Devotion for the Second Sunday in September
“For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ
to command you to do your duty,
yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love ….” (Philemon 8)
If you are not careful, you might miss the book of Philemon. It is nestled in the back of the New Testament, the last of Paul’s letters, right before Hebrews.
Philemon is a unique letter in that it is the only letter in the New Testament that is truly written to one person. The story goes as follows. Philemon is a colleague of Paul. Philemon had a slave named Onesimus (which means, “useful”). Onesimus ran away. While he ran away, he became a believer and joined in Paul’s ministry. When Paul found out that Onesimus had run away from Philemon, he sends Onesimus back to Philemon, asking that Philemon free him.
In the centuries of the church, many have wondered what this letter says about Paul’s view on slavery. Did Paul support the institution, thus sending Onesimus back? Or did Paul struggle with it, shown in his appeal to free Onesimus?
In the end, we do not know. What we do know is that Paul understood that the freedom we find in Jesus is for all people, slave or free, no matter their distinction.
But a nagging question remains: What did Philemon do? What happened to Onesimus? Did Philemon free him? We do not know.
However, later in the first century, we have some letters from a church leader named Ignatius. In one addressed to the Ephesians, he mentions the well-respected and well-loved bishop. His name is Onesimus.
Is this the same Onesimus, freed by Philemon years before? We do not know, but I would like to think so. It would provide a nice ending to this story. It would then remind us that God can use us, God can free us, no matter what our past may be, no matter who we are.
God, thank you for the word you speak in Philemon. Thank you that your love comes to me and frees me, despite my past, despite my sin. Help me live in the freedom you give me in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Pastor David Armstrong-Reiner