Intro to Paul’s letter to Philemon
I invite you to pick up one of the pew Bibles and try to find the letter to Philemon.
Even if you know to find it in the New Testament, after the Gospels, if you flip the pages too fast you might miss it – because it’s only a half a page long.
If you cheated and looked in the bulletin, then you know it’s on page 1043.
Unlike Paul’s other letters, this is the only letter addressed to an individual rather than a church.
Philemon was a wealthy man and a high-ranking leader in one of the house churches that Paul had likely founded.
But the subject of the letter is a man named Onesimus.
Onesimus was a slave who belonged to Philemon, and who had found his way to Paul while Paul was imprisoned in a distant city.
Scholars disagree over whether Onesimus had run away from his master, or whether he had been sent by Philemon to assist Paul.
Because the letter is so short and Paul makes no attempt to explain to Philemon how he came find Onesimus, many modern scholars suspect that Philemon had indeed sent Onesimus to Paul, perhaps because as the letter suggests, Onesimus had committed some transgression and Philemon wanted the trouble-making slave out of his hair.
However Onesimus came to be with Paul, the gist of Paul’s letter is this:
Paul wants Onesimus to be free – if not legally, than at least spiritually.
For in Christ there is no slave and no master.
All are brothers and sisters before God.
To accomplish his goal Paul uses all of his pastoral and diplomatic skills to appeal to Philemon on Onesimus’ behalf.
Essentially saying, “I, Paul, am but a lowly servant of Christ and you, Philemon, are an exalted leader, and I can’t command you to do the right thing –
but I remind you of all that I have done for YOU,
and that we are partners in Christ,
therefore I know that you will do what is right for Onesimus, out of love.”
The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 4, 2016 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
An unnamed woman sits at a metal cafeteria table at the Federal Correctional Complex in Hazelton, West Virginia.
The bench she’s sitting on is bolted to the ground - as is most of the furniture in correctional facilities, to prevent the heavy metal objects from being thrown or used as weapons when an inmate explodes in anger or has a melt down when the walls seem to be closing in on them.
The woman appears to be in her early forties and she wears the khaki brown scrubs of a long-term inmate. Her eyes are circled in heavy black eyeliner, perhaps to distract others from noticing the exhaustion underneath,
or because she knew she was being interviewed that day by a photojournalist doing a human-interest story on the life of prison inmates.
The woman looks at the camera and says:
“This is my fifth time in prison.
Every crime I’ve committed has come from my addiction.
Best case scenario is I get out of here, rebuild my life, and join the one percent of people who have beaten a meth addiction.
Worst case scenario is I become no more than what I am today.
And honestly, if I mess up again, I hope it kills me.
Because I don’t want to keep hurting people.
I’ve cheated my kids out of normal lives.
My seventeen-year-old daughter is in a home for teen moms.
My twenty-one-year-old son is in jail.
My eighteen-year-old daughter is doing OK. She’s got a job at FedEx and goes to college. She hates drugs and thinks the world is a good place and that nobody is out to hurt her. She wants to help me.
She wants me to come live with her when I get out.
I don’t think that’s a good idea.” 1
This woman’s story is just one among thousands – among millions.
Her story is one that resonates with anyone who has ever felt imprisoned –
or bound - by the bars and cinder block walls of a correctional facility,
by the ever tightening grip of an addiction,
by the consequences of bad choices and past mistakes,
by the mounting bills and hunger pangs of poverty,
by anything that slams the door on freedom and entangles one in a restrictive web that is nearly impossible to break free of.
It’s important for us to hear this woman’s story because her story helps those who feel bound to know that they are not alone in the world.
Her story is relatable – because she describes a worst-case scenario of addiction where many have been before.
And her story offers hope – because she also describes a best-case scenario - where all is not lost, and the liberation that so many long for is realized in the end.
If we’re wondering how Paul’s personal letter to Philemon ended up being preserved for all time as sacred scripture we need only look at the story of liberation contained within.
The story of Onesimus is the story of a man who is bound –
by slavery, by a debt he could not repay, by past transgressions, and a current transgression against his master that landed him in the care of Paul.
The same Paul who famously wrote in his letter to the Galatians that in Christ there is no male nor female, no Greek nor Jew, no slave nor master.
Paul’s encounter with Onesimus is a story of liberation.
It’s the story of a man who is stuck – bound within the confines of the Greco-Roman socio-economic system where those who could not pay their debts became slaves to those whom they owed money to.
This system, where the haves benefited from the misery of the have nots,
is one that Jesus adamantly opposed and longed to over turn –
with all his talk of the last being first, the least inheriting the most,
and the coming Kingdom, where the world would be turned upside down, and all would eat as equals at God’s table.
