It really was a big ask on Paul’s part. Receive back a runaway slave as a brother. No punishment, though it was due. No making him an example before the others slaves, though it would have been prudent. No demanding restitution for whatever monetary loss was incurred from his insurrection, though it would have been just. Nope, nothing owing. Just receive again into his house Onesimus. And that, as he would have received Paul himself — think guest room, hospitality, fellowship, drink, food, and fireside chats. Yup, Paul’s ask of Philemon was a really big ask.
And yet, Paul’s letter isn’t written with the tone of a “hail Mary pass.” Not just tossing up some outlandish idea in a last ditch, wishful effort to mediate reconciliation. Not desperately hoping that Philemon might pick up on what he’s trying to lay down. But writing with confidence, pretty sure that Philemon was going to run with his recommended, unprecedented behavior — pretty sure that Philemon would even exceed expectations (Phm. 1:21). And how come? Because Philemon had a reputation for being a conduit for refreshing hearts.
For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. . . . Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
(Philemon 1:7, 21 ESV)
Refresh. To give rest. To cause or permit one to cease from any movement or labor in order to recover and collect his strength. Thus, to refresh the heart is to set it at ease. To interrupt, if only temporarily, the inner turbulence of concern and anxiety. To provide respite for the weary soul. To intervene in such a way that the storm calms down and the raging sea becomes placid. Philemon loved the people of God, engaged the people of God, and in some manner brought rest, respite, and revitalization to the hearts of the people of God.
But what catches my attention this morning is that Philemon was not the source of refreshment, but the conduit. The hearts of the saints had been refreshed, not by him, but through him. Even as Paul anticipated being the recipient of such refreshing when Philemon graciously received Onesmius back as a brother. Paul knew that such respite of heart would come through Philemon in Christ.
Philemon had the means. And, he was willing. He opened his home, loved on the saints, even received back an AWOL bondservant. But the rest and revitalization realized by others, though it came through Philemon, was sourced in Christ. Philemon was but the conduit for refreshing hearts.
That’s why we’re told to “contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Rom. 12:13). So that Christ might provide some rest for revved up souls. It’s why we are exhorted to do good to everyone, “especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). So that the Good Shepherd might provide some still waters for weary sheep.
Sure, we benefit from being obedient to the ask. We eventually reap the reward of sowing seeds of good deeds (Gal. 6:9). But the reason we’re called to such acts of kindness is so that the Spirit of God might refresh the hearts of the people of God. Refueling running-on-empty tanks. Being used of God to renew the inner man, the inner woman, of other laboring sojourners.
A conduit of Christ. A pipeline of Holy Spirit power. Realized through our love for the saints. Possible by simply opening our hearts and homes to others. Not out of compulsion, but of our own free accord (Phm. 1:14).
Refreshing hearts in Christ. Christ refreshing hearts through us.
By His grace. For His glory.