31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
September 4, 2022
Philemon 1:1-7, 17-20
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
The letter of Philemon is written by the Apostle Paul to a good man. According to Paul’ letter, Philemon has a deep love and faith for Jesus “which brims over to other believers” (Philemon 1:4-7). Philemon also hosts a Christian community in his home, generously providing space for community and worship.
Philemon is a good man, a faithful man, one who loves God and loves others and who is doing much good in the world. And Paul would like him to do more.
As is the case with most human beings, Philemon is a contradiction. He is a faithful disciple, following the Way of Jesus Christ where Jews and Greeks, slaves and free are all baptized into the one body, are all one in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). And Philemon is also a slave owner, embracing the ways of the Roman Empire where it was perfectly acceptable to own another human being and treat them like property.
Life and the world can be messy and complicated sometimes. Human beings are messy and complicated. We often have lots of good qualities all mixed in with less stellar qualities. None of us are perfect. And wouldn’t it be lovely if we could just say that and call it a day. ‘Oh well, I’m not perfect. From messy clay God created me, and God loves me regardless so messy I will stay.’
Wouldn’t that be lovely to just keep going along just as we are and never change?! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be satisfied with the status quo and never grow or step out of our comfort zone?!
And that might be possible, if we were not disciples of Jesus Christ, if we were not called by Jesus to every day be changed by God’s unconditional love and learn to be better, learn to be kinder, learn to be more loving.
Which is what Paul is calling Philemon to do in this short letter. Paul would like Philemon to reconcile with his slave, Onesimus. Paul would like Philemon to forgive Onesimus any wrong that Onesimus has committed and to treat Onesimus not as a slave, but as a beloved brother.
Paul would like Philemon to do the right thing in relationship to Onesimus, and that is a very big ask, a very big favor.
In her commentary on this passage, Professor Holly Hearon writes:
It would be easy if doing the right thing was, for example, taking out the garbage, or helping an elderly person cross the street. It is another when the right thing involves a radical transformation of social relationships: of learning to see people that time and experience have led us to view one way in a completely new way. It is another thing when this radical transformation of social relationships asks us to give up what we have come to view as our rights: to willingly let go of privilege. It is another thing when this letting go of privilege leads us to assume a relationship of kinship–of obligation–with those whom we have formerly viewed with suspicion because we now recognize that we are bound together in Christ. (workingpreacher.org, Holly Hearon, September 5, 2010)
Paul isn’t asking Philemon to take out the garbage or help someone with mobility issues cross the street. Paul is asking Philemon to radically transform his relationship with Onesimus. Paul is asking Philemon to give up Philemon’s right and privilege of owning Onesimus (and we would hope any other slaves that Philemon might own.) Paul is asking Philemon to not only give up ownership of Onesimus but to embrace him as a brother, as a beloved brother, to recognize that they are bound in the one Spirit by Christ.
While we have no experience with being slave owners, we all sometimes think we have rights or privileges when it comes to how we feel about others. Parents, by virtue of being parents and investing their hearts and lives into children, sometimes think they have the right or privilege to make decisions for their adult children.
Parents are not the only ones who think they have rights or privileges when it comes to how we feel about others. In our anxious, contentious, divided society, we sometimes think it is our right to think a certain way, to be suspicious even, about those in a different political party, those in a different generation, those in a different financial or socioeconomic position.
As Professor Hearon writes, it is hard to give up our beliefs and feelings about others and have our relationships radically transformed – transformed from feeling like we are better than someone else to feeling like we are connected; we are all equal as children of God; we are all bound together in Christ.
Paul is making a big ask of Philemon, and Paul knows it so Paul is using the power of relationships to encourage, persuade, invite Philemon to keep growing in his Christian faith journey and the Way of Jesus Christ. Paul uses his own relationship with Philemon; Paul uses Philemon’s connection with Apphia, Archippus, and Philemon’s church community; and Paul uses Philemon’s relationship with Jesus Christ to step beyond the status quo and grow in his Christian discipleship.
The same works with all of us as well. Every single day, Jesus is calling us to do the right thing, and sometimes, the right thing is not easy. Sometimes, the right thing is a complete transformation of our relationships, letting go of anger, letting go of prejudice, letting go of privilege and embracing someone who seems so other, so different, maybe even so below us – as kin, as connected, as bound to us in Christ.
And because that is not easy, it is going to take the encouragement and support of a whole team. It is going to take inspiring words and tough love words from fellow Christians and from the Christian communities we belong to, Christian communities like our families, Men’s Fellowship, Bible study, and Women’s Guild. And it is going to take a relationship with Jesus Christ, a relationship in which Jesus is real in our lives, loving us, guiding us, and helping us to grow.
Change, transformational change, change that does our hearts and the hearts of others good; love and faith which brims over to others and that people see Christ in; that kind of change, that kind of living, is not easy to do.
If we are going to fulfill our calling to share Christ’s love, to share God’s word, to keep doing more and more good, we need each other. We need relationships with other Christians, with a Christian community, and we need Jesus. We need a living relationship with the one who embodies God’s unconditional love. We need him to live in our hearts, encouraging and inspiring us to keep growing and creating God’s authentic community of love in our homes, in our communities, and in our world.
And with the support of those relationships, with the love of Jesus Christ, we can continue to move forward in faith and do even more good for God, doing our hearts and the world good.