This evening we are invited not only to read this letter, but see the way the Gospel was changing lives in the first century. For this personal letter opens up a window on an entire series of relationships. It reveals to us that St Paul led people from all kinds of places to faith in Christ Jesus.
Firstly, it is a letter that is written to a man named Philemon, and Philemon was a significant figure in the Colossian church. In fact we know that the Church met in Philemon’s house. So he is a wealthy man. He’s a man of property. And he’s man known for His faith and love for all the believers.
Secondly, it’s a personal letter of appeal, it’s written on behalf of Onesimus, a slave who had wronged his master, by running away with his possessions. And it’s written to effect reconciliation between the two men.
Thirdly, it is letter that reveals to us how the theology Paul wrote about is worked out through the life of the early church. On a church level Paul has already written to the Colossians and he’s told them that: “God forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness”.
And now he follows this letter up by addressing one particular situation:
Onesimus, left Colossae secretly, he would have taken possessions, to sell on his journey and travelled to Rome, with a dream of freedom. And maybe Onesimus thought he had gotten away with it, maybe he reached Rome under his own steam, or maybe he was arrested and imprisoned.
It doesn’t really matter how he came to be there, but what matters is that he didn’t escape from God’s providential plan. Some 932 miles from home, Onesimus must’ve thought that he was far enough away from Colossae to be safe.
If only he had read Psalm 139: ‘If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. ’
How true those words are, for at the far side of the sea, the Lord bring Onesimus into Paul’s life. One man a slave trying to live as a freeman; the other a freeman living in chains for the sake of the Gospel. And a freeman who has become like a slave for the sake of Jesus Christ, and a man who preaches that the greatest freedom is living under Jesus as Lord and Master.
And though this encounter, the run-away slave chooses to place his faith in Jesus, and enters into fellowship with Paul in Rome. Somewhere, along the way, Onesimus tells Paul his story. You can imagine the conversation.
Oh you’re from Colossae, I know Colossae… You know Philemon, I know Philemon… You what?!?
Let me help you put some of this right. Let’s try to sort this mess out.
So Paul writes this incredibly ingratiating letter, to his friend Philemon, he praises his faith and love for the saints, he tells him of the troubles and the chains he is experiencing, he appeals to his old age, and then he lets Philemon have the truth.
Just as Philemon is bursting with joy and the kind words Paul is sharing. Out comes the truth.
‘Though I could command you’, Paul writes, ‘For loves’ sake I appeal to you. For my child Onesimus.’
Notice that Paul doesn’t side step the issue. He could have kept Onesimus with him. He could of simply paid a slave price to set him free. But Paul doesn’t do that, he knows that this is an opportunity to reveal how the grace of God works in our lives.
It doesn’t bypass the consequences of our actions. Sometimes we have to face up to potentially difficult, even dangerous situations, but in doing so it changes us.
For Onesimus, whose name means useful or beneficial, was actually rather useless, but now by the grace of God he is living up to his name. He has been useful to me. He has ministered to me in your place. And now he is useful, no longer as a slave, but as a brother.
And Paul continues the letter with even more gracious words for Philemon, writing receive him as your would receive me, I know you will do this and even more, and prepare a guest room for me as I trust that by your prayers I will be coming to you.
Then he signs off. Passing on the greetings of all the other believers who will be eagerly watching the example Philemon will set.
And apart from the record of this letter that seems to suggest that Philemon did free Onesimus, we have also the tradition of the early church that credits Onesimus as having a role in collecting and preserving and passing on these letters of Paul and therefore being useful not only to Paul and Philemon but also being useful to us.
And we can see how the Gospel that transforms slaves and makes brothers, also transformed society and continues to transform lives today. As people love and forgive and include and welcome sinners back into relationship today.
But I think the real challenge of this book today is what must we do. Are we like Philemon needing to forgive someone today? Do we need to allow them back into our hearts? To extend love to someone who has hurt us, stolen from us, and insulted our generosity? Is this letter calling on us accept someone in particular back into our family?
Or are we like Onesimus, do we need to retrace our steps, to return may be even as far as 932 miles back to Colossae, to ask for forgiveness? Maybe we thought we could run away from something in our lives, but every time we come to worship, every time we pick up the Bible, we’re reminded that we need to be reconciled!
For this is the challenge of the book of Philemon for us today. To live the theology of the Gospel through reconciled and reconciling lives!