A reflection on Philemon 1-7 and 23-25 for Sunday, January 23, 2022 at Mosaic Baptist Church.
This letter is from Paul, a prisoner for preaching the Good News about Christ Jesus, and from our brother Timothy.
I am writing to Philemon, our beloved co-worker, and to our sister Apphia, and to our fellow soldier Archippus, and to the church that meets in your house.
May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.
I always thank my God when I pray for you, Philemon, because I keep hearing about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people. And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ. Your love has given me much joy and comfort, my brother, for your kindness has often refreshed the hearts of God’s people…
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you his greetings. So do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my co-workers.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Philemon 1-7 & 23-25 (NLT)
Philemon is a remarkable letter in the New Testament. This is not just because of its notable brevity. Of much more significance is the subject matter and occasion.
From the letter itself we can derive much of what has prompted this personal, challenging, and – at least partially – open letter. The Apostle Paul is in prison. There he has met a runaway slave, Onesimus, who has become a follower of Jesus and joined the mission of Paul. Onesimus fled from his owner who turns out to be – of all people – Philemon. Paul has asked Onesimus to accompany his letter to Philemon in which he requests – against all cultural protocol – that Onesimus be accepted, forgiven, and freed.
Onesimus, from the perspective of the kingdom is a brother. From the perspective of the dominant culture he is a disobedient slave deserving the severest punishment.
A drama-filled scene indeed!
Paul writes, along with Timothy, primarily to his friend, Philemon, but also to Appia and Archippus who seem to be leaders in ‘the church that meets in your house’. Given that, in the Geek, the plural form of ‘your’ is used here, this may be an indication that these three addressees live in the same home in which the church at Colossae met.
Perhaps their presence at this reading is needed to protect Onesimus. Perhaps it makes way for their conversation and counsel.
As is fairly typical of Paul, the letter also opens with a blessing of ‘grace and peace’ and his characteristic confession of prayer for its recipient. Yes, the Greek makes it clear that we have moved from the plural and landed squarely on the singular. After inviting his co-workers into this reading, this letter is now re-addressed to Philemon himself.
As Paul remembers Philemon, he has a lot to affirm. The news of Philemon’s ‘faith in the Lord’ and ‘love for all God’s people’ have reached Paul even in prison. The Apostle is grateful for Philemon. There is affirmation of a good reputation. Paul writes to one who is constantly proving to be a good and able servant of the church community.
Philemon is a slave owner who is an exemplary leader in the local church.
Yet, even in this prayer, Paul is asking for more – not at this stage from Philemon – but from God. The Apostle’s words are both memorable and notable: ‘…I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ.’
After all, Paul is about to ask for a miraculous perspective change from his friend. Surely it will take a move of God to enable Philemon to embrace the paradigm shift Paul is about to articulate.
We will consider the radical nature of that request more deeply in next week’s reflection on this letter. For now, however, we do well to note that Paul is praying through and tapping into a long established relationship with Philemon. It is one that gives this prisoner ‘joy’ and ‘comfort’ and memories of ‘kindness’.
The final verses in this letter remind us that this embrace of Philemon extends far beyond Paul. Philemon is loved by a wider community.
Paul is writing to someone he – and the community – knows intimately. He is not counselling Philemon from a distance – but from a celebrated place of cherished relationship.
So far there has been little challenge. There has, however, been a great deal of affirmation. Importantly it has been done with others present. If this was a hollow affirmation it would not hold much weight in the view of either Philemon or his fellow workers.
It would look, as the letter can to those outside these relationships, like manipulation.
Yet this letter has been treasured and handed down through the generations of the church. Surely, if it is hollow manipulative rhetoric, it would not have been able to be so highly valued. Genuine affirmation, however, holds weight.
So much weight – and relationship – that the unimaginable can be requested.
Have you ever been on the receiving side of such affirmation? What made this genuine? What made it hollow?
Where does prayer fit into your willingness to both affirm and challenge?
Do you think Paul believes God is at work in Philemon’s heart regarding Onesimus? What, from the text, makes you answer this way?