It pains me that so many use verses of Paul as a battering ram, pulling them out of their context and swinging them around without care to Paul’s original intent, removed from the lens of the love of Jesus Christ. They use him to hold us back from one another when the truth is that Paul is way beyond any of us. He is way more loving and way more focused on behavior that reflects positively on the new lens through which he sees the world, namely the grace and mercy shown to each and every one of us through the life-altering love of Jesus Christ.
Throughout his letters, including this one, the smallest one of them all, there are three directives:
1) Don’t dominate or be dominated. In God’s eyes we are all equal and beloved children of God.
2) Love God deeply, no matter what. We are to unchain ourselves from our culture’s version of morals and legalism.
3) Let the Holy Spirit in. Leave keeping up with the institutions of this earthly kingdom up to those who think that this earthly kingdom is all they’ve got.
This letter is pure Paul, and the echoes of these three refrains can be found throughout. The beauty of Philemon is that we have every reason to believe that it has made its way through the centuries intact. The earliest manuscripts found match almost exactly with what we have today. The frustration is there is no letter in return. We have no addendum or epilogue. We don’t know what happens next.
Did Philemon accept Onesimus as his brother in Christ?
Did he step out of the chains of the morality and legalities of his culture in order to embrace a brother in Christ and welcome him as a beloved child of God?
It reminds me of the story of the Prodigal Son. There too, we get no ending.
Does the older brother accept the return of his brother?
Does he step out of the chains of the morality and legalties of his culture in order to enter into the celebration that is going on just beyond the doors that he himself has closed?
Does he embrace his brother in Christ and welcome him as a beloved child of God?
And what about us? What will be the end of our story?
What would Paul write to us about? Who is our Onesimus?
What are we so right about that we are no longer open to the thought that we may be wrong?
Who can we not embrace because we are chained by the morals and legalities of our culture, keeping us from stepping out towards our brothers and sisters in Christ?
Who do we refuse to welcome – our brother, our sister - as a beloved child of God?
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit and mine as we discern these things, strive to love God deeply and let the Holy Spirit in