“Gotta go back”
I start out most mornings these days with a walk. Trouble is, most roads (like life itself) most roads in my neighborhood include a long hard climb. So there I was, a few weeks ago, in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, climbing. There was no traffic on the road, no other beings on the sidewalk, just me. Lost in thought, when I heard a strange noise.
At moments like this—maybe you’ve experienced such a moment—all of the “abducted woman” scenarios from the television crime shows and murder novels flashed through my mind. These scenarios rarely end well, at least for the victim. I twirled around, just to discover no one, nothing.
So I continued my climb. But I heard the noise again. Sounded like wheels, rolling along, like at the airport. So this time I looked DOWN when I checked behind me. Sure enough, there was something there. I was very surprised to discover …… luggage there. There was this one very large bag that looked, well, huge. Ominous. And vaguely familiar.
“Wrong genre,” I thought. “Not a crime story, but science fiction.” I know you won’t be in the same mental space as I was at this particular moment, but the luggage looked almost REAL, almost ACTUAL instead of just metaphorical. That’s when the big bag began talking to me, urging me to hop on and take a ride back down the hill. “Gotta go back,” the bad baggage said, “and deal with what you packed away here.”
That’s when I remembered hearing about June, a woman a preacher told about a couple of decades ago. June had packed away some major stuff, some life stuff, and had actually repressed the associated memory. She had become a Christ follower, had accepted Jesus into her life, and was doing her best to bring the Kingdom of God into this world in the here and now. Taught Sunday School. Loved everyone with inexpressible love. She even sang in the choir (no doubt). Until one day HER bad baggage demanded her attention. “I gotta go back,” she finally figured out, if for no other reason than to discover what was paralyzing her good intentions.
I imagine this conclusion is what a man named Onesimus discovered in roughly the year 60. He was a good man, an upstanding Christian, in the early church, probably in Rome. Probably taught Sunday School, loved everyone with inexpressible joy, did good, and even helped a literal prisoner for Christ, a man named Paul. We’re talking surrogate son here, and not just a great help to any old Paul, but to THE old St. Paul, born Saul, ambassador and aged prisoner for Christ.
“I gotta go back,” Onesimus apparently had concluded, “I have to deal with the bad baggage, the repented but unfinished sin, of my former life.”
Our second lesson today tells us that Onesimus had been a slave, owned by an apparently rich Christian named Philemon who hosted the church community that worshiped in Colosse. And Onesimus had escaped Philemon’s hold over him. Somehow.
Now today WE know that slavery is wrong. We might judge slavery so heinous that all is fair in escaping. Maybe like Moses, who actually killed an Egyptian escaping his life of luxury enroute his God-appointed destiny with a burning bush and a commandment against killing.
But Onesimus probably hadn’t KILLED anyone escaping Philemon. Our scripture lesson hints that maybe he had stolen something from Philemon, though, maybe enough to have financed the long hard road of his escape to Rome. Whatever his offense against Philemon, the debt was great enough that there was bad baggage, a debt that St. Paul told Philemon he himself would cover, should Philemon call the debt due.
Much has been made since the year 60 (or so) about Paul’s great grace in helping Onesimus. And Paul WAS very graceful; no doubt about it. We could learn a lot from Paul’s actions on Onesimus’ behalf—on another day. What I want to look at today is Onesimus’ actions. First, Onesimus had to decide that he had to go back and not run away again. Then Onesimus had to face his unfinished sin-business, so that he could continue to move forward in his new life in Christ. Even if Philemon chose to continue to enslave him.
This is where, like June (the woman I told you about), we Christians can get frozen in place if we merely become good for God without dealing with our past.
- Maybe, like Onesimus, we had taken something that wasn’t ours.
- Maybe, like June we had seriously harmed a family member.
- Or maybe, like me, we just hate someone who had enslaved us in some way.
There are a great range of past actions that could be packed away in the baggage that follows us around. Such past actions all have this in common, though: bad baggage doesn’t go away, doesn’t even stay put where we leave it.
We don’t know how Onesimus’ story turned out. At the end of Paul’s letter to Philemon the decision is up to Philemon. Will he do as Paul suggested and free Onesimus? Or will Onesimus remain Philemon’s property? We just don’t know.
BUT, in the year 107, the Bishop of Antioch (a now-famous man named Ignatius) wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus while on his way to Rome to be martyred. In this letter, Ignatius praised Ephesus’ “excellent” bishop, a man named Onesimus who Ignatius described as “a man of inexpressible love.”
Odds are—and I’d like to think—that this is the same person who was on his way back to Colosse some 47 years earlier to deal with his past.
The message today is that sometimes we just “gotta go back” to go forward. Even if the trip is a long way back or involves a long trek. If you need to make such a trip and decide to do so, I’d be honored to help.