Thoughts from an obscure Bible Book

Did you ever notice no one ever names their kid Philemon or Onesimus? It's an easy Biblical story to overlook. It's not like the other situational epistles. It's far more personal and it's a single chapter. I looked at it closely recently for a message at the local nursing home. N.T Wright said that Philemon is "a carefully crafted and sensitively worded piece, employing tact and irony."

It was written by Paul, possibly during his Ephesian imprisonment to another Christian named Philemon. Philemon was the converted master of a runaway slave named Onesimus. Paul led Philemon to faith in Christ and then later also led Onesimus to Christ while they were both imprisoned. Paul was jailed for proclaiming the Gospel, and it is unclear why Onesimus was incarcerated. Onesimus had wronged Philemon upon running away from him. Perhaps by theft. Maybe the irony that Wright alludes to is that a runaway slave could "wrong" his master. It's an ethical conundrum from a postmodern perspective.

Here are some reflections from the text of Philemon:

People may suffer even though they are Christians. Paul wrote this letter from prison. Someone forgot to tell him that this was his best life now. What a disservice our Western consumerist view of church does to our faith! Particularly when difficulty comes--and it will!

People in Christ are connected in powerful community. Paul gives the roll call of his friends: Timothy, Apphia, Archippus, Mark, Aristarchus, Epaphras, Demas, Luke. It's good to have friends along on the journey. Not all of our friends will be loyal (Demas), and we may not always agree (Mark), but as Winnie the Pooh said, "A friend is one of the nicest things you can have and one of the best things you can be."

People need other people to pray for them. Paul wrote, "I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers." Anybody can pray, everyone needs prayer, and no one can stop you from praying for them. 

People who know Jesus should share him with others. Barna research recently indicated that only 7 percent of people who identified themselves as Christians spoke with others about their faith at least once a week. Not to shame us, but we have to do better. People need God in their lives. We have the privilege of being His representatives.

People should be able to tell that we are Christians. "Because I hear of the your love and of the faith that you have."  People need to see Jesus in us. Brennan Manning said, "The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable."

People respond well to kindness. Paul chose to influence rather than demand. He chose to make a gentle appeal rather than bark orders. Paul knew that words are powerful. He didn't think that "the end justified the means." What good is it to get what we want, but destroy and alienate others in the process? A lot of people on Twitter should ponder this.

People always have room to grow. Philemon was a Christian and a slave owner. Part of the subtlety and tact that characterizes this letter has to do with this reality. Paul gently urges Philemon to see Onesimus as a brother and not as chattel. How could a Christian not see this, we wonder? We can't appropriate our cultural worldview for their moment in history. We're not even told how Philemon responded, but in my sanctified imagination I see him taking Paul's advice. In reality, we are all a long way from where we ought to be in some way.

People need advocates. Paul advocated for a weaker person's best interest. Onesimus' name meant "profitable." We all like to think of ourselves as useful and see our lives as contributing something meaningful. But Philemon had come to see Onesimus as "useless" (v.11). However, Paul renames him calling him variously:
  • My very heart
  • Useful
  • My child
  • More than a slave, a brother
Weaker people need advocates. Maybe we are the now sober person on solid enough ground to help an addict. Or the stable adult in the line of vision of an at-risk child. Maybe we are the seasoned Christian who can invest in a baby believer. Maybe we are the financially sound person who God is calling to do more than build bigger barns. If we have a position of relative strength, we also have a mandate to care for the weak and not just please ourselves (Romans 15:1).

Conclusion - Philemon has a lot to offer. Really I quit digging at about verse 20 because I was saturated with content for a nursing home message. But I thought it was worth pointing out that there is a lot of practical content here that often gets overlooked.