Overcome: Betrayal (July 16 Sermon) - Wellington First Assembly

Wellington First Assembly

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Overcome: Betrayal (July 16 Sermon)

Beware the Ides of March.  In the day when every school boy or girl studied the Shakespearean classics, this phrase was well known.  It is simple shorthand for “Watch out – you may be betrayed soon.  Look out – you might be double crossed.”  The Ides of March.  In ancient Roman history, March 15th was the day you settle debts with each other.  But it became most famous 44 years before Christ was born – when Julius Caesar was assassinated by his best friend, the noblest of all Romans, Marcus Brutus.  Stabbed in the back, left to die, causing an entire empire to fall into a four-year civil war.  Betrayal.

Betrayals aren’t always as dramatic.  They are too common in life.  A husband betraying a marriage vow.  A friend gossiping about another.  An employer terminating a longtime employee – just to save a dollar or two.  In fact, many movie plots all revolve around some theme of betrayal.

Betrayal’s bring out jealousy and anger.  They let the emotions run wild.  They hurt deep down into the very interior of the soul and the depths of the human spirit.  Sometimes betrayals aren’t even personal.  Last month, one NBA Celtic fan burned the custom-made jersey of Markelle Fultz before the player had even been drafted by the Celtics!  The fan felt betrayed by the team’s management – because they didn’t do things that he thought they should.  Ridiculous, right?  While we might agree and laugh, we do so sparingly – knowing how much betrayal hurts.

I wish I could tell you that betrayal doesn’t happen.  But then when it does, you would feel doubly betrayed.  Betrayal is as much a part of the fallen human condition as anything else.  It is the natural sinful default mode in human relationships.  As long as you are human, there is a good chance that you will be betrayed, or you will betray someone – intentionally or not.

So, the question is… not how can we avoid betrayal… but how can we live through it.  How can we overcome betrayal?  Fortunately, the Bible isn’t silent on this point.  There are numerous examples of how to overcome.  In our Wednesday night study, we are looking at the life of Joseph.  Of course, we can always examine what Christ did when Judas chased 30 pieces of silver.  Today, however, we will look at a short little letter which found its way into the New Testament.  The apostle Paul addresses this whole issue of betrayal to a man named Philemon, a leader at the Colossian church.

Paul’s Plea for Onesimus
8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.

Betrayal.  How do you overcome it?  What can turn something as evil as betrayal into something good and refreshing?

In this short letter, we quickly find out that Onesimus, a convert to Christianity who was now working alongside Paul in spreading the good news of the gospel, felt compelled at some point to let Paul know that he was indeed a runaway slave from another one of Paul’s converts – Philemon.  Ironically, Paul was essentially a slave at this time – he was in Rome, under house arrest, and limited in what he could do.  Onesimus was the one that could move freely back and forth doing the work of the Lord as God directed him.

Let’s be clear.  Slavery is a sin.  People are not property.  And we can affirm that today, not because it has always been that way – but because of the impact this letter on overcoming betrayal eventually impacts all evil institutions.

In the days of Rome, slaves were either captured prisoners of war, or people who voluntarily entered slavery as a way to receive food and shelter.  Slaves could actually have deed to other slaves.  We see this in the parable of the just master who showed mercy upon his slave, but when hearing how that slave then turned around and mistreated his slaves, that mercy was withdrawn.  Many slaves could save up money and purchase their freedom.  In fact, some slaves eventually purchased their Roman citizenship.  The authorities thought that Paul had been a slave and purchased his citizenship and were astounded to find out that he had actually been born a citizen – it places Paul into a very privileged class.

Slavery, at its heart is an economic sin.  And as anyone knows who has been the victim of embezzlement or theft, there are feelings of anger and revenge.  Philemon feels betrayed.  But what Paul teaches us here is that there is sin compounding sin.  In the natural, there is no way to escape this – without sinning more.  How can this rift be overcome?  Paul leaves us no choice.

