It’s early Sunday morning; the Lord’s Day. Philemon is busily preparing for the service, getting ready his house, which is the home of the Christ’s Church in Colossae. His wife Apphia is in the other room preparing a meal, their pastor Archippus is in prayer behind him, and Philemon is in prayer as well, conversing with his Lord as he sweeps the room where they will soon celebrate the Lord’s Supper. For no particular reason at all, Philemon glances out the window, and the broom falls to the floor with a clatter. Onesimus is coming. Yes, there is no mistaking it, there is Onesimus, coming down the street, looking a bit awkward and even embarrassed. Philemon feels anger rising deep within him. Onesimus is back. Onesemius, his slave, his servant, the one he relied on, who he trusted. Onesimus, who had betrayed him, who had run away, who had even helped himself to the family treasury. Onesimus, who had wounded him so deeply that Philemon doesn’t plan to ever forget. How dare he show his face back here? How dare he come walking to the house where he once served? Doesn’t he know what kind of place this is? This is a church, the very house of God. Scum like him has no place here, especially on a Sunday morning! Surely he doesn’t think that he’s welcome here? Onesimus has no place in worship, but in prison, feeling the whip on his back. Philemon wants justice, he wants repayment, and he intends to get it, here and now.
Quivering with rage, Philemon goes to the door, with Apphia and Archippus behind him. Standing there is Onesimus, looking sheepish, perhaps even trembling. But Onesimus isn’t alone. He holds before him a letter. Without a word by either man, Philemon snatches it from his hand and opens it. This letter’s from Paul! He reluctantly begins to read it out loud. “Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace and peace—these words have such meaning for Philemon. Paul taught him of grace, the undeserved kindness and love shown to the world through Christ’s sacrificial death upon the cross. He heard of peace, the peace of the resurrection, the eternal peace between God and man when Paul first proclaimed to him the Gospel. These words proclaim to Philemon once again the great truth that he has been reconciled with God through Christ. What joy to be a Christian!
Philemon continues reading, and now it is time to blush: “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints.” Paul remembers me in his prayers, simply for living the Christian life? Philemon knows that the Christian lives his life in two directions: toward God and toward the neighbor. Faith is oriented toward God, as we cling to the promises that He gives through Christ, and love is oriented toward the neighbor, as we serve those around us in any way that we can. Faith and love go together; our love for others flows only from faith.
“I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” What a prayer! Paul wants Philemon’s sharing, his fellowship and participation in the common faith of the Church to reach full flower in a greater knowledge of the treasures of Christ. Philemon cannot help but think about the Lord’s Supper, ready to be celebrated later this morning, where the fellowship of faith finds its highest expression as the entire congregation gathers to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus together. The same Jesus, for all the saints. What a gift Christ has given! Philemon is reconciled with God, at peace through the blood of Christ, and he has fellowship with Jesus and all the saints. “I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” Philemon knows that he deserves none of this praise. He knows his great sins, and thanks to Paul, he knows of Christ’s even greater grace. What else can he do but show love to others, if Christ has shown such love toward him?
Philemon feels refreshed, showed by grace and love. Such wonderful, comforting words, almost enough to make him forget about the man standing before him. Almost. What does Onesimus have to do with all this? “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I Paul, and old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” Philemon looks up at Onesimus, who is staring intently at the ground. He repeats the words: “my child”? Paul can only mean one thing by these words. Onesimus has been baptized. This disloyal, thieving, untrustworthy wretch ran off to Paul, and he baptized him? Doesn’t Paul know who this is? Doesn’t Paul know what he’s done? Anger fills Philemon again, but only for a moment. This day, he has been reminded of the great grace shown to him by Christ. Philemon knows the kind of sinner he is, and God has been reconciled to him through the blood of Christ. Could this same grace and peace be for Onesimus too? Is Onesimus reconciled with God, just like Philemon, just like Paul, just like all Christians?
He continues to read: “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is useful to you and to me.” Philemon can’t help but smile. He knows Paul, and Paul is always ready to put anyone to good use for the extension of the kingdom of God. For Paul, all Christians are useful, they all have some role to play in the proclamation of the Gospel to all the nations. “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you may 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.” So that’s what you’re getting at: you want me to welcome back my slave as a brother and then send him back to you. Philemon may be a Christian, but he’s also a man of means, a man of the world. What about my rights? What about restitution, justice? How can I simply receive him back?
Philemon finds himself answered in Paul’s next words: “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it--to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” Philemon stares at Onesimus, amazed. Paul has taken the sins of this slave upon himself; Paul, the great apostle, the champion of the faith, to whom Philemon owes his very self, is making himself the slave to set Onesimus free. Paul will pay his debt, Paul will right his wrongs, in fact, when Philemon looks at Onesimus, he is supposed to see Paul: “receive him as you would receive me.” Paul has clothed Onesimus with himself. Philemon opens his mouth to object, but closes it just as quickly. Paul is acting toward Onesimus as Christ acted toward him. Jesus said to the Father, “receive Philemon as you would receive me.” He clothed Philemon with himself, with his own righteousness, declaring to God: “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account—I will repay.” And Jesus did repay; He went to the cross to pay for Philemon’s sin, for the sin of the entire world—even the sin of Onesimus. Onesimus and Philemon are united together in the Gospel: both are great sinners, and both have been forgiven that sin by the blood of Christ. Jesus said of the sin of the entire world: “Charge it to my account.”
Paul is calling on Philemon to renounce his rights, to treat Onesimus as a beloved brother, to release his hold on anger and vengeance and instead show the same forgiveness that Christ showed him. He has been shown mercy, now he is called upon to show mercy. He has a reputation for love, love that has its source in Christ, now it is time to show that love even to his slave. This is nothing else than what Jesus Himself taught about taking up the cross and following him. Philemon is to put his worldly desires to death, to nail them to the cross and leave them there, and then go forth to be reconciled with his brother. And this reconciliation will bring joy to Paul and the entire community. “Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.”
Paul’s final words cut to the heart: “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” Philemon’s hand drops to his side; there is more to this letter, greetings and instructions, but he’ll read it later. He feels exhausted, worn out; reading this short letter has meant a battle, a war between his identity as a man of means, a man of the world, and his greater identity as a Christian. He looks at Onesimus, and he sees Paul, that old apostle, languishing in chains, but more than that, he sees Jesus, who has reconciled them both to the Father. If Christ has paid the price of all Philemon’s sin, ten thousand talents of unpayable debt, then he can forgive the hundred denarii that Onesimus owed to him. With tears in his eyes, Onesimus finally speaks: “I’m so sorry, master, for all that I’ve done to hurt you.” Philemon extends the right hand of fellowship with tears in his own eyes and simply replies: “I forgive you—brother.” Then he looks beyond Onesimus and sees people coming; it’s time for worship. He looks at Apphia and Archippus and then smiles at Onesimus: “Come, brother, let us receive the gifts of Christ our Lord together.” And not long afterward, these two men who have been baptized into one Name, receive together the one Body of their Lord Jesus Christ, reconciled to God and to one another. Amen.