3rd Sunday after Trinity
02.7.17 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
This is the shortest of Paul’s letters but it is one full of love and challenge.
As was common with letters in the ancient world, he begins with saying who is writing the letter. He describes himself as “Paul, a prisoner of Christ”. Paul was in fact a prisoner of the Roman authorities at the time of writing this, towards the end of his life, but he prefers to see himself as one under the authority of Christ. As one who knew the power of Christ to break him out of prison, as he did memorably that time in Philippi, Paul sees himself as under Christ’s control.
His letter is to the church in Colossae, in Galatia (southern Turkey), and in particular to the man whose home the church meets in, a rich landowner called Philemon, a man Paul calls a dear friend and a fellow worker.
He starts by telling Philemon how grateful he is for him whenever he prays for him – grateful for his faith in God, and grateful for the love that he has for others. That is important as he is going to be appealing to that love later in the letter.
We then get into the heart of the letter and why Paul is writing. Paul writes about a slave called Onesimus. Its a name that was often given to slaves in the hope that they live out the meaning of their name. It means “useful”. But there was a problem – far from being useful, Onesimus had become the exact opposite – “useless”. He had done something wrong – possibly stealing something, or just neglecting his duties – and had escaped and run away from his master before he could be punished. The useful one had become useless.
But then he bumps into Paul, and Paul tells him about Jesus. Onesimus comes to faith and as a result his life is transformed. Paul writes of how Onesimus has become a dear friend, who has helped him a huge amount while he himself has been languishing in prison. Onesimus has not only become “useful”; he has become loved! This is the story of remarkable personal transformation.
But this letter is not just about change of our hearts. It is about a change of relationships too.
Imagine that a colleague at work is fiddling the accounts, or giving away company secrets to your competitors or bad-naming your reputation. They leave under a cloud, but a few months later a friend asks you to welcome them back. They say they will vouch for the fact that they are a changed person. Not only that, they want you to give them a promotion, to treat them as an equal. I wonder how you would feel? I wonder what you would do?
Or imagine a situation where you’ve been receiving financial advice about your pension or savings, but have then found out the person giving the advice was untrustworthy and you’ve lost some of your savings. Imagine how you would feel if a good friend of yours said that they were having a party for their close friends and they particularly wanted you and this person to come. How would you feel?
Well, that is what Paul essentially asks of Onesimus’ owner, Philemon, the recipient of the letter. Philemon was essentially Onesimus’ employer – the one who has been wronged – and yet here is Paul saying ”Onesimus has changed. Welcome him back. Forgive him. And if he has done anything wrong, I will repay you on his behalf.”
Its amazing love and kindness on Paul’s behalf, but it is a big ask of Philemon. Imagine having to do that.
But by all accounts Philemon does respond well to Paul’s request. Philemon does forgive Onesimus. Why? Because Philemon too is a Christian and Paul appeals to his Christian faith.
It is out of love for God that we find the love to forgive and reconcile with others.
I wonder who do you need to forgive? Ask God to help you as he helped Philemon.
A change of heart; a change of relationships; this letter is also about a change to our world.
When Paul wrote his letter, it was 2000 years ago at the height of the Roman Empire. A quarter of the population were slaves – people who were treated more like property than human beings. They had to obey whatever their owners demanded, and could be punished even with death if they didn’t do what they were told. They were not allowed to leave their master no matter how badly treated they were. They had no rights. They were very poor. They were badly treated.
But Paul says something remarkable to Philemon. He tells Philemon, “Not only do I want you to forgive Onesimus, your slave. I want you to treat him as a dear brother.” In other words, I want you to treat him as an equal, someone who is just as special, just as worthy of love, just as important as you are. In fact when Paul wrote to another church just down the road from where Philemon was living, he wrote, “In God’s new family, there is neither slave or free, because we are all one in Christ.”
In other words, set him free. Let him be your friend, not your slave.
As the church grew in influence it was able to do that not just for one-off individuals like Onesimus, but for whole peoples. It was William Wilberforce, inspired by his Christian faith, that finally made slavery illegal.
I wonder what you will do, inspired by God’s love for all, to change the world, to stand up for what is right?
Paul appealed to Philemon to forgive and love Onesimus, and to forge a new and radical form of friendship. May God help us to respond likewise.