Duet 30:15-20 | Psalm 1| Philemon | Luke 14: 25-33
“For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, by the way of the ungodly shall perish.” FSHS
There was once a pastor named Phil who worked bi-vocationally as the manager of a Pizza Hut. He tried as best he could to be fair and kind to all of his employees, though due to the restrictions of cooperate policy he was never able to pay them much more than $8 an hour. One of his long time delivery drivers, Owen, was a vet from the Iraq War. He was mostly a good worker, but he had some PTSD from the war and sometimes would stay home and smoke to try to calm his nerves. As often happens, overtime marijuana just wasn’t enough. Owen started experimenting with some harder drugs and started missing more work.
Worried, Phil tried to reach out. He felt conflicted about his dual roles as a pastor and a manager, but the truth was, as far as Pizza Hut was concerned Owen’s problem was losing them time and money. Finally, one day when Owen came in 45 minutes late for his shift and clearly buzzed, Phil took him to the back room and explained that he would only have one more chance. If anything like this ever happened again not only would Owen lose his job, but Phil would be forced to give him a bad reference when he tried to look for a new one. You could be out of work for a long time, Owen, Phil warned him. No one wants to hire a druggy! Maybe Phil lost his temper a little, but Owen deserved it. Still coming off of a high, Owen cussed back at Phil, threatened him, and then grabbed the keys for the delivery car and drove off.
Several days later, the car was found abandoned in a sketchy part of town. The dash was gutted and Owen was no where to be found. A few months later, Phil heard a rumor at Pizza Hut that Owen had been arrested for stealing and was doing time in a prison about a hundred miles away. Exasperated and disappointed, Phil shook his head. Well, I guess he got what he deserved, he thought to himself.
A year went by and Phil’s bitterness towards Owen was slowly forgotten. Then one day Phil got an email out of the blue from his old mentor Scott. “Hey, Phil, I’m doing prison ministry now and I’d like to send someone to go speak to your church about the work we are doing. Would that be okay?” “Sometime in the next few weeks,” was all the answer he received.
A few weeks went by and then one Sunday as Phil was walking up the pulpit up came Owen! He looked different somehow. His eyes were clear, though tears pricked at their edges and his hands shook a bit.
He stood up at a microphone and began to speak. “Phil, I lied to you, stole from Pizza Hut, and ultimately put your job in jeopardy. I want you to know that I’m sorry. I stand before you today a different kind of man. In prison I meant this pastor named Scott. I guess you know him. He wrote this letter and asked me to read it to you in front of your whole congregation.” And so the letter began: “Hey, Phil, Grace and peace to you in our Lord Jesus Christ. Owen here became a Christian through my prison ministry, please forgive him and greet him as a brother. Also, would you mind writing a letter so he could get a job at the Pizza Hut over here? I’d like to have him stay around and help me, but he needs some work.”
This kind of public request is basically the scenario in Paul’s letter to Philemon that we just read this morning, only a few modern flares. Of course in Paul’s letter and connect the stakes are even higher. Onesimus was a slave not a Pizza Hut Delivery guy and Philemon was, apparently a slave owner, not just a Pizza Manager. The back story to Paul’s letter to Philemon seems to be something like this: A desperate, young man breaks the law by running away from his master to try to find freedom. He heads to Rome where he hopes he won’t be recognized, but somehow the officials figure out he is a runaway slave and throw him in prison. There he meets an elderly Christian man named Paul who is imprisoned for telling people that a man Rome crucified was actually God and is, as it turns out, resurrected from the dead. Through Paul, Onesimus encounters Christ and soon becomes one of Paul’s main partners in sharing the Gospel within the prison. As they share life together, Paul eventually learns that Onesimus is actually a fugitive slave from the house of another of Paul’s disciples, Philemon. And now Paul has a dilemma. What does the law of Christ require in this situation?
