[The sermon was preached as part of the Lenten series “The Doctrine of the Incarceration.”]
How many of you upon hearing Philemon this morning wondered, “What in the world is going on, why is this in the Bible, and what it’s supposed to mean for us?” One of my favorite things in teaching is to encourage students to linger for a while in the bewilderment rather than trying to move directly to the “one right interpretation” (so if you’re hoping that I’ll tell you what this letter really means, it’s not going to happen, so let’s get that disappointment out of the way). Especially with texts held as sacred, we can both expect and desire a coherent message that is immediately and clearly meaningful for our lives. But I would contend that meaning is made, that what is meaningful is not always self-evident but becomes meaningful in the process of trying to figure things out. After all, our lives are continually unfolding processes of working to figure things out, figuring out how to makes sense of and live in the world around us.
And that’s where we might start with Philemon: in this text, Paul and Timothy write to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the assembly that gathers in their house as a matter of working out the dynamics of what it means to live in Christ. We might say that the prevailing question centers on what difference faith in Christ makes for living together. How are relationships and practices informed by the gospel? But here’s where I want to be careful. It is far too easy and far too common to jump immediately to the conclusion that Paul presents a glorious vision of equality and oneness in Christ. Maybe. Maybe that’s the idea in theory. But we might want to ask further about how that plays out in practice.
So what is actually happening in this letter? What’s at stake “in practice”? Honestly, it’s not entirely clear. We know that Paul and Timothy send a letter to a group of people who meet together in a house, presumably for some kind of worship. We know that some man named Onesimos has been with Paul during a time of separation from Philemon and that some kind of relationship of affection and usefulness has developed between Paul and Onesimos during that time. But who is this Onesimos? What’s he doing with Paul? And why does Philemon care?
Onesimos is apparently a slave since Paul abjures Philemon to welcome Onesimos back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave” (v16, CEB). Onēsimos in Greek means “useful.” Calling someone by describing her or his functionality was a common practice for naming slaves. Paul even makes a pun of the name, saying that Onesimos “was useless to you before, but now he is useful to both of us” (v11). We’ll come back to this issue of how Paul and Philemon relate to Onesimos, but we should keep in mind the fundamental idea that Onesimos’s very name signifies that he is someone to be used, that he is valuable not on his own terms but as far as he is beneficial to another.