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We are reading Philemon for the second time. Before I do, let me read you Rabbi Duncan’s take on Philemon. “The most gentlemanly letter ever written by the most perfect gentleman in my opinion, Saint Paul’s epistle to Philemon. If you study its courtesies you will see how manifold and how delicate they are.”

Last Lord’s Day evening we considered this letter as a specimen of early Christian teaching about slaves and slavery. I was concerned to clear from Holy Scripture the opprobrium that some attach to it because it does not explicitly outlaw the institution of slavery. We saw how revolutionary the New Testament teaching actually was, how it did, as a matter of fact, lay the ax to the root of the institution, and how indebted the world and modern thinking are to the Christian faith almost solely for the universal condemnation of slavery, at least in the Western world.

Tonight I want to apply the teaching of this letter to ourselves in another way. After all, we cannot, as Philemon could, read Paul’s letter and respond by granting the slaves we own their freedom. We have to extract a more general lesson to apply to ourselves. But that is not difficult to do. In fact, Philemon is a particularly beautiful example of what we find to be characteristic of the Christian life in the teaching of Jesus in the four Gospels, in the narrative of Acts, and in the teaching of the Apostle Paul and the rest of the New Testament. And that characteristic is what we might call extravagance or extremity or prodigality or immoderation. The Christian life involves a radical commitment and a full measure of devotion. Given what God has given his people, the immeasurably great gifts he has lavished on them — from the knowledge of himself to the life of heaven — and in view of what it cost him to provide those gifts — the ignominy, suffering, and death of his Son — it is not to be expected that the life of those who are the recipients of such love and the beneficiaries of such terrible sacrifices should live prosaic and conventional lives. There is to be something grand, even extreme, about them.

We recall Peter and Paul speaking of having given up everything to follow the Lord or the early Christians selling all they had to share the proceeds with one another and especially with the poor, and find such statements make perfect sense to us. They may not to others, but to those of us who are Christians there is something inevitable about them. Of course Christians would be as committed, as devoted as that!

No Christian has any difficulty appreciating the logic of Christian devotion as the missionary C.T. Studd famously expressed it:

“If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.”

And so it is that in the Bible, while the Christian life may take shape from a faithful obedience to the commandments of God, from the routines of piety and service, those more ordinary things are infused with and exceeded by from time to time an extravagance of devotion that reveals itself in particular offerings and specific sacrifices that are the proof of a greater love, a greater thankfulness, and a greater personal devotion to God and Christ than that of the ordinary routine of Christian living. This is why from the beginning of the Bible to its end it is said that the life of God’s people is first and foremost a life of love, of a supreme love, love that answers God’s own mighty love, and a love that craves adequate expression and the only adequate expression is an extreme or extravagant expression. It is striking that all of God’s commandments that we are required to obey are in the Bible over and over again understood to be simply the expression of love.

You find this extravagance or immoderation everywhere in the Bible as the proper response to the terrible self-giving that the Lord Jesus Christ displayed in the incarnation and the cross to secure our salvation. A love that is worthy of that love will never be a love of friends and loved ones only; it must be a love even of our enemies. A love worthy of God’s love will never satisfy itself with modest effort or mild sacrifice. It will gouge out the right eye, cut off the right arm, it will give up houses, fields, homes, children, parents, husbands and wives, even life itself for Christ’s sake. This is why in the book of Revelation the martyr is the representative, the model Christian. When Paul says that we Christians are to die every day (1 Cor. 15:31) he is saying that a kind of spiritual martyrdom, the actual laying down of someone’s life for the Lord’s sake, is the Christian way of life not only because the stakes are so high, but because the proper kind of love for God and Christ, the fit sort of love for God and Christ, is a fanatical kind of love.

And lest we leave this truth in the realm of theory only, what grand illustrations of this principle of extravagant devotion are we given in the Bible! Think of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Remember how, just a few days after the Lord had given her back her brother from the dead, when the Lord was once again at her home, she took a bottle of perfume, pure nard, worth almost a year’s wages to a working man, and broke that bottle and poured the perfume over the Lord’s feet and then wiped his feet with her hair. The entire house was filled with the smell of that perfume. Judas complained, and not just Judas only, the other disciples as well, calculated the cost and complained. What a waste! What good things could have been done with that money? But A.B. Bruce, in his great work, The Training of the Twelve, understood why Mary acted as she did and appreciated the extravagance of her devotion.

“There was such a love in her heart for her friend and benefactor as imperatively demanded expression, and yet could not find expression in words. She must do something to relieve her pent-up emotions: she must get an alabaster jar and break it, pour it upon the person of Jesus, else her heart will break.” [293]

I’ve had a few moments in my life like that. I suspect most of you have as well, when you felt you simply had to do something to demonstrate your love for God whether or not anybody else appreciated it. You wanted him to know how much you loved him and you had to do something to show him.

Like her Savior, in her love she did what she could and as much as she could think to do. Not just words, perfume; not just any perfume, but the most expensive and valuable she had — perhaps that unopened jar was a family heirloom, an investment set aside for a rainy day — not just some of the jar but all of it until the entire house smelled of it; not just anointing the Lord’s feet with the perfume but wiping it off with her hair; and not in private but in public, in a room full of men who could be expected to look down on what they would judge to be unseemly behavior. Imagine what Mary would have looked like when she was done! Love had made her utterly careless of appearances. She had to show her love and this was she could think to do!

And the Lord was so pleased that he said that what Mary did for him that day would be remembered forever (Mark 14:9). In so saying he was commending that extravagance of devotion to every one of his followers. He wanted that from every one of us. He was saying, in effect,

“…here is what I understand by Christianity: an unselfish and uncalculating devotion to me as the Savior of sinners, and as the Sovereign of the kingdom of truth and righteousness.” [Bruce, 299]

In other words, what Mary did, every Christian should do in his or her own way. Those who have been so greatly loved must love greatly in return! What Paul was asking Philemon to do was just that: not to calculate his potential loss, not to consider the possible reaction of others to his freeing Onesimus his slave (“What will other slaves think if you let this runaway off the hook?”), not to worry that others of his class and community will think him a fool, but to act in love toward Onesimus for no other reasons than that Christ loves Onesimus and that here is a way for Philemon to love Christ and to love him in a public, noteworthy, and extravagant way. Anyone can grant freedom to a slave. It was done all the time in the Greco-Roman world. But to grant freedom to a runaway slave and to a slave who had been a slacker when he was with you and perhaps stole from you when he bolted, as v. 18 may suggest, that is another thing altogether. That is more like breaking a whole jar of very expensive perfume over the Lord’s feet.

As you know very well, all through the centuries believers have done such things and they are continuing to do them. They have thrown caution and self-interest to the wind and gladly acted out their love for Christ in some extravagant and immoderate way. Some simply gave away all their money, all of it, all at once, to be used by the poor. Ambrose did so; so did Cyprian the great North African bishop of the third century. And both were wealthy men. Others left glittering prospects to give themselves entirely to gospel ministry and the service of Jesus Christ. C.T. Studd, whom I already mentioned did so, forsaking an already notable career and considerable celebrity as a cricket player and the comfortable life of an upper class English gentleman for the fevers and deprivations of missionary life in China, India, and Africa. “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me…” Justin Martyr had done similarly long before Studd. Long after him Lloyd-Jones would do similarly giving up a promising career, celebrity and wealth as an upper crust physician in London to take a pastorate among unlettered miners in a small Welch village. Charles Colson would do a similar thing after him. And how many in this world — of whom this world was not worthy — have gone to the stake or the block or the gallows or to some small prison cell, have even been forgotten by most everybody else, all for the sake for the love of God. A number that no man can number and that gets larger every day. The history of Christianity at its best is a history of this holy fanaticism of love.

I read this past week of another effort recently made to rehabilitate atheism as a productive, positive, and morally serious philosophy of life. This is being done now quite frequently in our day because there are so many people who feel that religion is finished in the western world. This is the argument of a new bestseller by a French philosopher by the name of Luc Ferry. His new book is entitled A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living. A much more serious thinker than Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens, Ferry is well aware that it is by no means obvious that atheism can replace religion as the foundation of a truly moral society. And so he makes the effort to demonstrate how a non-religious, a non-theistic understanding of human life could serve as the basis for a strong, absolutist morality.  He is convinced that this must be done for two reasons: 1) like most Europeans he is sure that religion has been disproved or discredited by science and 2) we have seen in modern times and to our horror what atheist philosophies can produce in the way of societal behavior. How can the worth of the individual, the sacredness of human life be maintained if life is an accident, if human beings are simply matter accidentally organized in a complex fashion, and if there is no reckoning for conduct most or all human beings consider for whatever reason to be reprehensible. He is not unwilling to admit that so much of what we believe about the value of human life and about the ethics of justice is a hold-over from Christianity. There is even a certain wistfulness in Ferry’s argument, looking back on religion as once it was: the foundation of moral certainty, would that we had that kind of certainty still. The question is: now that Christianity is gone (and it is gone in Europe), can those fundamental convictions any longer be justified? Can we any longer believe in an objective morality, right and wrong that holds for everyone and always?

