September 4, 2016 by Worship, Community, Formation
Paul’s letter to Philemon is a hidden treasure; and the real gift is the mysterious figure of Onesimus.
I discovered at the end of today’s service that no-one at St All’s could remember hearing a sermon on St Paul’s letter to Philemon. It’s an incredible opportunity for a preacher, if they know it.
First a bit of context. There are t hree people central to this story. We know Paul – an old man in prison by this point. Philemon, a well-to do man with his own household, is the recipient of this letter. Probably Paul brought Philemon (Phil 19) and perhaps his whole household to faith. Onesimus is the third man in the story. He was once a house-slave of Philemon, and has either run away from slavery, perhaps inspired by the incredible message of the freedom of the gospel; or has been ‘lent’ to Paul and yet somehow stayed far longer than he should have with this teacher.
While the circumstances are hazy, Paul’s letter is not. It is probably carried by Onesimus as he returns from Paul to his owner, Philemon; and its message is clear:
Here is your slave. The choice is yours, but I would like you to release him from his slavery and regard him from now on as a brother in this new faith in which we live.
It seems staggering now that this letter was once used as a defence of slave-owning. Now when we read it, it seems obvious that every line of the letter carries Paul’s urgent desire that Philemon should not only receive back his one-time house slave Onesimus, but should also release him from whatever power of bondage Philemon has over him. If you doubt that, read the letter aloud, hamming it up as much as possible, gushing where Paul gushes and wheedling where Paul wheedles. You’ll see just how much emotional pressure Paul is putting on this particular church leader.
That Paul has spent time with Philemon is plain from the letter: he knows exactly which buttons he should press. He also seems to think that winning Philemon over is not a foregone conclusion. He starts by building up Philemon as much as possible, praising his virtues in the hopes that Philemon will live up to his Christian calling. Onesimus is the true subject of the letter, but before he is even mentioned, we have heard what a great evangelist and guardian of the community Philemon is – and Paul tells Philemon that he has even been an inspiration to the apostle himself. Then he really lays the emotional pressure on:
- I [appeal to you] as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. (v.9)
- I am sending him, who is my own heart, back to you (v.12)
- I say nothing about you owing me even your own self (v.19 – note that by saying ‘nothing’ Paul says quite a lot!)
The letter is written to Philemon but is addressed to the whole of the little house church (v.2), which means that Philemon has to have it read it aloud. In this way, both the praise and the pressure is amplified, and Philemon is forced into a position where he has to make his decision in public.
And finally there is the invitation: ‘prepare a guest room for me’ (v.22). Translation: I AM COMING TO CHECK UP ON YOU. He’s probably not, in fact, and the verse makes it clear that there’s no guarantee, but Paul just sows that idea in Philemon’s mind, nonetheless.
What does this mean? Why is Paul pulling out all the stops? Three things are happening.
- The situation is by uncertain
- There are big stakes at play
- Paul feels very responsible
Paul doesn’t know whether his letter will have its desired effect. We infer that Philemon could be frustrated or angry about Onesimus’ absence. Perhaps Paul and Onesimus have heard something that suggests this is the case. Onesimus being with Paul might be causing Philemon to resent Paul, too, and so the little church, founded on Paul’s evangelism, could be at risk itself.
The cost of Onesimus’ return is potentially very costly. At the very least Philemon must have the power to make the rest of Onesimus’ life a misery, and possibly he has the power of life or death over him. If Philemon feels he has been embarrassed in front of his neighbours (‘Ooooh, that Philemon, he can’t manage his household now he’s a Christian: he can’t even stop his slaves running away’) then he may feel bound to mete out retribution in order to maintain order. The impact on Onesimus, on Philemon himself, and the rest of the church could be disastrous. Paul preaches in Galatians that in Christ there is no slave or freeman, but where the law says otherwise, people have to decide for themselves whether to live out the gospel or not. There is an immediate risk to Onesimus, but also to the fidelity and future of the good news itself.
So Paul feels responsible, not just to Philemon and to Onesimus, but to the church here and probably to communities nearby who will hear about this. Paul is concerned that this community meets the challenge that now faces it: not to restore itself to order, but to be transformed according to the image of Jesus Christ, in whom there is, as Paul says in Galatians, ‘no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female’ (Gal 3.28)
So it’s back to slavery for Onesimus. And it’s here that the letter has been regarded with disappointment by many. T David Curp describes Philemon as:
…both touching and frustrating – according to tradition, Philemon did free Onesimus, and both were eventually recognized as saints by the Church. From our perspective, it seems that Paul missed an opportunity to attack the institution of slavery openly. Given that the Church received Philemon as inspired Scripture, Paul’s ambiguity effectively blocked the early Fathers of the Church from denouncing slavery outright. St. John Chrysostom, in his sermon on Philemon, considers Paul’s sending Onesimus back to his master a sign that slavery should not be abolished.
For many people, life would have been so much easier if Paul had simply laid down the law at this stage. But he didn’t: he wrote a letter of faith, instead of policy. A letter that asks us to live our religion for ourselves, instead of just following rules. Paul, who is so often called on by today’s church in the creation of rules, was not much less a man of spirit than was his saviour Jesus.
To unpick this, we must begin to think about Onesimus himself, the mysterious figure at the centre of this story. For while many of us look at Paul’s words and Philemon’s response, Onesimus has a voice too. Paul values him enormously: we should not think he is lying when he says he regards Onesimus as his own son. Paul is an old man, in prison: a faithful and loving attendant must be a powerful source of hope, inspiration and energy for him.
What do you think? When he writes the letter to Philemon and gives it into his hand, does he do so with silence, telling Onesimus it’s time to go home, and pushing him out of the door like a stray cat? Or does he discuss it with his ‘child’, his ‘own heart’? We have already seen from the letter that Paul is dealing with this as a human matter, a matter of faith, not of policy. So I imagine that Paul speaks carefully to Onesimus about the matter, trying to make sure that Onesimus understands the risks; and above all that Onesimus understands what is in the letter and how Paul hopes it will have the effect that he wants. I envisage Paul going over and over the consequences: ‘are you sure you’re up for this, Onesimus?’ And it’s easy to imagine that Onesimus believes his father in faith can do no wrong and fail in no enterprise, and can hardly even be bothered to listen as Paul plays out his anxieties. Onesimus is so illuminated by the phosphorescence of the incredible surge of Christian energy to which he has become so central, that any part in it would be just fine for him. And so he eagerly agrees, and takes up Paul’s letter.
But we can imagine even further. Perhaps this is not Paul’s idea at all. Perhaps it is Onesimus who suggests that it is time for him to return – after all, why would Paul want to do this thing? Perhaps having heard of the struggle in Philemon’s little community it is not Paul but Onesimus himself who realises that the only hope for that church’s faith to be healed is for him to take up his cross and return to slavery. As a Christian Philemon has learnt to be more concerned for the wellbeing of others than for himself: the Kingdom of Heaven. And so he turns to Paul to ask for permission to return. Onesimus is showing faith, hope and above all love for the family that long kept him as a slave: people he will know very well, but feel deeply ambiguous about. Paul is staggered, and scratches around for a response which will do justice to Onesimus’ faith. The letter he pens is faithful to Onesimus’ desire, and Paul, inspired by Onesimus’ example, can use his own God-given faith and talents to call Philemon to respond with the love that is the essence of his new-found faith.
Paul’s letter to Philemon then, could be his response to Onesimus’ faith, and his willingness to risk crucifixion as his saviour had. It’s a version that gives the slave all the power, that makes the least of these three men the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. A version that is entirely faithful to the Gospel.