Through the centuries, the greatest growth and development occurring in Christians is produced by association. Each of us is challenged more to change through our interaction with other Christians than through any other means.

Let me use two illustrations. Recently a West-Ark family visited another state and attended another congregation one evening. The wife's first comment in the parking lot [on arrival] was, "We are overdressed!" She meant, "The way we are dressed may keep us from interacting well with these Christians." Is it not interesting that the thought of interaction with other Christians immediately made this person think of clothing?

When Joyce and I lived in Oxford, Mississippi, College Hill Presbyterian Church building was located a few miles out of Oxford. The building was quite old, predating the Civil War. It was so old that on occasion it hosted historical tours. One of the features of the earliest building was a section [a balcony] built for slaves. In the early years, interaction was restricted. A slave could be converted. A slave could sit in the same building and worship. But interaction was limited.

The interaction we Christians know as fellowship is powerful. It receives its power through the influence of humans upon humans. As long as I can keep enough distance between you and me that I can look at you and evaluate you impersonally, your life does not impact my life. But the moment you become a person to me, the moment you become close to me, your life touches my life.

Roman house

  1. I want to begin this morning by calling your attention to the floor plan of a Roman house owned by a wealthy person in the first century.
    (The diagram comes from Pompeii. This Italian city was quickly buried in searing volcanic ash by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD--about 45 years after Jesus' death.)
    1. The first thing I want you to notice is the house's large size.
      1. The garden area alone had twelve huge columns in it--Roman houses commonly had gardens inside--that was typical of wealthy homes built in the Roman style in the first century.
        1. The people who owned the home and their guests could lounge in their garden without leaving the house.
        2. They often took their meals while gazing at their garden area.
    2. It was possible to maintain such a large home and live leisurely and elegantly because the family was served by slaves--slaves who cooked, cleaned, trimmed, and did anything their masters wished done.
      1. There is a reason for calling this to your attention.
      2. Many early congregations met in homes.
        1. Not many of those congregations met in the homes of peasants--there was not enough room for such meetings in most peasants' homes.
        2. But there was enough room for such gatherings in the homes of wealthy Christians, and there is some biblical evidence that wealthy Christians used their homes for church gatherings.
      3. Likely such gatherings were held in the reception area.
        1. That would fit with the lifestyle of the wealthy.
        2. The way things functioned in the Roman society of the first century and the way things function in our society today are quite different.
        3. The essential system was the patron/client system.
        4. A wealthy person placed a number of people on retainer and paid these people on a regular basis.
        5. On a designated day the clients frequently came to the patron's home, were received, and were paid.
        6. That was the way the political system worked, and it was the way the commercial system worked.
          1. To be prominent politically, you had to be wealthy.
          2. To be influential, you had to have important clients who were indebted to you.
        7. To have a number of people who were not on your social level come into your home was not unusual--it happened frequently.

  2. Now I ask you to read with me from Philemon (which has only one chapter) verses 4-20. Paul, who was in prison in Rome, wrote to Philemon, who was wealthy, a Christian, and close to Paul.
    Philemon 4-20 I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ's sake. For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother. Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love's sake I 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 wished 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 did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own 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 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 this 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.
    1. I ask you to consider several things in this reading.
      1. Paul was very grateful for the love Philemon showed to Jesus Christ and to all Christians.
        1. Paul found personal joy and comfort in Philemon's love for Christians (very important to a man in prison!)
        2. Paul knew the hearts of Christians were refreshed through Philemon's love.
      2. Using our language of today, Paul said, "Philemon, I need to talk to you about something, Christian to Christian.
        1. Notice that Paul's "conversation" with Philemon involved a Jewish Christian, a wealthy gentile Christian, and a slave Christian.
        2. Paul wanted to talk to Philemon about a slave named Onesimus.
      3. Onesimus had not been a good slave to Philemon.
        1. In fact, Paul said in the past Onesimus was a useless slave.
        2. But that had changed.
        3. For some reason Onesimus abandoned Philemon (which could have cost Onesimus his life were he caught!).
        4. Either he "searched Paul out" in Rome or just happened to find Paul in Rome.
          1. As a result, Paul converted Onesimus to Jesus Christ.
          2. Onesimus then served Paul while Paul was a prisoner.
      4. Onesimus the Christian served Paul so well that he wanted to keep Onesimus.
        1. But Philemon had not given Onesimus to Paul.
        2. So Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon.
    2. Paul told Philemon, "When Onesimus comes back to you, do not treat him like a slave who has upset you."
      1. "Instead, treat him like a Christian brother."
      2. "Now he is much more to you than a slave."
      3. "If he owes you anything, charge it to me--I will pay you."
    3. To me, one of the most interesting statements Paul made was this one:
      1. "I have the right in Christ to order you to do this, Philemon" (verse 8).
      2. "But, instead, I am appealing to you in love to do this" (verse 9).
    4. Again, I call your attention to this fact: we have three Christians, a Jew, a wealthy gentile, and a slave.
      1. When Paul was released from prison and visited Philemon (as he said he would do in verse 22), when Christians assembled in Philemon's house, Paul would be there, and Onesimus would be there.
      2. Have you considered the awkwardness of such situations?
        1. A slave sat in his master's house as a brother--because they both are Christians.
        2. A Christian slave took the lead in Christian worship, and the master who owned him yielded to him.
        3. And the interaction of Christian influence powerfully touched both of them.

  3. Lock on to this perspective.
    1. Were there very poor Christians in the early church? Yes.
    2. Were there very rich Christians in the early church? Yes.
    3. Did they have association with each other as Christians? Yes.
    4. Did this influence powerfully impact both of their lives? Yes.

  4. This same Paul gave instructions as a mentor to another preacher whom Paul considered his son in the faith. Listen carefully to what Paul wrote to Timothy.
    1. Concerning Christian slaves, Paul told Timothy to teach this:
      1 Timothy 6:1,2 All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against. Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles.
    2. Concerning wealthy Christians, Paul told Timothy to teach this:
      1 Timothy 6:17-19 Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.

Life's issue is not, "How much do you have?" Life's issue is this: "How is God glorified through what you have?"

[Song of reflection, followed by an elder extending the invitation, followed by invitation song.]

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 19 January 2003

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