Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.
One of the things comedians are known for is a quickness to retort and belittle those who heckle and antagonize them. Patton Oswalt is one such comedian in America. But last year, his comeback caught a lot of people by surprise.
It started when Oswalt tweeted a sarcastic political jab. A man named Michael Beatty who was offended tweeted back lobbing accusations and insults at Oswalt. Out of curiosity, Oswalt began scrolling through Beatty’s Twitter timeline. What he found took him by surprise, which prompted Oswalt to tweet the following, quote:
Aw, man. This dude just attacked me on Twitter and I joked back but then I looked at his timeline and he’s in a LOT of trouble health-wise … He’s been dealt some [terrible] cards—let’s deal him some good ones. Click and donate—just like I’m about to.
The link was for a GoFundMe account to go toward healthcare expenses for Beatty, which include diabetes and ketoacidosis. The campaign began trending, and raised multiples times more than the requested goal of $5,000.
That unprovoked generosity provoked this reaction from Beatty, again on Twitter, quote:
“You have humbled me to the point where I can barely compose my words. You have caused me to take pause and reflect on how harmful words from my mouth could result in such an outpouring.”
Anika Reed, “Patton Oswalt feuds on Twitter with Trump supporter, then pays his medical bills,” USA Today (2-5-19)
Blessing in reply to insult, forgiving personal offense, and embracing when rejected, Oswalt built a bridge where one was burning. It’s time we talk about forgiving when someone hurts you, rejects you, does you wrong.
It’s time we talk about forgiveness
All of us will find ourselves in a situations where you have done damage to a relationship, or where you have been hurt, or you want to help friends who are at odds to work it out. We touch on all three of those situations this week, by way of a brief personal note included in the New Testament. Although it’s less than a page long, pound for pound it carries the greatest potential for improving the quality and maturity of our relationships. It speaks to conflict at work, in the home, church, neighborhood—really anywhere you interact with people. Our guide this week is the letter to Philemon.
Open your Bible or Bible app, please, to the letter to Philemon. It’s written by the apostle Paul while he’s under house arrest in Rome, awaiting trial. It’s written to a friend of Paul’s named Philemon, whose name—this is important—means loving. Paul writes because this guy whose name means loving is deep in the weeds angry at another man named Onesimus. Onesimus’ name in turn literally means useful. That’s key to understanding this little letter on working things out when you clash against someone. Paul calls Loving and Useful to live up to their names, in light of all that Jesus Christ has done for them. Paul uses his friendship with both of these men to try to help them take the reconciliation they’ve received from Christ, and apply it to their damaged relationship. He calls them and us to be, as the message title indicates, good news friends.
Before we read and briefly walk our way through this little persuasive note, the backstory is crucial to understand. Years before, Paul spent quite a while in the large city of Ephesus, which was a business hub, a crossroads. It is likely there that Philemon came on business from his sleepy hometown of Colosse. He and Paul crossed paths, Paul told him all about Jesus, and Philemon came to faith in Jesus. He grew in his faith and maturity so much so that he became one of the leaders of the church in Colosse. The church actually met in his home, which tells us Philemon was wealthy enough to own a home spacious enough to host the Christians in his hometown.
So that’s how Paul and Philemon became fast friends. How about Onesimus? It turns out this man whose name means Useful used to be useful for Philemon: Philemon was his master. Onesimus was, in the class systems of ancient Roman society, a slave. Slaves in Roman society worked in everything from housekeeping to physicians—still slavery, but different than African-American slavery.
The scene changes from Ephesus and Colosse to megacity Rome, where Paul is under house arrest. Somehow, Onesimus crosses paths with Paul. And just like with Philemon, Paul tells this man about Jesus, he comes to believe and is baptized, and Onesimus is so grateful to Paul for telling him about Jesus that he starts doing whatever he can to help Paul. This is key: a man named Useful becomes Useful to Paul. All well and good.
But here comes the plot twist: Paul has no idea that Philemon and Onesimus know each other. He’s now friends with both of them, and to his surprise, Onesimus eventually opens up and tells his story, that he who is proving useful to Paul had robbed and run away from his master. We can imagine the conversation going something like this:
Rubber meets the road Christianity
Paul: So you stole money and ran away?
Paul: And you haven’t paid it back or tried to work things out?
Useful: No, I’m terrified of what he might do!
Paul: And where was this?
Paul: Colosse? Huh. I have a good friend in Colosse. He hosts the church there, in his house.
Useful: Say what?
Useful: Um, that’s the guy I stole from. And bailed on.
Paul: Phil? Your master is Phil?
Useful: Was. No way he’d trust me now. No way I’d trust him. Look, maybe I shouldn’t have told you this. Can we just forget I ever said anything?
Paul: Hold on, friend. I’ve got an idea. Let’s see if we can’t work this out, now that both of you are Christians, now that both of you are following the way of Jesus.