To understand Paul’s response we need a little background. Ancient Roman law clearly stated that anyone who harbored an escaped slave was punishable even sometimes by death. And yet, as Paul wrote again and again during this very same time of his imprisonment, in the law of Christ there is no slave or free. The Christian message that through baptism all people are adopted as co-heirs with Christ and sons of God entirely undercuts the notion one person can, as Aristotle put it, be a living household tool of another. The two laws were in tension with one another. And yet, despite this clear tension, throughout the New Testament, Paul never explicitly orders masters to free all of their slaves. Nor does Paul advocate slave revolt. He simply tells Masters and Salves to serve one another.
Scholars argue about why, despite his radical ethic of equality in Christ, Paul does not stand up directly to the institution of slavery. Some argue it is because slavery was simply so normal, much like Indiana’s untenable and yet unchanging $7.25 minimum wage, that Paul may not have thought of it as the kind of thing that could be changed. Though he encouraged slaves to pursue their freedom when possible, perhaps Paul simply couldn’t imagine a world in which people did not have slaves. Other scholars argue that Paul avoided outrightly condemning slavery to protect the lives of people in the small, and relatively politically powerless Christian movement, including the slaves. Much like Pope Francis recently encouraging Catholics in Morocco not to evangelize through words, lest they be killed by their Muslim neighbors, Paul may have feared Roman retaliation against the Christian movement if he stood up to the practice of slavery. Not long before Paul was writing his letters, the Romans had tracked down and publicly crucified 1000 revolting slaves in nearby Spartacus. The price of having the Christian faith viewed as an anti-slavery movement at that period could have been catastrophic. I suspect the truth was somewhere in between those two things. At yet, as we see in the Letter to Philemon, while not outrightly calling for abolition, Paul seemed to get involved in the lives of disciples stuck in slavery by asking Christian masters to chose the law of Christ over the law of Rome, a principle that would lead later Christians to oppose the institution altogether.
For Paul, it wasn’t as simple as just sending Onesimus on his way. If Onesimus was actually in prison for having escaped his master, as part of his punishment, the Romans may have branded him with the letters FVG for fugitivus. With those letters possibly on his face, even after leaving prison Onesimus would be doomed to a life of unemployable ridicule. He would never be a Roman citizen and few people would hire a runaway. It was much like having a felony on your record in today’s society. The chance to become a destitute homeless person were pretty high.
I’m sure all of these considerations ran through Paul’s mind as he considered how to assist his dear brother Onesimus. Paul says that he would prefer to keep Onesimus with him, since Onesimus had proved such a great help in sharing the Gospel. Perhaps, Paul considered finding Onesimus some harbor with the Christian community in Rome. That way Onesimus could continue to help him and the Christian community could help meet his needs. But taking that option would mean keeping the secret of Onesimus from Philemon. Ultimately, Paul decides that will not work. The law of Christ, which is truth and self-giving love, compel him to bring the situation out into the open. No longer could Philemon regard Onesimus as simply a runaway slave, now he was a brother in Christ. No longer could Onesimus regard Philemon has his former Master, now they were eternally bound together in the Lord.
Still there was a significant risk. While the law of Christ is love and truth and mercy, Paul is wise enough to know that even church leaders sometimes fail to fulfill the law of Christ and instead fall back on the laws of the world. Suppose, Philemon chose the law of Rome over the law of Christ? Onesimus could be whipped, beaten or even killed.
So Paul decides not to issue his request to Philemon privately. Rather his letter will be read in one of the court rooms of the kingdom of God: the church. Ultimately the problems with both keeping a secret from Philemon and with failing to secure the freedom necessary for Onesimus to carry out his ministry are spiritual. Christian community requires unity to God and others and total obedience to the rule of Christ. In order for the community to have the kind of unity necessary for communion, there needs to be total trust between members. If Philemon finds out Paul is secretly harboring his runaway slave that trust would break down. Likewise, in order for the community to reflect the love of Christ there had to be a new way of dealing with one another apart from the harsh laws of the world. If Philemon refused to forgive and pardon Onesimus, if he refused to recognize him as a brother in Christ and bestow on him the honor and dignity already given to him by the Lord, the fabric of the entire church would start to unravel. On a spiritual and social level the members of the church would no longer be one in Christ. The division and mistrusts of the world would creep in. Furthermore, since Onesimus was clearly being used by the Holy Spirit to further the evangelistic work being done Paul, Philemon’s potential refusal to release Onesimus would result in the quenching of the Holy Spirit, which again would be a great detriment to the whole church. If Rome assigned Onesimus the role of slave, Christ was assigning him the role of pastor and evangelist. To whom ultimately was Philemon allegiant? Would he stand in the way of God’s call on the life of his brother in Christ?
