Paul’s Pastoral Heart: Philemon, Onesimus, and More…

Philemon 1-21

I got drawn into the letter to Philemon this week, in part because its place in our readings next Sunday offers us the chance to reflect on an entire book of the Bible. Unlike Paul’s other letters, its succinctness allows us to focus on one or two important things and to wonder together at their meaning for us. And yet, even as we do so we know that here are some important details we do not know as we spend time with Paul’s letter to Philemon.

  • We do not know, for instance, how Onesimus came to be in Paul’s company — whether he was sent to tend to Paul’s needs while he was in prison and overstayed his time there or he escaped his bondage and found his way to Paul.
  • We do not know the precise nature of Onesimus’ relationship to Philemon — whether it was cordial and kind or marked by cruelty.

On the other hand,

  • we do know that Onesimus was a slave to Philemon.
  • We do know that Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon were all followers of Christ.
  • And we do know that all three were living within a system larger than themselves: a system which demarcated difficult to bridge differences between social class and slave/free status.

It is with this limited background that I step into these 21 verses today. Here is what stands out for me as I do so:

Paul has the heart of a pastor. Both his tone and his choice of words show that he clearly respects and cares for Philemon and he clearly cares for Onesimus.

Paul grounds both his connection to the two of them and his appeal to Philemon to consider a different way in the faith that they share.

Indeed, Paul gently urges Philemon to see Onesimus with new eyes and as a result to restructure the outlines of their relationship.

At the same time, it is evident that Paul is speaking as one so rooted in and shaped by the larger systems of his time that he does not make any attempt to address the larger practice of slavery which denies some the freedom, the opportunities, the security, and the hope which “free men” (and of course, I am intentional in my choice of ‘men’ here) simply take for granted.

So it goes without saying, I suppose, that Paul’s letter to Philemon is not exactly a perfect model for how we deal with all that plagues the world still today. At the same time, where he begins with Philemon is a worthwhile place for all of us to start. Indeed, it seems a good place to begin with the understanding that our faith changes how we see the world, how we relate to one another. Indeed, perhaps for now it is enough to understand that our faith urges us to change how it is we live alongside others whom God also loves.

I don’t know who that ‘other’ is in the places you live and move, work and play, and seek to live out your faith. I do know that in most of our places the differences which threaten to divide may include but not be limited to: gender and gender identity, wealth and social status, immigration status and/or racial identity, or simply the community or neighborhood we call home.

Indeed, I am no ‘Onesimus.’ My entire life has been marked by privilege which has lived out in a host of ways. And yet, as I write these words I am taken back to a time when I was a child. When my folks moved into the community I consider my home town they simply bought a home where they could afford in a location which made it possible for my dad to walk to work, necessitating for many years the purchase and maintenance of only one vehicle. My sisters and I went to a neighborhood school where we were not, for many years, aware of the differences, both real and perceived, between us and those who lived ‘on the other side of the tracks.’ Except for this. At church we were thrown into a mix of children from all over town. And yes, in the way of children, I can remember being reminded by the cruel taunts of others in my Sunday School Class that our residence on the south side of the tracks was considered somehow inferior to the places others called home. And the ‘stain’ of their judgment fell onto me as well.

  • In church.
  • Where these differences between us are not supposed to matter.
  • In a place where all are supposed to be considered ‘one.’

Now , of course, we were children. And the consequence of such childhood teasing had no real implications for my life. (Other than making a place which was supposed be safe seem a little less so.) Even so, it is still so that people of faith today as in the time of Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, need the constant reminder that in God’s Reign it is different for those who differ one from another. Only now, perhaps a little unlike the church of my childhood, the people who gather for worship in the place I serve are a whole lot more alike than different. At least on the surface. Or at least in the ways we let be known. Someone of a race different from ours would walk into our doors and notice how they look different from the rest. One of a lower social class might step into worship and recognize this difference as well. And I expect we would, too. Indeed, it seems to me that much of the time we would need to step out of our doors and into our community to truly seek the ways in which Paul calls Philemon and all of us to live out our faith today. For as of now? In our differences much of the time we live in entirely different worlds.

Oh, I do not know how it is we bridge these different worlds. I did, however get a glimpse of it in the last couple of weeks as I read Sister Helen Prejean’s memoir, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey. If you know of her at all you will know that Sister Helen is a fierce advocate for abolishing the death penalty. In the pages of this book she traces her own journey of faith as she was awakened to a call to reach in powerful ways past what normally separates us. I would certainly commend it for your reading as well.

In addition, I am so grateful to say that I caught a glimmer of what this might mean face to face just the other day. Oh, it is only the start, of course, and we have so very far to go, but it began with one person’s eyes being opened in a way perhaps they had not been before.

For you see, she found herself at a laundromat not far from her home. She had a large item to launder which would not do well in her washer/dryer at home.

Now I am certain that the vast majority of the people I interact with from day  to day do not frequent the laundromat. Part of our privilege is known in the fact that we don’t have to bundle up sheets and towels, clothing and underwear into baskets and bags and drag them elsewhere to be washed and dried. It has, in fact been more than thirty years since I had to do this in a regular way myself.

So it was she went and once the laundry was begun she had nothing to do but wait. And while she was there, she took note of the moms trying to shepherd small children along with the whites and the darks and everything in-between. She paused to visit with some. She helped others carry things to their cars. She marveled at their persistence as they did what had to be done. Her eyes were opened to something she had not stopped to ponder before. She recognized the things she held in common with all of these folks who live near her, but with whom she had never spent time in the same place for any length of time before.

As she went to move her laundry from washer to dryer she found a $20 bill in the dryer which had certainly fallen out of someone’s pocket. She shook her head knowing that whoever had lost this surely needed it more than she did. She wondered if this maybe this unexpected gift was meant to prod her into deeper relationship with these neighbors with whom she recognized she shared more in common than not.

And she showed up in my office wondering about this.

And so it is that we spent a little time this week considering whether this might be a door cracked open for our whole congregation to walk through and find our way into relationships new and unexpected. Not as people to whom we simply extend charity, but those with whom we might find a way to connect and live out our faith alongside as Paul called Philemon to do with Onesimus. Maybe it could happen at a local laundromat on Pleasant Street in DeKalb. Maybe.

Again, it is only a start, and a meager one at that. But just as Paul began with gentle urging to his friend, Philemon, perhaps we are also gently invited to step out of our old comfortable ways of thinking about the world and those who inhabit it alongside us. Maybe the message of this letter for us today is meant to remind us that with eyes of faith the differences between us are blurred and we are called to seek to live out our faith in ways that break down that which would divide, wherever we recognize it. And maybe it happens in a laundromat and maybe it doesn’t.

I do not know where this will lead, if anywhere at all, but I am hopeful in wondering what we might experience next.

  • In a world where ‘slavery’ is experienced differently than it was in Paul’s lifetime, we have to stretch a bit to discover the meaning in this letter for us today. Then again, one can certainly argue that ‘slavery’ is as insidious today as it ever way. People are kept in their places and have opportunities limited in so very many ways. What ways come to mind for you?
  • How have you experienced ‘church’ as a place where the differences between us are accentuated? How have you experienced it as just the opposite: as a place where are all loved and welcomed?
  • Paul was asking Philemon to alter his relationship to Onesimus in a way that would have financial consequences as well as social ones. How might we be invited to do the same? What would that mean for us individually or as a group?