Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 8, 2019
Philemon 1:1-21 Commentary
What a gift this little letter from Paul is to the church! Though all of Paul’s letters in the New Testament are about practical matters of life and faith, and though all of his guidance, advice, teachings and admonitions are rooted in a deeply Christological theology, none of the other letters quite show Paul’s personal theology and faith in action as this one to Philemon.
Consider the backstory. Philemon and Paul have a history: Philemon came to faith in Christ because of Paul’s ministry. Philemon has a slave named Onesimus and there appears to have been some sort of falling out between master and servant. It isn’t clear what happened, just that Onesimus left (either he ran away because he made some sort of mistake and/or stole from his master, or he ran away because he was being mistreated by Philemon). Eventually Onesimus ended up at Paul’s doorstep. Like he did for Philemon, Paul leads Onesimus to faith, describing himself in the letter as Onesimus’s “father” and Onesimus as “my child”. Now, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter in hand, in order to live out his role in the gospel’s call to reconciliation, hoping that Philemon will do the same. Furthermore, this letter is written and sent in very close proximity to the letter known to us as Colossians. Philemon is a member of that faith community, and though the little letter is addressed to him and a couple of other people by name, the phrasing and grammar at the beginning and the end of this letter show that it was meant to be read aloud to the entire house church. In other words, the decision on what to do was Philemon’s, but it would be made in public in a space where Paul’s other letter was echoing in the people’s minds.
What would they have heard in the letter to the Colossae church? Two of the major themes of Colossians is that “all things hold together in [Christ]” (Col 1.17) and that the gospel is reconciliation as Jesus does that work for us with God, and as Jesus establishes a new family of equals: “there is no longer Greek or Jew… slave or free… but Christ is all and in all!” (Col 3.11) As evidenced in Paul’s pleas about Onesimus, these are the exact theological themes that he is trying to practice and invite Onesimus and Philemon to live as well.
Paul sees that now that Onesimus has come to faith, Jesus has ushered Onesimus into the family of faith and made him a brother—an equal! Paul believes that this changed status in Christ ought to be reflected in their community and relationships. Though Onesimus is Philemon’s slave and Philemon is his master, the basis of their relationship is now their shared sonship. We modern readers may wish that this would have led Paul to be bolder (as he claims he could do with his instructions to Philemon in verse 8) and command Philemon to free Onesimus from servitude, but we need to appreciate how radical Paul’s words are—he is upsetting the social order by claiming that a slave could, in any way, be an equal with a master. Furthermore, Paul’s appeal on the basis of love, his description of Onesimus as “beloved brother”, even his sort of who knows? statement in verse 16—that maybe this situation all happened so that Onesimus might join the “forever” family of God—really is radical and transforming.
To underscore this, Paul hints that he could use his position of authority and power as well as his role as the one who Philemon owes his own knowledge of salvation to, but Paul says that he won’t do that. In fact, Paul doesn’t refer to himself as an apostle at all—which is a key way he identifies himself in his other letters. Instead, Paul says that he appeals to love and the faith that is working itself out daily in their community, and Paul refers to himself by his suffering as a prisoner and old man. By placing all of them, Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, on equal ground as brothers in Christ, Paul is urging Philemon to continue the ministry that he has started with Onesimus by not only having Philemon and the church welcome Onesimus back, but to do so as a family member, and therefore to be reconciled to one another. Philemon, as the Master, must choose that path or it will not happen.
Along with placing Onesimus in the family of faith as an equal, Paul follows the example of Christ and identifies with Onesimus and his difficult situation. Paul very clearly wants Philemon to see Paul when he sees Onesimus. “Welcome him as you would welcome me” he pleads in verse 17. Paul commands Philemon to put whatever financial cost he has incurred because of Onesimus on Paul’s account. Paul writes “I will repay it!” with his own handwriting to emphasize how passionately he is committed to standing with Onesimus in the work of reconciliation. Paul calls Onesimus “his very heart” and Philemon his “partner,” inviting them to be part of this particular manifestation of reconciliation. In her commentary on Colossians and Philemon in The Two Horizons series, Marianne Meye Thompson writes, “Paul follows his Lord’s example of self-giving love and identification with the weak and helpless, regardless of their guilt, or perhaps because of it! Who is to blame or who is at fault is not a primary concern for Paul: what matters is that the gospel can reconcile those at odds with each other, even if one has a rightful claim against the other.” Paul advocates for the person with less power in the relationship, the person who is likely at fault. He takes on the responsibility associated with their guilt, showing a willingness to join them in their suffering. (Though one could wonder how worse things could get for Paul… he’s already under house arrest!) And all of this is because “Christ is all and in all”! Christ is in Paul, Christ is in Onesimus, Christ is in Philemon, and that ought to show.
