redeem. Knock knock.

Awareness Is Not Enough

We fill our calendars with awareness days and months. April, for example, is Autism Awareness Month. April is also home to Earth Day, Construction Zone Awareness Week, Cancer Control Month, National Child Abuse Prevention Month, Counseling Awareness Month, IBS Awareness Month, National Porphyria Week, and National Sexually Transmitted Diseases Awareness Month. Check out other portions of the year, and you’ll find a similarly full calendar of days, weeks, and months dedicated to raising awareness about one cause or another.

Awareness is an incredibly important step in overcoming any great challenge or problem. Twelve step programs for overcoming major life obstacles often begin with awareness – the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The apostle Paul might word it this way:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

– Romans 12:3

The challenge comes with moving beyond awareness into meaningful action. I can be perfectly aware of a cholesterol problem while I go ahead and order a plate of cheese fries at Outback. I can be perfectly aware of the speed limit while I cruise 15 – 20 mph over it. I can be aware of a suspicious mass while refusing to go to see a doctor. I can be aware of a deadline while procrastinating my way past it. When giving a recent talk about autism awareness at a nearby elementary school, I worded it this way:

Let your awareness take you to new heights as a teacher, for awareness is nothing if it does not motivate us to discover more and do more for the sake of the children we help raise every day.

The same is true of the sin in our lives. We can be aware of the moral challenges we face day in and day out. We can admit to anger issues, problems with porn, bad language or hateful speech, issues with lying, worldly conduct, spiteful attitudes, or long-held grudges; but none of those confessions, none of that awareness, is worth a thing of we continue in those immoral attitudes and behaviors. Remember the words of James:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

– James 1:22-25

We can be aware of the changes God requires in our lives, but that is not enough. My plea to you is this: rise above simple awareness; reach beyond basic acknowledgement. Examine your life. Walk circumspectly, and allow that awareness to push you to new heights as a Christian. Be more than aware of the standard Christ set for us; strive to meet that standard. Yes, the first step to overcoming the challenge of sin in our lives is awareness. We have to admit we have a problem. The next step is to actually do something about it. Be more than aware. Press on to perfection.

The Calamity of Esau

In Jeremiah 41, we are in the middle of God affirming His sovereignty over all nations, and He is proclaiming judgment upon various Gentile nations. During the prophecy against Edom, God, in verse 8, speaks of the “calamity of Esau.” It is from Esau that the nation of Edom descended, and it is a calamity like his own that befalls the nation. What is this calamity of Esau?

In Genesis 25:23, the Lord tells Rebecca that she had two nations struggling within her, and that the older would serve the younger. This prophecy begins to gain form in verses 27-34 when Esau sells his birthright to Jacob in exchange for physical sustenance. In this, verse 27 says Esau despised his birthright.

Rejecting His Birthright

God sees this event as a calamity in Esau’s life.

  • Esau despised his birthright. Not only was Esau rejecting all of the material blessings of the birthright, but he was also rejecting God’s promises to Abraham and Isaac.
  • Esau had the wrong priorities. Jacob and Esau were old enough to understand what the promises of that birthright meant. He was old enough to understand the import of those words, but he saw those as doing him no good in the face of immediate hunger.
  • Esau repented too late. Hebrews 12:15-17 speaks to this, that Esau could never recapture what he had lost, having recognized the significance too late.

Avoiding Our Own Calamity

There are lessons for us in the life of Esau. We cannot be guilty of the same errors made by this man. Esau had, through his birthright, a spiritual heritage, and we also have a great spiritual heritage in Jesus Christ. We are part of a spiritual family that goes all the way back to the cross and God’s plan for our salvation. In Hebrews 11:39-40, as the author wraps up example after example of great faith, we are told that what we have in Christ completes their heritage.

III John 4 records John calling those with whom he has shared the gospel as spiritual children. They are our spiritual forefathers, and we fulfill those promises in which they had faith. When we reject that heritage, we affect not only ourselves but those who will come after us, those who will not know of God’s promises because we rejected them. We cannot and must not view God’s birthright as common or disposable.

We must also avoid Esau’s priorities. Colossians 3:1-2 and Matthew 6:19 call on us to set our minds on the things above because the things of this life do not last. How long did Esau’s bowl of stew last him? How long was it until he was hungry again? I Peter 1:5-9 calls us to work on our spiritual growth and to avoid being nearsighted, forgetting what is truly important. So much in this life can crowd out our spiritual heritage, but how much of it will benefit us eternally as God’s gifts will?

Finally, we cannot wait too long to accept God’s gifts. In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus speaks of a rich man who waited too long until nothing more could be done for him. Felix, in Acts 24:25, wanted to wait until a more convenient time, and King Agrippa, a couple of chapters later, says he was “almost” persuaded to respond to the message of Christ. Matthew 25:41, after a parable of unprepared wedding guests, warns of the consequences of waiting until it is too late. We have a strong tendency to put things off, but we cannot procrastinate accepting our spiritual heritage.

Conclusion

In contrast to all of this, Luke 17 tells a parable of another child who wastes his birthright. In contrast to Esau, this prodigal son came to recognize the worth of what he had lost. He realigned his priorities, and he returned to his father for forgiveness and restoration. Who will we be more like? Will we fall into the calamity of Esau, or will we avert disaster by humbly coming to God and accepting the heritage and birthright offered by His grace?

lesson by Tim Smelser