Of course turning the world upside in this manner will not only liberate those on the bottom – it’s meant to liberate those on the top as well.
Philemon – despite the advantages he enjoyed because of his money and power – was also bound by the same system that bound Onesimus.
If he freed every slave he had, or suddenly began treating them as equals,
he would likely lose face and status in the eyes of his peers.
There would be little incentive for his clients to repay their debts and
he would lose his source of cheap labor, causing him to suffer financially.
And how long would he be seen as a leader in the local community,
if he elevated his obscure Christian values above his allegiance to the more socially acceptable Roman cultural values?
Paul’s personal letter to Philemon – which he very shrewdly also addressed to the church that gathered in Philemon’s home – was intended to unbind Philemon as much as it unbound Onesimus.
The letter would be read in the gathered assembly – and all eyes would be upon Philemon to see if he would honor Paul’s request and “do what is right” - by looking upon Onesimus as if he were looking at Paul himself.
Here Paul was essentially giving Philemon an opening to do something radical and just – and not have it questioned by the gathered congregation.
Because to do otherwise would be to publically defy Paul – the man who exemplified the teachings of Christ to many.
This is the magic that is contained within this short letter from Paul.
At the very least it reveals the tension that occurs when we shine the light of the gospel on our culture and expose the injustices within.2
This internal and external tension arises when we look at the letter to Philemon and use it to justify slavery or any other human system of imbalance that we’ve grown too comfortable with to discard.
Historically, some have read this letter and claimed that Paul is not freeing Onesimus, but rather returning him to Philemon as a slave – with the request that Onesimus be treated fairly with love, or returned to Paul’s service, still as a slave
The moral gleaned here is that Paul has his eye on the bigger picture, and is not interested in messing with the status quo or involving himself in dismantling human cultural systems that work for many....and we as Christians shouldn’t waste our time doing so either.
If that argument doesn’t sit well with you then you’re feeling that tension that the gospel creates within us.
The same tension that arises when Jesus says, “Sell all that you have and give all that you earn to the poor.”
When he says, “Leave all your possession behind and follow me.”
When he says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Taken literally, these gospel teachings leave us with a daily difficult struggle.
As we try to navigate a world where money is a necessity,
where our enemies threaten our sense of security,
where the haves will always have more power and prestige than the have nots.
But what the gospel does is shine a light on the world as it could be.
And it shines a light on us – showing us that we do have the capacity and the ability to do better – to nudge the world away from fear, injustice, and systems that create imbalances, and push ourselves and our world further along towards love, compassion, and grace.
Which is why Paul’s letter to Philemon – a letter that fills barely a half a page – made it into our Christian Bible and continues to resonate with us – and challenge us - 2,000 years on.
Because it ratchets up the tension that pushes and pulls us between who we are, and who we were created to be.
And what about the woman sitting in prison in West Virginia?
The one hoping that she can turn her life around and no longer cause her family pain
- hoping that she might be released from the chains that bind her and be among the 1% of meth addicts who survive their addiction?
When the woman’s story was posted online by the photojournalist who interviewed her, her hope was rewarded by the thousands of comments and letters of support written by former convicts and former addicts.3
One woman wrote:
“I'm the one percent! I've been clean from meth for a year and ten months! One day at a time. We do recover!”
“I'm the 1% too!! One year 8 months... wouldn't it be great if everyone who is in the '1%' came out and proved to this woman that the recovery percentage is actually higher than she thinks??”
And another wrote:
“I myself am a 2x convicted felon and ex meth addict. I decided the day I went away that I would never not be in control of my life once I went home. Things are not always easy but… this year I will be 9 years clean. It can be done!!!!”
And finally, one man wrote:
“One percent still means someone did it before.”
Someone did it before.
This is why we tell our stories…
and why we still hold dear these stories of our Judeo-Christian tradition.
Because they tell us that we’re not alone in the world.
Because they give us a glimpse of freedom when we feel bound on all sides.
Because they give us hope when we feel hopeless.
And the meth addiction recovery rate?
It’s not 1% as the woman believed. It’s closer to 20-30%.
It’s not an easy road, and the average addict relapses 7-13 times.
But there is hope.
There is always hope.
There is always an opportunity to be set free.
When the light of Christ leads the way.
1 Humans of New York: Inmate Stories http://www.humansofnewyork.com/tagged/inmate-stories#1
2 The Rev. Kate Matthews – UCC Sermon Seeds
3 Humans of New York – Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork/photos/a.102107073196735.4429.102099916530784/1180948401979258/?type=3&theater