In the short letter of Philemon we catch a glimpse into how the gospel of grace and our Christian faith steps into a specific real life situation. A very serious pastoral issue on a personal level. And a very challenging social issue on the wider scale.
Paul is writing to Philemon a house church leader, and slave owner, probably in the city of Colossae, acting as an advocate for a runaway slave, Onesimus. Asking that Onesimus be welcomed as a Christian brother forgiven and released so he can serve as a co-worker with Paul in his gospel mission.
This is part of our series on the pastoral epistles called Maturity and Ministry: what Paul has to say to church leaders. We are going to take two weeks to look at this letter, this week we are going to focus on the pastoral issue of reconciliation with a fellow believer-the way of Love. It’s helpful for us because we may be involved in situations where relationships are strained and broken because of what we have done to another or where we are having to decide how we will respond to someone who has wronged us, or even how as Christian brothers and sisters or leaders we can help fellow believers who find themselves in that situation.
Next week we will look at what Philemon has to say about the wider issue of slavery and what it can say to us about the church as a place of hope for change. That it might provide insights into how we deal with an issue that has raised its head in our world again today, slavery, and how we might face other equally challenging issues.
Philemon is a letter that comes into a story without a beginning or end. We don’t know what the start of the story was, and we don’t know the outcome. This letter is simply the place where the grace and peace that Paul blesses Philemon, his fellow leaders, both men and women, and the whole church can step into the story.
From the letter we know that Paul at this time is in prison, probably in Ephesus rather than Rome, and by the providence of God has met Onesimus a runaway slave from the household of Philemon. Paul leads him to Christ and finds him useful in his mission. We know from the letter that Onesimus has probably stolen some money from Philemon. Slaves in first century roman society, did not own anything, remember they were owned, and the only way to make good an escape would be to steal enough funds and clothes to get away to a major city where they maybe able to disappear in the crowd.
But as he has run away he has run straight into the arms of the gospel and somehow through contact with Paul has become a follower of Jesus. This puts him and Paul in a difficult situation. If he stays with Paul, Paul is guilty of harbouring a runaway slave, a serious crime. Onesimus is also always going to have the stigma of being a runaway slave, always looking over his shoulder, always a fugitive. On top of that how is he going to live out his new faith without seeking reconciliation with those he has wronged.
Philemon, we know is the head of a roman household and Church, Apphia maybe his wife, but is also a fellow leader in the church. As a head of a roman household Philemon would have owned slaves. We do know that he also through the ministry of Paul has become a follower of Jesus and has grown in his faith and taken on leadership in a house church. We don’t have any idea of the time frame of Onesimus running away, it may have been before Philemon came to faith. We have no idea of what sort of slave owner Philemon was, slaves as people of no status were open to physical abuse and deprivation, sexual abuse, they could be bought and sold. Has Philemon’s new faith impacted and transformed his actions. As an owner of slaves Philemon would have been expected to put out notices and a description of his runaway slave and been expected to punish the slave if they were caught and returned.
Paul writes a letter and sends it along with Onesimus back to the church. When we come to faith, as Christ moves in our lives there is often the need for us to put things right and seek forgiveness for what we have done in the past. In the book ‘the Cross and the switch blade’ about David Wilkinson’s work with 1950’s street gangs in New York, the thing that showed how real the conversion of the gang members was, was when they were seen walking through their neighbourhoods returning what they had stolen, and going to the police station to apologise for all the trouble they had caused and getting the police to sign their bibles. Doing that there was the very real possibility of prosecution, but grace demanded it.
My father in law Ray told the story of having the big industrial non-slip mat at his bakery stolen one night. He was extremely hacked off that he had to buy another one. A long time later he was rather taken back when a man walked into his store and said he had become a Christian and wanted to return the mat he had stolen and asked for forgiveness. He forgave him and in his typical pragmatic way wondered what he was going to do with two mats. For Onesimus it wasn’t a mat but a more serious matter but he was willing to trust himself to God’s grace and love.
Paul acknowledges the good things he has heard about Philemon, the way he has shown his love and care for God’s people.