Since the question of Onesimus’s pardon involved the entire community, it is, dramatically, in front of the entire community that Paul makes his request. The letter is not addressed only to Philemon, but to several other church leaders and the “church in your house.”
Later, Christianity would grow more powerful. Later there would be so-called Christian nations. Later figures like Fredrick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, William Wilberforce, and Martin Luther King Jr. would also write public letters to the whole church concerning slavery and racism. In those later times the letters would call for changes to the laws and policies of the lands in which they lived. However, in Paul’s moment, the aim is a little smaller. He cannot imagine overturning the entire structure of the Roman Empire. But he can imagine small communities of believers that demonstrate another kind of kingdom. And so he puts forth what he believes is necessary for continued and true Christian fellowship in Philemon’s church and sends Onesimus in person to deliver and perhaps even read his letter to the whole church, praying that through the discernment and witness of the entire community, the Holy Spirit would guide Philemon towards the law of Christ.
Paul begins his letter by reminding Philemon of the depth of spiritual fellowship between them. It’s a deeply personal letter, that despite being read to the whole church aims directly at Philemon. “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers… For I have derived much joy and comfort form your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.”
Then Paul gets down to the point. “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you.” Paul has spiritual authority over Philemon. However, even at this early stage in the life of the church he recognizes that compelling Philemon to obey him is not conducive to the kind of loving fellowship of those who are in Christ. So instead, Paul, reminding Philemon that he is even as he writes an old man who has been imprisoned by the Roman Empire because preaching Christ, makes an appeal. The word appeal there has the sense in Greek of making a request of a judge. Rather than placing himself in the seat of spiritual judgement, Paul asks Philemon to take the place of judge and humbly acts only as a kind of advocate on Onesimus’s behalf.
He writes, “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in imprisonment…. I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.” Just as Paul loves Philemon, so he also loves Onesimus and it is for the sake of that love that he makes his request. “I would be very glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that you goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.” Here, Paul reveals the heart of his decision to send Onesimus back before Philemon. For the sake of love he wants to give Philemon the opportunity to give away his Roman rights over Onesimus and thus receive the spiritual benefit of obedience to Christ. But there is more. By receiving Onesimus no longer as a slave, Philemon now has the opportunity to receive him as a brother! There is a gift in obeying the law of Christ, and Paul will not keep it from Philemon.
Then Paul takes the bonds of fellowship to an even deeper level, writing, “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.” Paul was one of the principal founders of Christianity, a Roman Citizen and a highly respected leader. And yet, in his mind, because of Christ Jesus the treatment of Onesimus and the treatment of himself are like one thing. He offers to pay for anything Onesimus owes to Philemon and then finishes by picking up some language from earlier in the letter: “Yes, brother, I want some benefit form you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.”
Just as Philemon has refreshed the saints throughout his life as a Christian, so now Paul asks him to refresh his own heart in Christ by responding with godly love to Onesimus.
And so there Onesimus stood in front of Philemon. In front of the entire church, and perhaps all the slaves in Philemon’s service. What would it be? Would Philemon chose the law of Christ or the law of Rome? To chose the law of Christ in this instance would come at a great cost. Perhaps all of Philemon’s slaves would begin to expect their freedom. Onesimus would be “getting away” with stealing Philemon’s “property,” namely himself. But to chose the law of Rome would mean cutting off the fellowship of Christ. It would be to denying the reality that God’s kingdom is greater than the kingdoms of earth. In the end, it would be to put his trust in mammon rather than the hope of the Resurrection.
