I hate to begin today’s sermon on a Solemn note but I have to inform you all that a major Christian institution in America, dare I say Christianity itself, has recently come under attack. Many are being led astray by false teachers and are being tempted by the desires of the flesh. Many preachers are cowardly chickens unwilling to call out such depravity when they see it. But I must pick up my cross and bear it for the sake of Christ.
My friends it is with a heavy heart that I inform you that our nation has forsaken her first love, the fountain of special sauces and firm foundation of fast food that is family friendly, our nation my friends has forsaken Chick Fil A’s classic crispy chicken sandwich, for Popeye’s new fried chicken sandwich. When I saw on the news that cars were backing up around Popeye’s drive threw and snaking around the block I was concerned. When I read that by August 27th Popeye’s restaurants had sold out of their inventory, my concern turned to utter alarm. Yet, I was unsure as to whether I should address one of the most controversial issues of our time from the pulpit. But when one of our members encouraged me to take a stand on this important issue I was persuaded to do so. You all no doubt know of my deep and abiding love for our Lord and his fast food chain Chick Fil A. I have told you of my unwavering devotion to this Christian institution, particularly Chick Fil A’s breakfast offerings, indeed the early bird gets the chicken biskett, wait that sort of sounds like chicken cannibalism doesn’t it? And I want you all to know that I as your pastor will not be persuaded, I will not be tempted, by the heresy that is Popeyes chicken sandwich even if I run afoul of the mainstream media and their sensibilities.
As I hope you can tell by now my opening story is filled with sarcasm. A new chicken sandwich in no way threatens Christianity itself. Whatever is going on in our culture it is not the end of the world. We know this because Jesus has not come back yet. I do think Popeye’s shows how a smart social media campaign can cause a product to go viral. But that is not the same power Paul is talking about in our passage today in Philemon. Paul is trying to teach us the power of persuasion’s. And while persuasion may not have as wide appeal as marketing it goes way deeper for the Gospel.
The Good news: When we speak with persuasion’s power the hearts and minds of some will be changed.
- Through thanksgiving and Praise
- By Becoming Prisoner’s of Christ
- By appealing to common values
First, we see that we engage in the power of persuasion by thanksgiving in praise. First, a little back ground on the book of Philemon if you have never heard about it. Philemon was a wealthy business person and church leader in the church at Colassae which is modern day Turkey. You may remember that a little over a year ago we did a sermon series on the book of Colossians. Philemon hosted a church in his home and like many wealthy people of his day he owned a slave. That’s slave’s name was Onesimus, who’s name means useful in the Greek. And apparently what happened is Onesimus stole something from his master and fled to Rome where Paul was in prison. There he got to know Paul and ministered to him. During that time Onesimus came to believe in Christ and became a spiritual son to Paul. And Paul faced a conundrum in his day. Either he felt morally obliged or legally obliged to return this runaway slave to his master and friend Philemon. And there was some danger in doing this. In that day and as in most of history Onesimus had no rights. Philemon could do anything he wanted to Onesimus and still be considered a good person because Onesimus wasn’t considered to be a human being. So Paul’s objectives are two fold. First, to stop Onesimus from being punished and convince his friend Philemon to set Onesimus free and make him a full human being. Frankly, Paul has already lost everything at this point. He is in prison. He doesn’t know we will be reading this letter thousands of years in the future. Paul is not trying to start a movement. When everything around him is speaking something different, Paul is just trying to do what he thinks is right.
The first thing Paul does in persuading Philemon is giving thanks to God for Him, for he genuinely sees good in him. We as Christians believe we are all made in the image of God so we can find something good in every human being. While giving thanks for who you were writing to was a common letter writing practice at the time, the practice was probably there for a good reason, because it helps build bridges between two people, because it works.
“ Dr. Gottman and Robert Levenson began doing longitudinal studies of couples in the 1970s. They asked couples to solve a conflict in their relationship in 15 minutes, then sat back and watched. After carefully reviewing the tapes and following up with them nine years later, they were able to predict which couples would stay together and which would divorce with over 90% accuracy.
Their discovery was simple. The difference between happy and unhappy couples is the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict. There is a very specific ratio that makes love last.
That “magic ratio” is 5 to 1. This means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions.”
I think the fact that divorce rates haven’t really gone down since the 1970’s show, and perhaps you who are married already known, this ratio is easier said than done. And often the things that are most true in our lives are easier said than done.