Christians ought to restore relationships and overcome betrayal.

How many oughts are there?  And just because there is an “ought” doesn’t mean I should, right?  I ought to give him a raise.  I ought to follow the speed limit.  If I do or not, it doesn’t matter… right?  While that may be a response in our society today, that’s not the way the word was used in the Bible.
Ought means to be indebted to, or to owe someone something.  Jesus addresses this in the Lord’s prayer – when we are told to forgive our debtors --- literally to forgive those to whom there is an obligation to.  Because we have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, any debt that we may thought we owned, is no longer ours – It’s His! 

When I took out the mortgage on my house, I paid GM.  Yes, they did house mortgages at one time.  Then they sold the accounts receivable of that mortgage to another bank – Chase.    My debt to GM was paid off – now I owe my monthly check to Chase.  GM has no right to come back to me and ask for money.  I have no ought to GM anymore.

In the instructions that Paul gave the church regarding communion, there is a line that says if you have any ought against your brother, go make it up before drinking the cup.  In the context of Christ teaching, it literally means, that if you are holding on to something to use as blackmail, if you are holding on to gossip – if you think you can manipulate someone to do your bidding, if you are holding a grudge – That’s no longer yours to hold.  Christians are required to give that emotional power back.  Christ has purchased it and commanded us to restore relationships.

This is the point Paul is making here.  If you really desire to follow Christ, if you want to be an example to both the non-Christians around you and the brothers and sisters in the Lord within the church, then you are required to restore relationships and shatter social statuses.

One of the things many counselors, teachers, and even parents know – there is rarely a situation where there is a completely innocent party.  Both Onesimus and Philemon were upset at each other.  Both had done things against each other that were against the cultural norms and cause each other economic injury and hard feelings.  The easy thing is to let this continue on – being angry at each other – but Paul knows that ultimately this will hurt the cause of Christ – and moreover, be emotionally crippling to them as well.

 Christians are commanded to forgive those who have broken their trust.

Paul makes his appeal on the basis of love.  Paul reminds them that in the Christian context, they have both been forgiven by Christ and are now part of a new community.

What Paul is not saying is to blindly enter a pact with someone you share no values with.  This is not a plea for a person to re-enter an abusive relationship.  This is not an injunction for keeping slaves in a position of servitude – as was often erroneously used to justify the sin of slavery in the American South. 

No, instead, Paul is asking us to redefine relationships.  To break down barriers.  To pull down social classes.  To make everything subservient to the teachings of Christ.

Paul realizes that Christ is actively at work in this world.  He knows that the new-found freedom that Onesimus found in his faith in Christ has the hand of God all over it.  God used the negative events in his life to lead him to a decision to accept Christ as his Savior.

If I review my own life, I can be bitter about the way I was treated in that job, or in that place, or by that person.  But if any of those things had not happened… I would not be who or where I am today.  I have a choice – to remain in the bitters, or enter into the fullness of joy in his presence.  I have a choice – to rejoice in the family and blessings that God has provided for me.

If we allow Him, God turns the negative events of life into positive ones.  Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  That’s not normal!  But is the new normal.  The way things work in the Christian era.

It is here that Paul breaks the social barriers – because Paul does something different.  In this letter to Philemon, he says he is sending back Onesimus, not as a slave, but a brother.

Under Roman law at that time, a returned runaway slave could have been severely punished, even crucified.  No one would have blinked an eye if Philemon had done that.  Everyone would have applauded him for keeping law and order and the status quo.

For Philemon, this is really a question of allegiance.  Is he more committed to the way society and government wants him to act?  Or is his ultimate allegiance to the new community of Christ.
While Paul urged him one way – Paul could not force that decision.  That is something Philemon had to determine himself.  In the same way – I can stand here today and encourage you to move towards Christ and the fullness of his forgiveness to others – but ultimately it is your decision.

