A few months after we bought our house, Andy was re-insulating, standing on a ladder underneath the floor of our family room – pulling out the very sparse filling which was mostly made of ancient shredded newspapers, when he discovered a stash of old letters tucked in up inside a gap. These letters were dated in the 1930s. There were twenty or thirty of them, from the same person, hidden all together over a time span of a several years, in the eves of what was once the garage.
What led the man who lived here to hide the letters? we wondered. What was the tale behind these short, terse, often sad notes? There is story here, one that has taken us years to piece together, a little at a time, and we still only know parts of it. Reading between the lines, guessing at the sender and the recipient, the motivation of the letter, what it was like to get it, what happened as a result of it... this is a fascinating game.
There is nothing like an ordinary and mysterious letter to open peephole and draw us into a bigger story.
Today we have before us an absorbing story, and the only window is a single letter, a letter filled with emotion and affection, posturing and persuading, referencing a relationship that stretches before and beyond the moment of writing and receiving this letter. We can only guess at the circumstances that would bring about such a letter, and even more intriguing, at the circumstances that resulted from such a letter.
This little letter is in our bible because it is undoubtedly and indisputably from the Apostle Paul. And as such, it is unusual because it is written to an individual and not a community, someone Paul knows well and cares about very much.
But it is also in our scriptures because to the early church and church fathers, this letter helps us to know something of what it means to follow Christ. So even though it is written to a particular person about a very particular situation, this letter is also meant for you and me.
Unlike the letters in my garage ceiling, written long gone and having nothing to do with us, letters that after enjoying the game of guessing, we can put away to forget and ignore, this letter before us today puts a demand upon us.
It is not only about these individuals long ago, but has something to say to all of us, as followers of Christ, as many parts of the one Body of Christ, the community that lives in the world as a living, breathing window into the kingdom of God.
How was this letter received? In what spirit was it sent? Probably there was both joy and fear on both ends –hope and concern from both parties. This is not a harmless catching-up type letter that drifts softly and alights without breaking the surface. This letter likely landed with a KERPLUNK!, a cheerful but disturbing splash that irreversibly rippled out in endless concentric circles, and we can only speculate at its outcome.
And in reading it ourselves, we risk it penetrating our surface as well, causing unsettling ripples in our own lives. So are you up for it?
Shall we crack the weathered seal and take a peek?
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker,
to Apphia our sister,
to Archippus our fellow-soldier,
and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.
I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.
I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.
I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.
Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.
Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you,
and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow-workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
What we do know is that Paul is writing from prison, to Philemon, a dear friend, someone he loves and respects. He is writing on behalf another dear friend, one he calls a son, Onesimus, whom he also loves and respects. This is all well and good, except that the second used to be the first one’s slave. And there is clearly some tension, possibly Onesimus stole from Philemon or ran away or both, but at some point found he his way to Paul and also to Jesus.
And now, an unsuspecting Philemon opens up a letter from his dear friend and imprisoned mentor, Paul, for whom he has been worrying and praying. And his breath must have caught in his throat when he read the words, because in this letter Paul is reuniting slave and master.
Paul stomps on the law and shoves right past social standing and natural order; he bypasses personal anger and wrongdoing, and goes right for the jugular. “You two are are brothers in Christ,” he says, “you are mutual image-bearers of God.” And having stripped away the lenses of cultural roles and societal norms he thrusts their humanity suddenly before them.
Philemon, meet Onesimus; Onesiums, meet Philemon.
What does this gospel of Jesus Christ do to us? Really?
It puts us in terrible dilemmas, awkward circumstances, troubling situations.
Who are you, now, if not slave? If not master? After you have been this way for so long, after you have learned and lived as one or the other, how can you be any other way?
I’ve recently returned from spending 8 days in South Africa, and while I was there I read both Mandela’s and Tutu’s books about apartheid and it’s ending, and I am flabbergasted. I still can’t wrap my mind around how – as individuals let alone a whole nation of people – how you shift from being slave and master, ruler and ruled, powerful and weak – to being equals, brothers and sisters, partners. I am amazed by a whole people pushing the restart button.
When we toured Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison, the first part of our tour was led by a young, colored man. Coloreds, (or light-skinned people of mixed race), and Indians were considered above black and below white, in the order of value, respect and rights. It was that intentional, simplistic and insidious.
Our guide around the island was 23 years old, so he was seven years old when Mandela became president. He has no real conscious memory of apartheid – it has been over for most of his life. And yet, he says, it will take many generations for South Africans to truly be finished with apartheid.
“If I wanted to keep two people apart from each other” he said, “I could hold them back with my arms, but that would work only so long before my arms would get tired and I would let go. I could build a wall of bricks between them, and they could find their way around the wall.
But, if I whisper lies to each one about the other, if I tell them things that make them distrust the other, make them see the other as unequal, dangerous, different, threatening, then I have no need to stand between them or build walls. They will stay apart.
For us in South Africa, the walls and barriers, the systems and rules and even conscious beliefs that kept us apart are gone, they have been dismantled. But the unconscious beliefs are so deeply ingrained that they shape us still, and it will be not my generation or my children’s generation who will be truly free, it will be the generations that come after that.
We must dedicate ourselves to relentlessly breaking down the prejudices, we must cultivate awareness of our own subconscious stereotypes as often as possible and be intentional about the choices we make in even the smallest of interactions. And one day, perhaps, my great grandchildren or their children will see a truly free South Africa.”
Unlike South Africa, where the system has been changed and now the individuals in it must change, in our story today, Paul is claiming that though the system may be no different than it ever was, both Philemon and Onesimus are now different – being in Christ changes them.
Onesimus is sent back to his old life as a new man. He returns to Philemon, and possibly to slavery, for all he knows – but he returns as a free man.
Onesimus has tasted freedom, he has known community and mutual respect, so why would he ever return? Because as long as he is gone, he is bound within the system, a runaway slave, hiding and fearing, defined by his actions. But now he is free to return and face his master. And though legally he is facing punishment and enslavement, these things do not own him. He functions now within an evil and dehumanizing system, but does so as a human being, a free person, someone with identity and dignity, who is defined not by the system but by the claim of Christ on his life.
And so it is for Philemon, though has been wronged, humiliated, stolen from, he is now told this runaway slave is his brother, his partner in Christ. Never again may he see Onesimus as an object to be owned, as property, but instead as a fellow human being.
“Onesimus will walk in that door,” Paul tells Philemon, “and when he does, look on him not only as one Christ loves, but as one that I love. He is my heart, and I am sending him back to you. Treat him as you would me.”
Even though by conventions or law Philemon should punish Oneismus, sell him or even kill him, Paul is telling him he is not bound by conventions or laws. He is not bound by anger or retribution. He is not bound by what Oneismus deserves or even his own honor or rights.
Paul is giving Philemon another way – urging him to live from his freedom in Christ. He is free to act differently, free to be human, to live from his own humanity as a child of God and meet Onesimus the same way.
And this restores not only Onesimus’ humanity but Philemon’s own humanity as well; it reinstates his own empathy and dignity, calling him to be compassionate, humane.
Neither man now holds power over the other – they are both set free in Christ to meet one another in their humanity.
If Jesus Christ, God incarnate, has come into the world, has shared this life and died at the hands of those whom he created and rose to conquer death, then that changes everything. Because we are in Christ, we are a new creation, the old has gone the new has come.
Being free in Christ means that in whatever circumstances we find ourselves – we are called to live as though that system or those circumstances can't dictate who we are. Who we are is determined by God. We are free from the fears that make us hold so tightly to what we have even at the expense of others, that make us need to be right or strong.
We are free to live differently.
But this freedom is not easy. And it is quite paradoxical as well, Paul is writing from jail, after all. Being in Christ doesn’t make life easier. In fact, being in Christ often makes things messier, more complicated and challenging. The gospel doesn’t exempt us from real life or spare us from the systems or consequences. It doesn’t float tranquilly on the surface, just a compliment to our lives, or a gentle addition to the world’s systems and structures as they are.
Instead, the gospel plunges through the surface and sinks down into every single encounter, permeating each interaction, calling us by the Spirit to act from our humanity and uphold that of others. The freedom of gospel requires us to ask the difficult questions even if it means we must change.
So what happens in this story?
What does the reunion look like between Philemon and Onesimus?
How does the future of the household unfold? Or the little church community that meets there who witnesses this reunion?
What becomes of the relationship between the two men?
What happens to their own lives as a result of this interaction?
We don’t know. And Paul doesn’t ever get the chance to use the guest room that he has asked Philemon sets aside for him - his own life ends before their story does.
And so the mystery of this letter remains.
But the questions it raises for you and me remain as well.
How does the claim of Christ on our live change everything for us?
What does it mean that we are defined by a different reality?
What does it mean that we are free?
How are our live shaped by the truth that each human being is made in God’s image and is part of God’s plan?
When we gather today at the Table, before the paradox of a broken body and shed blood, shared among friends when their God was about to die before them, and shared today among friends who confess that our very life is found in this dead and risen Lord...
When we gather today at the table we gather in a story that is unfolding within and beyond this world and even though we don’t live from our freedom much of the time, in fact, we are part of this reality. We gather inside a promise lives among us and through us and one day will be fully realized, and that is this: The whole world belongs to God, and we are each children of God, free to build up one another in love, to celebrate justice and live out mercy, to embrace peace and share hope.
May we live into that reality now, ever more bravely, that our own lives are a story both ordinary and mysterious, a glimpse of God’s unquenchable kingdom.