Chaplaincy and Pastoral Ministry

Chaplaincy and Pastoral Ministry

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Theology Intersecting with Real Life

David Pettett

Many times when, as a hospital chaplain, I have been invited to the bedside of a complete stranger, I have been amazed, as they have recounted their life's journey, at how, at significant points in their story, God has touched their life.

The patient sharing their story has not always been aware of these encounters. But as I've listened it has been obvious to me that God has been blessing them. It may be the obvious blessings that God bestows on all people. The rain. The sunshine. The birth of a child. A loving partner in marriage. Or it may have been something more specific. Protection from an accident or the provision of a job.

The privilege of being the chaplain in this situation is that there is the expectation from this complete stranger that you will introduce some "religious" talk. And so I would always comment on some aspect of their life's story where it seemed obvious to me that God had blessed them or was directing them. Almost without exception the patient would respond with acknowledgment that, "Yes, God must have been with me then." It is fairly easy to go on in a conversation like this, where someone recognises that God does actually have an interest in their life, to talk about Jesus and to challenge the person to recognise his Lordship.

If you reflect on life with Job 28 you look at all the amazing things mankind can do and has done. But thinking about all of this, thinking about all the amazing things a person has done in their life, you come up against the question, "But where shall wisdom be found?" (v.12) In all the amazing things a person has done, what is it all about? If you come to the conclusion that all the amazing efforts and exploits of humanity give life meaning, you come a cropper. Our efforts to understand life lead us nowhere. (v.13) The beauty of the world and the value of precious metals and stone have no answer. (vv. 14-19) Is it all meaningless, as life just ends in death with nothing more? (vv. 20-22)

When you come to the answer, that "God understands the way to it" (v.23) you need to be careful how this is expressed so that it doesn't appear to be the glib "Sunday School answer". To understand life, theology must intersect with experience. The glib Sunday School answer may be the right theology but it may not intersect with a person's experience. With the mere mention of the word "God" a person may be distracted into stereotypes of what that word means in their experience. Their experiences probably have not been understood in the light of what the Bible says about God and humanity. They will therefore have no way of entering into an understanding of the profound statement, "God understands the way to wisdom." We need to express this biblical truth in a way that will touch the life of the person we're speaking with. How we express this will vary depending on the other person's life experiences.

This is where the importance of listening comes in. As we spend time listening to a human story we not only empower a person but we gain some understanding of their world view. With such an understanding we start to see points in their life where a biblical understanding of life might intersect with their experience. Such an understanding then helps us express biblical truths, not in terms that might be profound to us, but with words that tap into the other person's understanding of life.

It's a great privilege to bring the gospel into the public sphere. To do it well we need both a clear theological understanding of life and a clear understanding of what the unbeliever understands of life. And then we need some skill to bring about an intersection of these two. It's not an easy skill to develop but one with great rewards for the gospel.

We all stand on level ground in our fellowship in Christ Jesus


The Letter of Paul to Philemon

The Rev Lindsay Johnstone, Chaplain, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney

Many lives are being reshaped within chaplaincy ministry. Whether in correctional centres or in hospital there are folk whose lives are being rebuilt out of a context of deception, fraud, fear, theft and some have lived in and tried by any means to flee from corrupt systems and relationship abuse beyond their control.

Into such situations the Word of God speaks within Paul's Letter to Philemon[i]. A runaway slave became a Christian through the ministry of a prisoner who sent him back to the slave owner with a promise to underwrite the debts of the slave. The prisoner in Rome had decades before supported the stoning of a Christian who breathed out words of forgiveness to his murderers, as Christ had done on the Cross.

The Roman Empire accepted slavery, and slaves had no rights. A church in Colossae met in the home of a slave owner Philemon and his wife Apphia. At some stage Philemon had been converted to Christ through Paul’s ministry. Philemon had a slave named Onesimus[ii] who escaped and found his way to Paul in prison in Rome. To fund his trip he must have had to steal money from Philemon. Whilst with Paul who is a prisoner, Onesimus is converted and now realises he should fulfil his responsibilities to Philemon. This requires great courage, as a slave owner under Roman law could have him killed for what he did.

What are the good things that Paul, Philemon and Onesimus and all of us share in Christ Jesus?

