“Refresh my heart in Christ” (verse 20b). If this text shows us anything, it is just how much Paul wore his heart on his sleeve. I think it may have been one of his charms, how he could go from so much bluster one moment to so much tenderness the next.
This pericope, which is the only time the letter to Philemon is read in the three-year lectionary, is basically the letter in its entirety. The only part left out are the closing greetings. In terms of context, it is important to note that both the opening and closing remarks reveal connections to the church at Colossae, and Philemon and his household were likely members there (see Colossians 4:9, 17). This makes for an interesting coincidence. In all probability, the letters to the Colossians and Philemon were written and read at nearly the same time. In light of the fact that we just experienced a continuous reading from Colossians (Pentecost 5-8), this year’s lectionary sets up the same phenomenon for us as contemporary hearers of these letters. It is interesting to think of these two letters in relation to each other. One way to describe the relationship would be to say Paul is putting the high Christology of Colossians into action here “for love’s sake” (verse 9). Indeed, everything Paul is asking of Philemon on behalf of Onesimus has its root and basis in agape, the love of God in Christ expressed in the love shared among us all.
Paul’s letter thus echoes some of the other expressions of agape as we find them in the New Testament scriptures. The most poignant perhaps occurs in verse 16, in how Paul refers to Onesimus: “...no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” Reading this verse, I could not help but think of its echoes in John 1:12 and 15:15, 1 John 3:1-2, Galatians 4:3-7, and Romans 8:15-16. Paul is doing nothing less than calling Philemon to dwell in the love shown to him by God in Christ, and then to express it in concrete action in his own life and among his own household as a witness to the metanoia he has himself experienced from spiritual slavery to everlasting freedom.
Indeed, everything Paul is asking of Philemon on behalf of Onesimus has its root and basis in agape, the love of God in Christ expressed in the love shared among us all.
And that really is the crux of the letter, for Philemon and for us. What did Philemon do? Paul’s letter obviously cannot tell us, and history does not give us much of an answer either. So, we are left to wonder. Philemon was left with a choice: Bring Onesimus back as a slave in his household or set him free as the brother in Christ he had already become. In a sense, Paul has left Philemon with the exact same choice Moses leaves the Israelites in today’s Old Testament reading (Deuteronomy 30:15-20): “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so you and your descendants may live” (30:19). From the Roman legal perspective, Philemon had every justification to keep Onesimus as a slave, and Paul knows it. But, as Paul would quickly retort, what kind of life is that, for either Onesimus or for Philemon? It is just one more form of slavery for both of them. And if we are being honest with ourselves, we make those sorts of choices all the time, choosing for ourselves what feels like a freedom which is just another form of slavery. As Paul would write time and again, Christ shows us another way. “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).
And what kind of life is this? It is a life that arises from the cross. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27, from today’s Gospel reading). Which is to say, this life rises out of death, overpowering death with life. It is the very gift of life, overflowing, abundant, and everlasting. Paul and John have a lot to say about this kind of life too.
I find it hard to believe that, after reading Paul’s letter, Philemon could have done anything other than to set Onesimus free to be a full member of his household and a brother in Christ, especially when Paul would also ask to “prepare a guest room for me” (verse 22). Imagine how the conversation would have gone if Philemon had done otherwise. Ultimately, we do not know, but perhaps we have a clue. The recently sainted Frederick Buechner, in his marvelous book Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, includes an entry on Onesimus. In it, he cites a historical coincidence which seems more than “useful” (note the pun) for our purposes. As Buechner writes:
“It is not known whether or not Philemon took the hint and let Onesimus return to be the old saint’s comfort for what time was left him, but there is at least one good reason for believing such was the case. Years later, when Paul was long since dead, another saint by the name of Ignatius was in jail. The Bishop of Ephesus had sent some friends to visit him, and Ignatius wrote asking if a couple of them could be allowed to stay. Ignatius in his letter used some of the same language Paul had used in his to Philemon, almost as if he were trying to remind him of something. And what was the name of the Bishop he wrote to? It was Onesimus.”
Of course, it could be just a coincidence. But at the same time, it would fit exactly the way the Spirit of Christ is often at work in the Church and in the world. What we do ultimately know is Paul, and Moses, and Christ have set before us the exact same choice that Paul set before Philemon. The only difference is we know exactly what it is like to be Onesimus too. Love bids us to choose life, always life, because the love of Jesus has already set us free for a life beyond our wildest imagination. We cannot help ourselves but to be caught up into it, wherever it may lead.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Philemon 1-21
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Philemon 1-21.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Philemon 1-21.