So this letter we read this morning from Philemon is an interesting and potentially strange one to our modern ears. And I think that, if we tried to read it from the perspective of righteous judgment of modern people, we might in fact miss what’s really going on in the letter and why it ended up in our canon of Scriptures i.e. why it ended up in the bible to begin with.
So here we have Paul, along with Timothy, writing a letter from his jail cell, to another Christian, Philemon. Philemon is apparently a fairly wealthy Christian and who likely hosted at least a group of Christians in Colossae for worship and fellowship in his home. Paul gives thanks to Philemon for his ministry in Colossae, for his faithful proclamation of the gospel and perhaps for his leadership.
Then Paul makes a really specific request though. You see while the background is a bit fuzzy, Paul encountered Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, the latter of whom we are led to believe left Philemon likely without permission. At this point, Paul takes a stand and says, ‘listen Philemon’, I am going to make a specific request of you. I have the right to ask this of you, and you have the obligation, as a Christian, to fulfill this command. But rather than appeal to my authority or power here, I’m going to appeal to your mercy, to your charity and to your sense of love for others. So please, Philemon, Paul says, out of love, would you be willing to receive Onesimus back NOT as your slave, but rather as your brother in Jesus Christ.
That is, forgive him, do not count his fleeing from you against him. Do not punish him as you could do by the Roman law (a slave was subject to any punishment an owner saw fit to enact should that slave leave the owner without permission). Forgive him, Philemon. But not just that. Do not leave him in the place of a slave. He is no longer a slave to you, Philemon, there is not longer slave or free, gentile or Jew, male or female. In Jesus Christ, he is your brother, Philemon; in Jesus Christ he has been elevated from the position of slave, to a free man in Jesus Christ. If you were loved by Christ, forgiven by Christ, redeemed by Christ, and elevated from your status as a slave to sin; then would you not do the same for this son of God, who as a brother by the blood of Jesus Christ, is made your equal, would you not receive him as he is in God?
This is the claim that Paul has made: if you have been forgiven your sins and elevated to the status of a child of God, how will you treat your neighbor? Who is my neighbor? Is my slave my neighbor? Did not Jesus tell us a parable about precisely this just a few weeks ago? It is the one who comes near, who forgives, who binds up, who heals, who cares for, indeed, who loves, that is righteous before God. This is the new reality to which Paul is appealing when he speaks to Philemon.
Paul says: I would be very happy to keep Onesimus with me, but actually, I think it’s right to send him back to you, Philemon. And in fact, I think, Philemon, that you will find that Onesimus has gone from useless before his conversion, to being useful; that is, in his conversion to a child of God, Onesimus has been elevated so that his service as a mere slave to Philemon is surpassed by the equal witness that he can now join with Philemon in sharing with the people of Colossae. Paul here poses a question of Christian morality to Philemon: what is more important to you, Philemon? Receiving works of the flesh, recompense for an earthly wrong, or letting go of your claim to flesh and fleshly ownership and desires, and opening your home, your heart and your life, to God’s redemption in the form of a brother and colleague in witness to the Gospel?
We don’t get Philemon’s answer of course. Standing this side of the judgment table with the whole of Scripture unfolded for us in Jesus Christ, we’d hope, I’m sure, that Philemon would see the wisdom in Paul’s ‘gentle, yet, instructive’ moral question, and that Philemon would see the work of the grace of God in Onesimus’s conversion and would accept him back as a brother and fellow witness to God in Christ.
Lest we think this is a letter solely to Philemon, let’s put ourselves in his shoes: what about our own desires, our own possessions, our own inclinations, do we cling to? What ways of living or things we have, or things we do - things of the flesh - might we be tempted to covet, as if they are more important than our relationship to or our moral position before God? For that is what this letter is challenging us to think about I think. Surely it challenged Christians in the first centuries to think about the morality of owning slaves.
Do you know that slavery was actually almost eradicated by Christians by the Middle Ages? How unfortunate that the Philemon’s of the early modern period did not heed the lessons of this letter, and of the Scriptures as a hole, disastrously coveting the labor and flesh of those they could enslave, imprison, torture, and malign.
What harm did such a blight of Christian witness echo in Africa and Asia, in South, Central, and North America i.e. in the whole world? So my friends the moral question Paul poses to Philemon remains for us this day: having been forgiven your sins by being joined by Jesus Christ to become a child of God, will we let go of those things of the flesh – people, possessions, emotional reactions, ideologies, economic presumptions – that prevent us from recognizing Christ in others, and allowing their elevated status in Christ to be joined to our own witness? AMEN.