Guest speaker Jeff Louie reminds us how the grace of God expands us.
It’s always good to be at Cornerstone. I always joke that I get free psychotherapy sessions at Cornerstone because I get away with saying things that I would not dare say at any other pulpit, because I’ve been with you for so long. The worst that can happen, you don’t invite me back, right? So I’m going to be here for a few more months and I’m going to come two more times this year.
When Pastor Terry told me that the theme for this season is ‘expand,’ I love the theme because I’m always expanding myself. That’s part of the fun of coming here and telling you all the new things. There are plenty of new things since the last time I came. I think I came around maybe July or August. I spoke at the men’s retreat, but I don’t count that since that was just the men. But speaking to the whole church, maybe half a year ago, a little bit more. So plenty of new things. What’s the number one thing? The number one thing is grandchild number five was born around Thanksgiving. Oh, wow, that’s a lot of fun. As a grandfather, you get all the joy of little kids without the mess of taking care of them. It’s the grace of God, I’ll tell you that, it’s the grace of God. But it’s number five, she’s a real cutie, and it’s really good. It’s granddaughter number three. I have two grandsons.
Okay, what else is new with me in terms of expanding? My family expanded. I don’t know, I got all these rings on my hand. I got this new wooden ring because I now make wooden rings as a hobby, and this one is made out of ebony and walnut. They’re on sale on QVC if you want to buy some from me. Just joking around. I’m joking around, but it’s a hobby. I always have hobbies for some reason, and so I said, “Oh, I’ll make wooden rings.” So this looks halfway decent, or halfway indecent, whatever way we want to say.
Okay, what else is new? My countdown to Medicare is on. It’s set. Because of Medicare, you don’t have to work for health insurance, and health insurance, that’s a lot of money. My countdown is under a year. I passed 64 last week. Under a year. That’s a countdown, that’s a countdown. We’ll work for food? With Medicare, you know Bernie Sanders, Medicare for all? I don’t care for Medicare for all, I want Medicare for me. That’s Medicare for me, that’s what I want. Then I don’t have to burn the money, that’s the thing.
Other exciting things. I’ve expanded my health because, believe it or not, I’m running the New York City Marathon again in November of this year. On my birthday last week, I ran six miles. So look, Lord willing, you get a slightly trimmer version of Jeff. Reverse expansion is good for the soul and good for the health. I always like to joke around, I’m really into joking around. But those are things that all of us should be growing in, health-wise, relation, interests, and things like that.
But what I want to talk about is expansion beyond these things. It’s expansion spiritually. Because that, to me, as a believer and as someone who ministers the word of God, is the most important to me, that we are expanding spiritually. So when Pastor Terry told me that this was the theme, then one of the texts that came up was why don’t I preach the whole book of Philemon? I said, “Wow! How long is that message?” Well you see, the good news, it’s one book, and the better news, it’s only one chapter. In this, it’s the most unusual book because it’s a very private letter. So much, that if I’m thinking, “Should we include a book in the Bible?” I say, “Why are we including this? This is so private. Give me one of the letters that Paul’s writing to a church, hundreds of people, it applies better. He’s writing to one person, very, very personal, about a personal issue.”
In this very unusual letter that God in His authority said, “This is going to make it into the New Testament,” it reveals something about real-life Christianity in the nitty-gritty of life. How God is going to expand the horizons and experience of three individuals in this book that is only one chapter? What we’re going to do is I’m going to read this from the bulletin, so bear with me. Philemon chapter one, it’s the only chapter, verse eight to twenty-one. “Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake, I’d rather appeal to you since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you but now is useful both to you and to me. I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wish to keep with me so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; but without your consent, I do not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your free will. For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. If then you regard me as a partner, accept him as you would me. But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.”
This is a very, very personal letter that Paul is writing to a person named Philemon about a very interesting situation. There are three characters here. First, there’s Paul, the writer, we all know him. Second, Philemon, the person who’s getting the letter. The third person, Onesimus, is referred to in this letter. It’s very, very personal and it’s a personal request Paul is making. Whenever you read the Bible and you read all these characters, I always tell people, it kind of helps because there’s going to be some character that you sort of associate with better. So there are three characters here and there’s enough that there’s probably going to be one that you feel closer to than the others, but they are all of benefit.
