Meditation on Philemon 1- 22
First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY
Pastor Karen Crawford
Sept. 4, 2022
Link to live-streamed recording: https://fb.watch/fn9TUkalfk/
It’s Labor Day weekend! Any of you have family picnics or barbecues planned?
Jim and I have something special planned for our first Labor Day weekend with you. We have been invited to a barbecue with the PNC and their spouses. We are looking forward to this gathering—not just because I am sure we will enjoy delicious food and great conversation, but because in the whole discernment process with this committee charged to nominate Smithtown’s next called pastor, we grew close. We came to know and care for one another like a family.
I remember saying to Timmi last January, when she called me to arrange for my first travel to Smithtown, that I already felt comfortable with the committee after only one Zoom interview. I felt like I was talking with good friends, sharing our beliefs and experiences and our hopes for future ministry.
We all love the Lord. We all love the people who are Christ’s Church.
We want to know and be obedient to God’s will. We want to be faithful.
We want to bring peace and healing to what is broken in the world.
We share the same heart.
The apostle Paul uses similar language of shared hope and heart for the Lord and the church, all the saints, in his letter to Philemon, a man Paul brought to the faith.
Philemon is a man of considerable wealth who owns slaves and now hosts a church in his home in Colossae, an ancient city in Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. This letter, though it bears some similarities to Colossians, is different from all Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, Romans, Galatians, Philippians, and others that address problems or situations that are common to many congregations of his time. This letter, though it is addressed to several people in a specific church, is mainly concerned with a personal problem between Philemon, Paul, and a slave.
Onesimus, whose name means “useful” in Greek, has run away from his master, Philemon, and possibly stolen money from him. Though the issue is a serious one, the apostle uses a light tone—banters with Philemon, at times, using playful puns. “Formerly he was useless to you,” Paul says, “but now he is indeed useful to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.”
The slave has been serving Paul and has become a strong Christian, while the apostle, an old man now, is in prison for his faith. Prisons in Paul’s time aren’t anything like modern correctional facilities. Prisoners aren’t guaranteed a fair or speedy trial or lawyers if they can’t afford them. They aren’t guaranteed food or clothing or clean, drinking water or a warm bed. Inmates without money and friends and family to care for them when they are sick, bring them food, and carry messages to and from the outside world, have a much greater chance of dying forgotten in prison.
So Onesimus, the runaway slave named “Useful,” in caring for Paul, may have saved his life—and his own. Paul, in sending Onesimus home to his master Philemon in a gracious act of peace and reconciliation is taking a risk that the slave may never be permitted to return to care for Paul and join him in ministry.
Paul appeals on the basis of love, asking rather than insisting on the man’s release because of Paul’s welfare and continuing in ministry depending on his help. Onesimus is simply doing what Philemon would be doing for Paul if he were with him. He says, “I wanted to keep him with me so that he might minister to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.”
Paul trusts in their shared love for the Church, which includes Onesimus. He will say in his letter to the Galatians that we are all one in Christ Jesus. There’s no more worldly divisions; no more Jew or Greek. No more male or female. No more slave or free.
“So if you consider me your partner,” he says to Philemon, “welcome him as you would welcome me.”
Paul alludes to a possible benefit from Onesimus’s disobedience from his master. “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for the long term,” he says, “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.”
The apostle offers to pay anything that is owed Philemon—stirring us to wonder if Onesimus might have taken money from his master when he left.
We don’t know what happened to Onesimus. Did Philemon forgive him? Were they reconciled? Did he ever make it back to Paul? Did he receive his freedom?
Paul seems to think that Philemon will respond favorably to his request.
“Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask,” he says.
Paul ends his letter with a benediction and affectionate greetings from mutual friends and a promise to come back and stay in Philemon’s “guest room”—when the Church’s powerful prayers have restored him to them.
The fact that this beautiful letter has been kept and shared with the Church for thousands of years is a good sign that it led to peace and reconciliation. With its inclusion in the New Testament, it serves to inspire us to acts of kindness, peace, and reconciliation, as well.
Philemon reminds us of how our faith leads us to consider and reconsider our way of life and priorities, examining our hearts and fidelity to the call. We are held to a higher law–the commandment to love God and neighbor and hold onto the things of this world loosely. With God’s help, we are enabled to see the value of every human being, as children of a merciful and gracious God.
Every day, the Spirit illumines our way, and we choose the path we take.
We are continually called to listen for God’s voice and be obedient—no matter what it might mean for our possessions and wealth, as it did for Philemon. Becoming a believer led the man of wealth to host a church in his home and accept the call to love, encourage and “refresh the hearts of the saints.” Then, as revealed by this letter, his faith and relationship with the apostle very likely led to him giving freedom to his slave, Onesimus, for Paul’s sake and the advancement of the gospel.
Sisters and brothers in the Lord, we all love the Lord and Christ’s Church. We want to be faithful. We share the same heart.
In a few moments, we will celebrate our Communion at the Lord’s Table—where all are welcome, and there are no worldly divisions. No rich or poor. No younger or older. No male or female. Slave or free.
We will remember Christ’s sacrifice on a cross for our sakes—and be restored, refreshed, transformed, and re-membered by Him.
United by the Spirit, we will once again be strengthened and sent out as Christ’s Body— hope and healing for a broken world.
Let us pray.
Holy One, thank you for this letter in holy scripture that inspires us to take risks and do acts of kindness, working for peace, justice, and reconciliation in our families, church, and world. Strengthen us to obey and abide by a higher law, to love God and neighbors. Stir us to ask the right questions, listen to the voices of the oppressed, and speak the truth with gentleness and humor, as Paul did with Philemon. Help us to care for others as citizens of heaven—seeking first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, trusting in your grace and love. In the Triune God we pray. Amen.