Paul’s letter to Philemon is a small little letter with a long and troubled history. From the latter days of the Roman Empire through 19th-century America, the letter to Philemon was interpreted by pro-slavery proponents as Paul’s intercession to convince a slave master named Philemon to forgive his runaway slave named Onesimus. For centuries, that was the prevalent interpretation and application of this letter (and it’s not the only letter by Paul that’s been used to do some damage; Paul’s writings have been/are used to support anti-gay, anti-woman, patriarchal, pro-slavery, etc. opinions within the Church).
That said, it’s far more accurate to understand Philemon and Onesimus to be brothers — actual siblings, perhaps, and “brothers in faith” within the same church community at the very least. The context for Paul’s letter is a disagreement between the brothers over a debt that Onesimus may or may not owe Philemon, but so long as the two are fighting the whole church community that meets in Philemon’s home is negatively affected and even stalled in its work.
The simplified message of Paul’s letter, rewritten in a mother’s tone of voice, is this: “I love you, but I don’t care who started it. You need to behave. And I can come over there and make you behave, or you can act your age and choose how you’re going to behave toward your brother. Say you’re sorry. Now drop it, and go do what you’re supposed to do, because people are staring.”
Paul writes to Philemon not so much to promote forgiveness between the two brothers, but to wake them up to the fact that their argument is impacting the whole church. It’s Paul’s goal to compel them to reconcile for the sake of everyone else. (“If the two of you want to argue one-on-one, fine, take it outside. But since we rarely keep our arguments just between us and we pull others into it, for the sake of everyone else — figure it out!”) In fact, it’s so important for this to be fixed that Paul is willing to personally pay for whatever debt they are arguing over.
Because it’s not just the argument between the brothers that’s getting in the way of the church being able to do ministry and be community, it’s also the brothers’ attitude that’s preventing peace in the community. Whatever happened between Onesimus and Philemon, whatever debt was incurred, when the whole thing first unfolded, Philemon must have wiped his hands and said, “I have no use for my brother if he’s gonna be like this” … and Onesimus must have walked away saying, “I don’t need him if he has no use for me” … and both brothers copped an attitude: “Since we disagree, I don’t need you!”
And how can there be community when one person deems someone else useless or unimportant or irrelevant, and refuses to behave toward that person as a brother or sister?
See, we may think that Philemon is an obscure little letter buried in the middle of the New Testament, but in fact it packs one of the hardest punches of all the letters. This isn’t a letter about theology or right belief; it lacks any of Paul’s usual long-winded discussions about the meaning of crucifixion or salvation, or about being wise against false teachers, or about moral living as the Body of Christ. But it’s the most challenging letter because at the core of the Letter to Philemon is this most practical, most difficult question: how much are we willing to prioritize the community over ourselves?
Paul values the community so much that he is willing to pay off someone else’s debt from his own accounts … because if there is a debt between the brothers, then it needs to be paid; you can’t just gloss over a wrongdoing. Onesimus can’t just say to Philemon, “Dude, I’m sorry, please ignore the fact that I owe you money or that I injured you.” Just like Philemon can’t say to Onesimus, “I’m sorry, let’s just forget that I dismissed you and demeaned you behind your back.” In genuine communities, we say when we are wrong and we work to make it right even when it’s hard work. That’s prioritizing the community over ourselves. Philemon and Onesimus, assuming they heed Paul’s letter, are willing to learn how to work together again after so many years of holding a grudge and discounting each other.
What are you willing to do, what are we willing to do for the sake of the community? How much are we willing to prioritize the community over ourselves, our own opinions, our own fears, our own agendas?
And pick which community you might apply that to: our global community, your neighborhood community, the church community, a family community. Where there is disagreement, where there is wrongdoing, where there is estrangement, where there is devaluing, are we willing to say what our part has been as an act of reconciliation? Are we willing to confess that we have not behaved as siblings who treasure one another? Are we able to listen to those who say we have been hurtful to the community? Are we willing even to be like Paul, who waded into a mess that wasn’t his own and wasn’t his doing but he made it right at his own expense?
As I sit with Philemon, I’m aware of my own cynicism and hesitation at times to extend extraordinary effort for the sake of the community — especially (for me) our national community. I wonder why I might add my voice to the political mess when I’m increasingly convinced that one has to have thousands or millions of dollars to be heard. A little closer to home, I hear my kids expressing their doubts that “sibling community” should ever be prioritized over the “individual” …. my daughter thinks that my son always wins because he’s older, my son thinks that he’s held to higher standards of behavior than his sister because she’s younger … and they’re both right, and probably Philemon and Onesimus had similar sibling issues that snowballed into this grudge between them.
If we laid it out honestly, we could all name our excuses for why we let our interpersonal disagreements drag down our whole community or our whole family; reasons why our opinion of right & wrong are important to hold onto rather than letting them go in pursuit of genuine community. Because why value community, why sacrifice for community, why work hard for the community, why hold on through the disagreements if the verdict isn’t going to go our way? If our perspective isn’t guaranteed to be affirmed by the whole group? If our needs and wants might become secondary? Who would bother prioritizing the community over themselves?
The name Onesimus means beneficial, and Paul writes to Philemon, “You didn’t think Onesimus was useful, but in fact he’s beneficial to you and he’s beneficial to me.” We are not, any of us, beneficial to ourselves. We are only beneficial in community. So none of us can say, “I can do without you. I can do without you.”
And more than that: It’s not just that Paul says to Philemon and Onesimus, “Hey guys, you have to hang in there together to preserve the community.” No, the stakes are higher than that. Paul says, “You have to reconcile, you have to right the wrong, you have to swallow your pride if the community is going to get any good work done or do any good dreaming together about God’s vision for the community.”
The good news in the Letter of Philemon is Paul’s confidence that the two brothers can, in fact, reconcile and revitalize their family community. Again, if we give Paul a mother’s tone of voice: “I love you both equally, and I know that you can do this. But no more excuses. (And by the way, I’m coming to visit so clean your room.)”
You remember that song, “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love”? This is what we say makes us distinctive as Christians, as a church community: that we love each other…and not only that we love each other, but that we work it out when it is hard. That we prioritize the community, even (and especially) when it is hard.
No fancy language. No long-winded theology. Just the call to work it out alongside Philemon and Onesimus, because this is what God expects of us.
Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 10/9/11.