This week’s Monday devotion comes from Gil Kracke, who will be our conference chaplain in Birmingham in less than two weeks:
“If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand.”
Put it on my account. Charge it to me. Let me get the check. We speak these words casually when out to lunch with friends or colleagues. But what about when the ante is upped, and one offers to place something more substantial on their account?
There’s a short story by Walter Wangerin called “Ragman.” The Ragman goes around exclaiming, “Rags! Rags! New rags for old!” strangely absorb the addiction of the alcoholic when he exchanges blankets with him, and putting on the lame arm of the disabled man as his own when they exchange jackets. It was as if “the hopes and fears of all the years” rested on this sin-eater, this John Coffey.
In a display of understatement and courage in two parts, Paul befriends the runaway slave of Philemon, whose name is Onesimus: to run away from one’s service as a slave was an offense punishable by death. Remarkably, Paul – in full knowledge of this offense – asks that his punishment be placed on his account. Just as remarkable, Onesimus, having a courage that comes only by faith, is now the courier of a letter addressed to the one who rightfully has a claim on his life and his death. And still he goes.
What comes off the page and shows itself, these thousands of years later? There really is no “if” to it; it is more certainly an “as”: “as another does you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me”. This is a certain truth: we will wrong others, we will be wronged by others. How can Paul – or any one of us – place yet more debt on his account? By virtue of our common nature, he has no credit-worthiness; his ledger is no cleaner or less overdrawn than others. He, like us, is so indebted that he could be said to have no account!
Paul was expressing in a real situation what Luther expressed so many centuries later: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Paul knew with a deep, soul-changing knowledge that his national-debt-sized debt had been utterly forgiven by Christ, absorbed as Christ exchanged his news clothes for Paul’s old rags: Paul was made perfectly free, subject to none. No strings attached. Zero balance. That alone allows him to speak with such command and confidence as to send a runaway slave back to his owner, with the word, “put it on my account – I am perfectly and completely and wholly bound to this man.” Likewise, that alone allows Onesimus – a runaway slave – to walk freely back into the lion’s mouth, to what would be a just sentence of death. It is the peculiar and wonderful freedom of a Christian that ties us fully and freely to another; indeed, the only way we can be freely bound to another is if we are free indeed. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
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