In thinking about the way Paul began to engage his friend Philemon I was reminded of how I always give thanks for one thing before I preach. The reason I do so comes from 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Now you may be wondering does Pastor Will always feel like giving thanks every Sunday. Then answer to that question is no. Then you may ask then are you just going through the motions, is it something that is only a duty for you? The answer to that is no as well. For me the middle ground between feelings and duty is the idea of what we value. The things that we find beautiful beyond their use to us. I am not naturally an agreeable person. Anyone who has gotten in a lengthy discussion with me knows that is true. I have strong ideals and values that I care very much about. One of those values is doing the will of God and not my will. And sometimes during my time here at Calvin I read this passage and realized that I may not know the specific will of God in every circumstance but I know the will of God for every circumstance to give thanks in every circumstance. And I saw how some of you give thanks and over praise in trying circumstances and I was moved in my heart not only to feel thankful, or to give thanks as a duty, but to adapt giving thanks as a value regardless of its use to me or how it makes me feel. And when I did that I found myself being changed from the inside out. I found myself becoming a more thankful person.
Second we speak with persuasion’ power by becoming prisoners for Christ. Paul is writing this letter to Philemon in modern day Turkey while he is in prison in Rome. But the reason Paul is physically being imprisoned for preaching Christ is because he felt like a spiritual prisoner to Christ. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11, “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord we persuade others, But what we are is known to God, and I hope that it is known to your conscience. We are not commending ourselves to you, again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Corinthians 5:11-14). How do we live for someone other than ourselves? It is only when we find someone who is more beautiful than ourselves. Who gives us something that we could not do for ourselves. Who died for us when we didn’t ask for it. Who was raised for us when we didn’t know that we needed to be raised. That is who Christ is. The love of Christ controlled Paul not because God put him in slavery but because he saw that Jesus was better than anything in this world. And he wasn’t willing to forsake Christ to please people. It seems that Paul did not persuade people by going into a room with a hundred people, with a hundred different viewpoints, that he was on the side of each person in that room. Instead, he convinced people that he was sincere, that he was fully convinced about the Lordship of Christ over his own life. Some people found Paul’s witness appealing, others locked him up over it, while still others were indifferent or yet to be persuaded.
Finally, Paul uses the power of persuasion by appealing to a common identity or a common set of values. As Martin Luther King appealed to the Declaration of Independence’s values of all men being created equal to begin to bring equality to the races during the civil rights movement, Paul reminds Philemon how he partnered with Paul in the work of spreading the Gospel of Christ. He appeals to their common faith before he bridges the discussion of how to treat the slave that had wronged Philemon. Here we find two lessons. No one likes it when someone else trashes their history, heritage and values. The Bible teaches us to honor all people. But when those we disagree with say our values are to be admired and ask us to live up to them, we can’t walk away because it makes us uncomfortable. The question is how do we expand our vision of what it means to be a Christian or an American in a fair and impartial way where we apply our values not just to those like us but those unlike us.
And the strange thing is we don’t know what Philemon did. We would like to think that he let Onesimus go. But we don’t know that. We would like to think he would have done the right thing but we don’t know what we would do if we had absolute power over another human being under those circumstances.
Yet, we do know how another of Paul’s attempts at persuasion worked out. In Acts chapter 17 Paul visited the Greek city of Athens, which was filled with idols, statues to false Gods. Acts tells us that Paul’s spirit was provoked within him, another way of saying he got really angry at seeing these idols. Because while Paul was from the Gentile city of Tarsus, in modern day Turkey, he was raised in a Jewish community, studied under Gamillee, one of the best Rabbi’s of his generation, and was a strict Pharisee before he came to Christ. Seeing stone images to false god’s would have no doubt produced an intense reaction of anger and revulsion in Paul. And if he had let that anger get the best of him, and went on a tirade about the sin of idolatry, the Athenians would have no doubt kicked him out of their city, and they would have been right to do so. Instead, of getting mad about a bunch of statues to foreign God’s Paul began to engage in a debate with the Athenians. He started out by complimenting them. He said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an alter with this inscription; “to the unknown God”. It must have killed Paul to find something good in something he considered to be vile but Paul remembered his own advice to give honor to all people. From this altar to the unknown god Paul say a jumping off point to tell people about Jesus. He told them the true God did not care about or need altar made by human hands because he made everything the Athenians could see. Then he quoted a Greek poet who said of God, “ In him we live and move and have our being.” Then he told them about the need for repentance, and the good news of the resurrection of Jesus, who will judge the world, and raise all who trust in him from the dead.” (Acts 17:16-32). The book of Acts tells us that when the crowd heard about the resurrection, which is a detail Paul could have left out, a lot of the people laughed at Paul, for they did not believe in the resurrection. But because Paul gave thanks, and started with what they had in common, some people were persuaded though not all.
The power persuasion is not the power of mass appeal, nor is the power of speaking in anger, instead it is the power of speaking the truth in love. It is the power of the word of God when it falls on good soil, bearing fruit, ten, thirty, up to a hundred fold. The word of God is like salt in our lives, it tastes good and different, and we are attracted to it. And it will bear fruit down through a hundred generations. Though we might not have every pew filled that is not the standard of persuasion. The standard of persuasion is to speak the truth in love, to change one heart, to speak to the conscience to do what is right. And that my friends is persuasion’s power.