Philemon and Onesimus

September 15, 2013
Philemon 1-25

Today we get to experience something quite extraordinary; a complete reading of a New Testament book. In fact, it is so unusual to hear from this book of the bible that I discovered sometimes seminary trained folks don’t even agree on its pronunciation. “I am preaching on FI-LEEmon next week,” I told my theologian friend. “Oh, you mean FiHLAHmon?” she asked. So, I have been checking around to see how one speaks about this obscure book of the bible, not just because PhiLEEmon is difficult to pronounce but because the content is so problematic.

Philemon is short; it doesn’t have chapters, just verses. It only takes a few minutes to read and yet the questions it raises could be puzzled for a life time. What were the creators of the canon thinking when they chose to include this short little letter written by Paul?  And it is considered an authentic letter of Paul.  Seven of the epistles attributed to Paul, Ephesians and Colossians among them, are considered by many scholars to be written later, by Paul’s followers. But Philemon is not in dispute; scholars agree that it is written by Paul.

The letter, like others in the bible, is named after the person to whom it is addressed – Philemon. We don’t know much about this man or his circumstances but it can be surmised that Philemon was a wealthy man in Colossae who hosted a house church in his home. He is clearly a friend of Paul and given his money and status, Philemon may also be one of Paul’s benefactors.

It’s hard to set the scene when we have so little information but the situation could be something like this: Wealthy Philemon and his household have many slaves; one of the favorites is Onesimus. (Onesimus, means “useful” in Greek; it was a common name for slaves.) Onesimus has been with Philemon’s household practically his whole young life and has always been trustworthy.

And then one day Onesimus disappears. He runs away – grabbing some money and other valuables on his way out. As a follower of Jesus and Paul, Philemon thinks of himself as someone who treats his slaves well. Why has Onesimus run away? Is he unhappy?  When has Philemon ever smiled and not received a smile back from Onesimus?

Several months pass with no word though of course Philemon has had people searching for his runaway slave. Now here comes Onesimus, walking right back into the house of Philemon with this letter, from Paul.

I introduce to you Paul, Philemon, Apphia (wife of Philemon) and Archippus, child of Philemon and Apphia.


Setting the Scene: Reader 2 – Paul on one side of stage as if writing the letter and the group of 3 others gathering together on the other side of the stage as if having just received the letter, reading it together…

Reader 1 (Philemon):  From Paul,

Reader 2 (Paul): a prisoner of Christ Jesus,

Reader 1: and Timothy our brother.

Reader 2: To Philemon,

Reader 1: our dear friend and co-worker,

Reader 2: to Apphia,

Reader 3 (Apphia): our sister,

Reader 2: to Archippus,

Reader 4 (Archippus): our companion in the struggle

Reader 2: and to the church that meets in your house:

All:  Grace and peace from Abba God and Our Savior Jesus Christ.

Reader 2: I always mention you in my prayers and thank God for you, because I hear of the love and faith you have for our Savior Jesus and for all the saints.

Reader 4: I pray that you’ll be active in sharing your faith, so that you’ll fully understand all the good things we’re able to do for the sake of Christ.

Reader 3: I find great joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

Reader 1: Therefore, though I feel I have every right in Christ to command you to do what ought to be done, I prefer to appeal in the name of love.

Reader 2: Yes, I Paul, do this as an old man and now a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I appeal to you for my child of whom I have become the parent during my imprisonment.

Reader 4: He has truly become Onesimus – “Useful” – for he who was formerly useless to you is now useful indeed both to you and to me.

Reader 3: It is he that I am sending to you – and that means I’m sending my heart!

Reader 1: I had wanted to keep him with me, that he might be of service to me in your place while I’m in prison for the Good News; but I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.

Reader 2: Perhaps he was separated from you for a while for this reason – that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave – a beloved brother, especially dear to me. And how much dearer he’ll be to you, since now you’ll know him both in the flesh and in Christ!

Reader 4: If you regard me as a partner, then, welcome Onesimus as you would me. If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me.

Reader 2: I, Paul, write this in my own hand: I agree to pay. And I won’t even mention that you owe me your very self!

Reader 3: You see, brother, I want to make you “useful” to me in Christ. Refresh my heart in Christ. I write with complete confidence of your obedience since I am sure you will do even more than I ask.

Reader 2: There is one more thing. Prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.

Reader 1: Epaphras, a prisoner with me in Christ Jesus, sends greetings. And so do my colleagues Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke.

All: May the grace of our Savior Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

You see why we don’t hear this letter too often? It is not without its problems – for those in slavery, for those who have slaves, for a housechurch that is trying to live by the new values set by Jesus. Why is Paul sending a man who safely escaped slavery right back into the situation? What does this say about those who hold power and those who are deemed powerless? That this letter is written to and from those who hold the power is quite clear; Onesimus has no voice at all. All we know is that that he was a slave, he became useful to Paul in his ministry and now Paul is sending him back to his former slave owner.

Maybe for Paul it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. Paul seems to thrive in hardship, he has been in prison in the past, is currently in prison. But for Onesimus? Why is he even willing to go back, carrying this letter? He has new work, real life-affirming work – helping Paul with his ministry. Why would he risk going back?

Paul clearly loves Onesimus, regards him as his own son now that he has become a follower of Jesus. Paul would rather that Onesimus stay and help him out while he is in prison but for some reason he sends him back to Philemon. And though Onesimus may have created quite a list of debts when he ran away, Paul speaks the same words as the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable. “If anything is owed, let me know, I will pay.” But really, from prison? How can Paul even begin to pay what may be owed?

