How can you be a missionary? As a child, I remember hearing pastors encourage our church members to consider becoming missionaries. The call seemed to be about the needs of people out there or over there, far away from our small town and distant from our lives. Those people needed to hear the gospel message, and we had an obligation to tell them. The way we could do that was by committing ourselves to become missionaries, living in distant lands, or giving our money to fund their endeavors.
Being this kind of missionary involved travel and dislocation from the life we knew. While this possibility had a certain allure, especially to adventurous types, it presented only part of the picture because it removed possibilities for mission to distant places separated from our lives.
Instead of this faraway conception of missions, I suggest that we can have “Everyday Missionaries.” Women and men, boys and girls, who are willing to offer themselves in relationship with others out of love, are everyday missionaries. As they live their lives, they share love – in ways large and small – and they can be missionaries every day. The key is love.
Background to Philemon
In the tiny book of Philemon, we have an example of ministry and missions at its best in the midst of a testy situation. Paul wrote the letter to Philemon, leader of a church in his house, following Philemon’s estrangement from Onesimus. And throughout the letter, Paul appeals to love.
When Paul writes to Philemon, Onesimus has fled from his master, and if he is deemed a fugitive he is subject to harsh punishment, even death. While away from Philemon, Onesimus encounters Paul and is converted to Christianity. Paul states that Onesimus, which means “useful” in Greek, has indeed become useful to him during his imprisonment. Perhaps Onesimus now feels that he should return to Philemon asking forgiveness for running away. Knowing the harsh punishment that could await Onesimus, Paul decides to intervene.
At this point, Paul faces a dilemma. What should he do? Should he harbor Onesimus in an effort to help him avoid the possibility of punishment? Should he encourage Onesimus to continue running away from his master in an effort to elude possible capture and return? Should Paul instruct Onesimus to return to his master alone and seek forgiveness, willingly accepting whatever punishment and consequences await him at Philemon’s household? Should Paul tell Philemon what he should do, that is, should Paul tell Philemon to accept the runaway slave, forgive him completely, and invite him into full relationship?
Paul chooses none of those options. Instead of remaining aloof or becoming involved to the point of dictating what should happen, Paul appeals to the Christian love and new familial bonds shared by Christians. He drafts a letter to Philemon, encouraging him to welcome Onesimus back as a member of the family of faith, that group of siblings whose bonds of relationship are formed by the love of Jesus. Note Paul’s words: “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.”
Rather than commanding or ordering Philemon to act in a certain way, Paul appeals to love as the proper motivation for his action. Philemon has experienced the love of God through Jesus, and Paul testifies that Philemon himself has shown love for “all the saints” in the church in his house (verse 5). The love of God through Jesus has redefined the relationships between people gathered in faith.
The Sharing of Your Faith
Building on love, Paul suggests the motivation for ministry that forms the focal verse for our Missions Emphasis, which we find in verse 6: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.”
The Greek word translated “sharing” in the New Revised Standard Version is koinonia, which is usually translated community with an emphasis on the equality of community members. In Philemon 6, “the sharing” of your faith is the koinonia of your faith, which suggests that a community results from the “sharing of your faith.” When people share their faith, a new community can be formed in which all people are invited to participate as equals. People living this call in their lives can make great changes to their communities, their schools, their workplaces, their families, their churches, and in the lives of people with whom they share.
How can you be a missionary? You can be a missionary when you experience the love of God in Jesus Christ and when you share that love in community.
Paul appeals to this love. The love that can make sisters and brothers of former enemies. The love that can make sisters and brothers of former slaves and slave owners. The love that welcomes everyone into the family and holds them there despite differences, disappointments, and disagreements. The love that transcends social convention, prejudicial attitudes, and hostility. The love of Jesus is the love that invites everyone to the table, turns no one away, and provides plenty so that all can be satisfied. This is the good news: the love of Jesus can transform a fugitive slave and a fuming slave owner into siblings in the faith.
And because this is good news, Paul appeals to love. Rather than commanding Philemon to receive Onesimus without punishment, Paul invites Philemon to reflect on the good news of Jesus’ love and to respond gratefully, voluntarily, and without being forced. Because the appeal is based on love, Paul does not have to resort to threats, yells, or charges. While this letter is addressed to Philemon, it is designed to be read before the gathered church in his house. Thus, it serves a call to all faithful people in the church to be everyday missionaries by sharing love with other people in community.