It would not shock anyone in our culture if we reject those who betray us.  In fact, we might get bonus points if we then in turn plot against them.  But what does make an impact of magnificent proportions, is when we respond to hurt and betrayal with Christian love and forgiveness.

Christians overcome betrayal as a community, not just as individuals.

While this letter is a message to all Christians, it is specifically addressed to Christian leaders.  If you notice carefully in the address – the first few verses we did not read, the letter is actually sent to the entire church – it names a number of people in the congregation before it focuses on the leader.
This is a community decision.  What does the Colossian church want to be known for?  We know that the early churches shared economic resources.  An offense against one was an offense against all.  Just look at Ananias and Saphira.  There is an accountably relationship here.  All of these people knew that Onesimus had run away.  All of them also knew the teachings of Christ.
I’m not convinced that the first time they read this letter, they were supremely eager to take its advice.  I know I wouldn’t be.  And if the letter was sent only to me, I might stick in a drawer and forget about it.  But now, Paul had gone to meddlin’…and it was up for discussion for the whole church to think and pray. 

Sometimes we want instantaneous results.  We want everything to be smoothed over before the next big family get together – even if It just gets shoved under the carpet and not really dealt with.  Paul’s letter is forcing them to deal with it. 

Yes, there are real issues to grapple with.  What would their decision be?  We know from the end of the note that Paul assumes they will make the right decision.  He tells them to prepare a room because he hopes to return some day to see what this new community would look like.  He never does see it.  He dies a prisoner in Rome.

In fact, we don’t know if Paul ever found out what the Colossian church decided. In fact, scripture never tells us what happened.  It’s left open.  It’s an example that we are urged to follow in faith.

Remember This: 
God is still at work, even when it isn’t obvious.

When we are facing issues in our life, when things don’t go our way, this is one statement we must hang our hat on.  When we take stock of our life, when we reflect on our past, it’s so much easier to see where God’s hand was moving us to the left or to the right, where he kept us on course, in spite of our best efforts at times.  Because of that past confidence, we can rest in the assurance that God holds the future in his hands –that we can lean on his everlasting arms, that we can trust him even in the dark.

I’m not a fan of roller coast rides.  I’m even more freaked out about the ones in the dark – Like Space Mountain in Disneyland.  I prefer to know where I’m going.  I prefer to have it obvious to me how the engineers designed the bends and loops so I know for sure I’ll come out OK.  But in the dark, I just need to trust that the people who got off the ride safely before me, and the engineers who spent time building it – gives me the assurance that I will make it through too.

Even in the twist and turns of life, God will get us to the end safely.

In the end, I think the Colossian church and Philemon settled on their values.  I believe they opted to shock their neighbors with radical forgiveness.  I believe they followed Paul’s exhortations, welcomed back Onesimus, forgave his debts, elevated his social status to be an equal, and continued the powerful work they were doing.

Why do I believe that?  Because if the Colossian church didn’t want to follow Pauls’ advice, they would have burned this letter.  And because history records that about 50 years later, the church at Ephesus, a city just down the road from Colossians, has an elderly bishop named Onesimus.  It is here at that time early in the 2nd century, that the letters of Paul are first collected as the New Testament writings are being put together.  The short letter of Philemon showed the early church the power and success of forgiveness, the breakdown of all barriers of race, ethnicity, and class – that were to be the marks of every future congregation.  Yes, God is still at work, even when it is not obvious.

Is your faith demonstrating to others that you are ready to forgive those who betray you?

Oh, yes.  It’s hard.  No one said it was easy.  But no one said you had to go it alone either.  This is the mark of a true Christian – pushing past the scars inflicted by the sin infused lashing outs of people – and receiving the balm of Gilead – the peace of Christ, the healing of the Holy Spirit.
Yes, it may take time.  Yes, it is a journey.  But is one where both you and the offender can find joy and strength in the arms of Christ.  This is the gospel message.