*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 16th of February 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
I like at the end of movies- before the credits when you get the “, and this is what they went on to do” montage. Maybe it’s non-fiction, and so you get a brief “this is what they ended up doing,” or maybe, it’s fiction- like That Thing You Do! And we are given a “here’s where they ended up.” It’s satisfying. All the loose ends are wrapped up, and usually in such a way that we can all feel good about the story we just invested in (in TTYD! We are told that Guy and Faye move to Washington State and start a family and music conservatory and Tom Hanks where is the script for this sequel?)
And we’ve made a note in church history that when we sometimes have marginal characters, the imaginations of the early Christians cannot be stopped, and so saints end up with all kinds of expanded lives and stories.
And today is (in some churches) the feast of St. Onesimus. You remember Onesimus? He is the runaway slave whose case is taken up in Paul’s letter to Philemon. It’s the shortest book of the Bible. It’s one of 4 that Paul wrote to individuals. And it was initially questioned if a letter so quick and personal should be in the Bible.
St. John Chrysostom, writing in the 4th century, argued that this little book was an excellent service to the church. For Chrysostom, the book concerned a seemingly mundane personal issue that made it all the more critical. This argument shows us that the Gospel has profound interpersonal implications even in dicey social and political contexts.
The quickest of recaps for the shorter of the books (and go check out 30 Minutes in the New Testament on this network for more on the book)
Onesimus is a first-century Roman slave who has escaped, possibly with enough stolen to finance his escape; he knew of Paul from Paul’s time with Philemon, the man from whom Onesimus fled. Onesimus goes to Paul for help, has become a Christian, and is serving Paul in prison (1st-century Roman prisoners were clothed and fed by friends or else by nobody). Paul writes to Philemon, saying, “I’ll send Onesimus back to you, and you will treat him as you would me and as befitting anyone we are in Christian fellowship with.” There are no demands- just a call to live in light of our new right relationship to God.
In Colossians 4, we read about Onesimus being a trusted Brother in Christ, but that’s the end of the line for the onetime slave. Except… maybe not.
St. Ignatius of Antioch (one of the earliest post-Apostolic authors) tells the story of meeting Onesimus in Ephesus, where Onesimus was the bishop. And the imagination runs wild. Perhaps it was Onesimus, the slave who actually wrote Ephesians! Maybe he was a compiler of Paul’s letters around when Philemon was written! Or perhaps, of course, this was the same Onesimus because if that slave didn’t end up as a bishop, why would we care about the story?
Onesimus was a common name for a slave- it means useful- so perhaps the Bishop of Ephesus was a former slave. And we have a record of this Onesimus preaching across Europe before being arrested under the Christian persecutions of Trajan. In this story, Onesimus refuses to recant his faith, is stoned to death, and then decapitated.
Sometimes we think our stories need to be spectacular to have meaning. Sometimes we try to look for secret knowledge in the historical record that somehow reveals something “more important” about the story. And this is a pitfall in church history, as we have seen. But perhaps Onesimus did have just “a bit part” in the story of Paul and the spread of the Gospel in the 1st century. The good news is that the mundane, even those bit parts, is important enough to be caught up in the cosmic drama of the Gospel.
We remember Onesimus with much of the church today (and some yesterday)- in honor of this day- why not give Philemon a read? It’s like 350 words.
The Last Word for today comes from Philemon, the only chapter:
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you based on love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 16th of February 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who wonders what happened to the Oneders. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who asks- “are you crazy, a man in a nice camper wants to put our song on the radio. Gimme a pen, I’m signin’ you’re signin’, we’re all signin” I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.