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We make our beginning in the Name of God the Father and in the Name of God the Son and in the Name of God the Holy Spirit and all those who have wanted to run away from God said … AMEN!
People have, incorrectly, used the Bible to justify slavery especially in the United States. Paul is not justifying or condemning slavery, simply as a fact that Onesimus is, a slave. There were serious conditions under the Roman Empire dealing with slaves. There were only two classes in the Roman Empire, remember this is the secular, the worldly, the pagan empire that kept slaves, and treat them harshly. The Romans kept tight control of the slaves, there were a lot of slaves in Rome one estimate up to 350,000 slaves in Rome of a total population of 900,000. There were slave revolts in Rome. The slave population was able-bodied enough that if it organized effectively would have overwhelmed the free Romans. The army wasn’t allowed in Rome, you might know the phrase “crossing the Rubicon”. In 49 BC Julius Caesar violated Roman law by bringing his legion into Rome, when he crossed the Rubicon he intended to overthrow the government of Rome, the Roman Senate and establish himself as ruler, eventually emperor of Rome. The Roman army was kept out of Rome in order to prevent future coups. But this left the free Roman population vulnerable to slave rebellion and treated slaves harshly for the slightest infractions. Remember the movie Spartacus crosses of the crucified stretched for miles on the road into Rome. This was not an unusual sight. Onesimus stole money from his master and ran away from home in Colosse to Rome and either to Paul, or to look for him. The point is that regardless of what Paul thought about slavery he knew Onesimus was in grave danger. There were “slave-catchers”, what we would think as bounty hunters. If they caught Onesimus it would not go well. They would probably have returned him to Philemon for a bounty, but they would have probably would have worked him over and Philemon might have decided it wasn’t worth it for him and left the slave-catchers to decide what to do with Onesimus which probably wouldn’t have been nice. How Paul felt about slavery didn’t really enter into the equation. Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon more to protect Onesimus and go by the numbers and also be faithful to a Christian brother. Philemon was probably rather wealthy, could have been bishop of Colosse at the time, probably held church in his house. Matthew Henry writes: “The apostles had under Christ great power in the church over the ordinary ministers, as well as the members of it…; they might require of them what was fit, and were …to be obeyed, which Philemon should consider. This was a matter within … the apostle’s power to require,,,,” Paul was certainly recognized as an apostle of Christ, apostle meaning “sent one, one who is sent to represent another”. In Paul’s interactions at Antioch and the Jerusalem council no one in the church disputed that Paul was one sent by Christ. Who did Paul meet on the Damascus road? Paul claims he was taken to the third level of heaven and by his acts and knowledge proved it. Paul was in a Roman prison, he had nothing, some Christians in Rome might have provided for him in prison, but how reliable was probably in question. With Onesimus, Paul had someone who would be there to care for his needs. So Paul could have put it to Philemon saying “the guy who was useless to you, is very useful to me, I will pay his debt, then send him to me. Paul could do that and would have been within his rights to do that. He certainly had extreme need, and it would not have been a hardship for Philemon.
As Christians we can get an attitude, make up our mind; I’m entitled to whatever I want, I should be able to take because I’m under grace and everyone, from the minister through the church should hand over or perform the way I want them to. If we have sixty people is it realistic to think all sixty should get their way? That is why we have doctrine. Dr Luther along with some of the greatest minds from the sixteenth century to the present wrote doctrine to unite us as Lutherans and make it clear what we genuinely believed as a church. We have Christians who feel their ideas and visions of what the church should be are right and the church should accept that and move along. We have no right to make demands of the church and vice versa. If you are not sufficiently moved by the Holy Spirit to serve, to give, to understand, to accept, be unified, you certainly don’t have to. However, if, as Philemon seems to have realized with Paul and Onesimus, regardless of his opinion, or his rights, there was a greater need. I think that the Holy Spirit’s finger prints are all over this pericope. It’s about 2100 kilometers from Colosse where Onesimus started out, to travel to Rome, about 1300 miles. Even in today’s world, most of us don’t just wander somewhere, 1300 miles at a whim. The Holy Spirit had to be guiding this entire scenario, assuring Onesimus got where he was going, that he found Paul, that Paul accepted him, Paul appealed to Philemon as he and Onesimus are brothers in Christ, that letter would get to Philemon and would survive to today. We have to put our individual preferences and priorities beneath the best interests of another brother or sister and to the church as a whole. Paul sums up: “ESV Philemon 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother- especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Philemon should see Onesimus as more than property, he should see him as a brother in Jesus. That is where we need to be in relationship with each other and in Jesus. We’re not just members of a group that loosely talks about things in the Bible. That through sacrifice, through grace, through our works, and because ultimately we all benefit from the same gifts of grace in Christ and justified by our faith in Him, that we are bound together for the best interests of Christ, of His Church and those of us who are in the Body of Christ. That we are beloved brothers and sisters in Jesus. That our priority is always building our relationship with Jesus’ church and His people and how that church brings Christ into the world. That we remember who we are in the world, that we are Christ’s and His agenda. Jesus says in our Gospel reading that it is our love for Him that takes precedence over everything, our parents, siblings, children, even ourselves. If we don’t take our cross, the things God has given us to deal with in life. Then we are not His, we cannot be disciples of Jesus. Many claim there is a middle choice, we can kind of make it up on our own and chose our own way. I’ve never had anyone explain to me what that way is. I know, if it’s not in Christ, it is sad, it is deadly, a grim if not painful eternity. There is only one way, one hope and one baptism that gives us new life in Christ. That baptism gives us the hope of the true life in the eternal resurrection of Christ which only happens in our forgiveness by our completely just and holy God who forgives all our sins in that sacrifice of Christ. It is how we are led in the Holy Spirit, true life in the life of the Church, His true Body and Blood that saves us. All can only be efficacious if it is truly in Christ and His Church.
Tradition says Philemon sent Onesimus back to Paul. Philemon might have been a bishop at the time of this letter, Onesimus becames a bishop. Ignatius writes the slave Onesimus became the Bishop of Ephesus succeeding another of Paul’s beloved sons, Timothy. “Later, as Saint Jerome and other Fathers testify, he became an ardent preacher of the Gospel and a bishop… He was cruelly tortured in Rome, for eighteen days, by a governor of that city, infuriated by his preaching on the merit of celibacy. His legs and thighs were broken with bludgeons, and he was then stoned to death. His martyrdom occurred under Domitian in the year 95.” I believe one of the reasons they were elevated to these positions was they both submitted to the authority of their minister, Paul the Apostle, the sent one who based on their obedience in Christ and the furtherance of the church, recommended both of them for further leadership that the need of their faithful service to the church through this event with Paul moved them to be leaders in Christ’s church by the Holy Spirit. All of this we read 2,000 years later, because three men stepped up to serve each other and the church and to put their own agenda aside.
The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amin and Shalom Christ is risen! He has risen indeed Hallelujah