1.Introduction

 

These Sundays after Trinity,

or Sundays in Ordinary Time, as they are often called,

are the time of year when we reflect on how being Godís person works out in practice.

During the first half of the church year,

which begins in December or the very end of November,

with Advent Sunday,

we remind ourselves of the reasons why we are Christians,

of the important events in Jesusí life;

of the birth of the early church.

Then, after Trinity Sunday,

we start to look at how being a Christian affects us;

how what we say we believe matches up with what we really believe,

and how we are going to live if we truly are Godís people.

We learn from the way God spoke through his prophets in Old Testament times,

from the stories Jesus told of how Godís people would act and think,

and, as now, from the letters St Paul wrote to the early churches and to individuals.

 

This letter is the only example in the Bible that we have of how St Paul worked behind the scenes to help people.

He wrote it to help the runaway slave Onesimus when he went back to his master, Philemon.

 

2.†† Who Was Philemon?

 

So who was Philemon, anyway?

We donít know very much about him;

he lived in Colossae,

was married to Appia,

and had one son called Archippus.

He was also a friend of Paulís,

and seems to have had some position of authority

in the church at Colossa≠e.

Scholars think that the letter to Philemon was written at the same time as the letter to the Colos≠sians

and the now-vanished letter to the Laodiceans,

and that Tychicus and Onesimus took the whole lot with them.


Actually, some scholars think that the letter to the Laodiceans is what we know as the letter to the Ephesians,

but other scholars arenít absolutely sure that Ephesians was written by Paul.

Not that it matters ó

they do all think that Philemon, and Colossians, come to that, was a genuine letter from Paul.

 

Anyway, Philemon of Colossae was a rich man,

rich enough to own slaves.

We are disgusted by the very idea of slavery,

but throughout most of human history it seems to have been acceptable.

And it still exists in parts of the world today, unfortunately ó

and there are even some slaves here in London.

I wish it werenít so, but sadly, it is.

 

However, in Philemonís day, people thought nothing wrong in owning slaves.

I donít know whether the slaves thought so.

If you were Jewish, it was one thing ó

Jewish law required all slaves to be freed after seven yearsí service,

and given capital to start up on their own, if they wished.

But it was very different to be a slave to a Roman,

when you were, purely and simply, property.

I have read that it wasnít quite as desperate as being a slave in the USA before the Civil War,

but I donít think it was much better.

Although, unlike in the USA, being a slave didnít debar you from a good education;

quite the reverse, in fact, since most teachers were slaves!

 

We donít know, though what Onesimusí position in the household had been.

But he had obviously been very unhappy,

unhappy enough that he ran away to Rome,

where he could be anonymous.

Now, under Jewish law, if a slave was unhappy enough to run away,

it was your fault,

and nobody was going to make him or her go back to you,


but the Romans took a very different view of the matter.

Your slaves were your property, and must and should be returned to you

ó whatever punishment you might see fit to dole out to them when they did return.

 

So Onesimusí life would have been that of an outlaw,

always fearing discovery,

always terrified of being sent back.

Of course, we donít know why he decided to run away.

But we do know that Philemon and his family were Christian people ó

could it be, do you suppose, that after Paulís visit to Colossae,

when Philemon, Appia, Archippus and all the rest of the family had become Christians, Onesimus had held out?

Perhaps Philemon had said he must be baptised ó

in those days, when the head of the household was baptised, often everyone was.

Perhaps Onesimus had thought it was all a load of rubbish, and was desperate not to be baptised.

Or perhaps he couldnít handle the way Philemon changed after his conversion.

We arenít told.

Judging by the fact that his name means ďUsefulĒ,

and Paul made puns about it,

I expect Onesimus had been born into slavery, and known nothing different.

The changes that took place after the familyís conversion to Christianity must have been a shock to his system, whatever.

 

Or, of course, perhaps he had run away before the family were con≠verted.

Again, we arenít told.

But we do know that when he ran away, he was not yet a Christian.

 

Well, he may not have been a Christian,

but that doesnít mean God didnít love him,

didnít have a hand on him.

