1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, 2to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. 7I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. 8For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet 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. 10I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16no 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. 17So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
While Paul was in prison, he was aided by a runaway slave named Onesimus. The slave’s master, Philemon, was a Christian friend of Paul. Paul told Onesimus to return to his master and encouraged Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a Christian brother.
From my colleague and friend, Phil Heinze (Living the Lectionary), these words:
At some point during its history the church decided a short personal correspondence was worth including in the collection that would become the New Testament. Maybe even a laundry list signed by the apostle Paul would have made the cut. Who knows? Its inclusion in the lectionary means that people in the pew rediscover it every three years.
Onesimus, the runaway slave, will be put to death unless Paul can persuade Philemon to pardon him. He uses all his powers of persuasion, including some that border on the manipulative, but in the end appeals to his relationship with Philemon. Paul loves Onesimus as a child and Philemon as a brother and does not want to lose either one.
The happy ending is that Philemon forgives Onesimus and welcomes him into his household as a brother and Paul breathes a sigh of relief.
But it is more than just an interesting story with a happy ending.
Lives were hanging in the balance.
Onesimus will be put to death.
Philemon will lose a relationship with Paul whose ministry changed Philemon’s life.
Paul will lose a child and a brother.
It is the stuff of our stories where one family member pleads for the sake of another that a relationship restored might bring refreshment. It is the stuff of God’s story where the Son is sent to bring back all who have run away that the family circle be unbroken in the here and now and in the forever home.
Maybe Philemon is where the Bible’s rubber hits the road and the master forgiving the slave because he loves Jesus as much as he owes the apostle is why the little letter belongs in the Book.
Let us pray: Lord, may we live our lives forgiving and loving as you forgive and love us. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen