Freedom for the Captives audio (5MB)
There's something quite different about reading this letter compared with all Paul's other letters. In all the others, even those addressed to individuals, the focus is on the Church where they're ministering. But here there's a much more personal feel to the correspondence. You can feel the warmth of Paul's feelings towards Philemon and probably his wife and son, Apphia and Archippus. Paul hadn't visited Colossae but it's likely that Philemon was in Ephesus at the same time as Paul and was converted there. It certainly sounds like Paul had spent time with them and he clearly wishes he could be with them enjoying their hospitality rather than being in Rome experiencing the emperor's.
But there's a much more serious reason for writing than booking the guest room. While he's been in Rome Paul has met up with a runaway slave named Onesimus. Onesimus has become a Christian under Paul's teaching and is beginning to turn his life around. In fact he's become one of Paul's carers, probably bringing him food and other supplies while he's in prison in Rome. But his presence with Paul raises an ethical dilemma. What should Paul do? Should he hand him over to the authorities as an escaped slave or should he keep quiet and just enjoy the support he provides.
Interestingly he doesn't raise the theological question of the rights and wrongs of slavery. This is one of those difficulties that face us when we read the New Testament with 2000 years of history behind us. Does Paul think slavery is OK or is there another reason for ignoring the question? We'll find the same question arising in a couple of months' time when we look at Ephesians 5 where Paul addresses husbands and wives within the context of a highly patriarchal culture. There, as here, he doesn't directly critique the cultural or societal norm, but he does lay the groundwork for those norms being reconsidered at a later date.
Here, in the context of an economy that's entirely dependent on slavery he chooses not to raise the question of whether it's right or wrong. In Galatians 3 he'll say quite clearly that there's no distinction as far as the gospel's concerned between slave or free but here he prefers to address the question by looking at the relationships involved.
He speaks with great care and tact, doesn't he? He begins by establishing his love and respect for Philemon. What he's about to suggest is a big ask. Not only did the economy rely entirely on slavery but the management of slaves required masters to be ruthless in dealing with any slaves who ran away. Without Paul's help Onesimus may well have been put to death or at least would have been severely flogged. But Paul wants the exact opposite outcome. So he speaks carefully. He reminds Philemon of their relationship. He's like a brother to him; his wife is like a sister.
And he prays that the sharing of his faith might become effective when he sees all the good that they might do for Christ (v6).
Notice that the crucial characteristic here is love (v7). He mentions love 2 or 3 times. You don't normally associate love with being mistreated do you? - unless there's some other psychological issue going on within a relationship of course. So if Philemon will treat Onesimus as someone he loves it'll make all the difference, won't it?
That's one of the lessons we need to learn when we're part of a church. Churches are great places for putting people together who don't naturally get on. We join because we love Christ but that doesn't mean we're naturally attracted to everyone else who's here. But if we can learn to love those we gather with, just because they too love Christ, then the church will function well. In Romans 13:10 Paul tells us that “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
So he says he could command him to do his duty, command him as an apostle that is, but he prefers to appeal to him on the basis of love.
Then Paul pulls out all the stops. He says he's appealing as an old man - an elder of course was held in high esteem in their world. But he also speaks as a prisoner of Christ. If Onesimus is a slave in the world, so too is Paul, except that his slavery is to Christ himself. But more than that, he's now become Onesimus' father.
He's saying there's been a fundamental shift in the relationship with Onesimus. Paul regularly uses this idea that, having shared the gospel with someone and that person having received Christ, they become for him like adopted sons and daughters. There's now a familial bond between them.
Can you see where he's going with this? He's already referred to Philemon and Apphia as his brother and sister and now he says Onesimus is his child. So Philemon's relationship with Onesimus has changed as well. He's at least a nephew, though Paul goes further than that and refers to him as Philemon's brother.
Then he does a little play on words. He says Onesimus was once useless but now he's useful. In the Greek it's just one letter that changes but the result is enormous. Now he's useful to both you and me, Paul says. It's not clear what Onesimus did, apart from running away. Maybe he stole something, or maybe he was sent to Rome on an errand and failed to do it, hiding away instead. But in any case he's now about to return in a totally different state of mind. He's spent the last period of time caring for Paul and now he returns to Philemon as a fellow believer and someone who will support his ministry in Colossae.
Notice how Paul puts this. He's sending him back not just as Philemon's slave but as Paul's own heart. Just in case Philemon was unclear what Paul thought about Onesimus he uses this rich phrase: “my own heart”. It's the sort of phrase you use for an only child or a spouse. Philemon couldn't help but read this and think, “If I do anything to Onesimus I'm doing it to Paul.” And that puts the situation into focus doesn't it?
A slave was thought of as not much more than a chattel, a piece of property to be used as the master wished. They had no rights. If they died on the job no-one would ask any questions.
But here Paul is putting himself in Onesimus' place; identifying so closely with him that he says “he carries my heart with him.”
