The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents 

Pentecost XVI: walking it home

​Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

​For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love-- and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother-- especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. 

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. 

 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. 

The Letter to Philemon is among the shortest books in The Holy Bible, containing 335 Greek words that the Church versified as 1 chapter of 25 verses. It is a book held by nearly universal agreement to be authentically Paul’s work. Paul’s reference to being imprisoned dates this letter toward the end of the Apostle’s life, circa 61CE. It survives as the only Pauline letter not addressing a theological controversy, being instead a personal note written in hopes of repairing the broken relationship between Onesimus, a newly baptized runaway slave, and his owner, the leader of a Colossae house Church named Philemon. Given Paul’s characteristically blunt style, The Letter to Philemon is atypically subtle and diplomatic.           

As a personal note rather than a theological treatise, the fact that The Letter to Philemon is in the scriptural canon suggests that the Church valued anything Paul had written simply because of its provenance, deeming his writings worthy of inclusion in the canon just because Paul wrote them. The Letter to Philemon survived, meaning that it had the desired persuasive effect. Correspondence that is treasured is kept; had Philemon been offended, there would have been no point in saving the letter, nor in the Church’s remembering a failed attempt at reconciliation by Paul even if Philemon had saved the letter. There’s nothing to suggest that Paul ever kept, much less circulated, file copies of his personal correspondence among the Churches, so it is a fair conjecture that Philemon or a member of his house Church at Colossae circulated the letter to the Churches at a later time. 

The circumstances prompting this letter are murky. What we know is that Onesimus had run away, and somehow found Paul. Beyond that we are not sure of very much. Is Paul actually incarcerated, or is he detained under house arrest? Is Paul at Caesarea Maritima? already at Rome? How would Onesimus have known where to go if in fact he left Colossae looking for Paul? We are not sure of Onesimus’ motive(s) for running away, though despising slavery is motive enough all on its own, and it is inferred that he may have taken money or property belonging to the household, or incurred a debt that had obligated the household. Paul makes provision for that possibility by remarking that “If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.”[1] 

During their time together we are given to understand that Onesimus comes to believe, and Paul baptizes him. Then, Paul sends Onesimus home. It’s not clear what influence Paul would have had to affect the release of a fellow prisoner, so it is far more likely that Onesimus served Paul while the Apostle was under house arrest, though Onesimus himself was not in custody. Whatever the specific circumstances, Paul did not disclose to his jailers that Onesimus was a runaway slave, since runaway slaves would be seized and taken home, expecting a bounty, rather than be free to travel without escort. 

Onesimus started home, and it is likely that he physically carried the original of The Letter to Philemon. There was no reason to hire a messenger when Onesimus was going there anyway, (and the letter’s appeal would have been rendered moot if Onesimus didn’t go home). By hand would be the quickest and surest way to guarantee that it would be delivered to Philemon personally, and carrying the letter himself would also ensure that Onesimus arrived at the same time as the letter making his case to Philemon. We know that Onesimus obeyed Paul simply because the letter exists. Onesimus must have been a man of character to make the journey home, since he could have disappeared anywhere along the way that he chose.  

These logical inferences create a scene freighted with feeling. Life as a fugitive was/is no life. Paul (and Onesimus?) knew that the only way Onesimus could have any kind of life was for him to get right with Philemon (and my guess is that Paul did not want to stay in the middle of a conversation into which he’d been drawn by Onesimus). Paul writes Philemon and asks that Onesimus be received back home- “welcome him as you would welcome me.”[2]

Paul does not justify any presumed theft, nor does he attempt to rationalize Onesimus’ running away. Paul does not use this as an opportunity to rail against prevailing attitudes on slavery.[3] Paul does not suggest that Philemon manumit Onesimus.[4] Paul instead emphasizes the new connection between Philemon and Onesimus- they are now both Christians. Paul bases the appeal on their shared faith rather than Roman law; he emphasizes his own relationship with his fellow Christian Philemon to make the case for mercy and reconciliation: “ longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother-- especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”[5] 

Paul knows there is much at stake. He loves Onesimus, and uses his full influence to ask for something in his behalf. Paul loves Philemon, and knows that Onesimus must return, repent and submit to Philemon before any reconciliation can occur and any subsequent relationship can go forward. Paul and Onesimus both know that under Roman law, Philemon can have Onesimus killed the moment he walks through the door. There are no guarantees, and they both know that the relationship with Philemon is important enough to take the chance anyway. It seems that Philemon knew that too. The risk Philemon took was not in what he might lose in settling things with his runaway slave; the risk he took was in what he might lose of himself if he did not respond in mercy and forgiveness, his relationship with his fellow Christian Onesimus being more important than anything else.

In The Letter to Philemon, we have an illustration, an example, of how Christian life is lived. That’s its value, and that value is as precious as any theological essay Paul might have written. The theology is demonstrated by living it. The Letter to Philemon might borrow a subtitle from John F. Kennedy: Profile in Courage. More than mere provenance, I think that’s why the Church chose to include it in the canon. 

Life is messy and risky, and the disorder and risks of life call us to live it anyway...with as little fear and as much faith as we can. In that faith, we account to God and ourselves, and act accordingly with each other. 

Love you. See you in Church. 

FBC3+, 4 September 2016, being The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

[1] Philemon, verse 18

[2] Philemon, verse 17

[3] The institution of slavery was/is ugly and morally indefensible, but legal in the Empire, and Paul’s assumptions about slavery seem to be the conventional assumptions of a Roman citizen.

[4] Tradition holds that Onesimus was in fact set free, and went on to become Bishop of Lystra, succeeding Timothy after Timothy’s martyrdom, and subsequently suffering a martyrdom of his own.

[5] Philemon, verse 16