1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To our beloved coworker Philemon, 2 to our sister Apphia, to our fellow soldier Archippus, and to the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I thank my God always when I mention you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the partnership of your faith may become effective as you comprehend all the good that we share in Christ. 7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
8 For this reason, though I am more than bold enough in Christ to command you to do the right thing, 9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me so that he might minister to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for the long term, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
22 One thing more: prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my coworkers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
OK, so this letter probably for many of us gets filed under those miscellaneous letters at the back of the New Testament that you have to look up in your Bible’s Table of Contents because if you’re just flipping through the book to find it, chances are you’ll miss it altogether.
This is a personal letter from Paul to Philemon - where many of Paul’s letters are addressed to churches, this one in particular is written to an individual. Paul writes it while in prison - and scholars note that during this particular time he was imprisoned - because Paul gets thrown in prison a lot - this time, he’s not literally in a prison cell, bound in chains, begging guards for scraps of paper and pens to write his missives on - he’s probably under house arrest, meaning he can’t skip town - and he’s relying on friends sent to him by area churches to help keep him company, run his errands and do his food shopping during his house arrest.
Paul is writing to Philemon about Onesimus - we don’t really know why or how Onesimus came to be in Paul’s company -- perhaps Philemon had sent him to be with Paul, perhaps Onesimus was a runaway slave who had absconded with funds or other property of Philemon’s who made his way to Paul to have Paul plead on his behalf for freedom - the story really isn’t clear as to the circumstances that brought these two men together.
What we do know, however, is that there is a great love and affection and respect that Paul and Philemon share (I mean, the language in verses 4 - 7 is Paul laying it on a little thick, but the foundation is there). We know of the strong bond that developed between Paul and Onesimus, where Paul considers the relationship like that of parent and child in the faith, and we know that Onesiums had become useful to Paul (the word translated actually means “useful” or “beneficial.”)
Paul realizes that Onesimus is still in some way indebted to Philemon - perhaps estranged - and so in this letter, he appeals to him out of love to take Onesimus back and welcome him as a beloved brother in the Lord.
Now, as much as we might like for Paul to launch from here into a treatise on the evils of slavery, he doesn’t do that. There have been all kinds of arguments about why he doesn’t do this - he’s a product of his time, promoting the abolismhent of slavery would have been too radical for these early followers of the Way and the might of the Roman empire would have squashed them, any number of reasons.
Yet in this instance, Paul makes the appeal, based on an ethic of love over law, for Philemon to do the right thing and welcome Onesimus back in freedom, bound together by Christ.
Paul knows this is a difficult ask. In the Roman empire, to accept a runaway or delinquent slave back without payment or punishment or consequence was unheard of. To do so and accept him as a “beloved brother” -- Paul is asking Philemon to lay down a whole lot - his social standing, reputation, his buy in to the whole system of enslaving human beings -- and yet Paul still asks it for the sake of Christ. Paul knows and has seen the transforming love of God at work in Philemon’s life, and how Philemon has nurtured others in that same transforming love of God.
Paul doesn’t demand or compel. He doesn’t say, “this is what Jesus would want you to do.” Paul does, however, know that this ask has a cost - that Philemon has to give up a lot to welcome his slave back…not as a slave, but as an equal in Christ.
I love the line in verse 12 - “I am sending him, who is my very heart, back to you.”
And what I love about that line is not just the fondness that Paul has for Onesimus, clear as that may be. I feel the vulnerability of Paul expressing his care and concern for a person who may or may not be accepted into the full community by Philemon. Paul’s relationship with Onesimus was not based on his identity as a slave - Paul saw the whole person, and invites Philemon to do likewise.
What would it mean for us to encounter others in the same way - as whole people, siblings in Christ? What if we saw each person coming into worship, coming into Ladies Aid, coming into Bible Study - as someone beloved - God’s own heart - sent to us? And what might we have to lay down in order to make that happen?
This is the beauty - and the challenge - of life in community around Christ, of life in the church. Everything about us - our cultural norms, our wants and needs and expectations, our egos and agendas - are always weighed against the love of God made known in Jesus - and Jesus - while he may from time to time call out individuals, he’s always thinking about how our responsibility to one another gets played out in community…and it gets played out in ways that are completely upside down, right? The last shall be first. Power made perfect in weakness. The outcast is the insider. The measure of a community is always taken by how well the least among them are treated.
Which often times means - it’s a measure of how easily the powerful lay aside their wants, their goals, their expectations, their comforts…for the sake of the lowest and the least…and how well a community understands that church isn’t about getting your religious fill for an hour on a Sunday, but about living out a responsibility that we have in Christ to each other that lasts beyond the conclusion of a weekly service - because each of us - each of us - carries God’s own heart with us - and we receive each person as a gift from God sent to teach and mold and shape and transform us.
Philemon had to make a choice as to how to receive Onesimus. We don’t really know what happened. He could have rejected Paul’s appeal to receive him like a brother - or he could have let God’s spirit move in his heart to lay aside his privilege and social reputation and accept Onesimus as an equal. Tradition suggests the latter - especially as some streams of Christianity place this same Onesimus as eventually the bishop of Ephesus - but we don’t know this for certain.
But we always have that choice too - about how to receive others around us.
We get to decide to how to welcome each person we meet - those who society deems useless, those who get on our nerves, those who may not care for or be fed by the traditions that nurtured us, those who have sat in the same pew for 70 years, those want to dance in the aisle during hymns, those whose hands or bodies can’t stay still for an hour, those who speak other languages, who vote for other political candidates, who otherwise may disturb our perfect image of Christian community - all through whom God calls us to lay something within us down to see…and to serve…the beloved child of God before you. Because in Christ - we are bound together as family - and we stand up for and journey with each person so no one is alone.
Our next hymn is the servant song - it’s number 2222 in the black hymnals. As we stand and sing together this morning, I invite you to make it your prayer this day - that you might imagine someone - or someones - that God has placed on your heart - and may this be a prayer of laying aside your own needs for the sake of serving others who need to know that grace and love surround them in this community built around Christ. Let us stand and sing together.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.