Who is Christianity for, anyway? Who do its rules apply to? Who do its promises apply to?
Are there those in this world who are above the Christian faith? Above laws, consequences, and accountability? Are there those in this world who are beneath the Christian faith? Those who are too dirty? Those who are too broken? Those who are too shameful?
Are there those in this world who have already used up all of their grace? Those who have squandered their last chance? How many times can a man be forgiven before he is unforgivable? How many bridges can you burn before there is absolutely no way to get back home? How useless can one life become?
His name was Onesimus, and if he were standing before you today, these are the questions he would be asking.
He is the kind of guy who, when you spend fifteen minutes with him, suddenly your life doesn’t seem so bad. Suddenly your marriage doesn’t seem so crappy. Suddenly you are proud your children didn’t turn out like him.
Do you know people like that? People who make you think your life isn’t as bad as it could be? Do you feel like you are one of those people, like you give everyone else hope because at least they are not you?
Onesimus was a slave in the city of Colossae during the first century. While Jesus was preaching and teaching in the village towns around the Sea of Galilee, Onesimus was miles away crying himself to sleep every night after a day of back breaking labor.
We can only speculate as to how Onesimus became a slave. It is very likely he was born a slave and lived his entire life as the property of another man. Maybe he was captured in war through no fault of his own and brought to Colossae to live his life in slavery. Maybe he was a prisoner, sentenced to a life of slavery as a result of his own foolish choices.
I can’t tell you the “how come” of this man’s life, just as I can’t fully explain the “how come” of your life.
I just know who he was when I was introduced to him. He was a slave. And you know what else is said about him? He was a useless slave. Does it get any worse? It is bad enough to be a slave, but you are at the bottom of the barrel when you are a useless slave. This was Onesimus.
For those of you who grew up on the farm, he was the chicken that didn’t have any tail feathers. Even among the simplest of animals on a farm there is a pecking order. And even among the chickens, there is a chicken that eats last, and when she goes for the leftovers, all of the other chickens attack her.
Onesimus was like a young man I once met at a gas station. As I visited with him about his life, I discovered he was in the local high school marching band. When I ask him what he played, he looked down, grinned and said, “The air tuba.”
Apparently he couldn’t play the tuba, but they needed more people in order to look like they had a band. So, they handed him this bulky instrument and told him to march around on the field, but not, under any circumstances, was he to blow into that thing.
Do you know what it’s like to play the air tuba? Hands full. Lots of activity. No purpose. No music in your life. All dressed up — with no horn to blow.
Believe it or not, Onesimus is a man we find in the pages of the Bible. We discover part of his story in the book of Philemon. There we read Onesimus is a useless slave, but his story gets even worse.
Apparently, Onesimus becomes fed up with his life as a useless slave, steals from his owner, and runs away. A useless, runaway, thieving slave. I know what you’re thinking, “I’d rather play the air tuba than live a life like that.”
But, as is the case with great Bible stories, that is not all there is to Onesimus’ life. Just as this is not all there is to your life. His story continues, and so does yours.
Onesimus stole from his master and fled as far away as possible. Evidence points to the likelihood he made his way to Rome. He wanted to go where no one could ever find him.
But, you just can’t hide from God. Somehow, somewhere, in the great metropolis of Rome, Onesimus met a man we refer to as the Apostle Paul. Paul was a prisoner in Rome at the time, and Onesimus, as a runaway slave, must have found it very difficult to make a living in this capital of the world. He eventually made his way to working among prisoners just to find enough food to survive each day. And there, as a servant to prisoners, Onesimus, the useless thief and slave, found his freedom. In a prison in Rome, Onesimus met Jesus.
And everything changed when Onesimus met Jesus. Everything can change when you meet Him as well.
So, what are the life lessons we can glean from the remarkable story of this useless thieving slave who met Jesus?
The first lesson we learn is:
Life Is Not Fair
And the truth is, you don’t want it to be.
The average American makes approximately $26,000 a year. Do you know where that puts them in the scope of our world?
According to this Global Rich List, the average American is the 569, 942,529th richest person in the world. The average American is among the top 10% of the richest people on earth.