I read a review of this new book, sympathetic in many respects, but unconvinced as so many are that efforts such as these, even thoughtful, well-intentioned, learned, and serious such as Luc Ferry’s, can justify a universal morality. Ferry wants it still to be right, and right for everyone, to treat human beings with dignity, respect, and love, but he has no way of justifying his understanding of dignity, respect, and love over against that of a Muslim jihadist or a Marxist revolutionary or, for that matter, some other French philosopher with different ethics than those of Ferry himself. If human life is sacred in some secular sense, and has dignity, and deserves respect, what of abortion, or euthanasia, or gay marriage, about which even secularists have dramatically different opinions much less the adherents of various religions. Ferry is sure that we cannot say, we cannot bear to say, that morality is absolutely relative because we all know that it is not: genocide, sexual slavery, torture, rape, theft, murder, and so on are positive evils and we all know they are, he thinks. Or do we? He wants to say that there is something outside of ourselves that makes such things wrong, but it is not clear that as an atheist he can demonstrate that there is any such thing outside of ourselves. No one has done so yet; perhaps the most likely reason is that it cannot be done. Without God, without judgment right and wrong become and must become at last only individual opinions or preferences.

Now I say all of this as a reminder to us of the world in which we live and so of the importance of this call to extravagant devotion that we read here in Philemon. There is something very important and utterly necessary in the routine obedience of the Christian life. Let no one sell the ordinary way of Christian living short. It is here that most human beings are failures: in the daily faithfulness of a man to his marriage and the heart of his wife, in the constant attention to the personal and spiritual needs of his children, in the scrupulously faithful exercise of his calling in whatever job he holds, in the preservation of the purity and honesty of his heart and his tongue, in the kindness of his behavior toward others. How different a place the world would be if only people managed to be ordinarily obedient to the commandments of God!

But in our day, in a day of an ascendant unbelief, in a day when the influence of the Christian message is in eclipse or increasingly so, in a day when the rightness and the goodness of the Christian worldview is no longer assumed and is increasingly rejected, I say in such a day as ours more than even the beauty of an ordinarily faithful Christian life is needed. We need the sort of sacrifice, the kind of devotion beyond the ordinary that commands the attention of the world and forces it to recognize the great moral difference that separates them from Christians. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, loving your friends is never going to do that, loving your enemies will. It is the proof of our faith in the eyes of the world! A jihadist can become a suicide bomber and prove his zeal, but only immoderate love and striking goodness can prove religion to an unbeliever.

When the Christians early on shared their goods, when they gave themselves up to torture and death rather than deny their Lord and Savior, when Christian slave-owners gave their slaves their freedom without requiring them to buy it or earn it, it was no longer possible for the world to ignore the revolutionary principles that motivated the Christians or to imagine them as somehow simply another version of ordinary morality. And so it is that as we are so clearly taught in the Bible and as we so clearly observe in church history there is something more than the ordinary for Christians to offer the Lord, the Christian life is both faithful obedience in the routine and from time to time the greater sacrifice of pure devotion; both the living of a life of faithfulness, honesty, purity, and kindness and from time to time immoderate, even fanatical demonstrations of a great love as called forth by the circumstances of life. Onesimus could not free a slave, but he could return to his master to face the music once he was already free; Philemon couldn’t return to his master but he could set his runaway slave free. That didn’t happen every day, to be sure, but it did happen and does happen in some way in every Christian life. I cannot tell you in what particular way you will have occasion to demonstrate such an extravagant, immoderate, even fanatical devotion to the Lord Jesus, but the important thing is to look for such an occasion and to be ready to seize the opportunity when it arises, since it often will appear out of the blue.

When Erich Honecker was deposed as the ruler of East Germany on October 18, 1989, he left office as the most hated man in Germany, East or West. That was not terribly surprising. Honecker had presided over a police state that was ruthless in its treatment of its people, heartless in its persecution of anyone who had the temerity to resist the party line, dehumanizing in its use of torture, in its encouragement of its citizens to spy on one another, and its relentless spying on anyone and everyone all the time. It was also absurdly inept and consigned its people to virtual poverty for forty years while across the wall the German economic miracle was in full swing. Honecker, now 77 years of age, also had malfunctioning kidneys and was suffering from cancer. He was ordered to vacate the official residence where he and his wife, Margot, had lived comfortably for years. They had no home of their own, literally no place to go. And no one was willing to take them in, old, feeble, sick, and disgraced. The Communist party, of which the Honeckers had been lifelong members, turned its back on them. So did their only child, a daughter. Angry as the people were as the papers and television reported the revelation of one atrocity after another committed by Honecker’s government, Mr. and Mrs. Honecker had reason to fear for their lives.

