Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 4, 2022
Philemon 1:1-21 Commentary
A colleague recently told me that he sometimes feels like members of his church think of him as a UPS package that’s all wrapped up and labelled. Ironically, however, those members don’t agree on what his label says. My colleague says they variously think of him as too liberal or conservative, lenient or intolerant, modern or traditional.
But, of course, it’s not just pastors to whom Christians affix various labels. We label children as too shy or too outgoing. Our spouses are too attentive or not attentive enough. Our co-workers are too lazy or too competitive. Our neighbors are too neat or too sloppy. Our politicians are too partisan or not partisan enough.
As many scholars have noted, Philemon 1 is among the most challenging of all the RCL’s Epistolary Lessons to proclaim. It’s, after all, not just short; it’s also very personal. My colleague Scott Hoezee refers to it as “more of a memo than a full letter.” Philemon doesn’t seem to have much theological heft. Its author seems to at least passively endorse slavery.
But Philemon’s proclaimers who “rummage around” in it will find some vivid, if perhaps preaching material. They might choose to settle on Paul’s note that Onesimus is “no longer a slave, but better than a slave … a dear brother” (16). Proclaimers might explore with hearers the transformation that Paul desires Onesimus’ new baptismal status have on the way Philemon treats him.
Preachers who are more familiar with Philemon’s context than our hearers may wish to spend some time exploring what we know about its context. Most scholars agree that Onesimus had once been Paul’s close friend Philemon’s slave. They’d for some reason been separated (15). Some scholars think Philemon sent Onesimus to Paul to help care for the apostle during his imprisonment. Others suggest that Onesimus somehow ran away from his master Philemon, perhaps, as verse 18 at least suggests, because he’d stolen something from him.
In some ways, the exact cause of Onesimus’ separation from Philemon is relatively unimportant. After all, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson largely emphasizes the alienation between these two men. It also stresses Paul’s call to his friend Philemon to be reconciled to God’s newly adopted child in Christ, Onesimus.
Onesimus and Paul have, after all, become close. The former has become like a “useful” (11) “son” (10) to the apostle while he’s been imprisoned. It, in fact, seems that the Holy Spirit used Paul to bring Onesimus to a place where he received God’s grace with his faith in Jesus Christ. Onesimus has responded by helping Paul while he’s “in chains for the gospel” (13).
Proclaimers might at this point choose to review with hearers some of the labels people have affixed to Onesimus. It seems that Philemon once considered him “useless” (11). Onesimus has been “separated” (15) from Philemon. He may even have once been Paul’s friend’s “slave” (15). Verse 18 at least suggests that Philemon may even think of Onesimus as either a thief or someone who ran away to avoid repaying a loan.
This might open the way for preachers to explore the various labels Christians sometimes affix to each other. We might point to today’s derogatory terms like “woke” or “ignorant” that sometimes cover up labels like “fellow Christian” or “God’s dearly beloved child.”
Paul affixes to Onesimus a different label, a baptismal label that seems to be new. He’s no longer first of all somehow indebted or even indentured to Philemon. Onesimus is now a “dear brother” (16). While he’s become “dear” to Paul, he’s even dearer to Philemon. He’s, in fact, not just a valued person. Onesimus’ has become Philemon’s “brother in the Lord.”
We at least sense that Paul’s friend and brother in the Lord Philemon had earlier somehow lost sight of how God had created Onesimus in God’s image (cf. Genesis 1:27). He appears to have forgotten that God deeply loved Onesimus. This man had somehow shrunk in Philemon’s mind to little more than a useless kind of slave.
Philemon 1’s proclaimers might explore with our hearers how that sometimes happens to God’s adopted sons and daughters. We might ask what sorts of things reduce our perceptions of our fellow image-bearers of God to little more than label-bearers. Preachers might even share an example of how they once viewed someone as useless or even somehow indebted to them.
Paul pleads with Philemon to let Onesimus’ new status impact the way Philemon treats him. Because Onesimus is Paul’s (new) brother in Christ, he can lovingly (9) beg Philemon to treat him not some kind of useless slave, but as his own brother in Christ.
The apostle is, in fact, sending Onesimus back to his dear friend, not as a useless person, but as a fellow Christian. While Paul wishes to keep this adopted son in Christ with him for a while longer, he sends him back to Philemon. But not as a debtor or some kind of slave, but as a brother in Christ.
The apostle, in fact, begs Philemon to welcome (proslabou) Onesimus in the same way he’d once welcome his dear friend Paul. Not with arms crossed and legs braced. Not with hands in a “stop!” gesture or even with palms upturned in a “gimme!” signal. But with open arms. With the kind of embrace with which Philemon might welcome not a re-captured slave, but his own family member or closest friend.
New Testament scholar Eric Barreto suggests that Paul is “calling for a radical reorientation of the community’s understanding of Onesimus’ identity. He is no longer merely a cog in the machine of the household, no longer worthy because of the utility he provides for his master. Onesimus is now a beloved brother.”
Jesus’ 21st century followers wish that Paul had been more explicit in rejecting all forms of the kind of servitude that Onesimus endured at Philemon’s hand. But I wonder if the apostle’s focus on, for example, Onesimus’ manumission might have shrunk the breadth of his appeal to Philemon as well as Christ’s Church.
Did the Spirit inspire Paul to be somewhat vague about slavery in order to challenge his brothers and sisters in Christ to ask how our membership in God’s family affects all of our relationships? After all, the apostle’s contemporaries continued to be masters and slaves. There wasn’t much Paul could do about that societal scourge.
Along those lines, Christians continue to be both employers and employees, supervisors and those who are supervised. While at their best those relationships aren’t as degrading as those between masters and their slaves, there remains a kind of basic inequality within in them.
The book of Philemon’s inspired author doesn’t explicitly try to dismantle the inequalities that are so often so deeply rooted society. What he does offer, as Marianne Meye Thompson (Colossians & Philemon, Eerdmans, 2005) writes, “is a vision of a transformed community in Christ whose model of mutual love, unity and peace serves as a counter-testimony to the ways and mores of the political and social structures of the world. To some extent, then, Paul envisions a Christian community separated or distinct from the world – living by different standards, guided by different expectations, and with a web of new relationships.”
No one I’ve ever known endured more sexual abuse that I knew about than Mary*. By the time she’d graduated from high school, her father, two brothers, a neighbor and a man whose children she babysat had repeatedly assaulted her. Making things even worse, Mary’s mom knew about most of the abuse but did nothing about it.
I learned of Mary’s trauma shortly after her father was escorted into the afterlife by countless tributes to his outstanding character and life as a church man. She’d returned from his funeral where she’d broken down before his casket to a family and life that her abuse had horribly impacted.
Yet from the depths of her dark valley, God graciously began to raise Mary. God put into her life a patient husband and a wise Christian counselor. God slowly put the pieces of Mary’s life back together. God slowly empowered her to forgive her father and two brothers, only one of whom ever expressed even a hint of remorse at what he’d done to her.
Mary’s road to forgiveness had its ups and downs, as well as twists and turns. Her forgiveness was complicated. Yet by God’s grace, Mary’s forgiveness was at least partly rooted in her remembering that those who’d abused her were created in God’s image – no matter how horridly they’d blurred that likeness.
*not her real name
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