And with that, Paul grabs a sheet of papyrus. He pauses to pray silently for a few minutes, then dips his quill in ink, and begins writing. What he writes gives us a roadmap for making peace—whether you’re the one who has done wrong, you’re the person who has been wronged, or you want to help friends who are at odds to make peace. And so we read…
The New Testament letter to Philemon
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
A “Come to Jesus” moment
As Paul puts down his quill, rolls this letter up and seals it, he sits Onesimus down and they have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment. “You need to go back. You need to try to make this right. It might not work. You’re not responsible for how Philemon responds. But you have to do what’s right. As far as it depends on you, you need to live at peace with everyone, including him. You’re not going to be alone. I’m sending Tychicus with you. He’ll carry the letter and hand it over as my representative. I trust Philemon. I trust you. And you both trust me. So I’m asking you to do this. If you don’t, you’ll always regret it. If you don’t try to work it out, the next time you hit a conflict, you’ll just repeat the pattern, and run. Will you do this?”
We know that according to Roman law at the time, Philemon—again whose name means loving—could have legally punished or even killed a thieving former employee. No one would expect him to react kindly, lovingly.
But Onesimus says his prayers and finds his courage. He accepts the risk and sets out on the 1,500-mile journey back from Rome to little Colosse, where everyone would know by now what he had done. Small town, big news.
The reason Onesimus went is because he came to believe that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. That’s why Christ came—to make enemies friends. And it’s what he now calls us to do: reconcile. Work it out. Forgive.
Forgiveness & forbearance in a deeply stressful time
I’m not sure there’s ever been more need for forgiveness and forbearance until now, especially during the pandemic. Everyone is stressed these days. Parents are stressed over school and the uncertainties of what this school year is going to be like. Store employees are stressed at customers being rude.
When I go grocery shopping, I often ask check-out staff, “How’s your day going?” What I’m hearing again and again is of customers being unkind. Workers at two different stores told of being cursed out. Then right after a Kroger employee expressed frustration that a customer had been unreasonable toward her, I was scanning my items when it happened again.
And on top of the stress, we’re feeling loss. Postponed weddings. Staycations. Lost jobs. Broken friendships thanks to politics and pandemic. Seniors in the Assisted Living facility where I lead the chaplain team are unable to get out on daytrips. Family members are severely restricted in when and where they can visit with their parents and grandparents. It’s all six feet and masks, when what they long for is a kiss and a tender hug. Businesses, entire chains, have closed up and gone. I meet every week with other pastors of churches partnering with YMCAs, and in one state represented in the call, seven of their YMCAs have been permanently shut down. They didn’t make it. In our area, hundreds of Y employees are out of work. Family incomes directly impacted.
You no doubt are feeling losses.
So with these added stresses and losses, forbearance and forgiveness are taking on new importance: the need for extra patience, leniency, giving one another more breathing room, giving space to vent and say the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong way and either let it go, or work it out. Amidst all of these pressures, Paul’s message is crystal clear, that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.
Insights from Philemon to today
So let’s take just a few more minutes to walk through this persuasive little personal note, to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to us—again whether you have damaged a relationship, or you have been wronged, or you want to help someone else to reconcile.
With your Bible or Bible app open in front of you, scan again this brief personal note. It’s a great example of persuasion coming from a stance of committed friendship. It is personal, it is challenging, and it includes built-in accountability. Paul makes it as hard as possible for a guy named loving to refuse to love and forgive someone who did him so wrong.
Paul begins with affection, citing Philemon as his dear friend and fellow worker in Christ’s church. He then moves on to praying for Philemon, thanking God that he lives up to his name, loving all of God’s people. Verses 6 & 7 Paul begins hinting at where this is going, that the love that Philemon has shown to God’s people when all was fine, needs to be applied to this conflict.
With verse 8, Paul gets right to the point: if you love me and love God’s people, then here’s someone else you need to love—this one who has so deeply wronged you. Forgive him.
Verse 11-16, Paul plays off Onesimus’ name, writing, “This man who became useless when he ripped you off and ran, has become useful to me! And more than that, he has become a follower of Jesus. You didn’t plan that. He certainly didn’t. But God did! God, who causes all things to work together for the good of those who love him, guided both me and Onesimus separately to Rome, and then to cross paths with one another, so that the help you wished you could give me, in a sense you have!
Max DuPree famously points out that the first job of a leader is to define reality. Paul redefines reality back to Philemon, that now that you have received Christ’s forgiveness, that’s the standard for how you must forgive those who wrong you—starting with this man who definitely did you wrong.
How this little letter undermined slavery
And then in verses 15-16, Paul says something that undermines the entire institution of slavery. Although he has zero power to change the law or society at large, Paul reframes how we ought to see and treat everyone, including those who may be lower down the scale socio-economically compared to you. Paul pleads with Philemon to receive Onesimus back no longer as merely someone who works for you, no longer as a slave, but now as your brother in Christ.
Paul isn’t done yet. Verses 17-21, he throws down a challenge: “Welcome him the same as you would welcome me. You have benefited from me, now I’m asking to benefit from you. If there’s a cost to this, I’ll pay it. But remember what you owe to me for leading you to Christ. I know you’ll do the right thing. I’m confident you’ll go above and beyond what I’m asking of you.”