Before becoming believers, their spirit (and ours) was dead in trespasses and sins, and locked into the kingdom of darkness. From the spread of the New Testament we can affirm the following truths about them and all believers following the spiritual rebirth. All of us share forgiveness, eternal life, adoption as children of God. We become heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. We are a royal priesthood. We have equality of value in the sight of God, and in heaven shall all receive “the crown of righteousness”. Our inner spirit is renewed and healed, and has received the provision of all of our needs. We have equality of responsibility to love one another. In our spirit we have together already been raised with Christ in heavenly places, and we have come to the church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, to the spirits of those who are justified and made perfect. We all have equal access to the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, in that the Holy Spirit equally indwells all believers.[iii] Although these realities are not spelt out in Philemon, they are referred to in the Scriptures mentioned in the footnote, and therefore they are part “of all the good which is ours in Christ Jesus” (Philemon verse 6).

The apparent purpose of Philemon was for Paul to request Philemon to take back his converted runaway slave and to accept him as more than a slave, as a beloved brother. 

Paul wants him to understand what both Philemon and Onesimus now have in common through belonging to Jesus, and to act on that understanding i.e. “to welcome him as a   beloved brother”, not just as a forgiven slave.

It seems that Paul had also a secondary purpose – to request that Philemon transfer Onesimus back to Paul to work for him. It seems that Philemon himself had been converted through Paul’s ministry[iv], and that there was a relationship to which Paul could easily appeal. He prefers to operate out of relationship, rather than out of barefaced apostolic authority.[v]

Most of Paul’s letters commence with a greeting and a prayer. The prayer is not just a pious opener, but it has a distinct connection with the aim of his letters.

The Greek of verse 6 is appropriately translated as follows: “that the fellowship arising out of your faith may become effectual in the acknowledgement of all the good which is ours in Christ Jesus”[vi].

My summary of the structures of thought within this verse are as follows-

The faith by which we have come to trust in Christ has produced a new level of relationship/ sharing, a koinwnia, of all the good within us through knowing Christ Jesus. The koinwnia is an inward activity between our own spirits and the Holy Spirit and relates to many areas. The part of the verse referring to koinwnia is about our own inner communion, and not about our outward sharing. Verbal sharing of the Gospel is an aspect of koinwnia, but koinwnia is a broader and deeper concept. What Paul is asking Philemon to do involves a life-style paradigm shift, and that reflects something of the depth of koinwnia.

What Paul wants to see in us is a clearer awareness (epignwsis[vii]) of what we all share in Christ. This will continue to transform our minds, attitudes and behaviours.

In the case of Philemon, it is this perception that will enable him to undergo the paradigm shift and life-style choices that Paul is requesting of him. Indeed it would be culturally courageous for Philemon to do so, but he can own and do it of his own decision and conviction if he sees it arising out of who he is as a new creation in his inner spirit, working with the activity of the Holy Spirit; and if he can perceive that the slave Onesimus has all of this as well.

For us the abiding message of Philemon is that the more we understand both individually and collectively our equal and rich identity in Christ, the more effective will be our lives and ministries. Our relationships will grow in being more affirming and empowering.


[i] “Philemon” means something like “Likeable Guy”. Onesimus is referred to in Colossians 4: 9 as ”Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you”. There are ancient traditions that he became a bishop and that he was martyred in the persecution of 68AD, but whether or not any of those were true of this Onesimus, the message of the epistle stands totally independent of these traditions.
[ii] “Onesimus” means “useful Person”. There is a pun in verse 11 eucrhston (“useful”) and acrhston (“useless”), where this Greek word is a synonym of the name “Onesimus”.
[iii] John 3: 3-8; Romans 8: 14-17; Ephesians 1:13-20, 2; 6; Hebrews 12: 23; Isaiah 53;1 Peter 2:9; 2 Timothy 4; 8; 1 John 4: 17 to name just some of the Scriptures that speak of the realities concerning the renewed spirit of believers.
[iv] Verse 19
[v]  Verses 8-9
[vi]An exhortation to evangelism (as implied in NIV translation does not readily fit the apparent requests that Paul made in the rest of the Letter.
 [vii] The Greek means “perception”.