Talbot Davis ~ Hidden Heroes: The AWOL Hero

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One of the most frightening phrases – threats, even – in the common language is, “I hope you get what you deserve! I hope you get what’s coming to you!”  It’s hardly ever used in the positive, is it?  We don’t say to someone, “I hope you get that promotion that I applied for!”  Nope.  We’re not that way. When our parents – or our enemies – use it with us, it’s never a prelude to “blessings are going to flow for your good behavior.” It’s more like “when Dad gets home he’s going to give you just what you deserve!” We’ve heard the phrase. We use the phrase. You know when it is for me?  Oh, Lord, when someone passes me going 52 in a 35 after tailgating me for three blocks, I think,“Lord, please give them what they deserve! A ticket from heaven!”   Road rage karma!

A lot of you dig back in the recesses of your mind and your behavior and consider what you deserve, what’s coming to you. It’s not much.  You think back to your past and the abuse you received that has become at some level the abuse you give – and you don’t feel you deserve much.  You think of your self-worth and believe it’s tied to your net worth and if it is, it’s not much.  You even think of the time you have wasted on trivial pursuits and so when you consider your ability to make a difference for God, to be a player in his grandly redemptive plan you figure:  I don’t deserve that.  You wasted too much time, read too little Bible, attended church too randomly, thought “if Talbot only knew what I’m really like he wouldn’t be nice to me,” and so you have concluded: other people out there are better suited to do God’s work than I am.

Really, what happens is this:  a lot of folks use their past, their failures, as an excuse (because I did that, because I became that, I can’t take part in this) to avoid making an impact.  To avoid tapping into the hero hiding inside them.  Inside you.  All because you think that life is about merit, that karma is unshakable, and that you’re going to get what you deserve and having the privilege of serving God isn’t on that list.

And if anyone ever had reason to dread getting what he deserved, it was Onesimus.  We are in Colossians 4, a hidden part of a small New Testament letter, written to a church in a city that no longer exists, and we’re zeroing in on a section win which Paul mentions eight people by name.  And because the names are obscure and generally hard to pronounce we usually skip right over this section of the letter.  We keep it hidden! So in this series that uncovers all these hidden heroes, we saw last week that Tychicus is the guy who actually delivers what God has inspired and what Paul has written.  And that brings us to Colossians 4:9: “He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.”

Onesimus – faithful and dear brother, who is one of you.  Tuck them away because those words of Paul are so interesting.  And they are so interesting because of all these hidden heroes, Onesimus actually is the least hidden because he is a lead character in another New Testament book. Philemon! Most of you didn’t know there was a Philemon, which is a shame because it is a one-chapter book.  See! You could have read through it in 10 minutes and then boasted to people that you read a whole book in the Bible but you didn’t know it was even there.  Anyway, that little book is a letter from Paul to Philemon concerning Onesimus.

Onesimus was a runaway slave who had belonged to Philemon.  Yes, in ancient Rome slaves were part of the cultural and economic landscape – not based on race, not for a lifetime, but based more on debt.  It wasn’t pretty, mind you (read Exodus for God’s more definitive outlook on slavery).  And Onesimus has likely run away and stolen from Philemon. While on the run, he somehow connects with Paul, who leads him to faith in Christ, and now he must deal with his past in order to prepare for his future.

Look at how Paul describes him in Philemon 1:10-11: “that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.”

Was useless.  Apparently even before running away, Onesimus was bad at his job. Like the singer whose mike you turn off. Like the guy on a permanent performance plan.  Like me with a set of tools.  Useless. And that was Onesimus.  So he’s got a trifecta going on at this stage of his life: poor performer, AWOL, and a thief. Imagine if Paul had said, “you are gonna get what you deserve, young man.”  The answer to that, legally speaking, was death.

And yet look at what Paul says in Philemon:  “was useless; is useful.”  And then he grows much more intimate by the time of Colossians 4 – faithful, dear brother, one of you.  And I wonder: how do you go from that to that?  From outside to inside?  From  failure to brother?  From deserves death to becomes family? I think of how easy it would have been for Onesimus to lurk in the shadows of the church even after his conversion, to stay detached, uninvolved, excluded, to be and get what he deserved.  And get this: it would have been so tempting to use his past and use his failure as an excuse.  They won’t accept me. I’m AWOL and a thief.

And someone here is the same way. It’s why you hang on the margins of faith, the edges of church.  I’ve seen you do it! You use those failures and that past and even a negative experience with a previous church as an excuse to throw a pity party.  And you are the guest of honor!  And the music is up so loud!  And you see folks in LifeGroups, you see people volunteering, you know people are living large, unselfish lives and you just focus on you. Poor, pitiful you.

