Earlier in the summer, we worked our way through Paul’s letter to Galatians, each week taking a chapter at a time and really diving deep into Paul’s letter.
This week, not only do we have the opportunity to take a look at one chapter of another of Paul’s letter, we have the opportunity to consider an entire book (read: entire letter). Paul’s letter to Philemon is unique in the fact that it is Paul’s only private letter which we possess. Certainly, Paul wrote other personal letters; no doubt they were destroyed or lost over millennia. So, let’s dive into this unique letter (book) and consider the insight from this ancient letter.
Paul writes this letter to Philemon about a slave, whom he calls his “child”. His name is “Onesimus” and Paul says he has become his “father” during his imprisonment.
Onesimus, once a slave for Philemon, had become “useless” to Philemon and thus, Paul is “sending him back”. But, no longer a slave—rather—as a brother, a “beloved brother”. You need to remember here, that a slave was not a person. A slave was a tool. Albeit a living tool, but a tool nonetheless. Thus, a master had absolute power over his slaves. So whatever reason Philemon had in discarding Onesimus; Onesimus certain had no or little value to Philemon.
Yet, Paul is making a case that Onesimus, indeed, has value. Now Philemon must take him back, not has a slave, but as a Christian brother. Onesimus is Paul’s son and Philemon must receive him as Paul himself.
Consider the awkwardness the two men must have felt.
Philemon, the owner, welcoming back his discarded property, a slave. Conversely, a slave who must be welcomed no longer as property, but now in a relationship where both men are equals in Christ. Sure, Onesimus was a slave to Philemon, but now, no longer a slave but a free man.
If you live long enough, you will understand the difficulty of offering forgiveness when you have been wronged. It does not come easy, yet as believers, we have to recognize that our ability and willingness to offer forgiveness is the result of Christ’s saving work on the cross.
Because of that fact, forgiveness serves as a determining factor in who we say we are and how we hope to live our lives. When we do not forgive, bitterness takes root in our hearts and chokes the vitality out of us.
This is a significant learning for this letter: faith in Christ is not meant for us to escape our past- our short-comings, failures, and sin; but rather, our faith is to meant to help us face our past and rise above it.
Think of this letter with three “P’s” – Praise, Pleas, and a Promise. Think of it, not much has changed in terms of human relationship for thousands of years. At least in terms of asking others to consider our propositions.
Paul begins his appeal to Philemon by praising him because of his faithfulness towards God. He appeals to Philemon by telling him in verse 4 that he “thanks God always because of [Philemon’s] love for all the saints and faith towards Jesus.” Paul is praising Philemon because of his faithfulness. Here’s a little tid-bit that doesn’t come across in the English translation – the name Onesimus in Greek literally means “Profitable”. Whether this is a nickname or an original name, we can’t be sure, but Paul seems to be playing up the pun.
Paul starts his appeal by looking backward to offer complements to Philemon for which Philemon is to commended. Here’s wisdom for the world. We need to understand that Paul motivation to Philemon was love. So often, the world uses motives that are not pure, but Paul is offering, as a motive, love. His appeal is based on love and a hope that reconciliation can occur between a slave and an owner. Paul knows there was conflict in the relationship between the two parties. He acknowledges there is a wedge between them and wants to bring the past up, but in a way that they can move forward.
So, often, we have other motives when we make a request of people. If I walk to a car lot, I expect a sales person to make an appeal to me as his/her motive is to try to get me to buy a car. So much of the world’s appeal is economic. But Paul’s appeal is appealing here to something that cannot be bought. It’s a heart matter – the matter of reconciliation.
Here’s where the plea comes.
Beginning in verse 8 Paul pleas with Philemon to receive a brother in Christ, no longer a slave. This is something that must be freely given and freely accepted. There can be no strings to this reconciliation.
If we’ve done the hard work of confession our short comings with others, this second step should be a bit simpler. If we are sincere and our motives comes “from the heart” and the other person recognizing this feeling, the plea part SHOULD fall in place. Paul makes the claim again, “Onesimus was indeed useless to you, but he is useful now.”
The key to this plea is Christ. In Christ, the useless have value. The “other” is redeemed and beloved. Faith in Christ is not designed to produce useless, vague, and nebulous relationships with other sisters and brothers, but an inter-connectedness where all have value- all gifts are welcomed and needed. In Christ, we find our value is in service to the “other” especially to the poor and marginalized.
Finally, there comes The promise.
Certainly life is tricky and relationship are risky. We will hurt one another — intentionally or unintentionally. Paul’s letter to Philemon is calling us to look beyond the conflict and embrace each other as beloved sisters and brothers. Finding forgiveness in Christ, we are able to accept each united in love and mutual service.
In Christ, we are one body as there is no distinction between the members. The only thing that matters is that the body remains health to the call of Christ. We’ve all got work to do. Doesn’t matter what function you are in the body. Christ needs your gifts. Don’t hold them back, we will all be diminished without you. Christ’s promise is that he will take what we offer and use it for God’s purposes. Don’t hold back and don’t worry. Christ is the One who can reconcile the broken. Relationships, homes, families, communities and nations.
May we be received by each others as fellow sisters and brothers, we’re all on the road together. Might as well make the most of a long journey. Amen.