Philemon 4-7. 4 I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, 6 and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. 7 For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
You think your church is awkward? Imagine going to a church where slaves and their masters all attend together. Welcome to the first century church in the Roman Empire.
Now imagine that a man who is a leader in the church – his house is where the church meets, his wife bakes muffins every week, his son probably leads the singing – has a slave who is also a church member. And now imagine that that slave has run away. Escaped. But he ran away to the same apostle who just wrote your church a letter about the supremacy of Christ and his love (Colossians). And now imagine that that apostle actually wants to send that slave back home. And not just back to the same house, but back to the same church. Like I said, awkward. Welcome to the book of Philemon.
Church life can be such a beautiful mess can’t it? Unfortunately, we are often blinded by the messiness of church, and fail to see the beauty behind it all. But the only way to see past the messiness of your church is to make it truly personal. You have to get to know people. If you only look at a church as a whole, of course, it will often look like a dumpster fire of contention, division, and pettiness. Or elitism, apathy, laziness, self-righteousness, hypocrisy (OK we get the point).
But if you really want to move past all this and see the beauty, you have to take a deep dive into the lives of the individuals. You have to invest in them. You have to get messy with them. You have to pray for them. You have to thank God for them. You have to love and allow yourself to be loved by them.
You have to share their faith.
When we see the phrase “sharing your faith,” in verse 6, we might think about witnessing. But what it actually says is “I pray that the koinonia of your faith.” Koinonia. Often translated as fellowship or sharing as it is here. But it really means partnership.
Paul is calling Philemon (the guy who is a leader in the church and owns a runaway slave) his partner in the faith. His partner in the gospel. And because they are partners in the gospel, Paul could never overlook the messiness of this whole situation. He has to embrace the mess. Why? Because he loves Philemon. And he has been loved by Philemon. He has derived much joy and comfort from him over the years. And (as we will see) he deeply loves Onesimus, the runaway slave, too.
Could Paul have just chalked all this up to “Christians behaving badly.” Or, “There goes that bunch of hypocrites again.” Or, “I love Jesus but not the church.” Or, “Well slavery is bad anyway so we don’t have to say anything to Philemon.”
Does any of this sound familiar?
Have you given up on the church because it got too messy? Too complicated? Too much of a head-ache? Too overwhelming? Too judgy?
I have. Oh, I didn’t stop attending (good Christians have to go to church – right?). But I stopped caring about anyone there. Why? Because I was never invested in actual lives. I didn’t see anyone as my partner in the gospel. I saw it as an institution, an organization, that let me down and hurt my feelings. Not as people who wanted the same thing I did – the supremacy and love of Christ to be made known IN the messiness. THROUGH the awkwardness. BY the conflict.
It wasn’t until others really joined their lives to mine, and I learned to do the same, that I really began to love the church. Not the institution, but the body. The people. I began to see the partnership. And I began to see that none of us is perfect, but we are all becoming effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. Which I think simply means that we’re all journeying through this life trying to figure out everything Christ has done for us and in us each little baby step along the way. So can we all just be a little bit more patient?
“To live is Christ” allows us to see past the messiness of the church and into the hearts of others where we see that Jesus is up to something. Yes, it’s slow and messy. But it’s also beautiful. Just ask Philemon and Onesimus.
Have you quit on church (or are you tempted to quit)?
You in Christ
How does union with Christ allow us to partner with others for the gospel, even when it’s messy?
Christ in you
How can you invest in a partnership for the gospel with others in your church?
Playlist: The Beautiful Church.