On Being Useful

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What’s the purpose? It feels worthless. So unwanted, like I’ve lost of my value. I can’t find it, not in the least bit and I’m just scared, so scared that I’ll fail You. And sometimes I think that I’m not any good at all and sometimes I wonder why, why I’m even here at all but then you assure me I’m a little more than useless. When I think that I can’t do this You promise me that I’ll get through this and do something right, do something right for once.
– “More Than Useless”, Relient K

I’ll be honest, one of my favorite parts about being in the Boy Scouts as a kid was some of the things that I got to play with and learn how to use. One of the best toys, and the one that I enjoyed the most, was the pocketknife. The first one that I ever got was fairly simple, a Swiss Army knife with just two blades of different sizes at each end of the handle. There were also more complex ones that were available, each one with a variety of tools that were specifically designed to be useful in a variety of situations. There were models that had tweezers, scissors, a screwdriver, a saw and many other useful tools in a variety of combinations. Just about any tool that you could shrink down and fit in your pocket there was a model of pocketknife that had it on there. But for all the cool points that a gadget filled pocket knife could gain you with other kids in the troop at the end of the day it’s greater value was in what it could do for the owner.

Towards the end of the New Testament there’s a short letter with an odd name. It’s a personal letter from the apostle Paul to a slave owner and friend of his in Colossae named Philemon. He’s appealing to him on behalf of a runaway slave named Onesimus. We’re not sure exactly why he ran away but many scholars believe that it’s because he stole money from Philemon. Why would Paul do something like that? Doesn’t the crime deserved to be punished and doesn’t Philemon, as Onesimus’ owner, have the right to execute judgement? We find the answer in the middle of the letter. In verses 10-12 Paul writes “I make this request on behalf of my child, Onesimus, whom I brought to faith during my time in prison. Before, he was useless to you; but now he is useful to both you and me. Listen, I am sending my heart back to you as I send him to stand before you.” (The Voice) Later in verses 15 and 16 he writes “maybe this is the reason why he was supposed to be away from you for this time: so that now you will have him back forever – no longer as a slave, but as more than a slave – as a dear brother. Yes, he is dear to me, but I suspect he will come to mean even more to you, both in the flesh as a servant and in the Lord as a brother.” (The Voice) I want you to notice a few things in these key verses. The first is Onesimus’ name. I love the play on words that Paul does with it. Onesimus’ name actually means ‘useful’. Because of his new found faith Onesimus is not only useful to Philemon as his slave but also as a fellow laborer in the church, specifically the congregation that was meeting in his house. This leads me to the second thing, Onesimus’ salvation. It’s evident from this letter that while he was staying with Paul Onesimus became a Christian and that Paul wanted him to be treated as such. While this didn’t necessarily release Onesimus from his civil obligations (slaves at this time could become so for any number of reasons and were subject to their masters until they were released) it did help to give his relationship with Philemon an important new dynamic, that of brother. For Paul, this was of much greater importance as it’s this type of relationship that would play a large role in ultimately crumbling the Roman system of slavery as Christianity grew and eventually became legal in the empire. The third thing that I want you to notice is Onesimus’ purpose. In previous letters Paul had described how Christians are gifted by the Holy Spirit with unique talents that are meant to be used for the kingdom of God. I would imagine that Onesimus was no exception. He was more than just a slave now. He was a uniquely gifted individual capable of making an impact on earth for the kingdom of heaven and Paul hoped that he would be a vital part of the Colossian church. The fourth and final thing that I want you to notice is Onesimus’ future. Paul reminds Philemon that because Onesimus is now a Christian they will be with each other for eternity. If Philemon had any reservations about treating Onesimus well when he got back (remember, he probably stole money from Philemon, a rich landowner) this reminder would put them to rest. Philemon needed to forgive him and see him as his brother if they were to have a meaningful relationship during the rest of their time in this life and worship God unhindered then and throughout eternity.

Throughout this short letter there is a very important underlying thread, Onesimus’ new found identity in Christ. It’s this identity that made him useful and it’s this identity that also makes us useful. Romans 8:17a (The Voice) tells us that “if we are God’s children, that means we are His heirs along with the Anointed, set to inherit everything that is His.” Our use isn’t found in our talents and skills, it’s in the fact that we are “fellow heirs with Christ” (ESV). We, like Onesimus, can identify as children of God and that’s what gives us our value. Our gifts are important and should be developed and used to their fullest but it’s our adoption in to the family of God that makes us useful. There have been times over the course of my life when I have wondered if God has any use for me but I always come back to passages like this because they remind me that I am “the product of His hand, heaven’s poetry etched on lives, created in the Anointed, Jesus, to accomplish the good works God arranged long ago.” (Ephesians 2:10, The Voice) This was true for Onesimus, it’s true for me and it’s true for you.

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