Every so often, a personal email is accidentally shared, or confidential communications between political figures become public and go viral. Reputations can be ruined or we can discover the intimacy of two close friends in a positive and life-affirming way.
We don’t know if the apostle Paul intended his letter to Philemon to be made public beyond the small circle of friends and family to which it was addressed. But, over two thousand years, this curious twenty-five verse letter, that you can read in less than five minutes has gone viral.
There’s an apparent conflict. Onesimus, one Philemon’s slaves, has left his employer’s service and found himself a visitor to Paul, who is living under house arrest. They become close friends, and Onesimus has become an essential aide to Paul in prison. But, Onesimus is a slave, and things must be put right in the Christian community, between Paul and Onesimus’ owner Philemon, and the slave Onesimus and his owner, a fellow member of the Christian community.
In a time in which slavery was normal and not race-based as it was in the United States, Paul is asking Philemon to do something countercultural. He’s asking him to go against the social order that’s given him prosperity and privilege. He’s asking him to choose a path, radically different than his well-off neighbors and business associates. He’s asking Philemon to set Onesimus free – to make the freedom of Christ real in his household and business relationships.
Perhaps Philemon, Onesimus and Paul know the story of another runaway: there once was a young man who asked his father for his inheritance, ran off to spend it on drugs, alcohol, partying, and promoscuity, and then wanted to come home, for he had nowhere else to go. Like Bob Dylan’s “Rolling Stone,” he went from riches to rags, social standing to homelessness, and self-assurance to addiction. As Dylan says, “all alone, a complete unknown, with no direction home, like a rolling stone.” But, with nothing, he sets off, to be slave or servant in his parents’ house, only to be overcome with emotion when his mother and father run out to greet him, and without conditions, clean him up and throw a party to celebrate his return.
Paul is asking Philemon to see the world and its social and economic distinctions from a new perspective. He’s asking Philemon to see the world as Christian first, and not a slaveowner or businessman. What God sees, we must see. What God loves, we must love, on earth as it is in heaven. A sibling in Christ, Onesimus can no longer be a slave, for before God, there are no slaves in God’s community. Indeed as Paul says in Galatians – “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slavenor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
We are one in Christ, unique, diverse, and yet all on the same standing. Today, I think Paul would challenge us to break down every division in our social order and call us to claim our identity in Jesus Christ – no white or black or brown, no citizen or non-citizen, no gay or straight, cisgender or transgender, comfortable or homeless. See only Christ. Treat all as Christ!
Philemon is presented with a challenge. Will he believe the good news? Will he believe that Jesus means freedom not just for the slave Onesimus but for himself? Will he recognize that all are pilgrims – rolling stones – and none are strangers?
Paul’s in prison, and his spirit is free. No Caesar can break his spirit, and he wants that freedom for everyone.
Two thousand years later, we read Paul’s personal mail. We don’t know Philemon’s response. But, the existence of this letter in the New Testament suggests that Philemon got the message. Onesimus, whose name means “useful” or “beneficial” returned to his Master, no longer a slave but a brother and as a brother, free, equal, and loved.
Paul’s letter is now addressed to us: we’ve got the message and need to respond. Will we see the world through God’s eyes? Will we reach out to the vulnerable in our congregation, forgetting no one, even when it’s inconvenient? Will we welcome the stranger? Will we see Christ in the homeless, the immigrant, in protesters from the left or the right, in those who are like us and those from another world? And, will we say “yes” to God’s good news, making our church a true sanctuary where all are pilgrims – seekers, on the way, growing in faith – and no one a stranger?