The first one is Paul, and his situation is that he is old and imprisoned. It says that in the text. I like the translation, aged. Like cheese or fine steak. But ‘aged,’ and he’s also a prisoner. This is very, very important because Paul in his heyday was planting churches, three missionary journeys, going all around. He would have gotten the frequent flyer mileage that we all want. He would have gotten that, free trips. He’s imprisoned now. He’s been imprisoned a few times. He’s not as fast. He’s old. He can’t plant churches anymore. This is very, very important that you know this is Paul’s situation.
The second person that comes up, was Philemon. Philemon’s situation is that he is wronged. He is wronged. Not much is really known about Philemon but that he was the one for which Onesimus was under. Onesimus was under Philemon, and he was wronged. According to the text, it might have been some financial loss in this situation. I don’t know if any of you have ever had a financial loss or someone conned you out of money. You know? It’s not a fun thing. We’ll get more to that.
The third person is Onesimus. He is a runaway slave and thief. Now whenever I talk about slavery in the bible, I have to always make this case. Abduction slavery, to sell someone you abducted, was so illegal in the Bible that it was capital punishment. They killed you in Israel, the Hebrews, because there’s no abduction slavery even allowed among God’s people. They did allow for financial, sort of contract slavery if you’re really poor and just have to make ends meet. That they allow. We don’t allow it anymore here, but you kind of understand the humaneness of scripture. Whatever the situation was, this Onesimus ran away, and let’s say it was because he owed a debt. He skips town, doesn’t pay the debt. Not only that, it appears to hint that there might have been some money involved. If you’re going to leave, you might as well take something. Out the front door. There’s some financial loss. He is the one who is the wrongdoer, let’s say, he took some money.
All three intersect here in this letter of Philemon, and the question is, how does God go beyond this situation? How will God extend transformation into their lives? Because you know what? I don’t think we have this situation here. I don’t think you’re old and imprisoned, you’re not apostles and stuff like that, we understand that, but we all tie to one of these people. Older, can’t get around anymore. Someone who has been wronged and has legal rights on your side. Someone who has wronged you. How does Christ expand into these lives? This is the very, very important thing. Because you know what? I’ve been in ministry for a long time, and one of the reasons why I love coming here is that, I’ll just be honest, I hate religion. The more I hate it, I hate institutional Christianity, but I love what is happening here because you’re going to see three souls begin to expand in front of your eyes in ways.
The first person who will be challenged is Paul himself. The saying I have for Paul is, you never retire. Now, like I tell people when you read the Bible you’re sort of thinking, “Yeah, I’m a little … I can side with … I understand this guy.” I understand Paul more. I’m not an Onesimus guy, I’m not wealthy. I mean, Philemon. I’m not wealthy. I’m Paul, I’m old. Less than one year from Medicare, and I have to tell you, that the health premium is big, it’s expensive. Once Medicare kicks in, I already have my provider picked out, I’m going to continue with Kaiser. They did well for me for all these years. I’m going to continue, I’m going on that path.
Do you know what? I have to tell you, I went into seminary when I was 21 years old. I left New York City, I went from New York to seminary in Texas, and then I did my first ministry in Chicago. Then I came to San Francisco in 1990 to do my second ministry on the west side of San Francisco. I’ve been here for 30 years, pastoring, seminary professor, and then pastoring again. My wife retired last year. I have to tell you, in the back of my mind I was saying, “Yeah, this body’s getting old, man. This body’s getting old. I think I need retirement.” I think since I started really technically when I was 21, 42 years is more than enough, Lord Jesus. It’s more than enough. Just give me, I don’t need a lot, Medicare plus something else, that’s good enough for me.
