Texts: Jeremiah 18:1-11, Philemon 1-25
I get to do something this morning that every preacher in the world dreams about. I get to preach from an entire book of the Bible. Before you look in your bulletin and think I’m going to read 25 chapters, a little Bible trivia. Philemon, or Philemon as it is sometimes pronounced, is so short that when they were handing out chapters, it didn’t get one. It is the only book of the Bible that is referenced only by verses. And this is the only personal letter we have existing from Paul. There are Paul’s pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus, but this is different. This letter is to a friend in the faith, not a leader of a church. So it is very unique in that matter, but we will discover that we can see Paul’s understanding of the Gospel in this short letter. I also want to briefly go over the main people involved before we read the passage for a little background. There is Paul. He is in prison, possibly in Rome or in Ephesus. And there is Philemon, the person who the body of the letter is addressed. The letter begins by greeting everyone in Philemon’s household, but the “you’s” quickly turn from the plural to the singular. Philemon is wealthy, wealthy enough to own slaves and have a house large enough to host a house church. And he was converted to Christianity by Paul’s preaching of the Gospel. And there is Onesimus. He is Philemon’s slave but in the company of Paul when this letter is written. We don’t know exactly why Onesimus is with Paul. The letter indicates that Onesimus has wronged Philemon in someway, maybe stealing something. Onesimus has fled Philemon, but isn’t incarcerated like Paul, which is what usually happens to a run-a-way slave if caught. Overall, slaves had little rights in the first century. But, scholars have discovered writings from this era that show when a slave has wronged their master, and their master is going to punish them, certain kinds of household slaves could appeal the punishment to their master’s higher authority. Paul would be that higher authority for Philemon. That is why I think Onesimus fled to Paul. And during their time together, Onesimus becomes a Christian. Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter. Let us hear Paul’s word’s:
Read Philemon 1-25
An initial reaction to reading this letter is Paul is flexing his apostolic muscle just a little bit toward Philemon. Paul is probably the kind of person that Philemon just can’t say no to. We all have people in our lives like that. When they call and want to know if you can help, telling that person no feels a little like telling your mother no. I’m worried that Glenn is one who can’t tell me no. Something will come up and I’ll be in the office trying to think who I can call to help out. Who can I call? Glenn! So, Glenn, make sure you can tell me no, even though I like the fact that I can call you and there is a good chance you won’t!
Paul says he has the authority to ask of his request based upon who he is and to let Philemon know that he has a duty to do what he asked. Paul says he could place a ‘should’ or an ‘ought’ upon Philemon to honor the request he is about to make. But he isn’t going to do that. He turns to a higher authority, he turns to love. He turns to God’s love. In a way he is saying, “I could command you, but I want love to guide you.”
In his request to Philemon about the runaway slave Onesimus, Paul appeals to love. Why such a strong appeal? Paul knows what could happen to him when he sends him back. Onesimus could be beaten, forced into harsher working conditions, or even sold. But Onesimus has become like a child to Paul. I think this relationship was built in two ways. Onesimus probably helped Paul while he was in prison. In that day, if you were in prison, you had to have someone on the outside that could bring food and blankets and even carry letters to others as Paul does in several occasions. But Paul also became Onesimus’ teacher, sharing the love of God to him, and making him into a disciple of Christ.
Here is where Paul the wordsmith comes into play, a wordplay that we lose in the English. Onesimus’ name literally means ‘useful’ or ‘the useful one.’ It probably was not the name that he was born with. It was probably a name given to him by a slave trader to help sell him. Paul tells Philemon, “Onesimus, the useful one, formally wasn’t useful to you. But now he is truly useful to both of us. He has truly become Onesimus.”
What’s Paul trying to say about Onesimus? What has changed about Onesimus? It is this phrase “but now” that points to Paul’s understanding of what has happened to Onesimus. Paul uses this phrase to talk about a former kind and way of life and the new life that is found in Christ. In the Greek, the words are ‘nuni de.’ When you hear Paul using that phrase, ‘nuni de’, ‘but now’, expect a change. To Paul, God’s love in Christ changes people, in fact, it changes the whole universe. ‘But now’ is that moment that things changed. It is the moment that Paul talks about in many of his letters that the Spirit starts molding our hearts to truly become children of God.
To the Romans, we hear Paul saying that all were slaves to sin, but now in Christ, we have been set free from sin to be with God (Rom 6:22). To the Corinthians, he tells them how they have used their gifts for personal gain, but now God has brought them together as the body of Christ for the good of all (1 Cor 12:18). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells them how they were not part of the covenant, but now in Christ they have been brought near to God (Eph 2:13). The Colossians were once estranged from God, but now Christ presents them holy and blameless before God (Col 1:21).
In Christ we have been changed. In Christ the barriers that separated us from God and each other have been torn down. And Paul makes this most apparent in his letter to the Galatians. Starting in chapter 3: 23: “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Onesimus has changed. In Christ, he has become the person he was created to be. He wasn’t useless before because he ran away from Philemon. He was useless because he didn’t know Christ. He is now part of the body of Christ, made one with all of his fellow believers with gifts that will benefit the entire community. He has become a child of God. He will be going back to Philemon, in Paul’s words, not as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother. There is part of me that wishes Paul just would have came out and said something like, “Philemon, just set Onesimus free. As a follower of Christ, you know slavery is wrong.” A sentence or two like that would have ended the slavery debate years ago. But Paul appeals to love. Paul appeals to the revelation of Christ crucified and raised, which overturns all social structures. True freedom is found in relationship with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. That freedom then pours out into the world, affecting how we view and live with and treat one another.
What side of the ‘nuni de’, ‘but now’ moment are you living on? Are you living on the side of the freedom that is found in Christ? If so, we are not to take our roles as members of God’s family lightly. Even though we are not faced with the issue of slavery in the same way as it was in Paul’s day, our world asks us to draw lines based upon race and income, the size of our house, where that house might be located, or even if one has a home. Paul’s letter to Philemon reminds us that in Christ new relationships have been formed and those on the other side of those worldly lines are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul is asking Philemon to tear down a barrier and accept Onesimus as family. It begins with forgiveness, as Paul is willing to accept Onesimus’ debt in order for reconciliation to happen and the family of God to flourish. We must be able to forgive each other as a family as God in Christ has forgiven us to be his family.
But if you are on the other side of the ‘but now’ moment, lost in the world and looking for a family to be a part of, I invite you to say yes to God. Invite Christ to be your savior, to be your brother. Christ is standing at the door knocking—open it. He has paid your debt and offers true freedom and forgiveness. Open the door and accept the free gift of salvation that he is offering. And I would invite you to become part of this particular family of God. Yes, we have our problems, every family does. But we are growing, and with you as our brother or sister, we will grow as God’s family even more.
In the end don’t know what happened to Onesimus when he went back to Philemon. We can only guess. But now, let us pray that he was welcomed as a member of the family, just as we were welcomed and continually welcomed into the family of God. Amen
 The typical translation of ‘nuni de’ is ‘but now’, but not all English translations translate it that way. So if you look in your Bible for these particular passages and it doesn’t say ‘but now’, in the Greek it is ‘nuni de’.