Paul says he could use his great authority to make this appeal to Philemon, he could but he doesn’t, he appeals to Philemon’s heart, to Philemon’s sense of family now that he is a follower of Jesus. They are all brothers now, Philemon, Paul and Onesimus, brothers in Christ.

Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with the hope that Philemon will free Onesimus and make him a member of the household, but we do not get the idea that Paul is trying to overthrow slavery in all the housechurches. His appeal is only to this one slave owner, for this one slave. There is not even mention of other slaves in Philemon’s household being freed, just this one man who has become a Jesus follower like his former master.

There is no indication that Paul is trying to change an oppressive system of slavery, just that he is trying to get the Christians to live together (as he says in Galatians) without the categories that they are so accustomed to: slave and free, Jew and gentile, male and female. When they are all in Christ, when they are all following the Jesus way, these categories break down. Paul might even say, when they are prisoners for Jesus, slaves for Christ, then these categories are null and void.

So while it is a risk for Onesimus to go back to Philemon, not knowing whether he is returning as a slave or as a “brother,” it is also risky for Philemon to accept Onesimus back – as a brother. What kind of precedent is this setting? How will the wealthy slave owner now be seen in the community, in the church? Will the rest of his slaves also run off to Paul, so they can be returned as sisters and brothers? What will this mean financially?

What about the other members of Philemon’s family? Are they glad to have Onesimus back? Will they also do what Paul asks, what Paul assumes they will do out of love for Paul and for Christ? Will Apphia and Archippus also have to make this transition to treating Onesimus as a brother in Christ instead of a useful slave? Though Paul has not asked them to treat their other slaves differently, will new respect for Onesimus mean a change in how all the slaves are treated? Perhaps the dynamics in the whole household will change.

Maybe part of what makes us uneasy about this letter to Philemon is that we don’t really know how Philemon responds to Paul’s request. Paul is polite, effusive even, sending blessings to Philemon and his housechurch but we don’t know how the story ends.

So –  might Paul’s method have contemporary applications? When there is an imbalance of power should we lovingly suggest to the one who holds power that it is their Christian duty to welcome back the subordinate as an equal, as a sister or brother in Christ?

That approach has been used by the church all too often, sending the powerless back to the one with power with no assurances that things have changed. In the past the church has been more invested in the institution of marriage than in the well being of the one who has been abused. The church used to be more invested in the institution of slavery than in the individuals made in God’s image who were enslaved.

The only way I can understand this situation is to wonder if Onesimus no longer considers himself a slave of Philemon. Working with Paul for several months, perhaps even years, he has created a new identity for himself as a man responsible to Christ, not to Philemon. This new identity so empowers him that he has the courage to return, to try and make things right.

Perhaps because he knows that Philemon has also had this experience, a new identity in Christ, he carries not just Paul’s letter but a bit of hope that Philemon will do what Paul is asking. This new arrangement as brothers in Christ is not one that Onesimus can suggest and be taken seriously. But Paul, as a third party trusted by both aggrieved individuals, might be able to pull it off. Can Paul, writing not from the force of his authority but out of in love, help them all to meet in the middle, centered on their identity in Christ?

But can appealing to love work? Is it possible that a new identity in Christ changes things so much that people who have been hurt can be reconciled as family?

I confess I hope so, at least in one situation that has consumed much of my energy the past 10 years.  Ten years ago a conversation started with the conference about our membership practice. Some in conference didn’t like, and still don’t like, our reality, that we have LGBTQ members sharing in the life and work of the congregation.

After ten years of conversation, votes, backroom conversations with leaders from other parts of MC USA, personnel changes, articles in the press – do we dare, as a congregation under discipline, go back to the conference trusting that this time we will be treated with respect? How can we take the risk that this time things might be different, even though our Onesimus selves have only become more convinced that it is God at work among us and not Satan?

Last Sunday was the first meeting of the Reconciliation Discernment Committee. It is a group of 4 people from Hyattsville Mennonite, 4 people from Allegheny Conference, a facilitator and the conference minister, who is taking notes. Some might see risk for us, to enter conversations again, in the hope that this time there will be a different outcome.  But the risks are not only for our congregation this time. Others across the conference, perhaps across the larger church are also invested in how the conversation goes, how we treat each other, the creative outcome we may recommend. (I am pleased to report that so far conversation has been honest and respectful. We are off to a good start in building trust with each other. It is refreshing and a relief.)

We don’t know for sure how it all turned out for Onesimus and Philemon but commentator F. F. Bruce offers this suggestion: since the letter made it into the canon Philemon must have responded positively to Paul’s appeal. If Philemon had said no to this request for Onesimus’s freedom the letter would not have survived, Philemon would have made sure the letter was suppressed. (from “Philemon” by Cain Hope Felder in New Interpreter’s Commentary, p 903-904)  But the letter did survive, so somehow Philemon was able to embrace his new identity in Christ over that of being a slavemaster. Onesimus was able to embrace his new identity as a follower of Jesus and helper to Paul over being a slave.

And this is what has worked for me as well in our situation with the conference. Over the years I have gotten very clear that my identity is not in Allegheny Conference or even in MC USA but in Christ. I am a follower of Jesus, not church structures.

But really, I am not the one being wronged. It is not my body on the line; the bodies in question are those of my sisters and brothers who happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer. I hope I do not betray you by taking on this new identity. I do not want to impose anything on any of you. But my hope is that we can all take on this identity in Christ, so that we are not defined by what overpowers us but by what empowers us, the Spirit of Christ at work in the world.

May the grace of our Savior Jesus Christ empower us and be with your spirit.