For Freedom's Sake
[The sermon today is told in the first person from the vantage point of Philemon, a friend of the Apostle Paul. Paul writes to Philemon on behalf his runaway slave, Onesimus. In this brief letter, Paul pushes Philemon to consider what it means that he and Onesimus have been set free in Christ.
Hear now these portions of The Letter of Paul to Philemon: 1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To our beloved coworker Philemon . . . 2 and to the church in your house:3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I thank my God always when I mention you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the partnership of your faith may become effective as you comprehend all the good that we share in Christ. 7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. 8 For this reason, though I am more than bold enough in Christ to command you to do the right thing, 9 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. 10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me so that he might minister to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for the long term, 16 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. 17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 . . .21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
I can hear them now. The vultures will descend on me with a vengeance. And, not only me. Their children will mock my children. Their wives will sneer at my wife. The invitations to social gatherings will end and my business contacts will suddenly have no time for me. Yes, I know exactly what they will say. I know exactly what they will do.
Please excuse me if I am getting ahead of myself. I suppose an introduction is in order. My name is Philemon. What you know about me, if you know anything about me at all, is that I am slaveowner, most specifically, the owner of a runaway slave and thief, Onesimus. But, there are others things you need to know about me. I live in the cosmopolitan town of Colossae. Just like you, I too am a Christian. Not only am I a follower of Jesus, but our church meets in my home every Sunday.
Once I say that I am a slaveowner, though, I imagine your mind closes. You judge me a hypocrite for saying I am a Christian in one breath and a slaveowner in the next. And you would judge me wrong. For no one of my means in my time is without slaves, just as everyone with means in your time owns a car. A slave is property, plain and simple, and nothing more. There are estimates of over sixty million slaves throughout the Roman Empire and my slave is one of them.
The name I game my runaway slave is Onesimus. It means “profitable” or “useful.” It is a common slave name, along with Epaphroditus for female slaves, a name meaning “lovely.” What am I to do with a slave who does not live up to his name? What am I to do with a runaway slave when he is caught and caught with my possessions?
Ask any slaveowner those questions and the answer is quite simple. Whenever a runaway slave is caught or returned, that slave is either beaten or killed or both. The rules are harsh but necessary. They are to impress the high cost of escape on all other slaves. It is a warning that a slaveowner neglects at his own peril.
I stand before you today because I face a dilemma that I would have never faced before becoming a follower of Jesus. What should be a simple, straightforward, albeit harsh, matter has been made remarkably difficult by Paul, the man who brought me to faith and now has done the same for my slave, Onesimus. And now Onesimus has returned but not empty handed. He has delivered to me a short but provocative letter from Paul.
If you have ever read what you call the New Testament, you may already be aware of this letter. I do not know why you think it is acceptable to read someone else’s personal mail, but I will leave that question for another day. Suffice it say, it is a most troubling letter. If I had received such a letter from anyone other than Paul, well, it would have soon found its way to the trash.
Do you understand what Paul is asking me to do? He is not asking simply that I forgive my runaway slave. The Roman Governor, Pliny, does that in one of his letters. He says: “The freedman of yours with whom you said you were angry has been with me. . . He has begged my help with many tears. . . he convinced me of his genuine penitence. I believe he has reformed, so make some concession to his youth. . . I have given the man a very severe scolding. . . he deserved the fright.”
Had Paul written such a letter to me, I would have forgiven Onesimus as a favor to Paul and as a fellow follower of Jesus. And I could have convinced any reasonable neighbor who questioned my decision. But, that is not what Paul writes and asks me to do. Not once does he scold Onesimus for running away and running away with my possessions. Not once does he beg me to forgive him as a kind master might do.
And, it is not like Paul is ever shy about telling others what to do. In his letter, Paul asks far more of me than to forgive Onesimus. He wants me to treat a thieving runaway slave as a brother in Christ. And, he is not subtle when he reminds me, “Philemon, you owe me your life.”
Paul is right, of course. I do owe him my life and my life in faith, but what he asks of me is unthinkable. He asks that I receive Onesimus back as a sibling, a brother in the faith. How can I possibly do that? Onesimus is a slave, a piece of property to me and useless property at that. He has embarrassed my family by running away and stealing from us.
What would you do if one of your slaves returned and handed you such a letter from Paul? Perhaps on the weekend after you celebrated your country’s Independence Day, you will protest: “I cannot answer your question, Philemon, because I do not live in a slave-owning society like yours.”
Technically, of course, you are right, but a slave in my time is not all that different from a “non-person” in your time. If that is right, who are your “slaves”? Are they older adults who are not “useful” or “profitable,” because they no longer hold a job or they get sick more often or they require more of your time and attention? Or are they the nameless ones who litter your streets and you call “homeless” as if that were their name? Or are they the ones crossing your borders, taxing your social systems, demanding more from you than you are prepared to give? Or are they the ones who love differently than you love and refuse to bow to the way you believe they should love?
What will happen if you welcome “useless” people into the church? What will your neighbors say if you welcome “useless” people to your table? And, I am not talking about giving them a holiday meal or donating your used clothes and furniture to them or giving them a ride to a medical appointment. I am talking about treating them as real people created in God’s image, set free in Christ, people who are welcome always to walk through the front door.
That is what Paul is asking me to do with Onesimus. “Philemon, I want you to break every accepted social law and religious more in Rome.” I cannot get these early words in Paul’s letter out of my mind, “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints.”
“All the saints,” Paul says. You know how easy it is to be a Christian to people far away? I hear that you are about to provide a home, a loving welcome, to a refugee family from far away, a family that you do not know at all. That is a wonderful thing you are about to do, but I would argue that it is far easier to do that than to welcome someone home who has always been a non-person to you and their recent behavior has only reinforced your prejudice.
Some say that my greatest burden is that I own slaves. No, my greatest burden is learning how to live as one who has been set free by Jesus and is called to treat all others as free in Christ. Paul has written me because he knows that Christian freedom insists on opening our hearts to every non-person, even to those non-persons who have behaved badly.
Freedom in Christ can be an awful burden, but Paul will not let me forget that freedom in Christ is also our greatest joy. In a week when you are invited to reflect on freedom, think of me and think of Onesimus, but most of all, think of the joy of living as free children of God in Christ. Paul knew. It is not a burden that you and I carry. It is a blessing waiting to lead our every step. Well, at least think about it, for freedom’s sake.