I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 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,
Many years ago, the deputy sheriff was called to investigate a traffic accident in New York. A drunk driver had crashed into the pumps at a gas station. Fortunately, none of them exploded. The situation was under control. But the driver was nowhere in sight.
The deputy ran into the nearby woods to find him. It didn’t take him long. The man was nearby, thrashing around in the bushes. As soon as he shined his light on the suspect, the driver surrendered. The intoxicated man was panting heavily, bleeding from numerous scratches, and at the point of exhaustion. He remarked to the deputy, “You must be Superman, you been chasing me for forty-five minutes, and you aren’t even winded, you ain’t even messed up the crease in your pants. How did you do it? The deputy had to laugh as he told the suspect that no one had been chasing him. In fact, he had only just arrived on the scene. The man said, you mean I been chasing myself. I’m afraid so, said the deputy. The man replied, well, if I’m that [blankety-blank] stupid, you might as well put me in jail. And he pathetically headed for the squad car.
I’d love to have been there when that guy sobered up. How did it feel to know that he’d been running away from himself all that time? In the beginning, no one was pursuing him; his own fear and guilt drove him into the woods and ultimately exhausted him. Fear and guilt have a way of doing that.
The letter to Philemon in our lesson for today is essentially about a man who ran away from his crimes, who ran away from slavery, and at some point, who ran away from himself. Onesimus was a slave in Philemon’s household. One day Onesimus stole some property or some money from Philemon, the Scriptures aren’t clear on this point, and ran away.
A few years later, Onesimus encountered the Apostle Paul. Ironically, Paul was a friend and spiritual mentor to Philemon. Paul befriended Onesimus, and eventually brought Onesimus to faith in Jesus Christ. After his conversion to Christ, Onesimus became immensely useful to Paul, aiding him in his ministry and visiting him in prison. But in the back of Paul’s mind, he knew this situation couldn’t last. In the eyes of the law, Onesimus still belonged to Philemon. Philemon had been wronged, and he deserved restitution. By law, Paul was required to return an escaped slave to his master. But also by law, Onesimus’ crimes were punishable by death.
What would you do if you were in Paul’s place? Would you try to hide Onesimus? Would you break the law with the rationale that you were doing it for a higher good? Would you try to buy your friend’s freedom? What does the law require? What does the conscience require? What does God require? It would seem that there were only two or three logical choices Paul could make. But Paul was a man who lived by abundant grace, and this grace allowed him to see the situation with a radically new perspective. He opened the letter with words of encouragement for Philemon, then he moved into the crux of the matter:
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love, and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.
I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So, if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. (Philemon, verses 8-17)
Imagine yourself in Philemon’s shoes. In that time and place, it was perfectly legal and acceptable to own slaves. Today we know that it’s a repulsive practice, but at that time it was a way of life. Your slave, who was part of your household, stole from you and ran away from your employ. You know the law, and you know your rights: he wronged you, and he deserves to be punished. And then a dear friend begs you to forgive the man; beyond that, to receive him back into your household as a brother, an equal. This goes beyond the law. This goes beyond forgiveness. This is grace.
Paul knew what he was asking of his friend, Philemon. You see, grace had changed Paul’s life too. If anyone understood what it was to run from his past, Paul did. He had once been a zealous persecutor of the early Christians. He stood in solidarity with those who murdered Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Did those memories haunt him once he became a Christian? We don’t know. But we do know that Paul fully realized that his salvation was by the grace of God, a free gift of undeserved love, not his own character or good works.
It’s like the story of a young woman with a sordid past who gave her life to Christ. From that day forward, she embarked on a new life. She began serving in various ministries of the church. And everyone in the church seemed to accept her. They accepted her until they noticed that the pastor’s son was falling for her. It caused quite an uproar when the young woman and the pastor’s son became engaged.
Some members of the church called a special meeting to “deal with” this revelation. The strife and opposition grew as they began recalling this young woman’s past. The young woman, held up to public shame, hid her face and cried. Then the pastor’s son stood to address the angry crowd.
What is on trial here is not my fiancée’s past. That has already been dealt with. What you are questioning is the ability of the blood of Jesus to wash away sin. Today you have put the blood of Jesus on trial. So, does it wash away sin or not?
Well, does it? Did Jesus die for nothing? And if Jesus’ blood was sufficient to wash away our sins, then isn’t it sufficient to wash away everyone’s sins? Can we stand in judgment of a brother or sister if Christ died for them?
As the young man’s words sunk in, the congregation began to weep. And they asked forgiveness of the young woman and opened their arms to her as a true sister. Never again did they hold her past against her.
That’s what grace really is: the knowledge that Jesus Christ’s blood covers all our sins. Our past has been nailed to the cross and it’s dead, and it’ll never be held against us again. We’re new creations in Christ (II Corinthians 5: 17). And we would be denying the love and the power and the Lordship of Jesus if we didn’t offer that same abundant grace to all those who ask for it.
Paul writes to Philemon, perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good, no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. Only God’s abundant grace can turn a sinner into a saint and a slave into a brother. Only grace can set us free from our past and dissolve the walls that divide us.
And now here’s a little peek at the rest of the story. There is no known record of what happened to Philemon. How did he respond to this letter? Did Philemon forgive Onesimus and receive him as a brother? Did grace triumph? What do you think?
I want to make the following point: if Philemon had said “No” to Paul’s request, would this letter have made it into the New Testament? If Onesimus had returned to slavery, or been put to death by his master, you and I probably wouldn’t be reading this letter today.
We may not know the ending to Onesimus’ story, but we do know that the message of the New Testament is consistently a message of grace, of God’s undeserved love changing lives. A message of God’s undeserved love changing the world. So, what do you think? Did grace win out?
One thing we do know: in the year A.D. 110, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch was arrested and taken to Rome. From prison he wrote a letter to the church at Antioch. In this letter, he praised the bishop of Ephesus and encouraged the Christian believers to imitate him, because he was “a man whose love is beyond words.” This bishop’s name was Onesimus. Many Bible scholars believe that Bishop Onesimus and the runaway slave were one and the same man. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me . . . Christ’s amazing grace is for us even today