Sunday, September 8, 2013

guidance, not compulsion: a lesson from the letter to Philemon

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

There's quite an exciting story behind our epistle reading today. The young slave Onesimus has run away from his master Philemon in Colossae. More, he has apparently robbed Philemon before he left, perhaps to fund his escape. This doubles the danger for Onesimus, because now not only is he a slave on the run but he is a thief as well … and in the ancient world a thieving slave could be killed by his master at will – no trial, no appeal. The stakes are very high for Onesimus if he is caught.

And he is of course very likely to be caught. They were very good at catching errant slaves back then – well, of course the were: if they hadn't been, it would have been all too easy for a slave to simply slip away the first chance he got. This was a society that depended on a lot of slave labour. If they hadn't been good at snapping up ones that decided to go walk-about, it would have caused huge problems for their economy.

So what does Onesimus decide to do? Well we can't be sure; but we do know that he ends up with St Paul.

Now from the letter, it appears that Onesimus made it to Paul sometime during one of his periods of house arrest. Of these there were several. But we can narrow it down a bit if we factor in how difficult it would have been for a runaway slave to travel too far – Rome, for example, one of the places of Paul's imprisonment, seems too far away to be probable. Ephesus, on the other hand, was only about 70 miles or so away from Collossae; and Collossae wasn't too far away from the great road that went from Ephesus on the Aegean Coast to the River Euphrates far to the East. This was an important trade route and would have had plenty of traffic – easy enough to slip into the back of one of the many carts and wagons; or even to walk if needs be.

Now, I don't think Onesimus was looking for Paul. Most likely he chose Ephesus because it was a port town and easy to get to and he had the idea of making it on to a ship and getting as far away from his master as possible. He and Paul simply came across each other co-incidentally and Paul recognised him, because Philemon was someone who was well known to him. Philemon, as the letter makes clear, was not only a Christian, but the leader of a house church in Collossae. So I imagine that Paul and Onesimus simply bumped into each other in Ephesus and Paul, seeing his friend's slave so far from home, guessed at once what was happening. And knowing that the life of a runaway slave was likely to be a pretty miserable one, he offered to sort things out.

Now the letter makes it clear that Onesimus was not at this point a Christian. But he trusted Paul enough to go with him. Perhaps a few days on the run had made it plain to him just how limited his options were. Shortly after this, perhaps, Paul was placed under house arrest. And Onesimus stayed with him, helping him out, running errands, cooking, whatever it was that Paul needed doing. And it seems likely that they must have spent a lot of time talking. Because during this time, Onesimus became a Christian.

And when the period of arrest was coming to an end, Paul I think looked at Onesimus and said to him: 

'Son, I think it is time that we got things sorted between you and Philemon. If we don't, you'll be a slave on the run forever, and that is no kind of life.
''OK' said Onesimus. 'What do we do?'
'Well,' said Paul. 'I'm thinking of writing him a letter. Asking him to forgive you for what you stole, and to remember all that he owes me for what I have done for him by bringing him the faith. I'll tell him that you are now a Christian and are therefore his brother and should be treated like one.'
'Sounds good,' said Onesimus.
'And I want you to take him the letter.'
'You want me to do what!?'

What is Paul up to here? He could, after all, have had some one else take the letter to Philemon. And he could have ordered him as his Father in God to free Onesimus and forgive him. Instead, he advises him of what he thinks he should do, reminding him of the moral authority that he, Paul, has and then leaves it up to him.

But maybe that's the point. At the end of the day we all have free will and do right or wrong as we chose. Nobody forces us. It's a little ironic really, where you hear people talking about the Church trying to force people to do things. The Church forces no one. It teaches people what they ought to do, based on the authority it has been given by Christ … and then people either do what it teaches or they don't. When people complain that the Church is trying to force them to do things, what they really mean is that they want the Church to change its teaching to accommodate their actions … or keep quiet about the teachings that remind them that their actions are sins in the eyes of God.

But that's not the Church's way; and it wasn't Paul's way. He taught according to the fullness of God's revelation that he had in Christ … and then it was up to the individual to do as he taught or not.

Did Philemon obey Paul & receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ. We do not know. There is a tradition that Philemon later became bishop of Colossae and was eventually martyred; and Ignatius records that some years after this letter a man named Onesimus became bishop of Ephesus. And it seems unlikely that Philemon would have kept and passed around copies of the letter for others to read if it showed that he had failed both in his duty to Paul, his father in God, and Onesimus, a brother in Christ.

So I think we can have confidence that Philemon did as he ought on this occasion. Just as I pray that all here will, when faced with difficult choices, always choose to follow the way that Christ and his Church teaches … even as I ask that you pray the same for me. Amen.

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