People would undoubtedly have been praying for Onesimusí safety,

and for his conversion,

and God answered those prayers in a wonderful way,


by causing Onesimus, once again, to come into contact with Paul.

And so, eventually, Onesimus comes to faith.

 

3.Unfinished Business

 

But coming to faith, although we often call it being born again,

doesnít mean you leave your problems totally behind you.

You may be a new creation,

but there are remnants of your past life to come and haunt you.

There are people you must apologise to, if necessary;

you might have committed crimes, even, which have to be put right.

Not a few conversions happen in prisons, of course.

 

I wonder, actually, if Onesimus might not have been in prison when Paul met him;

we know that Paul was imprisoned in Rome.

But then, Onesi≠mus seems to be free to go off with Tychicus,

so perhaps not.

Because Onesimus had to go back.

However difficult it would be,

however awful going back to the slavery he loathed and dreaded,

he belongs to Phile≠mon and must go back to him.

 

But he doesnít go alone.

For a start, now that he is a Christian he knows that Jesus is with him,

and that he will be serving the same God as his master.

But, more immediately important,

Paul sends a letter to Phile≠mon with him.

And in that letter, Paul pleads for Onesimus:

 

ďI 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.Ē


And again:

ďSo if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would wel≠come me.

If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.Ē

 

Paul is desperate for Philemon to be good to Onesimus, and reminds him that they are both Christians now:

 

ďPerhaps 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 ‑ espe≠cially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.Ē

 

4.What Happened Next

 

We arenít, sadly, told what happened when Onesimus got home.

We know he went off to Colossae with Tychicus, and presumably he arrived there, since the letter has survived.

I hope Philemon welcomed him with the love due to a brother in Christ.

I hope, very much, that Philemon did, as Paul hints he should,

free Onesimus, and treat him as an equal.

 

But the thing was, Onesimus had to go home anyway.

Even if Philemon hadnít been a Christian,

even if he had been a cruel master

and Onesimus had been facing a certain flogging, and possible execution.

Onesimus had to go home.

Because, as a Christian, it was his duty to do so.

He couldnít leave unfinished business hanging about.

He had to wipe the slate clean.

He had to put things right.

 

That, I think, is one of the things the letter to Philemon tells us.

That we do need to put things right.

Our dear Lord, you may remember, told us that

ďwhen you are offering your gift at the altar,

if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,


leave your gift there before the altar and go;

first be reconciled to your brother or sister,

and then come and offer your gift.Ē

 

Onesimus had to go and be reconciled with Philemon.

He had to make the effort

even if Philemon treated him as he had every right to do.

And we, too, must always be the first to be reconciled.

If someone has any≠thing, anything at all, to reproach us with,

then we must go and do what we can to put things right.

First, before we do anything else.

Onesimus did, and so must we.

 

But the other thing to remember is there were two people involved.

Onesimus had to go back to Philemon,

but Philemonís duty was also plain ó

to forgive Onesimus,

to welcome him back to his rightful place as one of the family,

and, perhaps, to grant him his freedom.

That was probably not easy for him.

Although mind you, if Onesimus had been missing for some years,

it was probably far easier to welcome him back

than if heíd only been missing a couple of weeks.

But you know what itís like.

If someone comes to you and says they are sorry,

itís not always easy to accept their apology and forgive them.

And itís even worse when they donít apologise,

or do so in such a way that itís quite clear they donít really mean it.

Our instinct is to go on being livid, and not to forgive them.

 

But Jesus reminds us, on several occasions,

that we must forgive if we are, ourselves, to receive forgiveness:

ďFor if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;

but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.Ē

 

The letter to Philemon is, of all the letters in the Bible, the one that has the most to teach us about forgiveness.


Onesimus had to come back to put things right with his master,

and Philemon had to forgive Onesimus and help him make a fresh start.

And we, too, need to put things right with one another,

and with God.

All of us do.

So if you know that someone has something against you,

as the Scripture says,

do go and put things right with them as soon as you leave here,

wonít you?

Or if someone has offended you, do forgive them.

It isnít easy, but we must do it, if we bear the name of Christ.

Amen.

 

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