In the United States, you are considered at poverty level if you are a single person with an income of $11,000 a year. Do you know where you fit on a world wide scale? You would be in the top 13% of the World’s richest people.
87% of the world’s population lives below U.S. poverty standards.
Life is not fair.
I am not fair with my children. I don’t give to each of my children equally, and I’m sure my sons are very glad, because I don’t think they would have wanted to wear a cheerleader outfit to school last Friday like my daughter did.
I love all of my children, but I do not give them all the same of everything. No, I give them what they need.
My friends, you have been crying out, frustrated and angry, because you feel like life has given you a raw deal.
- Why did I have to be born into this family?
- Why did my parents have to be the ones to get a divorce?
- Why did I have to be given this body?
- Why was I the one who got abused?
- Why was I the one who got addicted?
- Why was I the one who caught the disease?
Life is not fair, but the beginning of your story does not have to be the end. Life is not fair, but you are not alone. Life is not fair, but life can be very, very good.
Life is not fair, but it is not God’s fault. He is not to blame. God loves you, and God is for you, not against you. He can turn your lump of coal into a diamond, if you will choose not to collapse under the pressure.
Every day I live my life in the company of heroes. Sometimes the greatest hero in the room is the person who mustered the courage to get out of bed that morning; the one who battled past depression, pain, or disappointment to face a new day.
Many of you are heroes because you have managed to stay alive this long. You are heroes because of the way you have raised your children with little or no support. You have made it this far, but your story is not over, and it gets better from here. It is time to raise our goals from survival to victory!
The next observation I want to make from the life of Onesimus is:
There Are Some Bridges You Just Can’t Burn
The key we must understand here is that sometimes the first step forward is a step back.
Onesimus had it made, he had escaped. He had left behind the life of a useless slave. He had met Paul. He discovered Jesus. Finally, everything was going well for this young man, and then his newfound father in the faith said those horrifying words.
“Onesimus, it is time for you to go back.”
This is the reason the book of Philemon is in the Bible. It is a letter Paul gave to Onesimus as he sent him BACK to his owner.
Sometimes the road forward leads us back through familiar territory, but here is the key. Though we may head back into the same place, we are not the same! We have changed. We will bring life to any circumstance God calls us to walk through or minister in.
In Paul’s letter to Philemon, we read:
…yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 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 will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good— 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 man and as a brother in the Lord. — Philemon verses 9-16
You can’t keep running from your past. The more you run from your past, the more your past becomes your future. Jesus died on a cross so you could make peace with your past, not run from it.
It is possible the next step of healing in your life may feel very much like a step back, but it is the step back that will lead you forward.
History tells us Philemon received Onesimus back into his house. He obeyed Paul’s instruction, accepted Onesimus as a brother, and even granted Onesimus his freedom. When Onesimus deserved death because of his actions, Philemon gave him his freedom.
And there is even more to the story. Let me introduce you to someone church history refers to as Saint Onesimus.
In this picture, Onesimus is holding a letter in his left hand. That letter wasn’t his death sentence as he headed back to his master. It was the beginning of his new life.
Church history records another disciple of Paul named Timothy became the bishop of the church in Ephesus and led the church of Asia from that great city about 100 miles from Colossae.
There is a list of the Bishops who followed in line after Timothy; and the next name listed is Onesimus.
Onesimus, Bishop of Ephesus, who sat upon the Episcopal throne where he oversaw the Body of Christ.
Onesimus? The slave Onesimus? Leading the church of Asia?
This is the Beauty of the Bible. This is the glory of Christianity– that, whoever you are, the story of the Jesus is for you. The story of healing, hope, opportunity, and restoration. The story of victory is for you.
My friend, what will you do with the days you have been given? How will you respond to the marvelous grace of Jesus Christ? I invite you to rise above your circumstances and live in the potential God has established for your life. You don’t have to be the Bishop of Asia for your life to be counted a success. No, our Lord measures by a different standard. But, your life can be eternally significant if you follow with courage the invitation of God.
Rise up. Let your story be told.