Some time ago I was speaking to a pastor about how the ministry was going. He admitted that his church seemed to be in a bit of a difficult season. When I pressed him for the reason he said that a very influential family had decided to leave the church under less than ideal circumstances. He and his elders were worried that their absence would speak volumes, people would begin asking questions, and soon – as often happens in churches – people would learn the reason for their departure. The elders were concerned that this might give way to people being angry, frustrated, or bitter. Sensing his anxiety and being curious how it would end, I asked him to let me know how things went. Much to his shock he said the collective response was not at all what was expected. Rather, in the absence of this family the whole congregation had breathed a sigh of relief.
There's something heartbreaking in that and yet it's not uncommon. There's brothers and sisters in the Lord who sometimes – by their attitudes, opinions, and preferences – are more of a burden to the church than a blessing. Most of us could probably think of examples without much effort. There are those domineering personalities who hold others hostage to an endless list of demands. Then there's those passive aggressive people who assert themselves in the most uncharitable ways. Or those people who without notice can turn in an instant. Still, there's also those people who cultivate an unspoken but observable stress and anxiety in others. Still more, are those people who stake all on their particular hobby horses. I sometimes wonder if we often think that the only danger facing a church is false teaching and teachers. True as that danger is, it seems to me that many of our fellowships and the bond we share in the gospel of Jesus are on the brink of disruption because of the people mentioned above.
I was thinking of that recently when I was reading and preaching through the small letter of Philemon. One of the things that struck me the most is when Paul writes: “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints” (verse 4). The same gratitude that Paul had for Philemon's faith in Jesus is a gratitude he has for Philemon's love to the saints. And this love wasn't simply an abstraction or a hidden intent, but was a love that was demonstrated in concrete ways. Paul went on to write: “For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (verse 7).
It's interesting that this word “refreshed” means to give rest or repose, or to lighten the load. It's the same word used by Jesus who said: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Through his love Philemon was a source of spiritual refreshing for the people of God. Do you know people like that in the church? I do! Their very presence seems to lighten the troubles and pressures of life. Their speech fills you with joy, gladness, and calms the troubled heart. They're a place of safety, comfort, and truth. These are the people who weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice. They're the ones who speak a fitting word of encouragement, admonishment, or correction with charity and gentleness. They have their eyes open to the needs of others and use their resources to help. These are the kinds of people we want our churches filled with. These are the kind of people I want to be like. That's Philemon! No wonder Paul was thankful!
There's a challenge in that for all of us. What am I to my brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus? Do I refresh or weary them? Do I give rest or restlessness? Am I a comfort or an anxiety? Do I encourage confidence or are people walking on egg shells around me? Am I a blessing to those I am bound to in the gospel or a burden? Are the hearts of the saints being refreshed through me?