Philemon 1:8-22 (The Message version)
8-9 In line with all this I have a favor to ask of you. As Christ’s ambassador and now a prisoner for him, I wouldn’t hesitate to command this if I thought it necessary, but I’d rather make it a personal request.
10-14 While here in jail, I’ve fathered a child, so to speak. And here he is, hand-carrying this letter—Onesimus! He was useless to you before; now he’s useful to both of us. I’m sending him back to you, but it feels like I’m cutting off my right arm in doing so. I wanted in the worst way to keep him here as your stand-in to help out while I’m in jail for the Message. But I didn’t want to do anything behind your back, make you do a good deed that you hadn’t willingly agreed to.
15-16 Maybe it’s all for the best that you lost him for a while. You’re getting him back now for good—and no mere slave this time, but a true Christian brother! That’s what he was to me—he’ll be even more than that to you.
17-20 So if you still consider me a comrade-in-arms, welcome him back as you would me. If he damaged anything or owes you anything, chalk it up to my account. This is my personal signature—Paul—and I stand behind it. (I don’t need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?) Do me this big favor, friend. You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good.
21-22 I know you well enough to know you will. You’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written. And by the way, get a room ready for me. Because of your prayers, I fully expect to be your guest again.
We are almost finished with our Faces of Faith series. Next week will be our last one, Mary Magdalene and we will be on to Advent. But before we go, I thought this one was unique. Philemon is one book and one chapter. It is the only personal letter of Paul, that made the big cut, to be included in the Bible. The rest of Paul’s letters were written to start-up churches that he helped to create. This is a personal letter written to man named Philemon who opened his home to Paul and his little band of men that were preaching the gospel in an interesting time. Many believe that Philemon lived in Colossae because in the introduction to Colossians he mentions Onesimus the subject of today’s letter and Archippus, who is the son of Philemon named in the greeting of Philemon’s letter.
Paul is in prison in Rome. He has been under house arrest and a man by the name of Onesimus shows up. Paul knew him from being in the home of Philemon. Onesimus was a slave of Philemon who was probably a fairly rich person. Onesimus was a run-away slave. He probably also stole from Philemon because how else would he get all the from Colossae to Rome as a slave without money. Yet, Paul is asking for a huge favor from Philemon. He wants him to take him back not as a slave but as a brother in Christ. There are many layers to this story so let’s see if we can unpack some of them.
Paul says that Onesimus was useless to Philemon before as a slave. Slaves were considered property, they had no value other than what you might be able to sell them for on the open market. The older they got, the less money you could make. In fact, it was customary at this time that if a slave reached the age of 30 most were given their freedom because they were no longer a viable source of labor and they were costing the owner more to have them around than if they just cut them loose.
Slaves out numbered the owners better than 3 to one and an uprising was always a concern. In order to keep the slaves in check they used fear and intimidation. Slaves who ran away were often branded on their foreheads, some lost half their foot and some were even crucified and left on the cross as a reminder to what would happen if they tried to get bolder than their station. The slave trade was big business and there were many hands who dipped into that financial pot. There was much to gain and lose in this business and if anything threatened this way of life the actions were swift and the repercussions grand.
Paul is making a very unusual request of his friend Philemon and Onesimus. From Philemon’s side of things, he is being asked to allow a runaway slave, and a thief, to be welcomed home. Paul also asks that Philemon treat him as a brother in Christ and no longer a slave. Paul promises to repay Philemon if there is any outstanding debt which we know there is and that in reality Paul is in jail and will not ever see them again. Philemon stands to lose much financially but also if he takes him back in this manner then he is going against the customs of the day. It is his duty as a slave owner to keep up his part in oppressing the chance of a revolt.
Onesimus is walking into a hornet’s nest. He has heard from the time he was a child what happens to run-aways. He has seen the men and women with brands on their faces. He has walked by the crosses of slaves left for the vultures and heard their screams of agony from the cross. The violence is all around him. He is being asked to trust that Paul’s sway with Philemon is so great and his love so pure that he will at least forgive him enough not to kill him. This entire story hinges on a new faith in Christ and forgiveness.
Can they trust one another enough to be reunited and allow the lessons they have learned about this man named Jesus of Nazareth to win the day? Paul uses the notion of Christ’s forgiveness as the means by allowing Onesimus to return and to be freed. For that to happen Philemon must forgive Onesimus. Paul says, “I am sending him who is my very heart back to you.” Notice our art work for today. It is a poster that has symbols of love, the arrow, the lines of an EKG as a beating heart and then the tiny red heart in the lower right-hand corner, symbols of true love. It is going to take true love to reunite these two men. It is going to take a strong sense of forgiveness that will allow them to not literally want to kill each other.
True forgiveness is one of the hardest things we are called to do as Christians. Many of us fail at forgiving each other. When someone does something to us and we are hurt physically, emotionally, or spiritually we don’t forgive. For some people it is the very essence of who they are. The inability to forgive turns into a strong hate that fuels their very sense of being. I have seen anger and hate destroy friendships and families. I have seen it lead to the most awful fighting and disruption of life. In the quiet times it is the anger that keeps their hearts beating not love.
Paul reminds us that as Christians we are called to be forgiving. Jesus when he was on the cross prayed, Father forgive them for do not know what they are doing.” Those are not empty words. Jesus was asking that the very people who had brought him to his death be forgiven for killing him, the Son of God. The book of Acts also reflects when the disciples were imprisoned that they sang hymns and even though it was customary to beat the prisoners they forgave them when they were released from jail.
Yet, we are not that way very often. If we were asked who hurt us and how, the answer would be very poignant. We could tell the day time and place and exactly what was said no matter how long ago it was. This time of year we enter into the holidays and there is nothing like side-stepping the land mines known as family. There will be things said and done that will provoke us to the end of our ropes. We will talk about people behind their backs and ears will be burning from those conversations. The tradition of our time says to keep the hate and the hurt going. Don’t forgive them, talk about them and even cut them out of our lives. Yet, we are called to be better in Christ. We are called to open our hearts and to let God’s love shine through. It is a difficult task to forgive, but with God’s help nothing is impossible.
So, whatever happened to Onesimus and Philemon, we don’t know for sure. But there is some thought that according to William Barclay the Scottish New testament interpreter that it may have gone this way. “Fifty years from the time the letter was written Ignatius one of the great Christian martyrs, is being taken to execution from Antioch to Rome. As he goes, he writes letters—which will survive—to the churches of Asia minor. He stops at Smyrna and write to the Church at Ephesus, and in the first chapter of that letter, he has much to say about their wonderful bishop. And what is that bishop’s name? It is Onesimus…It may well be that the runaway slave had become with the passing years the great bishop or Ephesus.”
When we forgive someone, we never know how God will use that love. But rest assured that love will never be forgotten. Open your hearts and forgive. Open your hearts and share your love. It is risky, and it will hurt at times, but the rewards are endless. Amen.