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Forgive And Welcome
September 5 and 6, 1998


Evidently Onesimus was a runaway slave. Paul, now a prisoner in Rome because of his missionary work, wrote a letter on behalf of Onesimus to Philemon, Onesimus' master, to make amends and pave the way for Onesimus' return. The letter ends on a sad note. Paul asks Philemon to prepare the guest room for him, but Paul was executed before he could use it.

Notice the sophisticated sales techniques Paul used in the letter! Paul begins by calling Philemon a friend, fellow worker, and brother. He praises him and builds him up. Then, he subtly threatens Philemon with a demand, but pulls back and says, "But because I love you, I make a request instead." Paul is not above using his sad situation to soften Philemon, "I'm a prisoner for Christ's sake." Paul offers to pay any damages Philemon might expect from the inconvenience and loss of income Philemon incurred because his slave had run away, but he doesn't expect Philemon to take him up on the offer. Paul throws in a little guilt, and reminds Philemon of who converted him! "I should not have to remind you, of course, that you owe your very self to me."

The letter is a masterpiece in salesmanship, and could well be used as a manual in sales training. Talk about manipulation! You folks have it so easy! When you are asked to do something, or when the church needs funds, you are asked up front. You are told the need, and are trusted to respond in a way which we hope will be positive! We don't use guilt, subtle pressure, or "you owe me". Do you see my tongue in my cheek?

The purpose of Paul's letter can be summarized, "Forgive and welcome." Philemon is asked to forgive Onesimus for running away, cancel any debts or expenses incurred, and welcome Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother, a brother in Christ.

Forgive and welcome, restore the relationship. The heart of the gospel is forgiveness. But, today forgiveness has been trivialized. Paul knew that for Philemon to forgive and welcome Onesimus back was not easy. Paul recognized there were expenses incurred, hurt feelings, a sense of betrayal because Onesimus ran away. Paul used all the resources he had to convince Philemon and to offer a way for Philemon to forgive.

Too often today forgiveness has been trivialized. Psychologist Donald Joy calls it the "Gospel of Whoopee." Do whatever feels good because you can be forgiven by just saying words in a ritual prayer. But, is forgiveness that easy?

They found graffiti on Lenin's tomb, "Workers of the World--forgive me." Easy to do? Is it easy to forgive what communism has done to the world? How easy is it for Hillary to forgive Bill? Can the nation grant easy forgiveness and glibly say, "Oh, boys will be boys; and liars will be liars?" Some people expect to be forgiven when they glibly say, "I'm sorry." When the wounded one is reticent about accepting the "I'm sorry," the now insulted perpetrator belligerently responds, "What else do you expect me to do? I said, 'I'm sorry'." What else? How about honesty (being sorry enough to tell the truth)? How about repentance (being sorry enough to change one's behavior)? How about restitution (being sorry enough to make amends)?

Some of you may recall Bob Schwartz who led our Church Family Retreat several years ago. Bob is now pastor of the Church of the Wayfarer in Carmel. Yes, I'm sure he had a difficult time moving from Bakersfield to Carmel! Let me quote a few lines from his column in their church newsletter:

Last week, the President confessed-- sort of. He apologized-- in a way. Then he said in effect, "Now let's forget it. Let's get on with it." I'm sure many people would like to leave this pathetic chapter in our history behind...(But), if I were his spiritual counselor, I would urge him not to want to get too quickly beyond all this and get on with things. Instead, I would have him dig deep into our Judeo-Christian tradition and go through some intensive and perhaps even public form of contrition. In the olden days they put on sackcloth and ashes. That's what King David did when he was publicly exposed as a gross sinner. Maybe this could actually be President Clint's shining moment when he could provide real leadership, and rather than showing us another clever way to save face, show us how a humble and contrite heart is always acceptable before God. That's where so many of us have a real problem. Yes, we all have a problem with sin, but we have the follow-up problem of taking real responsibility for it and leaving no doubt in anyone's mind that we are truly sorry.

Amen! Forgiveness is not cheap. To forgive us cost Jesus his life. To accept, receive, and experience God's forgiveness involves honesty, repentance, and restitution on our part. Listen to Jesus' words.

Matthew 5:23-24, So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

Matthew 6:14-15, For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Forgiveness is not cheap, easy, or automatic. We celebrate Holy Communion today. Is there joy in your life? Are you connected to God in the depths of your being? Have you truly been forgiven, cleansed, renewed? If not, is there a need for honesty, repentance, and restitution?

© 1998 Douglas I. Norris