But you know what? I learned something. I was texting a friend who’s a minister. Every so often I’ll text some pastors that I know, and I say to pray for me over this. So this one pastor I was texting, I said, “Yeah, I’m getting old. I think I should retire soon.” He texted me, “Jeff, you’ll never retire. You’ll never retire.” My wife said the same thing, she could never see me retiring. But I want to retire. That’s the thing, I want to retire. But they can’t see me. I know what they’re saying, you see. It’s the same reason why I’m here, and if Terry has me, I’ll be preaching here until I’m 75. Because you know what? I’ve come to realize my Christianity is not a religion and my preaching is not a job. I’ve come to realize after 42 years of being in training for ministry, and I became a Christian even a decade before that, that it finally got in my blood. Even though Paul could have said, “You know, I’m old, I’m retired. I don’t have time to get in these financial triangles where this is really messy.”
You know how messy things are when you have discord between two people? I took a course in statistics. If you roll a number one on a die, it’s a one in six chance, but to roll number one-two times in a row, it’s one over six times one over six, exponentially. It’s not two times harder, it’s thirty-six. The chance is one in thirty-six to get it. Because not only when you have someone who counsels to reconcile, one person has to agree and the other person has to agree. That makes it really hard. That’s why I don’t want to be counseling. It’s too hard. Yeah, but you know what? For Paul, he knows that the purpose of his faith, even though he is old and he cannot do the church planting, the grace of God in reconciliation, transforming, and taking people to a greater place in their walk with God.
You can’t shut this guy up. He’s in prison, what more do you want? We imprisoned him, so you know, you can’t shut him up. He can’t do it publicly. He’ll do it privately. He’ll write letters to churches, encouraging them. Because if you walk right in your way with God and you don’t make the religion and institution your king, this is what can happen to you. This might be the first time you set foot in a church. We’re not talking about this brick-and-mortar type of church. We’re talking about transformation, so after decades of being in Christ, you’re feeling like you can’t shut me up because this is the greatest thing ever. Oh, wow. That’s what I want to be. That’s what I want to be. You never retire. Never retire.
There’s a second person, and the second person is Philemon. Unlike Paul, who had his decades of ministry, now at the tail end, but to the very end, he’s going to be proclaiming Christ, helping people, and transforming people. Philemon, his issue was this, he was wronged. Paul’s injunction to Philemon is basically captured in this phrase that I have, ‘grace received is grace given.’ If Paul’s expansion was, “Are you going to expand the kingdom of God beyond your years and beyond the limitation of your imprisoned situation?” Philemon’s expansion is, “You were wronged, man. The man stole your money. Do you receive him back? Do you receive him back, not only without penalty, or do you even receive him back without penalty now as a brother in Christ?”
Now, I’m thinking, “Paul, that’s easier said than done.” See, I’m from New York City. Con-men on every street. Someone wants to sell you a big-screen TV, but you have to go around the corner. Fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, shame on you. This guy stole my money. So Paul, maybe I take him back, but I put him on probation. Maybe I’ll add another year penalty for what I was lost. The law’s on my side, but you want me to receive him as a brother without penalty? What got in your head, Paul? No one naturally does that. That would be absolutely correct. No one naturally does that. But someone who knows the grace of God because they have received it, and Paul reminds Philemon that he owes his very life, his spiritual birth, to Paul, needs to extend it to Onesimus.
When I get a fraudulent charge on my credit card, I go berserk. All that mess, you got to get new cards and things like that. Imagine if there’s a face to it? You know the person? You have to take it by faith that Paul, your old friend, vouches for this person. I have never even seen this guy. How do I know? Maybe he gave you a song and dance. Oh man, there’s a lot of risk for Philemon, I’ll tell you that. But for some of us, we’ve been wronged, and wronged hurts, but all of us have wronged God and it hurt God big time. We have been forgiven. A grace received is a grace given.
