We do not live our Christian lives in a vacuum. We live those lives in relationships with others who are Christians. We are part of the body of Christ, connected to the other members of the body. We sit in church with them, teach classes with them, work on vacation bible school with them, plan special events with them, have them in our homes, have their children in our homes, do business with them in the community, and work on committees with them. We do not do this for a day, or even a year, but for as long as we and they maintain our relationship with the church. Sooner or later we end up crossing people in some way. There is a disagreement about some church plan or policy. We disagree with some course of action another takes. We either hurt someone’s feelings or they hurt our feelings. One or the other of us feels slighted in a business transaction. We break something or lose something that belongs to someone else. The list of possibilities for offending is almost endless. So, how do we maintain positive spiritual relationships for the long haul? It can only be done with concerted effort (Ephesians 4:1-3; Romans 14:19; Ephesians 2:29-5:2).
Consider a practical case in point in the book of Philemon. Philemon was a prominent member of the church in Colossae, perhaps the one who hosted the meetings of the church. Paul had obviously known him for some time, and Paul had become wrapped up in some of Philemon’s personal business. Philemon seems to have been, by nature, a man who loved the brethren and tried to encourage them (4-5,7). Philemon seems to have been an encourager, a person who practiced the ethic of love (Heb. 3:13). But Philemon was faced with a conflicting situation. His slave, Onesimus, had stolen from him and run away from him, a serious crime in the time of Roman rule. Some time later, the runaway had become a Christian. In Philemon’s mine, he had been wronged and hurt by the desertion of his slave, Onesimus. He was robbed of the slave’s labor and of all the assets that Onesimus brought to his family.
Matters were complicated because Paul, Philemon’s friend, had not only encountered Onesimus, the runaway, but had befriended him. How could Philemon be angry with Onesimus and not be angry with Paul for befriending him? How could Paul navigate the difficult straights of these relationships and do the right thing without offending someone? Paul had taught and converted Onesimus. Paul had told Onesimus that the right thing to do was to return to his master. At the same time, Paul had to tell Philemon that the right thing to do was to forgive and accept Onesimus back, not only as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Paul just tried to be honest with everyone and let the chips fall. Isn’t this what it really means to trust God in our relationships?
Paul tried to function as a peacemaker. He pointed out the good that Onesimus had done for him, and at the same time, expressed his appreciation for the good that Philemon had done for him and others. Paul asked Philemon to love and forgive Onesimus, and asked Onesimus to risk everything by returning as a runaway slave. Paul even went the second mile by offering to repay any debt that Onesimus might owe Philemon. Then, Paul told Philemon that he himself would soon be coming to be his guest. Notice that Paul did not hide from the difficulties in the relationship, but faced them head on.
Notice how much trust was involved in the potential healing of these relationships. All three men had to trust God. Philemon had to trust Onesimus’ sincerity enough to accept him back into his household. That must have been very difficult after being betrayed. Can you bring yourself to trust someone again after they let you down, or talk badly about you, or betray your friendship in some fashion? This is difficult, but isn’t his what forgiveness is all about? Onesimus had to trust Philemon enough to put his life in Philemon’s hands. Philemon could have exacted the ultimate penalty if he chose to do so. Paul had to trust both men to do the right thing by each other, and hope that they both came out feeling good about him. He did not take sides, but functioned as a mediator, wanting what was good for all.
While Paul was dealing with these precarious relationships, he was also dealing with the entire church at Colossae and the problems facing it. He wrote a whole separate letter to the church to address some things that were plaguing that congregation and threatening their welfare in Christ.
One of the most fundamental things we must do in order to be Christians, is to work at spiritually healthy relationships with other people. This often demands a long, arduous road of patience, forgiveness, repentance, understanding, and lots of giving. How are you managing the spiritual relationships in your life? (Philippians 2:1-4).