Somewhere along the way in seminary, I heard an image of the cross that stuck with me.
In Christianity, of course, the cross points us the death and resurrection of Jesus. Every cross is made of two pieces. There’s a vertical beam that we can say represents our relationship with God. But there’s another piece, the horizontal piece, and that represents our relationship with others.
In other words, the cross demonstrates to us that salvation is not a solo act — it’s an effort rooted in our relationship with God AND our relationship with others in the community of faith. We are being saved daily in the community of faith.
That image is what we get in the concluding words of the Book of Philemon. In this letter, Paul (who is in prison) has been writing to his friend and brother in Christ, Philemon. Paul is urging Philemon to forgive Onesimus (Philemon’s slave) who ran away and found Paul.
In the letter, Paul appeals to Philemon to forgive because Oneismus has become a follower of Christ and is now a “brother.”
Paul ends his letter with these verses: Epaphras, who is in prison with me for the cause of Christ Jesus, greets you, as well as my coworkers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. – Philemon 23-25 (Common English Bible)
There’s a myth that circulates and it’s easy to buy into it. The myth says that you can be “spiritual but not religious.” This is a relatively new term that sprung up a few years ago and it, by many definitions, means that someone is spiritual in the sense that they believe in God or a higher power but they do not want to be a part of an organized community of faith.
In reality, it’s like cutting off half of the cross. We are in relationship with God AND one another. We were built to be in relationship with God AND others.
That’s where Paul ends this letter to Philemon. Throughout this letter, Paul is sitting in prison and writing an appeal to Philemon, the master, on behalf of Onesimus, the runaway servant. He’s making an appeal for Philemon, who has every reason to be angry, to drop the anger, to forgive Onesimus and to move forward in the relationship. When he gets to the end of that appeal, Paul does a few “shout outs.”
This should be an indicator of the relationship between Philemon and the community of faith. These are people that Philemon would also know – mutual friends in the faith journey. There’s Epaphras, a fellow cellmate who says hello, and then the coworkers in ministry: Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke.
It’s a letter written by a man who is in prison. Yet, at the same time, even behind bars, Paul is still connecting to the community of faith. There are those who are in prison with him. There are others who are working to help them and support them in ministry even as they are behind bars. And in all of it, there is the Holy Spirit sustaining them.
As Paul concludes his appeal for Philemon to forgive, he comes to rest on relationships, on shared friends, on others who have experienced Christ and grown together in community. Faith is not made to go it alone.
Relationships in faith matter. We learn about love from our relationship with Jesus and we put that love into practice in our relationship with others.
As this series on Philemon comes to an end, it gives us a time to think about our own relationships. Who are your friends in the journey of life? Who lifts you up? Who would you include in your letter? It’s a great day to think about and give praise for those who are your sources of encouragement.
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