At that point a stranger stepped forward, a Lutheran pastor, Uwe Holmer and his wife, to offer hospitality to the Honeckers in their own home. What made this gesture particularly poignant was that Holmer, as a Christian, was one of many East Germans who had suffered directly from the persecution of the Honecker government. Because of his Christian faith eight of his ten children had been denied entrance into university according to the policies established by Margot Honecker when she was the Minister of Education in her husband’s government. The Holmer phone had been tapped for years, their mail had been monitored, and the Stasi, the secret police kept a watchful eye on him.

When the Holmers took the Honecker’s into their home on January 31, 1990 people were outraged. Crowds of angry people gathered in front of the Holmer home, the telephone rang incessantly, letters poured in, more than 3,000 over the next few months. Five times there were bomb threats. The police told the Holmers that they couldn’t guarantee their safety. All the pent-up resentment toward the ousted Communist regime was focused now not only on the Honeckers but the Holmers! As one outraged East German put it:

“They should have taken Honecker out and put him up against the wall and shot him, just like in Romania…” I would have gladly shot him myself. I don’t understand why they did that for such a pig. He’s the worst kind of scum there is.” [B. von der Heydt, Candles Behind the Wall, 240]

To make matters worse, the Honecker’s didn’t get it. They were stunned by the public reaction and the outpouring of hatred. They apparently had actually come to believe that the cheering masses that had been assembled for military parades actually were enthusiastic supporters of the regime. He was physically and emotionally wrecked and Margot Honecker was as dumbfounded as her husband. What is more, they remained committed to the ideology that they had served for so long. Repentance for the past was the furthest thing from their minds.

But for the Holmer’s this was the opportunity the Lord had given them to practice and to demonstrate their faith in and love for the Lord. In a public letter explaining why they had taken the Honecker’s in, Pastor Holmer wrote:

“In recent days it has become apparent to me in a new way how much it cost God to forgive my sins. The joy of this gives me the strength to forgive other people…. [242]

There we have it: Paul to Philemon all over again! Once more Christians selling their possessions to share with the poor. Once more Mary breaking her expensive jar of perfume over the Master’s feet. Now that for any Christian is deeply inspiring. What Christian would not want to have done what Pastor Holmer and his wife did? What better way, what more powerful way could there be to honor the Lord and love him by loving an enemy in his name? Why? Because it is such a beautiful way to honor the Lord and love him by loving others as he loved us when we were still his enemies? It is the kind of thing a Christian will remember with the greatest satisfaction and gratitude when his or her life is done.

And if you are a Christian, if divine love has been poured into your heart, surely you will want to have an opportunity to do the very same sort of thing that the Holmers did, or Mary, or Philemon. Look for those opportunities to do the greater thing, the more extravagant thing, the more fanatical thing simply because you are a Christian and it is your privilege to love the Lord Jesus Christ in return for his great love for you, to love him with a great love, an immoderate love, a love that springs from and is worthy of Christ’s great love. What will it be in your case? Really to love an enemy and to forgive him heartily? Generously to provide for someone in need? To be patient under affliction? Publicly to confess a sin of yours that needs confessing?  To be unusually kind to the undeserving? What will it be?

When I was a little boy I used to lie in bed at night and imagine myself as Wyatt Earp. Later I discovered that Wyatt Earp was less a man and less a hero than Hugh O’Brien made him out to be on the television show. In fact, he was something of a crook. But when I was a boy he was heroic in stature and I wished I were he. Lying in bed and dreaming about being someone else is not an altogether bad idea, even for adults. That is, it is not a bad idea so long as you dream about the right kind of heroes: not Wyatt Earp but Mary of Bethany or Philemon or Uwe Holmer, or Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Nicholas Ridley, Anne Askew, Richard Cameron, David Livingstone, Henry Martyn, C.T. Studd, Amy Carmichael or Jim Elliot.

We set our sights too low, brothers and sisters. The ordinary round of life beguiles us. We content ourselves with the routine when our salvation rightly requires here and there at least an extraordinary response and an extravagant devotion. And it is the testimony of the Word of God, and of this little part of it, that we will all be given opportunity, all the more if we crave that opportunity, to give to the Lord the greater thing, to do for him the more extravagant thing. Pray for that opportunity and seize it when it appears.