But Onesiumus doesn’t succumb to that!  He is somehow transformed from useless to useful.  From exile to brother. From runaway to someone entrusted alongside Tychicus with handling the inspired word.  He doesn’t get what he deserves; somehow, some way, he got better.

And then I realize:  Your value to God doesn’t depend on what you deserve. It depends on what he declares.  And in the offstage portion of this glorious story, from the moment Paul led Onesimus to faith in Christ, God declared over the runaway:  “All things new!  Useful to me!  My child.”  Even the name Onesimus means, literally, “useful.”  And names are given, not earned; they are declared, not deserved.

Your value to God doesn’t depend on what you deserve.  It depends on what he declares.

All of you here who are liars, runaways, thieves: your value to God doesn’t depend on what you deserve.  It depends on what he declares.

All you who are abusers or abused:  your value to God doesn’t depend on what you deserve.  It depends on what he declares.

All of you who have decided that because of what you’ve done and where you’ve been, you might sit in church but no way will you be used by God for significance: your value to God doesn’t depend on what you deserve.  It depends on what he declares.

For those who at best figure you will barely make it into heaven yourself and no way will you take someone else with you: your value to God doesn’t depend on what you deserve.  It depends on what he declares.

For the person who is scared you will drag the rest of the team down with you if you sign up at all: your value to God doesn’t depend on what you deserve.  It depends on what he declares.

See, I get a little riled up about this because Satan tries to steal who you are.  He steals your potential by convincing you that you are not worthy of forgiveness.  He steals your confidence by persuading you that your true worth really does equal your net worth. He waters down your understanding of your own spiritual gifts to render you inoperative in the body of Christ.  He’s so active at this, so good at this, that he is the life of the pity party you’re throwing. You’re the guest of honor, he’s the DJ, and he’s playing that music louder and louder and louder.

Because he wants to drown out God’s relentless:  all things new.  Now useful to me.  So don’t let him.

We are preparing to massively expand our ability to invite all people and it only happens as all take part.  Not take part as in, “I’m so proud of that church where I go sit on Sundays.” But take part as in, “I am myself commissioned by God to invite someone into a living relationship with Jesus today. I have a hero hiding in my who can do ministry in my LifeGroup.   I have hidden my hero who can be a mentor to a student.  I have a hero inside me who will hold a new nursery baby.”  Where we go from a church of grateful but passive observers to emboldened and confident ministers. I don’t want to hear how your past paralyzes your or how failure fragments you: your value to God doesn’t depend on what you deserve.  It depends on what he declares.

Even better than “useful” is the Colossians 4:9 tag:  “One of us.”  Family imagery.  So powerful for a slave to hear.  An outsider to internalize.  I remember in our first week in Monroe in 1990 that the senior citizens of that church had a Friday Fish Dinner. Fish Camp.  Now please: culture shock was engulfing me.  I’m from the city, school in the North, Julie ain’t no Southern Belle, and five days in we’re at a fish camp? Pronounced “feesh camp.” But at the end of dinner, when we’re getting up to leave, Mr. Max Helms – whom I’d met earlier in the week in his corn field (!) points a bony finger at me and says, “You’re one of us now.”  I wasn’t. But I was.  Not earned. Declared. the blood of Jesus demolishes the corrosive effects of the past. And more important, in destroys the distinctions between “in” and “out” and “us” and “them.”   You might be experiencing culture shock simply by sitting in a church today, but if so, don’t hide behind your failures when Christ points at you and says,“you’re one of us now.”

Listen: you’ve got a hero hiding in you.  You’ve just allowed your past or your failure as an excuse to keep it under wraps. Until today, you’ve preferred inaction to ministry but I want you to know God has declared you “new, useful” and is simply waiting for you to accept his declaration and step into the adventure.

Your value to God doesn’t depend on what you deserve.  It depends on what he declares.

Because you might be interested to know what happened to Onesimus.  He never did get what he deserved.  He heard the sound of God’s declaration, by the time of Colossians he was entrusted with the oracles of God, and church history tells us that a few years later he became the bishop – the lead pastor – of the church in Ephesus! Multiple sources tell us that!  From useless to bishop! From crook to preacher!  From AWOL to apostle. From runaway to leading people home.  It’s the kind of upward mobility that is only powered by grace. Onesimus didn’t get what he deserved.  He got better.

May we say the same about all the hidden heroes here today.

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Talbot Davis is the pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, a modern congregation in Charlotte, North Carolina. He helps lead a talented group of pastors and support staff. He is the author of Head Scratchers, The Shadow Of A Doubt, The Storm Before The Calm, and Solve, all available from Abingdon Press. In another life, he played a lot of tennis. He married up and has two children.

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