Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 8, 2019
“How Far Does Grace Go?”
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
The best day this summer? No doubt about it – it was July 21. Why that day? Maybe that was the last time the Rockies won a ball game? No – they have won at least 5 games in these last two months. July 21 was the Sunday when I preached the most popular sermon of the summer. I printed a bunch of them for that Sunday and I had to go to the second and third printing of that message. The sermon? “Forgiveness Is For Giving.” The passage I spoke on was Mathew 6:12, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” That sermon was so good I think I’m going to preach it again today. I’m just going to use a different text and give it a new name, “How Far Does Grace Go?” but the thought is about the same.
I have never preached on this text. In fact, I had a hard time even finding the book. Do you know anything about Philemon? Ever read it? Know where it is? (It is a New Testament book, only one chapter in length, lost between Titus and Hebrews). In your Pew Bible it is on pages 1215-1216.
Here is the synopsis – there are three characters in the book – St. Paul, Philemon and Onesimus. You know Paul, apostle, the man who planted the church in Colossae, where the other two lived. Philemon – a gentile, one of Paul’s converts to Christianity, rich, an owner of slaves. Onesimus – one of Philemon’s slaves. But one who ran away from Philemon, maybe with some of Philemon’s money. One who sought out Paul while Paul was in prison, he became another of Paul’s converts to the faith. Whose conversion into the same faith of St. Paul and his owner, Philemon, leaves us with an important question – “How far does grace go?”
Do you know what grace is? Favor. Unmerited kindness. Someone does something for you that you don’t deserve. They do the dishes when it was your turn to do them. They clean up the kitty litter this month though they did it last month. In a religious sense it is God doing things for us that we don’t deserve. For the sake of Christ, and Christ alone, we are forgiven, completely and forever, of our sin. We are given another chance, a second chance, to live life because of this favor, kindness and mercy. I hope you know a few of the grace passages. Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” “[We] know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 2:16a)
How far does grace go? It comes right to you, right to me, directly from heaven. When we ask God for His forgiveness, when we repent of sin and seek His cleansing, He joyfully gives it and we humbly receive it. It is a gift. When we ask for eternal salvation, a mansion in heaven, we receive the key to open the door because Jesus willingly died for us and rose from death. Our faith begins vertically. From heaven comes our Savior to us, our faith makes those gifts ours. Like I preached on July 21, We beg of God, “Forgive us our sins.”
But Paul wanted to know if grace received would also be grace given. Paul to Philemon, “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.” (Verse 10) “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.” (Verses 15-16) Paul was insisting that the forgiveness and love and new life that Philemon had received from God would be gifts he would give to his slave.
How far does grace go? It must start vertically but it must be lived horizontally. Philemon, could legally, do horrid things to Onesimus. He was his slave, who may have stolen property from him, who now was a runaway. He could have had him punished. He could have had him killed. He had the right. Maybe Philemon could make the actions of Onesimus an example to the other slaves. “This is what will happen to you if you even get an inkling of doing the same thing!!”
July 21. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Grace is for giving. Paul would say to Philemon, “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” (Verse 17) Grace is costly. It demands much from us. We’re forgiven and we in kind forgive. We are recipients from God of numerous gifts in life and we are called to be givers of the same. Right after Paul speaks about the glories of grace received in Ephesians 2:8-9, he addresses the life of grace, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)
How does this account end? Does he show kindness or does he demand his rights? Does he seek revenge, demanding that Onesimus should be an example to others who are thinking of doing the same? So often the Bible gives us a situation but it doesn’t tell us the conclusion. You know about the prodigal son in Luke 15. The younger son runs away from home, wastes his life and reputation, abuses his body but the father receives him back. Open arms. Ring on his finger, sandals on his feet, robe that covered his rags. Then the feast. But the older brother wouldn’t have him back. The father went to him, personally invited him in, wanted him to share in this great joy. And then the story ends. Did he go in? Was everything in that family ok? Or did they stay separated and at odds with each other?
But I know how this story ends. I know what Philemon did. I can tell you how far his grace went. But you have to go to the book of Colossians to get the answer. In Colossians 4:7-9 Paul writes to that church about sending a man called Tychicus to them and then he says, “He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.” Philemon forgave him. Philemon opened his heart to him. He received him as a brother is Christ. It is as Paul says elsewhere, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” (Ephesians 3:17b-18)
I find it strange that a personal letter from one man to another found its way into the holy word of God. There must have been a reason that God wanted all people, everywhere, for all time, to have this little book in the Scriptures. This book shows us grace, vertical and horizontal. It shows us how far grace goes. As Paul writes, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28)
How far does grace go? It comes to you, freely and generously. Our cup overflows, right? And then it flows through you to many others with joy and love. Amen!!