Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker—also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. (New International Version)
Tucked away near the end of the 66 books of the Holy Bible is the little letter of Philemon. Many Christians have neither heard a sermon preached on it, nor ever discussed it. Yet, there it is, contained as part of the New Testament canon. So, it could use some attention from us.
The letter is an appeal to Philemon concerning his slave Onesimus – who fled from his master and subsequently ended up converting to Christianity through the Apostle Paul’s influence.
At the time, Paul was imprisoned and Onesimus attended to his needs. Although Paul desired to keep Onesimus with him, he sent the slave back to Philemon. The Apostle was wanting the master to receive the slave as a beloved brother in the Lord, and not just as a servant. Then, Paul hoped Philemon would send Onesimus back to him, thus smoothing out the master/slave relationship and having his own needs met, as well.
The bottom line of the letter is that Paul very much desired that Onesimus be freed from his servitude by Philemon. He didn’t want to pull rank and twist Philemon’s arm to do it. Even though we don’t precisely know what happened in response to Paul’s letter, it’s likely that Onesimus was freed, since the appeal was included in the New Testament.
Christianity, ideally, is meant to transform lives, to change social relationships, to establish a truly egalitarian society in which the status of humans owning other humans would be done away with. Men ought to become brothers with one another and not highly stratified and separated with gross power inequities between them.
Sitting where we are now, a few millennia later, we might find it curious that Paul and other biblical writers didn’t simply call for the outright abolition of slavery altogether. And yet, slavery was such an ensconced part of the ancient world (some places in the Roman Empire had up to 70% of the population as slaves) that to do so immediately would have likely brought such shock to the system that more harm than good may result.
In Paul’s experience, he continually went about the business of agitating for change by proclaiming a gospel of grace for all people. And the places where he did so saw great societal transformation – which is why Paul got so much pushback from so many authorities who benefited from keeping others under their feet.
In the household of faith, all persons are sisters and brothers and useful servants of one another and of the Lord.
The healings by Jesus in the Gospels not only restored one’s physical health but also restored the individual back to the community. The leper’s social stigma was lifted; the woman’s isolation due to bleeding was done away with; and stereotypes of those born with disabilities were overturned.
No one is inferior in the kingdom of God. Everyone is inherently worthy and has a vital purpose in God’s new society. Since the cross of Christ has erased all barriers, Christian community is to be realized through respectful equality, mutual love, and caring fellowship.
That’s how the system is changed.
Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth. May our earthly pilgrimage be always supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.