When preaching Philemon we must get the story. I suspect one of the reasons that preaching lacks appeal is that we often miss the story. The fact is, we miss the message when we miss the story.
The letter is addressed to Philemon, a Christian in Colossae. The church meets at his house. Philemon has honor (honor was very important in the first century). And it is important to know – he is a slave owner.
The letter introduces us to Onesimus. His name means useless. He is a slave, a slave from Phiilemon’s house. And a runaway slave at that. While away he finds Paul, the one writing this letter with his own hand. And now he has become Christian.
Onesimus is sent back home with this letter. And the this letter is read out loud at church. “To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker – also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier – and to the church that meets in your home.”
Needless to say, this is an interesting situation. And quite a dilemma for Philemon. Our preaching should allow the story to be interesting and should present the obvious dilemma.
First century Christians did not dress up and sit in rows at church and we get the story better if we can picture that. Onesimus may be standing in front next to the reader. Philemon would be present. And in the room would have been some very strong feelings about a runaway slave who is now standing there in front of him.
Other slaves in the room might have been glad to see Onesimus, or afraid for him, or angry that his actions may make their lives more difficult. The free people in the room might think it important for Philemon to do whatever is necessary to maintain his honor. I suspect there are moments of awkward silence as well as times of anxious rustling. Everyone in the room knows this is a very real dilemma.
But there is something else in the room. Gospel enters with this letter. They gathered to hear it. They wanted to take it seriously. But that is easier said than done. Gospel complicates things when there is already tension in the house.
We want to be sure and notice Paul’s moves. He addresses Philemon as “dear friend and fellow worker.” He then says “I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do.” And then, “but I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” He then tosses this into the mix “I am an old man and now also a prisoner.” And then he pushes again. The intensity in the room was high. Everyone knows this is a very real dilemma.
Paul is no activist, this is no protest of slavery. It is much more than that. This is Gospel being delivered in a very real situation. Philemon is being asked to act according to the Gospel. Not because of guilt. Not because he was told to. This letter is written because the Gospel must be taken seriously. It is important for the church that Philemon gets this right. We do not usually refer to this letter as Gospel, but this is totally Gospel.
This is the message that in church, no one is more important than anyone else. In church, power does not define relationship. In the church, even the relationship between slave owner and runaway is shaped by the Gospel. Onesimus was a slave, but now he is Philemon’s brother. This Gospel makes a difference in real situations and real relationships. The church is the place where the kingdom of God is taking shape. The ways of the empire give way to the ways of the Kingdom. This becomes obvious to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
The question is in the room for Philemon and the rest of us. “How serious are you about the Gospel? How Christian are you? Are you Christian until it affects your honor? Until it affects your property?” Everyone in the congregation is asking themselves how serious they are about this Gospel they gather to hear about on Sundays.
Onesimus may mean useless, but he is called “useful” in v.11. A runaway slave is a major character in this letter because he is a major character in the church. Power and status fly out the window in the letter to Philemon.
This letter asks us all how serious we are about Gospel. It reminds us where the Kingdom takes root, in real places and real gatherings and real relationships like we find at Philemon’s house. When preaching Philemon we are calling listeners to welcome and forgive. Preaching Philemon will call us to respond to a very real dilemma.