This radically countercultural plea sows the seeds for the eventual dismantling of slavery once there were enough Christians in the general population to advocate for abolition. Beginning in the 7th century on up through the 19th century, it was Christians who led the way in advocating freedom and dignity for those who were being treated as property.
And if you’re not convinced of that, wait until you see a portion from another letter Paul wrote and sent at the same time, and sent this to the church that met in Philemon’s home. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians—again, to be read aloud in worship services in Philemon’s home, Paul writes…
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:11-14)
As this was read aloud in this church, in this man’s home, there is no question that all eyes…were on Philemon. This man whose names means loving was being called, publicly, to love and forgive the one who had so deeply and publicly wronged him.
Becoming good news friends
Because love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. This is the practical theology that a 1st-century Christian man needed to understand and apply when the heat was on.
This is what the world needs to see from Christians more than anything—that we love deeply, that we’re different from society at large.
This is what your family needs to experience more than anything—forgiveness and forbearance, that your home is marked by love.
This is what every church needs more than anything—that we be humble enough to ask forgiveness, gracious enough to extend forgiveness, and courageous enough to nudge those who are at odds to reconcile, to work it out.
This is what is needed more than anything—that we be humble enough to ask forgiveness, gracious enough to extend forgiveness, and courageous enough to nudge those who are at odds to reconcile, because love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.
Friends, this is what good news friends do: we challenge each other to be shaped by Christ more than by culture, to be shaped more by being the family of God than being limited to the patterns passed on down your family tree. And this reshaping, this becoming more like Christ, almost always comes by way of challenge. Paul challenged both of these men to apply the gospel: ask forgiveness, extend forgiveness, and make love the most important thing about you.
Do you have a friend like this, someone who knows when to prod and push you to do the hard, right thing?
Do you have a friend who speaks up when you need to forgive someone who has wronged you?
Do you have a friend who lets you know when you’ve said or posted something that reflects poorly on you?
If you’re married, do you accept this kind of input from your spouse? If not, why not? If trust between you has been damaged, get to a good counselor and get help rebuilding trust. Invest in your marriage, so that you want to grow old together.
If you are dating, do you mutually function this way, at this level of tested friendship? Have you had any good arguments yet and worked it out in healthy and respectful ways? If not, it’s time to get some hardcore counseling to unpack that before you say “I do.” Please. Do yourselves and any future children a favor.
Because love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.
I’ve said it several times, but I haven’t told you who first said it. It was one who lived the call to love and forgive: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Philemon had some cash stolen and then was ghosted. Dr. King had his reputation constantly trashed, misrepresented. He was beaten, falsely imprisoned, faced death threats against his family, watched as friends were murdered, and was pressured by peers to respond with violence.
But in everything he did—working toward justice for black Americans, advocating for labor unions and fair wages for all Americans, Dr. King forgave those who constantly wronged him. He pursued being a good news friend, applying the gospel to those animosities: forgive as the Lord forgave you. Be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient. Bear with each other. Forgive when you have a beef against someone. And over these all, put on love, which ties it all together.
Because love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.
The power of forgiveness
So what happened when Tychicus showed up with Onesimus behind him and handed over this personal plea from Paul? The New Testament doesn’t tell us. But another letter written 50 years later seems to. In early church leader Ignatius’ letter to the church in Ephesus, he speaks highly again and again of their leader or bishop. And that man’s name is…Onesimus! Ignatius describes him as, quote, “Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love…” (Chapter 1, The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians) We also know that Tychicus served as the interim pastor of the church in Ephesus before Onesimus came there.
So when you put your detective hat on and connect the clues, apparently this attempt at reconciliation worked! This man named Useful who started out as a slave, then stole and ran away, then became a genuine follower of Jesus, became useful again, and even went on to become the overseer, the top leader, of the very church where Philemon had become a Christian! God transformed him from being useless, to becoming Useful to many, helping others to find peace with God, and reconciliation with one another. And it all started when a more mature Christian—Philemon—chose to forgive, just as Christ had forgiven him.
I’m sure you know that God wants to do a similar, great work in you and me, in all the places he has us. And so I have to ask:
- Is there someone you need to forgive?
- Is there someone you need to ask forgiveness of?
- Is it time for you to help someone else find their way toward reconciliation?
This is what we are called to become, good news friends who apply the good news of peace with God to our relationships. Because love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.
Would you pray with me? Our Father in heaven, we thank and praise you for making it possible for us to forgive and be forgiven. Thank you for sending your Son to forgive us our sin. Open our eyes, we ask, to see if we have sinned against someone and need to ask forgiveness, like Onesimus. Open our hearts, we ask, to forgive those who have sinned against us. And open our ears to hear when it’s time for us to help someone else do the work of pursuing reconciliation. Fill us with your Holy Spirit, that our words and motives will unmistakably reflect the forgiveness we have received and now extend. We ask this in the name of our Savior, our Forgiver, Jesus. Amen.