“No Longer a Slave”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, 2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for 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 bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 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 both 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 be of service 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 forever, 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 my account. 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 say.
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 fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. (NRSV)
Paul’s letter to Philemon is one of the most personal texts in Christian scripture. And Paul addresses his letter not only to Philemon, but also to Philemon’s wife and their entire church community. After the traditional I love you greeting, Paul launches into a brief but compelling plea on behalf of Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus.
Having lived for a while in the anxious, quasi-freedom of escape, Onesimus has been, for whatever reason, arrested and jailed. And by whatever divine purpose or chance, he has found himself chained next to Paul, himself a prisoner. And Paul’s influence brings Onesimus into the Christian household as a full-fledged brother.
As a slave who has run away from his “owner,” Onesimus (whose name means Useful) has essentially shoplifted himself from Philemon. So, in the eyes of Roman law, he is simply an item of stolen merchandise—albeit one who lives, breathes, thinks, feels, loves, suffers, remembers, and hopes.
After meeting Paul, though, Onesimus now belongs to Jesus, the Galilean rabbi who, fairly recently, stirred up quite a fuss. For some, it was a hopeful fuss because Jesus talked about things like liberating captives and bringing justice to the oppressed. But that same message created a nervous fuss among Romans, temple leadership, slave owners, and anyone else who held tightly to oppressive power and wealth, because if Jesus’ teaching caught on, their comfortable privilege and control could end. So, the powerful did what came naturally to them: They vilified and killed the threat. They executed Jesus. End of story.
Only the story didn’t end. What happened two days after the execution has become the source of equal parts hope and fear—just like Jesus’ teachings themselves. Resurrection has drawn together those who trust Jesus and follow his ways of compassion, justice, and peace. But even some of these folks, like Philemon, still own and oppress other human beings. So, what good is all the excitement about Jesus if so many of his followers don’t really follow him?
As a self-described “prisoner for the gospel,” Paul discovered first-hand what it means to long for liberation and justice. After having persecuted Christians, his initial discovery, which began when he was struck blind on the road to Damascus, probably felt less than liberating. In time, though, his temporary blindness cured him of his spiritual blindness. And Paul’s ministry became all about helping others regain their Christ-eyes.
In his letter, Paul claims the moral authority to tell Philemon what to do. But Paul knows that, in this very personal, one-to-one relationship, if he makesPhilemon do something, he only creates a destructive, power-based relationship—not unlike master and slave.
Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave in 19th century America, said many things that were applicable to Philemon’s situation. They’re also applicable to our own nation’s continuing struggle with the devastating effects of the sins of slavery and racism. Two things Douglass said with which Paul would almost certainly agree are: “The white man’s happiness cannot be purchased by the black man’s misery;” and “No man can put a chain around the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened around his own neck.”1
With that in mind, I would paraphrase Paul’s letter this way: Philemon, my beloved brother, I have good news for you. Onesimus is one of us now. And he’s not one of us because of anything that he or I have done. He’s one of us because of what God has done and is doing in Christ. And that means he’s always been one of us. Even if you’ve treated him well, he’s never truly been yours. And he’s never been truly useful to you, only bound to you. So, I challenge you, of your own free will: Do the faithful and just thing. Do the Christ-like thing. Repent of your participation in oppression. Free Onesimus. Receive him as you would receive me. Receive him as a beloved brother, and discover what it means to be truly free yourself.
Imagine yourself in Philemon’s shoes. You’ve just read out loud, to the entire congregation, a letter from Paul. You look up from the page and into the wide-eyed expectation of everyone gathered in your own living room, a room that Onesimus probably helped to prepare for your worship services and to tidy up afterward. In this moment, his absence is a palpable presence that is far more Useful to you than ever before.
Paul has blindsided you with gospel truth. Through him, you have just heard Jesus ask, Philemon, why do you persecute me?
Paul’s challenge doesn’t stop there. By addressing his letter to the whole community, Paul isn’t just asking Philemon to free a slave. He uses both Philemon and Onesimus to call the whole congregation to the same liberating repentance.
The letter, then, challenges every reader to face the world’s rampant injustice and oppression—injustice and oppression that we can all too easily mistake for personal security or for God’s particular blessing on us. Paul opens a creation-sized can of worms when he challenges this one small house-church to act in love for one person. By challenging them to act for the sake of Onesimus, Paul invites every Christian and every church to enter more deeply, more boldly, and more compassionately into God’s household on earth.
To value our neighbors’ humanity as our own, to love others as we are loved by God, is to discover the fullness of our own true selves—the selves we are and are becoming in Christ, selves who do not shy away from liberating the oppressed, speaking up for the voiceless, and blessing those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and who are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed because they have committed themselves to Jesus’ way of love and justice. (Luke 6:20-22)
To be emancipated, by God’s amazing grace, into Beatitude living, IS what it means to be saved.
Another compelling aspect of Paul’s letter to Philemon is that we have no idea what Philemon does or what happens to Onesimus. We can’t know. And maybe that’s why this very personal letter is now scripture for us. We and every new generation of Christians gets to receive and answer Paul’s letter as if it were written specifically to us.
Today, in 2021, the Church looks up from this letter and into the eyes of an oppressed and oppressing world. How will we respond?
What are we going to do, not just to proclaim the liberation and justice of Jesus, but to demonstrate it in our time?
How are we going to help break down the walls that divide us from each another?
What will you do, today, tomorrow, and for the rest of your beloved life to seek and to welcome the Christ in everyone you meet?