It’s not every day that we read nearly an entire book of the Bible in church.
And today, we do:
The book of Philemon:
Almost the whole entire thing.
And it’s a book that you might not have even heard of!
It only appears once in our three year lectionary:
And many often skip over it.
And while I usually preach on the Gospel:
It seems worth it to take a closer look at Philemon:
And do a sort of mini-bible study,
Since we get the whole book today.
And this little tiny book packs a pretty real punch:
That we, the church, need to hear.
Even I didn’t know that much about Philemon.
I had to do some serious research on this little book:
And I learned a lot that’s worth sharing.
Philemon is one of the shortest books in the bible, only behind the letters of first, second, and third John.
This little book, is one of Paul’s letters.
But it’s unique, because it’s written to an individual.
In most of Paul’s letters, he’s writing to a community, a church:
Like the churches in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus….
But Philemon is an individual person.
And like the rest of Paul’s letters:
We just have one side of the conversation.
Paul’s letters are a little like overhearing a person’s phone call:
Just hearing one side:
Where we can make out the main point of the conversation,
But we don’t know what the other person is saying:
And we might not even know why the call was made in the first place!
There’s a lot about the letter to Philemon that’s a mystery.
But at the same time, we can learn a lot with a careful reading.
First, we see that Paul knows and loves Philemon.
We can also see that Philemon has a church in his home:
(and most churches in the first generations of the church were house churches.)
Since Philemon even HAD a house, we might guess that he was fairly wealthy.
And then, as we read further,
We learn that Philemon actually is wealthy, because he owned a slave.
That slave’s name is O-NEE-si-mus.
And the meat of this short letter is about Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, and their relationships to one another.
Paul writes to Philemon:
Letting him know that Onesimus is with him,
And he asks Philemon to take Onesimus back, and welcome him as a brother rather than a slave.
Now, at the time of this letter, Paul is in prison:
And how Onesimus got to Paul is unknown.
Historians have suggested a few scenarios:
The first is that Philemon, the slave owner:
Sent his slave Onesimus to Paul who was in prison for greetings or supplies.
Maybe even with a letter!
The second, is that Onesimus escaped from Philemon:
Maybe in search of Paul,
Or maybe in search of freedom.
In this letter, we see that Onesimus has made his way to Paul:
He’s been converted to Christianity:
And now Paul is sending him back to Philemon:
As a brother in Christ:
No longer a slave.
And with Christ:
Our relationships change.
Just like in today’s Gospel.
Those difficult words from Luke:
About Hating mother and father, sister, and brother, wife, and children…
Jesus is describing the cost of discipleship.
The cost of discipleship that changes our relationships:
Changes our allegiances:
Because following Jesus means we must renounce other allegiances.
As we read the letter to Philemon:
We see those allegiances change:
We see family dynamics change.
We see ownership of slaves and masters, fathers and sons, change:
We see that the only dynamics and allegiances that matter:
Are those of God and the Christian family.
In reading the letter, it’s clear that Paul has great affection for Onesimus.
He says that he has become Onesimus’ father.
The relationships are changed.
And it’s interesting because it seems that Paul is also something of a spiritual father to Philemon as well.
Paul even alludes to the fact that he brought Philemon to faith.
The relationships are changed.
SO: Being the sort of Christian “father” of both Philemon and Onesimus:
Paul urges Philemon to receive the returned Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother.
The relationships are different now.
Whether they like it or not:
They’re a family.
A family in Christ.
A family in baptism.
And their relationships to one another are totally changed from before.
Paul, through the relationships that have been forged through Jesus Christ:
Is overturning slavery for Onesimus.
And we see in this letter to Philemon,
Three people in a new relationship because of Jesus Christ:
A relationship that moves across the seemingly insurmountable barrier of slave and master.
We don’t know if Philemon obeyed Paul or not.
But we have the letter:
Which means that the church:
Guided by the Holy Spirit:
Thinks that what this letter has to say is worthwhile:
And even descriptive of what a Christian life should look like.
It’s too bad that we don’t have the next letter from Philemon back to Paul:
Enjoy the weekly sermons at anytime.