Philemon and Onesimus

“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.” from the letter to Philmon.

The letter to Philemon, from which we read today, is a very interesting letter, unlike any other of the letters of St. Paul. It starts off with a personal greeting;

“To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:”

The letter is addressed to Philemon, and the personal pronoun “you” is used throughout. At the same time it is addressed to Philemon’s wife Apphia, and to Archippus, who is a fellow minister, and to the church that meets in Philemon’s house. It is obvious that, while personal in nature, Paul intended it to be heard by everyone. I believe that this put Philemon on the spot, and everyone would be watching him, to see what he would do.

It is likely that this church was in Laodicea, which was a prosperous city in the province of Phrygia. It is also one of the seven churches mentioned in the Revelation to St. John the Divine.

There are only 25 verses in this letter, and the esteemed writers of our lectionary saw fit to give us only 20.

So what is this short letter all about? The first section contains word’s of encouragement for Philemon.

 

“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.”

 

This may well be the act of buttering up the bread, as it were, because the request comes next. The main concern of St. Paul is Onesimus, whom Paul calls his child. Evidently Onesimus was a runaway slave belonging Philemon. Paul knew that he had to tread lightly in this area, because slave ownership was so ingrained in the Roman world, that he had to speak carefully about it, lest he give the Romans another excuse to execute him. Here he speaks of the great love he has for Onesimus.

“I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you,” writes St. Paul.

Then he writes, “I wanted to keep him, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent.” Then he starts to appeal to Philemon’s Christian faith to do the right thing.

“I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.”

Now St. Paul appeals to Philemon to consider him no longer a slave, but a brother. Listen to this:

“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.”

Then St. Paul urges Philemon to welcome Onesimus as he would himself, and even offers to repay Philemon for any wrong doing by Onesimus. Listen to this:

“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.”

What a wonderful blessing it would be to St. Paul if Philemon would do as he asked! It would refresh his heart in Christ. Then, St. Paul makes his request into more of a requirement. In verse 21 he writes,

“21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.”

 

St. Paul has made his request, and he expects Philemon to obey. St. Paul’s confidence is based on the fact that Philemon is a Christian, and he has a duty to act accordingly.

 

The idea of Christian Duty has fallen out of favor with the vast majority of Christians. Society today is shaped by the idea of liberty and freedom, and anything that sounds like a duty is shunned. If your priest says to you, ‘It is your duty to be here in Church on Sunday,” what is the typical response? In baseball terms, I’d call it a balk.

 

Unless you have been in the military, you may not have much respect for duty. I don’t know from personal experience, but I have heard many times that when someone gets their orders, they obey. And why do they obey? Certainly there are consequences if they don’t, but this is not the primary reason. They do so because they took an oath.

 

The oath of a Christian is a little different. That duty is in response to the Covenant that we made with Jesus Christ in His Blood. If we love him and obey his commandments, we have the promise of eternal life and peace with the Father. Hear these words from St. John:

 

“If anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”

It would appear that there are expectations for those who accept Jesus Christ as their Lord. If we claim to live in Jesus, we must live as Jesus did.

The duty that we perform is out of gratitude for what he has done for us. If we do our duty begrudgingly, or avoid it all together, perhaps we have forgotten what Jesus has done for us.

It’s easy to forget what he has done for us when we fill our time with pursuits that seem much more fun. When life is good, and we have what we need, and we can have much of what we want, we can easily forget our need to have God in our lives.

So many people have fallen away from their Christian duty because of the many distractions that exist in this world. There are games, and races, and sports that seem much more important, especially on Sunday morning, and once the responsibility shifts from Christian duty to a secular one, the Christian life is let go.

There are many people who used to come to church regularly, and were active in the life of the church, but are no longer. Many times I have heard that a parent thinks it so important for their child to be good at sports that they believe skipping church to let their child play is good for them.

Not only have those parents neglected their duty to worship the Lord on his one day of the week, they have neglected the spiritual welfare of their children as well. After several years of this, neither the parent nor the child has need for church anymore. Now they say, “I’m spiritual, just not religious,” which just means I don’t want to get up and go to church.

St. John said, “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” If we live for the pleasures of this world, we, too, we pass away, but if we do the will of God we will live forever.

St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, had this to say about church attendance:

“Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when you assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith. Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end.”

So, what about Philemon? Do you think he did his Christian duty? Did he forgive Onesimus and send him back to Paul? We have no other letters from St. Paul that tell us, but there is evidence that he did.

St. Ignatius wrote seven letters to churches and to a bishop in Asia while on his way to Rome to be martyred, some fifty years after the letter to Philemon was written. One of these was to the Ephesians, and in this letter we find this reference:

“I received, therefore, your whole multitude in the name of God, through Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love, and your bishop in the flesh, whom I pray you by Jesus Christ to love, and that you would all seek to be like him.”

The evidence is strong to suggest that this is the same man mentioned by St. Paul, a former slave of Philemon. So, it appears that Philemon did obey the wishes of St. Paul, and Onesimus went on to become one of the greatest bishops of the Eastern Church. Some even refer to him as the Holy Apostle Onesimus. God takes the most unlikely people, and uses them for his purposes. Philemon was obedient to God, and we can feel confident that he is with the Father in heaven, where we hope to join him one day.

Amen.

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