And so then what happened? Did Paul’s public request produce mercy or only drive Philemon to anger? We do not know for sure, but we have a couple of clues. At the end of his Letter to the Colossians, probably written about the same time as Philemon, Paul mentions that: “I have sent…Onesimus our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” Some scholars believe that the Letter to the Colossians and the Letter to Philemon were actually both delivered at once. Others believe that the letter to the Colossians was written later and that its mention of Onesimus means that Philemon did indeed send him back to Paul as a beloved brother. Then later, Paul sent Onesimus back to Laodacia with a second letter.
Even more revealing however is the fact that the Letter to Philemon is included in the New Testament at all. Surely, Paul wrote many personal letters. Why keep this one alongside great works like Romans? One theory is that when the bishops of the early church were identifying which of Paul’s letters should be kept and handed down through the generations of the church, one of them had a special affection for this letter. And who would that bishop be? Why, an old pastor named… Onesimus of course.
About 40 years after Paul wrote to Philemon, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus on his way to his martyrdom. The letter goes on and on about their beloved bishop, Onesimus: Ignatius writes, “Since, therefore, I have received in God’s name your whole congregation in the person of Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love who is also your earthly bishop, I pray that you will love him in accordance with the standard set by Jesus Christ and that all of you will be like him. For blessed is the one who has who has graciously allowed you, worthy as you are, to have such a bishop” (1). Then a few sentences later he says of Onesimus, “For if I in a short time experienced such fellowship with your bishop, which as not merely human but spiritual, how much more do I congratulate you who are united with him, as the church is with Jesus Christ and as Jesus Christ is with the Father, so that all things may be harmonious in unity” (5).
The evidence suggests that the very Onesimus who once ran away from Philemon, was imprisoned with Paul, and branded by Rome as a fugitive, later became a bishop of profound wisdom and love. The clues reveal a story of the triumph of the law of Christ. Of course it is possible that Bishop Onesimus is someone else, but the time is right, and the place is right, and furthermore, Onesimus, which means useful, is the kind of name one would expect to be given to a man born into slavery. Moreover, from Ignatius’s letter, we gather that some in Ephesus refused to recognize the ministry of their bishop. Could it be that the branded FUV on their bishop’s head made it hard for them to accept his God-given authority? To these dissenters Ignatius writes: “Therefore whoever does not meet with the congregation thereby demonstrates his arrogance and has separated himself, for it is written: ‘God opposes the arrogant.’ Let us, therefore, be careful not to oppose the bishop, in order that we may be obedient to God” (6).
If we can trust the clues, it looks as though the central community of the churches in Ephesus and Laodacia chose the law of Christ and the fellowship that came with it. Because Paul and Onesimus took a risk and trusted Philemon and the rest of the church with the choice of love, and because love is what they chose, a refreshing spiritual fellowship ignited and grew among them. Sure there were some who refused the costs of this fellowship. Perhaps they were other slave owners who bristled to take spiritual instruction from a fugitive and feared the mentality of kingdom freedom would spread to their own slaves. Perhaps there have been two kinds of Christianity ever sense. But the true form of Christianity, the community that lives by the Law of Christ, choses the rules of fellowship over the rules of power and wealth. And Christ dwells within them.
I praise God that none of us in this room will ever need to ask a fellow Christian to pardon his runaway slave. Earlier generations of Christians have clarified this issue for the church. However, we may well have moments when we need to intervene on behalf of a brother or sister and ask someone in the church to reconcile to them. We may need to remind the church of law of Christ and risk ourselves and those we love as we do it. So too we may, like Philemon, find ourselves in the position of being asked to forgive others in the church who have wronged us. When we are, may we remember these two things from the example of this letter. First, that we as Christians are always called to chose the law of Christ over the laws of the world. And second, that often it is only in the context of the entire community of Christ that we have the strength, courage and resolve to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus into the way of forgiveness and love. May we guide one another towards the law of Christ and so have our hearts refreshed. Amen.