It seems like every few weeks when I’m teaching a class or preaching a sermon I’ll say something like, “this has got to be one of my favorite stories in the Bible.” And it’s always true every time I say it. There are just so MANY of them. So this Sunday I was able to speak on one of my favorites again–the story of Onesimus and Philemon. Paul’s little letter to Philemon is such a fantastic piece of the New Testament that so often gets overlooked. Maybe that’s because it’s unlike most of Paul’s letters. There doesn’t seem to be much theology in it. You have no long passages about grace or faith or the power of Jesus’ resurrection. You just have Paul writing a letter to a friend named Philemon on behalf of a new Christian named Onesimus.
There is intrigue, though. Plenty.
It seems that Onesimus was Philemon’s slave. (Slavery, by the way, was significantly different in the first-century Roman Empire than it was in early America. But that’s another story.) Apparently, from the information we have in Paul’s letter to Philemon, Onesimus had run away and had stolen from Philemon in the process. Somehow Onesimus made his way all the way from Colossae to Rome where Paul was under house arrest. While there, Paul teaches Onesimus about Christ and Onesimus becomes a Christian.
With great relief, I imagine, Onesimus learns that Paul is writing a letter to Philemon on his behalf. To be a runaway slave in the Roman empire was a scary thing. Your master had the legal authority to kill you once you were captured. So to have Paul acting as an intermediary (reconciler might be the better biblical word for it) would be a great advantage for Onesimus–one that might save his life. And then Onesimus got the bad news.
Even though he had been baptized and had his sins forgiven (part of what makes us a Christian), even though he was now a new man in Christ, Paul insisted that Onesimus be the one to deliver this letter to Philemon.
Think about that. There were others who could have gone back to Colossae to deliver this letter and the other letter we have in our NT called “Colossians.” In fact, others did go back on this mission for Paul. So why send Onesimus? Why put him in harms way? After all, he’s a Christian now.
Well, maybe that’s exactly why. He’s a Christian now. And Christians pay their debts. Christians make amends. Christians repent of our sins and our wrongs and we do all that we can to make things right. We say we’re sorry. We ask for forgiveness. We don’t just talk the talk, but we also walk the walk–all the way back to Colossae if we must.
I don’t mean that we do this perfectly or even every time we should. But this is how we should live. Because we’re Christians now.