A reflection on Philemon 8-22 for Sunday, January 30 at Mosaic Gungahlin.
That is why I am boldly asking a favor of you. I could demand it in the name of Christ because it is the right thing for you to do. But because of our love, I prefer simply to ask you. Consider this as a request from me—Paul, an old man and now also a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus.
I appeal to you to show kindness to my child, Onesimus. I became his father in the faith while here in prison. Onesimus hasn’t been of much use to you in the past, but now he is very useful to both of us. I am sending him back to you, and with him comes my own heart.
I wanted to keep him here with me while I am in these chains for preaching the Good News, and he would have helped me on your behalf. But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent. I wanted you to help because you were willing, not because you were forced. It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever. He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother 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 it to me. I, PAUL, WRITE THIS WITH MY OWN HAND: I WILL REPAY IT. AND I WON’T MENTION THAT YOU OWE ME YOUR VERY SOUL!
Yes, my brother, please do me this favour for the Lord’s sake. Give me this encouragement in Christ.
I am confident as I write this letter that you will do what I ask and even more! One more thing—please prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that God will answer your prayers and let me return to you soon.
Philemon 8-22 (NLT)
Last week we considered the relationship between the Apostle Paul and Philemon.
We saw that this forms something of a genuine and celebrated foundation for the challenging and confronting ‘favour’ Paul is asking of his ‘friend’. We saw Paul open this open letter with a claim to be one who knows of – and prays for – the ever-growing ‘faith’ and ‘love’ of Philemon.
There is something wonderful about this affirmation. It is foundational to all that follows. Paul does not ask this ‘favour’ of one he does not know. Anything but. Paul’s close relationship with Philemon enables him to address the personal, confronting, costly, and unimaginable topic of his relationship with his run-away-and-now-returned slave, Onesimus.
Let us be clear, there is a socially established relationship here. Onesimus is Philemon’s property.
Yet Paul is making an appeal for Philemon to consider a higher call than upholding of his cultures values. He is appealing to the reality of the Kingdom of God above the dominant culture that surrounds. Consider the implications of Paul’s astounding claim: ‘He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.’
This family-language runs throughout the New Testament. God is ‘Father’, the community is called ‘sons and daughters’ of God, older members of the community are considered ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’. The younger are referred to as ‘children’. Make no mistake, the call to love God and others is creating a new vision of close – even intimate – relationships.
The Kingdom of God is asking the early church for a new understanding of the way we view one another.
Perhaps this vision’s greatest challenge was to the well-established social hierarchy – whose extremes articulated ownership of another. Slavery was an established norm.
It will take a lot of kingdom reasoning for the early church to think through this one. How can society be reimagined to such a degree? How can such a paradigm shift truly be embraced? Is this vision even liveable?
I want to suggest that such a mind-shift as this one can only be embraced by a people of relationship and ongoing conversation.
I understand how some could read this little letter and see Paul’s strategy as manipulative. As we saw last week, this makes it particularly difficult to imagine the high value the community came to place on this letter.
Can we, however, imagine for a moment that Paul is asking for a genuine ‘favour’ – and really avoiding his capacity to command? Can we see his gathering of a community of co-workers for the gospel around this letter as the creation of a community of conversation, support, and protection for both the risk-taking Onesimus and the confronted Philemon? Can we recognise in Paul’s telling of Onesimus’ story an appealing to a genuine and timely miracle-of-God among them? Can we consider the possibility that Paul really is willing to take on Onesimus’ debt to Philemon as his own?
In short, can we at least wonder into the possibility that this letter is cherished because it comes from a genuine heart and tells a real story?
We do not know how Philemon responds to Paul’s challenge. We do know, however, that the letter was passed onto the future church, and that Paul appealed to the gospel-created relationship between Paul and Philemon, Paul and Onesimus, and now Paul and Philemon. We know he did not seek to control, but invited, Philemon into a safe haven of trusted relationships to consider and discuss this previously unimagined implication of the gracious action of the Kingdom of God.
We also know that this is not a conversation Paul left to others. Surely his promise to visit soon implies that he will continue to be part of this interaction. Yes, he has an established view, but I suspect he has arrived at this over some time as well. How gracious – and consistent – to offer the same time to his friend.
Sometimes I think there are conversations that our relationships are not strong enough – yet – to enable us to enter as genuinely as this letter invites: our approach to the God-created environment; a gracious approach to the LGBQTI communities; the place of minority voices in the church – to name only a few.
Of course, there are – and always will be – many conversations which require us to defend the community’s courage – and safety – to enter. Tough conversations are and always will be part of embracing the Kingdom of God.
The only real question is whether we can hear the call to gaze at the staggering grace of God and allow it to penetrate every aspect of our life together.
Does your approach to this letter change if you imagine Paul’s relationship with Philemon and his community to be this genuine?
What conversations do your avoid? What conversations do you embrace more easily? What is the difference between the two?
What contribution do you make to making your community a safer place to deeply consider the implications of the grace-laden Kingdom of God?