'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.' Philemon verses 10,11.
‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Luke 14: 26-27
Paul wrote four letters from prison - the prison epistles - Philemon in the shortest. The recipient was probably a leader in the local church who, it would appear, owed his salvation to Paul. The epistle is a plea from Paul for Philemon to accept back a runaway slave named Onesimus, now a Christian convert. Slavery was widespread in the ancient world and it would take some time before the dynamite of the gospel began to ignite the reformers to purge its ugly stain from polite Western society.
What I love about this tiny gem of Scripture is what makes the gospel for this Sunday hard to hear. Being church, following Christ, is all about getting relationships right. And the gospel challenges all our relationships. If it doesn't, what kind of gospel is it?
Paul writes 'I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother' (v.7). Philemon is a joy to Paul - the head of the house where the local church meets, the 'Apphia' of the letter probably his wife; 'Archippus' possibly their son. And Onesimus was their slave, living and working in the house where the church meets. But something went wrong and Onesimus ran away, finally ending up in jail and being converted by Paul.
So here are some interesting relationship alterations. Philemon is a slave owner but now a Christian; Onesimus was a slave but is now a Christian. Paul is an old man, a believer of many years, now a prisoner for his faith. He appeals to Philemon to take Onesimus back, this time as a brother in Christ. He refers to Onesimus as 'his heart' - literally, his 'innards', that deep place from where his heart beats or breaks.
'Onesimus' means 'profitable' - in a clever Pauline linguistic trick, once he was 'useless', now he is 'useful'. The gospel changes everything. To use the word 'profitable' about a human being is heavily ironic to us, who shy away from the idea that people can be associated with any idea of monetary value. But Paul is onto something. Only now, as a brother in the Lord can he be properly 'useful'.
Will Philemon rise to the gospel challenge and take Onesimus back as a brother? To do so would to be to go against the culture of the day. But the call of Christ eventually (sometimes it takes a while) challenges culture. Jesus says unless we put him first, 'hating' natural family ties whilst loving him above all else, we cannot be his disciples. Give up your possessions. Give up your status. Give up your rights. Give up your slave.
Commentators have noticed how Paul emphasises his advanced age and his chains in his appeal to Philemon's better nature. Surely he cannot deny an old man this favour? Receive this young man, who I have (literally) 'given birth to' in jail, as a brother, and you will be surely blessed. One can sense the strong emotional appeal. An appeal that perhaps would be hard to ignore, especially if the letter was to be read out in the local church gathering, which was what normally happened with Pauline epistles.
It reminds me of a wonderful incident reported about Pope Francis. Shortly after taking office, the Pope emerged one night from his room in the hostel Casa Santa Marta. Paul Vallely tells the story in his recent book Pope Francis, Untying the Knots:
'It was just before dawn and a young Swiss guard was on
duty by the door. Discovering he had been standing there all night the Pope went back into his rooms and brought out a chair. He told the young soldier to sit down. The guard said he could not. The rules did not allow it. Whose rules? asked the Pope. 'My Captain's orders', the soldier replied. 'Well he is just a Captain and I am the Pope and my orders are that you sit down'. The soldier sat down (...) A few minutes later Francis appeared with a slice of bread and jam (...) which the leader of the world's billion Catholics gave to the soldier, with the words: 'Buon appetito, brother''. Vallely observes that this is both a personal, even humble act of kindness, but also veiled in subtly authoritarian terms, which cannot reasonably be refused!
It's the same with Paul. He is transformed by the gospel; he longs for the same transformation in his brothers and sisters in Christ. No matter what Onesimus has done: 'if he has done you some wrong, owes you anything, put it down to my account. I, PAUL, AM WRITING IN MY OWN HAND, I SHALL REPAY'* (this comes before a 'gentle' reminder that in fact Philemon owes him everything anyway!) Hints of the Good Samaritan, who was similarly moved from his 'innards' (same verb) with pity and generosity. 'So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me' (verse 17). The slave is equal to the apostle.
This is radical stuff. The logic of the gospel - equality of status before God and love for all fellow creatures - drives all before it like a flood. Hierarchical relationships based on power sit very uneasily where Jesus is Lord. They sit uneasily in the church. Paul was an old man, he had
softened. The phenomenon of someone whose life is so touched by the gospel that everything they do and think, everything they are, is seasoned with gentleness and grace, is a very compelling one.
Maybe you know someone like this. By loving Christ above all other, by letting God's heart touch ours, by letting the logic of the gospel turn all natural relationships on their head, we can become people like this. For his glory,
*Nicholas King translation