But even that doesn't do justice to the new status that Onesimus has. So Paul goes further: he identifies Onesimus with Philemon. Do you see it there in v13: “I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel.” He says Onesimus has been acting as a substitute Philemon: as Philemon's agent; as though Philemon had sent him to serve Paul in his imprisonment. So Onesimus has in a sense been serving Philemon all along - by looking after Paul on his behalf. Now I'm not sure that's how Onesimus would have seen it and I'm quite sure Philemon wouldn't have thought of it like that, but Paul has a point. If Onesimus still belongs to Philemon then his service also comes from Philemon.
In fact that gives me a good idea, thinks Paul: “14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” Can you hear the hint in what he's saying? He seems to be suggesting that it would be good if Onesimus could continue to serve him once he's returned home. He's suggesting, oh so subtly, that Philemon might like to send him back again, or perhaps that when Paul comes to visit them he might be sent on with him when Paul move on to his next place.
And so we come to the point of the letter.
He says “15Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother (there's that love idea again) - especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
Paul isn't going to stop slavery, but he can change the dynamics of it in this case at least. He sends Onesimus back no longer as a slave - though of course legally he still is - but as a beloved brother. And that relationship isn't just a spiritual one brought about by their common faith. Onesimus is to be with him physically as a fellow worker, as a physical brother working side by side with him.
Have you ever had that experience when you've been doing some chore around the house, maybe gardening or painting, and it really is a chore? But then a friend comes along and gives you a hand and suddenly the work seems easier. It's the same hard work but the fact that you have someone who's with you giving you a hand makes it seem easier, more manageable. That's something of what Paul is saying here.
He's taking this new relationship of master and slave as fellow believers and radically redefining it? Previously the slave worked for the master doing whatever the master told him but now they work together as beloved brothers, as a team, irrespective of their legal status.
Clearly Paul's hoping that Philemon's perception will be radically changed when it comes to his dealings with Onesimus. He may not be able to abolish slavery but he can change the relationship between master and slave to the point where the slavery becomes less an issue, maybe even redundant.
By the way, notice that it isn't just Philemon who has to change. The assumption is that Onesimus has been so changed by his conversion that he'll be a willing and eager servant for his master once he returns, like the friend I just described who comes and willingly lends a hand.
Finally he asks Philemon to not just accept him back but to welcome him with open arms, the way he'd receive Paul if he came to visit.
Imagine Philemon reading this letter as Onesimus is standing there before him waiting for his judgement. I'd guess that as soon as he walked in Philemon would have had the guards grab him and now he's reading Paul's letter and he thinks to himself, “This man deserves to be punished. But Paul wants me to welcome him the way I'd welcome Paul himself. That's a big ask! Does that mean I should hold a feast in his honour?” Well, I wonder if he did.
In any case Paul understands eastern negotiating so he offers to cover any expenses that Onesimus has caused him. This is the sealer on his argument. Philemon can't complain about what Onesimus has cost him because Paul promises to cover it. And in any case Philemon's debt to Paul is far greater - he owes Paul his life - presumably because he heard the gospel from Paul.
All Paul is asking is that he might refresh Paul's heart by his treatment of Onesimus. Do you understand that idea? Do you get encouraged and lifted up when you see others living out the gospel, particularly when you've encouraged them to do so in the first place. I certainly understand that. It's a great joy to see other people's joy in the gospel.
Well, tradition has it that Onesimus went on to become bishop of Ephesus and that he was the reason this letter was preserved among the writings of the New Testament, so we assume that Paul's words had their desired effect.
But before we finish I think it would be good to reflect on a couple of theological principles we find in this short letter.
The first principle is the significance of grace for the believer. Philemon would have been quite within his rights to have Onesimus punished and maybe even put to death. But our experience of grace leads us to minister grace to others. We read last week in Titus 3 that all of us at times are caught up in unrighteousness and one of the ways that happens to us is that we become judgemental. We see other people doing the wrong thing and we think they need to be judged; someone should give them a good talking to, set them right. But wouldn't it be more Christlike to show them grace and forgiveness; to give them the benefit of the doubt; to allow them space to work out for themselves that their behaviour is wrong?
There are some sorts of behaviour that some Christians would say disqualify you for membership of the church. Jesus met one of these people one day in the streets. A woman was brought to him who'd been caught in the act of adultery. And do you remember what he said? Let those who are without sin cast the first stone. Now he didn't condone her sin. In fact he told her to stop it. But his primary approach was grace.
So too with the question of slavery: Paul gives Christians space to work out the implications of the gospel, including the implications of what he writes to Philemon. He fights evil by seeking to change the human heart and thereby change the world.
Secondly, have you noticed the parallel between the situation of Onesimus and Jesus' parable of the prodigal son? Paul's whole plea to Philemon is to act the way the loving Father acted in that parable: to welcome home the beloved son; to restore him to fellowship with the family. There will be, and have been, occasions when we'll be called to respond to wrongdoers the same way: to forgive their failures, to accept their repentance and to welcome them back into the family as those who have been redeemed by Christ. Again, the Loving Father's response is one entirely founded on grace. For us the imperative is even greater because we know that we too are here only because of God's enormous grace shown to us in Jesus Christ
May love and grace be the defining characteristic of this congregation for many years to come.