He tells Philemon that he could order him to welcome Onesimus back, but he chooses not to. Rather his appeal is on the basis of Love. You cannot command reconciliation and forgiveness, it must come from the passion and compassion of Christ. Also here an appeal to authority and legality may be counter productive because of the authority and laws of the roman empire involved.
Paul rather takes a Christ like approach, he had written to the people of Philippi about having the mind of Christ and here he demonstrated it, by laying aside power or status, he is simply Paul, an old man, a prisoner, he stands alongside Onesimus, he is willing to take on the debt of what Onesimus has done wrong to see him restored. Most of Paul’s letter were dictated to a scribe and he would only write the final greeting at the end. Here that occurs earlier in the letter and is a sign of Paul’s commitment to pay the price for Onesimus.
He speaks out of the grace that both Philemon and Onesimus have received, they have found new life in Christ. This has changed their basic relationship to one another. In roman society slaves were never considered to become full adults they were always seen as minors, with no status, that is reflected in that most offensive of title used to African American male slaves, “Boy”, but Paul now turns that round to say Onesimus has become his beloved son. They are no longer just slave and master but they are now brothers in Christ. One no longer belongs and works for the other but they have become partners in the gospel, both are co-workers.
Paul uses a wonderful word play to describe how Onesimus status has changed, he tells Philemon once he was useless, but now he is useful to both you and to me. Onesimus means useful, it was a common name for a slave in roman days, but here instead of just being a slave name it is infused with the good news of the Gospel. No longer is Onesimus only good for doing work to help Philemon’s house or business, which he ran away from, but he is of eternal worth as he shares and ministers the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus back. Not only that but to be willing to send him to serve Paul.
So you know I really like word plays and I really like and value Paul’s play on words here. If I’m in a fluster or aware of my own imperfections I find myself resorting to a kind of destructive self-speech, I say ‘howard you‘re useless’ this passage speaks God’s truth that in Christ we are Onesimus…useful, called and equipped by God for his purposes and mission, I just have to remind my heart to listen sometimes.
Here is the way of Love. That we seek to be reconciled with each other because of the grace and life changing love of Jesus Christ. Because we have been welcomed into the family and household of God, we have received grace so we should show that grace to one another, we have an advocate in heaven who pleads our case for us, so we should stand alongside those who genuinely seek reconciliation and show and speak the gospel. While many have said that Paul sounds almost like is manipulating Philemon here, it is only by coming back to what Christ has done for us and the grace and wholeness and peace we have received in Christ that invites us to show such love and grace to others. Even those who have wronged us. To offer them grace and love as our brothers and sisters in Christ.
This letter would have been read out in public because it had an impact on the whole Church. A church made up of both household heads, free people, slaves, men and women, Jew and gentile, Greek and barbarians , and how the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus is restored would impact the whole church. Was Philemon going to forgive and welcome Onesimus back as a Christian brother, maybe even free him, which by the way goes beyond the bounds of the knowledge. Being God’s people calls us to a different understanding of relationships with one another, it calls us to a way of love. Broken relationship within a church community have a damaging effect for the whole people of God they can impact and effect a community and weaken and destroy our witness to Christ’s love. It’s important that we be willing to walk the road of Onesimus and seek to be reconciled with those we have wronged. To advocate for each other.
But as I said before this letter is part of a story that has no beginning or end. WE don’t know how Philemon acted do we. The fact that it is included in the scriptures may be testimony to the fact that it is an example of the way of love of great forgiveness and reconciliation. Onesimus is mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Colossians visiting the Church with Tychicus. An Onesimus is also mentioned by Ignatius a second century church father as being the bishop of Ephesus… But we don’t really know… it is open ended.
That invites us to step into the story and to ask the question how would we react? what we would do in this situation? If we were in Philemon’s shoes, how would we be constrained by the love and grace of God that we have experienced in Christ? Would we welcome this person who had wronged us as a brother in Christ?
It opens us up to find ourselves in Philemon’s shoes in our own life as well… How are we to respond to the situations and broken relationship we find ourselves in? When we are confronted by the way of love? How does the gospel invite us to respond when we are wronged? In our response how do we refresh the hearts of the believers around us?