With just 335 words, you have to wonder why Philemon is in the New Testament. Like Ruth and Esther, there is little explicit theology, doctrine, and ethical discussion. Yet, like Ruth, Esther, Jonah, and Song of Solomon, Philemon may be an important book for just such a time as this – our time of racial division, rising violence aimed at persons of color, and Asian Americans as well as growing anti-Semitism.
We are in trouble as a nation – We need God’s healing touch. We need redemption and restoration, and Philemon can show us the way.
Have you ever accidentally opened someone else’s mail or read a text or email note not intended for you? Well, that’s the story of Philemon. We were probably never meant to read Paul’s letter to Philemon. It appears to be a personal letter, between Paul, a spiritual leader and mentor, and Philemon, a wealthy church leader who has studied under Paul. Paul is raising a sensitive issue, an issue that we often avoid, another’s ethics and the realities of inequality . In some ways, Paul is making “good trouble” for his friend. He is asking him to listen, wrestle with his conscience, and do something countercultural in the first century. He’s not demanding but he is counting on their relationship to change Philemon, whose name means “friend” or “beloved,” and also Onesimus, the “useful one” in Greek.
Onesimus is a runaway slave. We don’t know the reason but he flees the house of Philemon and finds himself in Paul’s company. In the first century, slavery was common. Though it was not race based as our American original sin of slavery, it was still dehumanizing and disempowering. Slaves had no rights and could be severely punished by their owners if they were caught running away.
Onesimus eventually lands in Paul’s company. Paul is also a slave: though he is Roman citizen, he is now a slave of the Roman legal system, under house arrest with no ability to travel or speak publicly. Onesimus grows in the faith and becomes bonded to Paul as helper and servant. Recognizing his legal status and his own relationship to Philemon, Paul has no choice but to reach out to Philemon, putting his case forward for Onesimus’ liberation.
Paul chooses not to be coercive but inspirational and invitational. By law, Paul says, Onesimus has no rights in relationship to you. But, as a child of God and member of the Christian community, you are equals – redeemed by God’s grace – and you need to redeem Onesimus!
We don’t know the outcome of Paul’s request to Onesimus. We can suspect that Onesimus and Philemon reconciled and that Onesimus was freed from the bonds of slavery. After all, the book made it into the bible. Perhaps, Philemon shared the letter with others, sought spiritual counsel from fellow Christians, recognized that equality before God means equality in society, and set Onesimus free. Perhaps, it was such an important story that it was passed on for generations in the Christian community, an example of what it means to follow Jesus and to break with social norms.
In those first few centuries, Christians like Philemon and Paul were countercultural. Christian communities cared for and provided burial services for outsiders and accompanied persons stricken with mortal illnesses. Christian communities broke down barriers of slave and free, Jew and Gentile, wealthy and poor, sinner and righteous. They stood out as places of welcome and reconciliation.
The great question as we read Philemon is what does this story means to us today? We don’t own slaves, and slavery has been abolished for 140 years, and here at South Church we are children of abolitionists.
I think this short book is as much about reconciliation and redemption as slavery. It is about healing the sins of the past, overcoming the racial and opportunity divide, and ensuring that everyone has an equal chance to live out the God’s vision for their life. Howard Thurman, one of my mentors, asserts that one of the tragedies of poverty, powerlessness, and racism is the deadening of children’s imagination, the clipping of spiritual and intellectual wings meant to soar to the heavens.
We need reconciliation. We need redemption from slavery, Jim Crow, voter suppression, and violence that has stifled the progress of millions of Americans. Paul tells Philemon, “slave lives matter.” If God loves Onesimus, you must as well. If God sees you and Onesimus as equals, you must also. If God has freed you from the power of sin, then you need to free Onesimus from the shackles that bind him.
We all need redemption. I’m not a slave owner nor were my parents. But as an American, I have benefitted from slavery and as a white American I have built- in privileges that are often outside the grasp of the majority of my African American siblings – not only economically but in the justice system. I didn’t have to have the “talk” with my son Matt about how to behave around police to avoid harm. Nor do we have to have that talk with James and Jack, now of an age to be at risk if they act too uppity around authority figures.
Redemption means recognizing pain, injustice, and harm, even if we aren’t directly at fault. Redemption means reconciliation and doing all we can be God’s companions in righting wrongs, healing wounds, and helping others experience the benefits we take for granted. It means fairness, advocating for equality with our political leaders, and when appropriate being a healing bystander – seeking justice personally for all people. It means reaching out beyond our comfort zone to listen and respond and embrace God’s presence in those who different from us.
Redemption is not just for the unjustly treated; it is about deepening our relationship with God. It’s about saving our own souls and the soul of our nation.
There is no “other.” There is no outsider. There is only Christ in all the wondrous diversity of life. See everyone as Christ, treat everyone as Christ. You are God’s hands and feet and make your whole life a prayer of healing.