There’s not a whole lot for me to add than what has already been written about the book of Philemon, other than being confronted afresh by the moral ambiguity found on its short twenty-five verses. This unchaptered book speaks into what was the mundane of that day, the same community to which Colossians was written to, yet, leaving much speculation as to what may have happened between the recipient of this letter, and the slave, Onesimus.
In fact, I feel quite ill equipped to hypothesize with what I do know, but as is with most of what I have found as I linger in God’s Word, is that I am not able to know everything, and that’s okay.
What I have been able to see is something consistent in Paul’s writings, a call for what Scot McKnight calls “christoformity,” the true mark of a disciple with the fruit of christlikeness received, and this grand vision, hope for the church, the ekklesia, to be shaped differently than the world in a way that then bleeds out into the world. As Paul models this life of a disciple of Christ in chains, in prison, he trusts confidently that Philemon, too, will reciprocate and follow suit.
We must run into those spaces of darkness so that the light of Christ might shine more brightly, and yet, too often, we shy away from some of those spaces, keeping the liberating power of Christ between ourselves, within the walls of where we worship, ultimately, leaving us in bondage. Thankfully, His power cannot be contained, and the true gospel that lingers in whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, beautiful, admirable will break through as we miss out on what abundance He calls us to in stepping into those places. We have no problem with seeing the wrong of the world, and don’t acknowledge so much the wrong within ourselves, never coming to terms with seeing how even the way we see things could be broken, our picture of those whatevers not clear enough and needing a realignment of what He says to shape and form us. It’s why Paul appeals to Philemon even on the basis of Christ and his love for Him to move him into action.
I can not forget that biblically, remembering is an action, never remaining in the mind but moving us into what our beliefs should motivate us to do. Most times, it is painful, as I’m sure it was for Philemon to move past the stored up bitterness and even debt that Onesimus had incurred as well as for Onesimus to go back to his master, which for whatever reason he had run from. Liberation is what he was looking for, and liberation is truly what we are all looking for. Whatever the matter, freedom from sin and idolatry, or freedom from systemic evils that are not simply abortion, but also trafficking of any sort, the fear stirred up by the majority towards minorities, cyclical poverty, anything that causes us to see someone as less than image bearer; this all starts by lifting our eyes towards the resurrected King.
Let us truly remember, having been freed, liberated, redeemed, be formed into the head that is Christ, a gift not of ourselves, and live not for ourselves. Let us hope and trust that those who are His will bear fruit that causes not only our own places, but the places around us to prosper, because with His abundance, He will provide as His Kingdom will reign.