In the beautifully crafted Letter to Philemon, Paul tells Philemon and the church in his home how grace should work out in their situation. Scholars disagree as to how Onesimus actually met up with Paul – was it a coincidence, or did he actually seek out the apostle? If the latter, why? We don’t know. Neither do we know for sure whether the Bishop Onesimus we read about in history was this same person who, having received grace, became one of the early leaders of the church.
Voices from Scripture: Apphia
LET’S see – is everything all set for our house meeting tonight? Is the room cleaned? Have they brought the chairs over?
I should check with Onesimus that enough stew has been cooked. But no, I trust him now. He is a believer and
recommended by Paul and anyway, he’s much changed. I remember how he used to be so surly with a chip on his shoulder, doing everything with such a bad attitude. And rude to boot! Now though he’s a brother with us, he doesn’t expect any special privileges and has become such a good worker. I’ve never seen any one turn around like that.
After we received Paul’s letter I remember telling Mr Philemon that we can’t be too sure that Onesimus has changed, despite what Paul said. But my husband said no, if the apostle says he’s changed, then he’s changed. And it’s not just on the surface either. Welcome him as you would welcome me, Paul said. Which means that Onesimus and Paul are one!
Now that’s a new thought! To think that a slave and an apostle are the same. But then, Paul has said that before … there is neither slave nor free. Hmm, I suppose that means that Onesimus and us are also the same in the Kingdom of God.
Frankly, it’s easier for me to think of that slave Julius as a brother than Onesimus, maybe because I only got to know Julius in the church community; and Onesimus I’ve seen at work. I wonder what Julius is like in Matthew’s house, though?
I still can’t understand why Paul had to write in that way to us, I mean, to say “I appeal to you on the basis of love.” Whose love? Is it our love for Paul and his for us?
I guess that would be part of it. I’ll be quite happy to do something for him because he asks us to. I suppose there is God’s love as well, isn’t it?
Paul has said that the love of Christ compels us, urges us, motivates us to do as our Lord would do. Ah, but if Christ loves us, then we need to love others, and that includes runaway slaves like Onesimus. So Paul wishes us to act on love, and what that love means. Even in a personal letter to us Paul speaks in so many layers!
He sent Onesimus back to us … of course he had to! I mean, he has no right to keep a runaway slave, who was a thief as well! And the irony of Paul promising to pay us back; since he doesn’t really have much money. His humour, I suppose.
He could have kept Onesimus for himself; but that’s not Paul.
He lives by the Gospel and so will do the right thing.
Hmm … is he “saying” something? Not only that we believe in the Gospel, but it has very real, practical implications in our lives? So that means that the right thing to do, as believers and as Christians, is to take back this thief? No, not a thief, a brother. That’s why Mr Philemon trusts him, though I must admit I find it hard. But I also admit that he really is so different now, it must be the word in his life.
It is exciting to see how the Lord changed him. But then, I suppose that is what it means to be followers of Christ, to allow Him to change us … I’d better go and remind Onesimus that he should join us this evening.
Kwa Kiem Kiok, a member of Trinity Methodist Church, is on sabbatical at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, the United States.
LOVE OF CHRIST
‘Paul has said that the love of Christ compels us, urges us, motivates us to do as our Lord would do. Ah, but if Christ loves us, then we need to love others, and that includes runaway slaves like Onesimus.’