Thought for the week - 4 September
One of the fascinating and interesting things about reading the bible is that it contains so many different types of writing or literature. There is wonderful poetry to be found in the Psalms; stories of war and adventure to be found in the historical books of the OT; detailed laws and regulations to be found in the Book of Leviticus; brief epigrams and proverbs to be found in the book of that name.
There is great diversity in the Bible. Even the N.T., just a small part of the whole Bible, contains different types of writing or literature. Gospels which proclaim the Good News about Jesus; letters or epistles which provide us with a valuable insight into the life of the early Christian Church; and the history of that Church as contained in the Acts of the Apostles.
Today's N.T. reading, the letter to Philemon, is perhaps one part of the N.T. that we are not very familiar with. It is short in length, so much so that you have just heard all but eight verses of it read out. And yet it contains a great deal of Christian truth. Paul's letter to Philemon has a certain charm about it since it appears to deal with a very personal matter between Paul and Philemon. It seems probable that both Philemon and Onesimus, the subject of the letter lived in Colossae, and were both members of the Church there. Indeed the epistle to the Colossians tells us that Onesimus was a native of that city.
The letter that Paul writes to Philemon is of an embarrassing nature. Onesimus is Philemon's slave but he has run away and has taken refuge with Paul. This was not an unusual situation in the Greek world. A runaway slave might take refuge in the house of someone he had met at his master's, and beg his new protector not to send him back. This would put his protector in an awkward position, since he would either have to keep him against the wishes of his owner, or he would have to send him back to more or less certain punishment. That this was not an unusual situation is borne out by the fact that we have two surviving letters of the Latin writer Pliny concerned with the same situation. Pliny, like Paul, solved the problem by sending the slave back with a carefully worded letter in which he asked his friend to receive his slave back kindly. Paul's letter to Philemon is of a similar nature to that of Pliny.
But it is not exactly the same. Paul's letter to Philemon is not entirely personal, and the problem that Onesimus has caused between Philemon and Paul is not just their own personal concern. The letter is not just addressed to Philemon but to the Church which meets at Philemon's house: "To Philemon, our dear friend and fellow-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the Church that meets in your home."
What was to be done about the runaway slave, Onesimus, was not just a private concern between Paul and Philemon, his owner. For one thing there were laws about slaves and Paul would not have wanted to break them. But more than that. Onesimus had become a Christian through meeting Paul. So it was not just a matter of a runaway slave, but of a Christian slave and a Christian master, both of whom had been converted by Paul. Paul regards Onesimus as his own son, and furthermore he is useful to him. Paul makes a pun on the name Onesimus, which means useful. He says that formerly he was useless, but now he has become useful.
But he is useful not just because he is a slave. He is a Christian, and in that respect he is on a level with his master Philemon. If Paul sends him back to Philemon he will still be a slave, but he is also a Christian, a dear brother in Christ. "Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good - no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you both as a man and as a brother in the Lord." Paul does the right thing in law by sending the slave back to his rightful owner. But he goes one step further than the law. He appeals to Philemon, a fellow Christian, to deal kindly with Onesimus who is also a fellow-Christian.
In his letter to the Galatians Paul says : "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew, nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." In his letter to Philemon we see Paul keeping true to this principle in the personal matter of the runaway slave, Onesimus.
For Paul what matters more than anything is that human distinctions do not matter in the Church. The slave may continue to be a slave, but in the Church he is a fellow-Christian. This charming little letter of Paul about a runaway slave reminds us of two things:
First of all that differences, quarrels, dissensions, embarrassments, awkward situations, between individuals within the Church can never be regarded as entirely personal. They affect the whole body of the Church because we are all fellow-Christians, all baptised into Christ Jesus. This is why Paul doesn't just write to Philemon but to the church which meets in his house.
The second thing of importance to notice is that in our membership of the Church, it is our common fellowship in the Body of Christ which matters above all things. There may be differences in our social status, just as there was in the churches to which Paul wrote. But we are one in the Body of Christ, the Church. In a similar fashion whilst there might be different offices and functions within the Church - Bishop, Priest, Churchwarden and so on - what really matters is our common fellowship in the Body of Christ.
This part of what we mean when we talk about Holy Communion. It is not just our individual communion with God in the sacrament. It is our communion with one another. We, the Church, are a Holy Communion, a Body set apart to be at one with God and with each other. This is something we affirm every Sunday in the peace: "We are THE Body of Christ. We were all baptised into one Body. Endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."
Paul's letter to Philemon might at first sight seem to be nothing other than a short letter to a friend about a personal matter. Closer examination shows that it contains the truth of the Gospel as Paul preached it.
I end with the prayer that Paul makes for Philemon and his fellow-Christians at Colossae:
"I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ."