I relate to Onesimus in an odd way. I too was a runaway, drowning emotionally and spiritually, with my identity lost beneath the heavy load of responsibility. Running wasn’t an act of rebellion on my part. It was a last-ditch effort to be seen, to be heard, to survive. My running ultimately resulted in my rebirth and new-found identity in Christ.
In Paul’s letter to Philemon we meet Onesimus, a runaway slave from Philemon’s household. The reason Onesimus ran is up for speculation. Had he been disobedient? Most likely. Had he stolen from his master? High possibility. Did he run in hopes of finding himself? Perhaps.
Undoubtedly Onesimus, like all slaves in the first-century Roman Empire, found himself stripped of dignity and of any rights to self-governance. Perhaps he chaffed against the blind submission to the master. Perhaps he chaffed at the loss of individual identity? Perhaps, running was a last-ditch effort on his part to be taken seriously, to be seen as human?
One difference between Onesimus and myself is this: when the police found me, they took me home. When the authorities found Onesimus they locked him away in prison. Fortunately for Onesimus, it was in prison that he was reborn and discovered his true identity. Whatever the reason for his running, Paul saw a person instead of a slave and shared the gospel with his young prison-mate. Nowhere in the letter do we find Paul shaming Onesimus for trying to rise above his station in life.
What we surprisingly learn from the letter to Philemon is how Paul interprets this rash attempt to run from the master. Paul saw this as the precise event that opened up an opportunity for others to demonstrate genuine reconciliation at work in the here and now. This resulted in eternal consequences for Onesimus, but it was first, and foremost envisioned within a present situation.
HOW RECONCILIATION FUNCTIONS
Philemon contains only one chapter with twenty-five verses. Yet in this small letter we discover clues to how Paul expects the ministry of reconciliation to function in real-life situations.
After the initial greetings in the letter, it appears that Paul’s main concern is predominantly with Philemon who owned Onesimus, the runaway slave. It is easy to surmise this. But in rereading the text in preparation for this blog, I noticed a couple clues in the greeting that I missed in my earlier work that indicate otherwise.
The first clue helps us grapple with the reality that reconciliation must be lived out first and foremost within the Body of Christ present in the local church before it is able to function appropriately to fulfill its purpose beyond the church.
Because the greeting includes Apphia, a female, Archippus, a male, (both could be leaders in the church) and because it included the members of the church meeting in Philemon’s home (Phlm 1-2), it is highly probable that what Paul envisaged for Philemon and Onesimus is precisely what Paul envisages for the entire church in Colossae, and beyond.
First off, reconciliation for Paul was not theoretical. It is to be lived out in the world to be witnessed. This reconciliation between two estranged parties cannot be coerced. In order for genuine reconciliation to take place it must be freely engaged. Therefore, Paul encouraged, rather than demanding Philemon to reconcile with Onesimus (Philemon v. 8). Apparently, those who were named in the greeting would be encouraged to willingly choose reconciliation with Onesimus as well. Why so?
In my mind this matters on two levels. On one, it represents in a spiritual sense the work of redemption and forgiveness and salvation. On the other level, and I’ve said this before and I’ll keep saying it: it is a concern because the world is watching. Paul’s greatest concern is how immoral and unethical behavior brings ridicule to the gospel message and thereby is a stumbling block to bring others into reconciliation with God.
Second, reconciliation for Paul was a present expectation. It was not a future reality where individual salvation is a means to eternal life out there in heaven somewhere. It has immediate ramifications and consequences now, in the present. Reconciliation was then, and is still today for us, lived out in the here-and-now reality.
Reconciliation is expressed in the nitty-grittiness of daily life. When this is not present—when irreconcilable differences predominate in the Body of Christ—the ministry of reconciliation is found wanting. The gospel message is stunted, and I believe this is what truly grieves the Holy Spirit. Those outside the Body of Christ have many legitimate reasons to ridicule the gospel message, but one of those reasons should not be our inability to reconcile with each another.
A second clue is found in verse 15 in this letter. Onesimus’s behavior, which put him at odds with his master, reminds me of Luke’s parable of the prodigal son. Jesus described how the prodigal’s behavior put him at odds with his father and his brother (Lk 15:11-24). But here in Philemon, we see how Philemon is given an opportunity to respond to Onesimus his runaway slave, with an over-abundance of grace and mercy just as the prodigal’s father did when he raced out to meet his son and then organized a party on his behalf.
Perhaps, Paul wonders in the letter, whether Onesimus was separated (Philemon 15-16) not to simply learn a lesson that ‘father knows best,’ like the parable of the prodigal, but to give Philemon an opportunity to emulate the heavenly Father’s mercy by welcoming back the runaway, not as slave, but now as a beloved brother who could pull up a seat to feast at his very own table.
No doubt, the leaders within the church—Apphia and Archippus, and the rest of the church— would be given the opportunity to emulate this same radical grace and mercy by embracing Onesimus the slave as the say way they would embrace Paul, the apostle and Roman citizen. If so, then can we imagine Apphia and Archippus, female and male, Onesimus and Philemon, slave and master, along with the entire church, rejoicing with a celebratory meal together and sharing as equals around the table? I took me awhile to get here, but I can.
Third, reconciliation for Paul was inclusive. Paul staked his reputation and life on this premise. His letter to Philemon reveals how we in the 21st century can move beyond reconciliatory theory to real practice. Reconciliation in the first-century, for Paul, was a gutsy upheaval for society. For those in Christ, this represented a radical upending of cultural expectations between master and slave, as shown here in Philemon. In Paul’s mind, all are to be united as one in the Body of Christ. The master and the slave become equals when united in Christ (Philemon, vs 11-17).
N. T. Wright points out in Paul and the Faithfulness of God (p.11), that the “heart of [Paul’s] work is the yearning and striving for messianic unity across traditional boundaries, whether it be the unity of Jew and Gentile … the unity of the church under the lordship of the Messiah in a pagan and imperial context … or the unity of master and slave,” as exemplified between Philemon and Onesimus. The unity is audacious because in Christ this unity breaches all humanly-contrived boundaries as daringly expressed in Galatians 3:28.
The concept of unity at work in Gal 3:28 is paramount to Paul’s theology of reconciliation, but it is costly and requires courageous obedience. In order for shalom, peace, or unity to be fully accomplished, both alienated parties must forfeit something. We must ditch our old identity before we don our true one. We strip off of our external identity wrappings—race, gender, status— and enter naked into the watery grave of baptism (Rom 6: 3-6). We enter as male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and master, rich and poor and upon our exit meet the risen Christ who clothes us with our new identity (Col 3:3-11).
This is a bold and daring image that implies a gender-change—male and female are sons of God (Gal 3:26). Even more radical is that the Jew in Christ is united with the Greek, both to view one another as sons of God. Philemon, the authoritative master, and Onesimus, the subservient slave, both now believers in Christ, find themselves as sons of God on this side of baptism. This is genuine reconciliation at work. And it is possible only through the reconciliatory act of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. It is the only work where each of us can find our true selves and where we can be truly human.