© 2017 Lynn Abbott
I couldn’t have been more than five at the time. My cousin’s visit had helped make it the best Christmas vacation I could ever remember.
And I was determined that I would not be parted from my beloved cousin. Our Christmas holiday would never end.
Forget returning to school. Never mind my big brother’s merciless taunts. Allison and I would face the world together. So I packed my bags with all the determination of a stubborn five-year-old, and made my stand. Right next to my cousin.
“What are you doing?” my mother inquired, suppressing a smile.
“I’m going to Allison’s house,” I announced.
I’m sure you can imagine the rest of that day’s conversation. I didn’t get to ride in my cousin’s car to Los Angeles that day.
But I knew I had made my point: if things didn’t go my way, I was packing my bags.
After all, work pressures overwhelm us. People snap at us. Even torment us.
The holidays pass too quickly, or perhaps, for some of us, not quickly enough.
The children’s school activities exhaust us.
We fail to meet others’ expectations despite our best efforts.
Sinking under the load, we long to prolong Christmas vacation. Sounds like a good plan, doesn’t it?
I knew I had made my point: if things didn’t go my way, I was packing my bags.
And so, you and I pack our bags.
Yup. “I’m outta here,” I say.
“I’ve had it,” I mutter.
“See ya later, Alligator!” I cry.
And I head off independently to find my “better” way.
Funny that. It never seems to work out quite the way I expect.
I usually find myself in a terrible mess before Abba steps in graciously to rescue me from my “better” plan.
I think, perhaps, that’s why the account of Onesimus so resonates with me. If anyone had a right to look for an escape, Onesimus did.
As we read the book, we put the back story pieces together: Onesimus was a Roman slave. Of course, at this point, we should note that God does not sanction slavery in any way.
In fact, as I thumb through Scripture, it becomes apparent that slavery always signifies the state from which Christ rescues us. And God took great pains to rescue His people from slavery to Pharoah.
Obviously, in no way, does God approve slavery. Again and again, He calls His beloved children to freedom.
If anyone had a right to look for an escape, Onesimus did.
Yet, God recognizes that humanity often pursues practices that are outside of His will. For this reason, He gave His people perimeters by which to curb those cultural practices that fell outside of His perfect will, those human choices that He hates (Exodus 21:1-2).
In other words, Scripture acknowledges negative human behaviors, but it doesn’t condone those practices. Instead, God’s Spirit seeks to radically transform our human relationships one step at a time.
The Mosaic law simply defined God’s “in the meantime” for His people.
Unfortunately for Onesimus, he lived an “in the meantime” that most of us would long to escape. And so, at first opportunity, he made his break–double time. Forget the bags. He was outta there.
Likely, he took money from his master for his long journey. His destination? Rome.
The major metropolis provided the anonymity he sought. But the runaway soon discovered that he wasn’t truly free. Fear of recapture likely dominated his thoughts.
Scripture doesn’t tell us how he met Paul, but Paul’s letter to Philemon indicates that not only did Onesimus meet Paul but that he also met Paul’s Savior.
And in his letter, the apostle pleads with the wealthy Colossian to receive Onesimus with mercy, love and grace.
What’s up with that? Receive the runaway? Onesimus wanted to return to slavery?
The Mosaic law simply defined God’s “in the meantime.”
But I suspect that as Onesimus grew in faith under Paul’s teaching, he confessed all to Paul. Here’s the good part.
Turns out that Philemon, Onesimus’ former master, had come to Christ through Paul’s teaching.
Undoubtedly, God had orchestrated all for Onesimus’ welfare. Seeking to make things right with Philemon was a risk, of course. Nevertheless, Abba paved the way for Onesimus through Paul.
And although faith in Him does not mean that we or our circumstances are immediately transformed, we nevertheless are called to demonstrate, however imperfectly, the values of Messiah’s coming kingdom.
As Christ’s new disciple, Onesimus understood that.
Paul obviously believed that Philemon embraced Abba’s Grace as well.
You see, Christ dramatically transforms the way we approach relationships.
In his letter, the apostle offered to make restitution on Onesimus’ part, (Philemon 18). Paul then asks Philemon to both remember and give God’s amazing grace.
Paul also asked Philemon to receive Onesimus as Philemon would receive Paul himself: “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me,” (Philemon 17).
Wow. This is even bigger than the story of the Prodigal Son. Onesimus did not begin as a son but as a slave. And this slave, this one considered “less than human” by Rome, was to be received as a brother.
Christ not only transformed Onesimus’ heart (I Corinthians 5:17) but gave him new significance. Paul called the once renegade slave by name, “Useful.”
And Grace provides you and me with a new identity in Christ as well.
No longer slaves.
Now a dear brother or sister in the LORD.
And in turn, you and I pass that grace along to others. Just as Philemon did.
And as we obey Christ, God’s grace goes before us, orchestrating blessing even in life’s toughest moments…
In social situations.
In life’s whatevers, Abba bestows forgiveness and ultimately transforms human relationships.
He grants strength for that next step. His Grace forges a path. He is able to bring good even from our worst mess.
You betcha. Onesimus teaches me that God is able to grant new beginnings even after I’ve thrown in the towel or packed my bags.
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers,” ~Galatians 6:9-10