Just as Paul doesn’t emphasize his rights as an apostle, he doesn’t make his case on what should happen between Onesimus and Philemon based on Philemon’s rights as a master. He holds Philemon to a higher standard: obedience exhibited in love for God’s people and faithfulness to the Lord Jesus. Onesimus had a choice… he could have taken off and headed in the other direction as soon as Paul sent him on the road with the letter in hand. But, we assume, he didn’t. He committed himself to being reconciled as part of living his newfound faith and he showed up in Colossae, carrying letters and prayers that things could be made right and a new reality could be ushered in. Philemon, too, had a choice—albeit one that would be made very much in public. In all of this, the church in Colossae was given a real life opportunity to live out the teachings they have received from Paul and therefore from Christ. It was time to see what they really believed, beginning with Philemon.
Onesimus’ name is a play on the word “useful”. In the Greco-Roman world, this was a common name masters gave to their slaves—along with naming them after the cities where they were purchased or indentured. Paul uses Onesimus’s name and other versions of the word “useful” throughout his letter. In verse 11, he plays with the idea that by running away Onesimus became “useless” to Philemon, but by coming to faith Onesimus has become “useful” to both Paul and Philemon. Some scholars believe that the underlying request that Paul is making in this letter is that Philemon will be reconciled with Onesimus, free him, and send him back to serve Paul; this interpretation isn’t necessary for the playfulness with the word “useful” to hold its weight. In fact, what if an even greater argument about someone’s worth was being made here? What if Paul is emphasizing personhood in Christ as the thing that matters most about someone—not our rights to ownership or control over them? The temptation to interpret the use of the word “useful” as Paul wanting Onesimus back likely stems from the last play on the word found in verse 20 where Paul writes, “Let me have this benefit from you in the Lord!” (“Benefit” is the same word as Onesimus’s name!) “Refresh my heart in Christ.” But even here, what if Paul’s hopes for refreshment are in seeing his spiritual children growing and maturing in their faith? The moments in ministry that I feel my heart being refreshed are when I see the transforming work of God naturally show up in someone’s life. Paul’s hopes are that Christ will work in Philemon and the community to welcome someone who was estranged and likely disdained, as one who is loved, cherished, and enfolded with honour.
Point to Ponder
Reconciliation within the family of faith is a real need in our world today. Advocating and identifying with fellow brothers and sisters, even if they are guilty, continues to be a huge challenge for Christian communities. We still haven’t escaped arguments and justifications about rights, and we can easily fail to live to the higher standard of the cruciform Christ. In fact, we tend to outsource our advocacy and solidarity with the marginalized to frontline workers, non-profit groups, and those with more zeal, time and resources than we do.
In our current political climate, these questions about what’s right are rising to the forefront. Right now, for instance, what is the Christian response to immigration outside of the parameters of the law? What matters more: our citizenship and status, or our belonging to Christ? And does that mean we only stand in solidarity with professing Christians? Further, why does it seem easier for our North American churches to pray for the persecution of a brother or sister in faith in a house church in Asia than it is for us to receive and be reconciled with someone who has come to the country through illegal means?
Or what about a little closer to home? What of that business partner that you see each Sunday but haven’t spoken to since that falling out over a contract? What about the recently released convict who starts to attend your church? It’s quite easy to imagine the reasons Philemon would have been angry and downright reluctant to do the Christlike thing towards Onesimus. But, we are called to be people who live out of our reconciliation with the Godhead and seek to see the world, with all of its individual pieces and people, reconciled as well. Forgive… bear with one another… take off the old self and be clothed in the new… seek the things that are above—these are just some of the things that Paul wrote to the Colossians, these are just some of the words that describe what it takes for us to be reconciled with one another.
Rev. Doug Bratt is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2019.
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