Charge It to My Account (Philemon)
1. "Charge it to my account." We've all said it. There are still stores around that still have store accounts so that you don't have to pay right away for what you need. For everything else, there's these wonderful, little, magic plastic cards. You go to Wal-Mart™ or M&M™ and get whatever you need and just hand them over. You get to walk away without having to pay any money for them. It's gives us a great sense of freedom to say, "Charge it!" Don't worry. This isn't a sermon about how to use credit cards wisely. I'm not an expert in that. I know what kind of trouble they can get you in because you don't always think about what you're saying when you say, "Charge it!" You're promising to pay for everything you bought PLUS everything the bank that owns the account wants to charge you for the privilege of carrying their card. When he wrote to Philemon, St. Paul knew exactly what he was saying when he said, "If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account" (v18). He was saying, "I'll repay you for everything you believe he owes you." St. Paul was dealing with a Tenth Commandment issue here and he knew how to handle it.
2. So that we've got a little better handle on who's who in this story, let's take a moment to update our scorecard. We've got Paul. We all know Paul. He's the easy one. He's writing to Philemon. Philemon is a prominent citizen in the city of Colossae. He's well-known both by his fellow citizens but also among the Christians in Colossae as many of them meet for church in his home. He is a man of some substance as he had slaves that helped run his household. One of those slaves was named Onesimus. Onesimus was a bit of a troublemaker. For some reason, he decided it would be best for him to leave the service of Philemon and venture out on his own. He winds up in Rome where he comes under the influence of St. Paul who is imprisoned there, waiting for the day where the guards would come and say the execution order had been handed down. Onesimus becomes a Christian and now he wants to return to Colossae, but he's not sure how his master will treat him. After all, he's a runaway slave and Philemon would have every right to do whatever he wanted to with him in regards to punishment. So, Onesimus asks Paul for help in getting back on Philemon's "good side". Paul writes the Epistle that we're meditating upon this morning for that very purpose.
3. Paul writes to Philemon, first of all, to remind him that Christ turns useless junk into profitable treasures. "Formerly [Onesimus] was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and me" (v11). This whole verse is a play on Onesimus' name--a name that means "useful" in Greek. Since Onesimus had run away from Philemon's house, he was absolutely useless to Philemon because he wasn't there. That was then. He WAS useless to Philemon, but NOW he can be VERY useful to Philemon, his household and the church in Colossae. Now that Onesimus has become a Christian, he's become much more than just a servant. He's become a brother. A brother who now, Paul says from personal experience, is able to live up to his name. Onesimus had become very useful to Paul as he was in prison that Paul wished he could keep him there, but he knew that that decision was really in Philemon's hands (vv13-14). What would happen to Onesimus now?
4. You've had the same thing happen to you. You've had an apostle write an epistle on your behalf to your master. No, it wasn't Paul. It was an apostle even greater than Paul. No, not St. Peter either. It was Jesus Himself. He's the ultimate Apostle. After all, the word "apostle" simply means "one who is sent". And He was sent by God for you. He wrote a masterful epistle that St. John describes with these words: "Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (21:25). The pieces that we do have are magnificent pieces that are all we need to understand exactly what Paul was saying to Philemon--Jesus makes useless junk into useful treasures. Our brothers who believe that you have to make a decision to give your heart to Jesus before you can become a Christian have things a bit skewed. Let's take a look at this for just a moment. Imagine for a moment that your heart is this beautiful flower that your son or daughter has picked for you. They're so excited to get it to you they run. Their feet get in the way and they trip and fall into a mud puddle. They get back up and run some more before tripping again in your flower bed that you JUST put fresh manure on to fertilize it. Then, they come to the door and give you the flower. What's your initial reaction? Truth be told--and we're in church after all--you recoil because of the mud and the stench. That's your heart in the eyes of God--a stinking, rotting blob. It's so black from sin that that He can't even tell what color it supposed to be. It's collasping into itself from the sheer hatred we have for our fellow human beings that it can't keep its normal shape any more. Is that a present worthy of God? Absolutely not. But go back to the child with the flower. Do you accept it? Sure. It was meant as a present for you. So you take it over to the sink or the garden hose and you wash off the mud and the manure, hoping to get the original beautiful flower back. God does the same thing for your heart. He takes the absolutely useless blob that's been so damaged and gnarled by sin and washes it in the waters of Baptism. Then, HE GIVES IT TO YOU!! It's now just as beautiful as it was when God created man back in Paradise. Now, it's not a useless blob of tissue any more, it's a very useful muscle that yearns to be useful to others. As it was in Philemon, Paul writes about him, "I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints ... I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you" (vv5-7). So what does Philemon do with the loving heart that he's received from God?
5. Paul masterfully writes this very personal letter. If he had simply wrote Philemon and said, "Since I'm an apostle, I'm ordering you to accept Onesimus back and not harm him even if he's harmed you." But no. Paul writes with such craft--not craftiness--but the craft of one who has been trained in rhetoric. He appeals to Philemon's love for his fellow Christians and then addresses Onesimus' desire and need. After making his request, Paul writes, "So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me" (v17). Philemon was to accept his former slave back--not just as a slave, but also a brother in Christ--a brother even on par with the apostle Paul (vv15-17). Paul then says, "If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. ... I will repay it--to say nothing of your owing me even your own self" (vv18-19). Paul could ask the favor because Paul was the one who brought Philemon the salvation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was Paul who had told Philemon that Jesus had written an epistle asking God not to hold any wrongs against Philemon but to charge them to Himself. Jesus has done that for you as well. He has told God, "He has sinned. She has fallen short. But don't punish them. Charge it to My account. I'll pay back every sin he has committed. I'll pay for all the wrongs she has done in her life. Give them a clean slate and give Me the punishment they deserve." Jesus has done THAT for you. He suffered the torments of Hell as He hung upon the Cross so that you won't have to. He has done that so God would accept you as God accepts Jesus--as a faithful, perfect child. That child that sometimes comes home with a present that's covered in mud and manure, but their heart is in the right place. God accepts you as equal to Jesus as He has adopted you as His son or daughter.
6. Equal to Jesus? That's what Paul has in mind as he's asking Philemon to accept Onesimus. Paul says, "I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will" (v14). Paul says, "I'd love for him to stay here with me, but I know that legally he's your property. I don't want you to think that he's here with me because I've enticed him away or I'm urging him to stay. That wouldn't be very Christian of me to do. If he stays with you or he returns back to me, I want it to be of your own free will. He's your servant and not mine." But the Tenth Commandment isn't the only thing that Paul writes about to Philemon. He also says, "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother" (v14). Even though society ranks you as master and slave, before God you are equal. This Paul says even more clearly elsewhere. At the same time that he's writing to Philemon, he's also writing epistles to Ephesus (and Timothy her pastor) and Colossae. In those other epistles, you can see his concern and anxiety for Onesimus becoming even more clear. "Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in Heaven" (Colossians 4:1) and "Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that He who is both their Master and yours is in Heaven, and that there is no partiality with Him" (Ephesians 6:9). Paul reminds Philemon and Onesimus--but also all of Christendom--that we are all equal before God. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we're all sons and daughters of God Most High.
7. "Charge that to my account." Too many of us fail to understand it in our temporal realm. Much more do we fail to recognize the greatness of that statement in the spiritual realm. That Jesus Christ Himself would come down and take everything that you have done that has wronged God and given offense to Him and pleaded with God to charge it to His own account. That He did on the Cross, bearing your sins and receiving the punishment you deserve so that you can be seen by God as equal to His only-begotten Son through faith. Amen.