There’s a third person involved here, and his name’s Onesimus. The phrase that I have for him, don’t run from your past but grow from it. As I told you earlier, when I teach people how to read the Bible, I say, “Well, attach yourself to one of the people.” There’s one that related to me more. For some it’s Paul, for some it’s Philemon. There’ll be a few Onesimuses here. There’s something in your past, okay? But you want to seek a spiritual growth. This is what happened to Onesimus. He runs. I don’t know if he wanted to seek out Paul, but he found him. Paul disciples him, leads him to Christ. Paul tells Philemon, “He’s so good, he’s such a benefit to me, send him back, he can help me in the gospel.” What is going on, man? This guy is in big debt. Wow. He’s got a past and Paul says, “You know what? I’m sending you back to Philemon because you need to reconcile with that guy.”
Okay, I’m Onesimus. “Can I stay with you? Bread and water are not that bad.” Why do you want to go back to the scene of the crime? Also, “Paul, you didn’t get a response to your letter. I’ll go back if Philemon sends a notarized letter saying that I’ll be taken back, no questions asked. I want that notarized from one of those UPS stores so it’s legal, not some man off the street.” No. Onesimus goes without any guarantee of what Philemon will do to him. Wow. I don’t know which is the hardest. I think they’re all hard depending on the situation you’re in. They’re all hard, none of them are easy, you see?
But you see, all of them, and this is the beauty, all of us are in a different place in our journey, and even if you’re new to church and new at Cornerstone, the fact that you’re here and listening to a message from an old Asian man is pretty amazing itself. God is expanding your horizons. Or maybe you’re a veteran, you’re 30, 40, you’re like Paul. Each one of us is in a different situation in life, but each one of us never stops being extended and having our faith expanded in ways you would never, never dream of. Never.
This is the amazing thing about God, because God, Christianity, is not about religion. It is not about the institution. At the very end of the day, it is about personal transformation to understand fully the grace of God. You see it here in a real-life situation. You know what Paul did, but you don’t know what Philemon will do. You know Onesimus is going back. But you don’t know what’s going to become of these people. This is the weirdest thing about this very interesting book in the New Testament. Give me 10 things to do, I like that better. Five steps to having a happier marriage. Three steps to be a better grandparent. Those types. Everyone loves those to-do things. 30 days to a slimmer waistline and a more powerful prayer life, those types of books. We all love that. What’s this? This is the weirdest book.
Okay. We don’t know in the text what happens to these people. But there is something in the early church fathers. There’s a quote that shows up on the screen. Vincent was kind enough to print it out. “I have therefore received your whole multitude in the name of God through Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love, and who is your bishop, whom I pray you by Jesus Christ to love, and that you would all seek to be like him. Blessed be God, who has granted unto you, who are yourselves so excellent, to obtain such an excellent bishop.” Now there is no proof that this Onesimus on the screen is the Onesimus in Philemon. The tradition of the church fathers has that it is the same individual. Do you want to talk about expansion? You’re talking a man, a person, who was in financial servitude, lone shark type of debt, didn’t know God, stole money, and he becomes the bishop of Ephesus. A man of inexpressible love. I love how they do it. Now, we don’t know if it’s the same guy. It may be a common name like Jeff. Not a common name, but … Onesimus. I don’t know, you probably can’t name an Onesimus in your life. I think he is the same guy.
You know what? It’s the greatest thing about God. He could transform you to heights you have never imagined if you understand the grace of God, and you extend grace, and you don’t try to hide your background. This is what Christianity is. I could care less about the institutional church, even though I work in the institutional church. Because this is, if you just stepped into church, what Christianity is all about. Once you understand that, your life will never be the same. Where are you today? Are you Paul? Philemon? Onesimus? Let the grace of God expand you.
Allow me to pray. Our heavenly Father, I just give thanks for this time to share a word with my friends at Cornerstone. Wherever we are, the depth of how you work with us, and the grace with how you work with us, and the development with how you work within us is evident. For those who are my age and above, we have run the race, but in this life, we will never end the race as long as we breathe, because your faith is in our souls and your grace runs in our veins. For those who have been wronged, I pray that we would understand something, that we are no better, and that we can extend forgiveness to others. For those who are on the run, not to be on the run, and to transform us in ways we could never imagine. For I pray this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.