Short Book, Big Message: Philemon

Short Book, Big Message: Philemon

A Message on Philemon 17-21

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

Feb. 17, 2019

By Doug Wintermute


Philemon 17-21 (NRSV)


So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.


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Today we continue our sermon series on the shortest books of the Bible by exploring the book of Philemon.


Philemon is one of the epistles, which is a fancy word for letters, from the Apostle Paul. It’s at the very end of his letters not because chronologically it is the last one he wrote, but because it is the shortest. The ordering of Paul’s letters in the Bible are done according to length. That’s why Romans, which is probably the last of the epistles that Paul wrote, is listed first. It’s the longest.


Philemon is the shortest. It only has 335 words in the original Greek language that it was written in. That’s short. In fact, that makes it the third shortest book of the Bible.


Like Obadiah, we don’t hear much about Philemon. There is a reading from Philemon that is included in the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a selection of scriptures that, over a three year period, covers pretty much most of the Bible. But there’s only one and it only comes around once every three years.


So here’s the background for this letter. Paul is in prison, which wasn’t all that unusual for Paul. He is in prison in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire at the time. While he is there, he writes letters, including what we know today as Philemon.


The letter gets its name from the recipient. Philemon was a wealthy Christian who lived in the city of Colosse. (Paul’s letter to the church members there is known as Colossians, by the way.) It is believed that Philemon is one of the church leaders in Colosse. He may have even had the house church meet in his house. Paul knew Philemon and describes him as a “dear friend and co-worker.”


The reason for the letter deals with another person, named Onesimus.  Onesimus is a slave owned by Philemon. For some reason, and we don’t know why, Onesimus has run away from Philemon’s household. We don’t know why he ran away. Some scholars suggest that he had stolen some money and fled with it (based primarily on Paul’s promise that if Onesimus owes Philemon anything to put it on Paul’s account). The bottom line is we really don’t know.


What we do know is that Onesimus makes his way to Rome and, either by divine fate or on purpose, he finds Paul in prison there.


Paul and Onesimus visit and get to talking and Onesimus becomes a Christian. He helps Paul out by probably bringing him food and water, and perhaps clothing and blankets, which was common for outsiders to bring to prisoners in those day.


But even though Onesimus is helpful to Paul, Paul makes the decision that Onesimus needs to return to Philemon’s household in Colosse. So he writes this letter for Onesimus to give to Philemon.


The purpose for the letter is to persuade Philemon not to punish or be harsh with Onesimus. Indeed, Paul urges Philemon to no longer see Onesimus as a slave but as a fellow Christian, as a brother in Christ.


It’s interesting the Paul does this. Back in Deuteronomy we find a law for the Hebrew people regarding slaves who have escaped.


“Slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them. 16 They shall reside with you, in your midst, in any place they choose in any one of your towns, wherever they please; you shall not oppress them.” — Deuteronomy 23:15-16


Paul doesn’t do this, though. He sends Onesimus back but with this letter, urging Philemon not to punish him, but to celebrate him as a brother in Christ.


Now let’s pause for a minute and talk about slavery at the time. Slavery is a sensitive subject but the fact is that it was not only practiced in the first century in the Middle East but it actually goes way back into the early days of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament there were basically two categories of slaves: Hebrew slaves and Gentile slaves.


Hebrew slaves, as it’s title indicates, means that someone of the Jewish faith is a slave. Usually this happened due to poverty. If a Jewish person borrowed money but then couldn’t repay it they often became slaves of the person from whom they borrowed the money.


Gentile slaves were people who were NOT Jewish that were slaves. These usually were the result of wars. When the Jewish people defeated another nation then the people of that nation were often taken as slaves.


There is a differentiation between Hebrew and Gentile slaves because the rules were different. Hebrew slaves were to serve six years and then be freed on the seventh year, according to the Hebrew law. Here, listen to this from the 21st chapter of Exodus:


“When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt.” — Exodus 21:1


Non-Hebrew slaves had no such laws releasing them, however. There were much fewer instances in which they could be free. Sometimes they could if they were “redeemed,” but usually they never had the financial resources to do so.


We don’t know which kind of slave Onesimus was.


