Philemon 1-21 (16th Sunday after Pentecost—Series C)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
September 8, 2013
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Epistle Lesson recorded in Paul’s letter to Philemon:
Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, 6 and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. 7 For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. 8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you– I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus– 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it– to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
Onesimus had not lived up to his name which means “Beneficial, Profitable, Useful.” It was the sort of name masters assigned to their slaves in hopes of securing conduct becoming of a trustworthy slave. “Give a dog a good name, and you will have done him a good turn—provided of course, that he lives up to it. A slave who lived up to this name would be a treasure, and his master lucky to get the willing, cheerful, efficient service it seems to promise.” But this Onesimus had become not-useful to his master, Philemon. Onesimus had run away.
Onesimus, “Useful,” was anything but useful to his master, having made his way to Rome from the city of Colossae. Onesimus appears to have been a high-ranking personal servant to Philemon. He would have been entrusted with caring for his master’s earthly possessions. He had access to his money, an enviable position to hold. In the Roman world, slaves could serve in a variety of positions (from chain gang to cook, from hairdresser to obstetrician). Like Onesimus, Roman slaves often held positions of great power and responsibility.
Unlike the American experience, slavery in the Roman world wasn’t associated with the oppression of any particular race. Slaves were most often prisoners of war taken from foreign lands, or non-Roman individuals sold by their families to repay a debt. While in service to their master, slaves could earn wages, buy and sell property, enter into contracts, and own slaves themselves. Frequently, Roman free persons sold themselves into slavery in order to pay debts, while non-Roman persons sold themselves in order to eventually obtain Roman citizenship.
All in all, life doesn’t sound as if it were too horrible for Onesimus. Slaves who did their best for the master and his interests and were hardworking, honest, and resourceful, usually found themselves on the master’s good side, appreciated his rewards, and could enjoy an astonishing degree of independence and autonomy—even as slaves. On the other hand, slaves who were lazy, disobedient, and disrespectful, or who otherwise did not live up to the master’s trust, usually had to endure stormy and unhappy relationships with their masters. This would have included humiliations, demotions, beatings, and worse.
Onesimus, Paul writes to Philemon, was useless. Before Onesimus rebelled and ran away, did he steal from his master? Was he, perhaps, lazy in his duties? Is that why he ran, because he feared Philemon’s punishments and the reprisals of his actions? Paul does say that “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” Paul offers to make right anything that Onesimus stole or damaged when he ran away.
Now why would Paul, under house arrest in Rome, offer to do such a thing for this useless slave, Onesimus? Why not simply send him back to Philemon in Colossae and let Onesimus get what he deserves? Because something has now changed in the master-slave relationship. Something has now changed with Onesimus. He who was formerly “not-useful” has become one who is “well-useful.” Onesimus’ act of disobedience some time ago had been replaced and superseded by God’s grace with an ongoing double usefulness which could be rendered to both Philemon and to Paul simultaneously. For you see, Onesimus was now a Christian.
Paul calls Onesimus “my child, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” Paul shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ—His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life—with Onesimus. In that way, Paul, using the Gospel Word of Christ, led Onesimus to faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. So Paul became his spiritual father. Paul had invested in Onesimus so much affection and pain, that he thought of him as his child to whom he had given birth through the seed of the Gospel. This is powerful image to illustrate what took place as Onesimus and Paul met in the private setting of Paul’s house arrest in the presence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, Onesimus had now become a sinner and useful saint in one person as a result of the living faith Paul had engendered in him through the Gospel, whereas before Onesimus had been only a useless sinner.
And the good news for today is that this happened to you and me, also! One person’s flagrant sinfulness is remedied by God, who brings about the unforeseen salvation of many saints through the forgiveness of sins. We call it the great reversal. We read in Romans 5, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom 5:18-19) Adam’s one act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden brought sin and death on all people. But Jesus Christ’s perfect obedience in His life and in His suffering and death has brought a surplus of grace, forgiveness, and eternal life available to all.
Thus you and I, as baptized Christians, are like Onesimus. While still sinners, we are simultaneously new creations in Christ, saints—holy ones—who have been redeemed and forgiven of all our sins because Jesus suffered, died, and rose again to save us. Jesus Christ made Himself to be a slave for us. He chose to bind Himself to a life of obedience and service. In His dying, we might say that Jesus “chained” Himself to the “slave market” of the cross. There Christ died the death of a slave—the death brought about by our rebellion and disobedience to God, the death merited by our lying, stealing, cheating. Because of the enormity of His love, He picks us up in His hands—those hands that were nailed to the wood of the cross—and He makes us new. Our sins are forgiven and so Jesus makes the once useless sinner useful again.
God in Christ Jesus takes us formerly useless people and makes us into the instruments of His grace in this modern world because a new reality has broken in upon us. We not only have a new relationship to God through our Lord Jesus Christ—a relationship of peace and reconciliation—but we also now have a new relationship with each other in the household of faith. Transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit from useless sinners to sinners who are now useful saints, we receive one another as brothers and sisters in Christ just as Philemon was so encouraged to receive Onesimus, not as a slave, but as a beloved brother in Jesus.
United in faith, hope, and love in and through Christ, we are able to work together in “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” to support the ministry of the Gospel beginning from this place. As the useful saints of Christ gathered here around His Holy Word and Sacrament we cherish this network of fellowship and support. We dare not take one another for granted. God in Christ has called us all into His kingdom and made us part of His family. He will help us and the Lord will use us to help and encourage one another and others as well. Like Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon, we have opportunities to introduce people to our Lord and Savior. We have chances to be both “fathers” and “mothers” in the faith to others, even as Paul did with Onesimus. For God can make your life of faith into an effective witness to Christ’s saving work and glory. Through the Gospel, He has already effectively worked in you, bringing you forgiveness and faith. Look forward to what the Lord will do in and through all of you, the very useful, “Onesimuses” of LCOR. Amen.