Meditation on Philemon 1-21
The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton
Sept. 8, 2019: Rally Day
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, 2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for 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 bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 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 both 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 be of service 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 forever, 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 my account. 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 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
22 One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. 25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
We are back in the main sanctuary on Rally Day! Where did the summer go? I have a colleague in ministry who is calling today at his church, “Welcome Back Sunday.” I think I prefer “Rally Day,” even if it’s a little old fashioned, to describe the beginning of a new season for Sunday school, choir and other programs of the church. Do you all usually call it “Rally Day”? “Welcome Back” implies that you haven’t been here for a while—and many of you have—all summer long.
We have had a sweet time of worship in our chapel, haven’t we? I have enjoyed being so close to you–being able to see all of your faces and hear your voices, when you sing. You have really nice voices! It’s been fun watching so many Presbyterians come to church early–sometimes 30 or 40 minutes before worship! That’s pretty unusual for Presbyterians. Of course, it was to make sure that you could get a seat in the back! You know who you are! I really enjoyed having folks sit in the front rows. Even though I knew all along that you didn’t really want to be in the front rows, so close to me. It was just that all the seats in the back were filled!
In a few moments, we will recognize the gifts and talents of Christian educators and pray for the Spirit to empower them in their work of faith formation, truly a ministry of peace and reconciliation. We will promise to support and encourage them as they serve for the sake of Christ and all the Church, and especially the children and youth. We will promise to continue to pray for them, believing in the power of the life-changing, life-giving gospel, as the apostle Paul did, to transform hearts and lives.
We read how Paul felt about the transforming power of the gospel in his briefest surviving letter, held close to the heart of believers for thousands of years. Although the epistle is addressed to a man named Philemon, it is meant to be encouragement for the entire Body of Christ, seeking to be faithful as we respond to the gospel, sometimes in ways the world around us might find surprising.
Philemon is a “dear friend and co-worker” of Paul’s, a “partner for the gospel” along with his wife, Apphia, and son, Archippus. As in all of Paul’s letters, we have a window into his world and a view of his life of faith, which includes prayers for all of the churches he has ever known, many of which he played a role in their founding. Philemon is a man of means who has become a Christian after hearing Paul preach in Ephesus. Paul writes to Philemon, without ever visiting the small church meeting in his home in Colossae.
“When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God,” Paul says after his greeting, “because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for 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.”
Ephesus, in what is modern day Turkey, was a cosmopolitan, coastal city about 100 miles from the inland city of Colossae, also in modern day Turkey. Colossae had formerly been strong in trade and commerce, but had dwindled in population and importance by the time Paul was writing letters around 90 A.D. to Philemon and his church, the Colossians, as a prisoner of Rome.
The letter to Philemon is unusual in that it is a personal appeal of “love,” Paul says, but also a legal petition. He would like his friend to forgive and take back one of his runaway slaves, who has committed a capital offense in doing so, but has had, like his master, a life-changing encounter with the gospel, through Paul. The slave’s name is Onesimus, a Greek word that means “useful,” something the slave hadn’t been when he not only ran away, but helped himself to some of his master’s cash. But now that Onesimus has come to the faith and become a fellow laborer for the gospel, serving the apostle in prison, he is no longer “useless,” Paul says, almost playfully, “but now is very useful, to you and to me.”
Slaves in the ancient Roman World are members of the lowest social class, with no rights or protections under the law, though they make up about 25 percent of the population! Laws protect the slave owners, for the economy of the Roman Empire depends upon the institution of slavery. Owning a slave was “as natural as owning a car or a television is for people in the Western world today,” says New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. “Indeed, most people would wonder how you could get on without them.”
Paul’s appeal is remarkable for his place and time and in every place and time in which a group of people is seen as inferior, without voice or any rights, unworthy of our help or care. Demonstrating the grace and peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ that we hear in his greeting, Paul intervenes for the one he calls his “child,” “more than a slave” and “beloved brother.” He offers to pay all that the slave owes Philemon. He is sure of himself, knowing the authenticity of the faith and commitment to the Lord of Philemon and Onesimus, and that Philemon owes him his very life. He asks the slave owner to receive Onesimus as if he were Paul himself. He is bold because of his trust in a merciful God, whose redemption through the Risen Son requires a faithful response from all of us. Forgiven and freed from sin, made new in Him, we all have been called to a ministry of reconciliation, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17-19.
“I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you,” the apostle writes Philemon. “Welcome him as you would welcome me… Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”
Near the end of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, in chapter 4, we learn that Tychicus, another “beloved brother” and faithful servant in the Lord, will be the one to deliver the letters and share the news. “I have sent him to you for this very purpose,” Paul says to the church meeting in Philemon’s home, “so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts; he is coming with Onesimus,” Paul adds somewhat casually, “the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.”
This ending makes me wonder what became of Onesimus–and how he was received in Colossae. I have a feeling that many people came to Christ because of the usefulness of Onesimus, the ministry of reconciliation to which we are all called, and the power of the gospel to change hearts and lives.
Friends, I leave for Florida tomorrow to be with my family and prepare to celebrate the life of my Dad and bear witness to the Resurrection–our hope of being made alive forever with Him.
I know that you will be waiting here for my return. My husband, Jim, will bring you a word of encouragement while I am gone.
It’s hard to know what to say to someone who is grieving. I know you all want to take away the pain of loss that many of you have already experienced. That’s not possible for us to do for one another, as much as we want to. But we CAN do one thing–and that is what you have promised to do for us in the cards you have sent, just as the apostle Paul did in his letters to many churches. Just pray. Pray for my family, especially my mom. Pray for me. And it will be enough. Prayer is enough.
I will miss you and will be counting the days till I come back. For God’s love is here for you and me. Thank you for your prayers! I will pray for you!
Let us pray.
Holy One, we thank you for your grace and peace, made known to us through your Son, Jesus Christ, and for the life-changing, life-giving power of the gospel. Thank you that on the cross, our debt was paid, our sins forgiven by the blood of Christ and that we have been reconciled with you and one another. Guide and strengthen us now in this ministry of reconciliation to which we have all been called. Give us courage to forgive and love those who have hurt us. Teach us to walk by faith and live in peace. In Christ we pray. Amen.