Now I want to be clear on one thing. The Bible doesn’t say slavery is okay. It’s not. Unfortunately certain verses in the Bible were used to advocate for and justify slavery. After all, “it’s in the Bible.” Slavery is not okay. Today it still exists in certain parts of the world and it happens closer to us than we want to think about in the form of sexual trafficking. It is not okay. Slavery in any form is never okay.


Okay, back to Philemon. Why is it in the Bible? How does is inform how we live our lives today?


First I think it reminds us as Christians to focus more on what joins us than what divides us.


We humans are good at dividing and placing people in specific categories. We love putting people in boxes and putting labels on them. Here are some examples: Politics (Republican or Democrat?) Skin color. What part of town we live in. What language we speak. What college teams we root for. You get the idea.


Years ago Emo Phillips, a comedian, told a story about putting people in categories. It went something like this:


Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”


He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”


He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”


Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”


I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.


But the only label that should matter is “Christian.” “Follower of Jesus Christ.”


The only classification of people that Jesus died for was sinners. And we all are that.


Paul himself writes in his letter to the people in the Galatia area, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” — Galatians 3:28


Another thing I think we can learn from Paul’s letter to Philemon is that we are called to live in community. We are called to help people others who may find themselves in difficult situations.


Paul goes out on a limb on behalf of Onesimus, a slave, a person who has very few legal rights. Listen to how The Message paraphrases the scripture we read today:


“So if you still consider me a comrade-in-arms, welcome him back as you would me. If he damaged anything or owes you anything, chalk it up to my account. This is my personal signature—Paul—and I stand behind it. (I don’t need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?) Do me this big favor, friend. You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good. I know you well enough to know you will. You’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written.”


Too often we look to Christianity to create protected and trouble-free lives for ourselves. We think that if we love Jesus we will have safe desk jobs far from the front lines of the war. The reality is that being a Christian is more like receiving training as medics and being willing to go into the front lines to seek out those needing help. Instead of giving them medical attention we give them spiritual first aid, seeking to take care of their soul “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9b)


The third thing I think we can learn from Paul’s letter to Philemon is to do the right thing.


Paul mentions in the letter that Onesimus is very helpful to him. Being in prison Paul doesn’t have it easy. The self-centered thing to do is to have Onesimus stay around and help him out. And Paul can rationalize that decision by saying that it would probably be better for Onesimus as well. And it probably would.


But Paul doesn’t do that. He goes to the trouble to write a very persuasive letter to Philemon asking him not only to take Onesimus back, but to change the relationship that Philemon has with Onesimus from one of master and slave to one of brothers in Christ. It’s not the easy thing to do, but it is the right thing to do.


I’m currently reading a book about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German minister and theologian at the time Hitler rose to power in Germany. When Dietrich saw how the Nazis were treating the Jews he and a small group of other pastors did what they could to thwart Hitler’s plans.


Even though he was a Christian and a theologian, Bonhoeffer participated in a plot to kill Hitler with a bomb hidden in a briefcase. And it almost worked. But Hitler only received minor injuries. Bonhoeffer was arrested and put in prison and then, three weeks before the concentration camp he was in was liberated by the Americans, he was executed.


Bonhoeffer knew the Bible said “Do not kill.” But after witnessing the deaths of millions of not only Jews but also civilians and learning about the atrocious medical experiments done on live prisoners he knew he had to do something. He wanted to do the right thing. And if the assassination attempt on Hitler had been successful thousands of lives might have been saved.   


As Christians the right thing to do is often not the easy thing to do. We are called to think of ourselves less and others more. We are called to become involved in some of life’s messiest moments, like lifeguards plunging into the waves of the ocean and swimming as fast as we can to those caught in the undertow of evil, rescuing their souls, and, if need be, breathing new life into them.


Jesus did the right thing, not the easy thing. Jesus could have avoided the cross and smote down all those who slapped, beat, spit-on, mocked, and killed him. He had the power. He had the authority. That would have been the easy thing. But that’s not what he did.


Jesus did the right thing. He not only went to the cross willingly out of love for you, but also out of love for the very people who were assaulting him.


So my challenge to you this week is to remember Paul’s letter to Philemon. As Christians let us focus on what joins us more than what divides us. Let us remember that being a Christian means living in community with others, especially when it comes to helping those in need. And let us do the right thing, even when it’s the hard and painful thing to do.


And if you see someone standing on a bridge, help them, don’t push them.


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

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