Philemon is one of those books of the Bible that you may not remember is even there. It’s one of the shortest, at only one chapter of 25 verses, and we rarely preach or read from it.
It is a letter of Paul. Paul was probably writing after his missionary journeys, in the middle or towards the end of his ministry. He himself says in the letter that he was in prison at the time of writing, although we don’t know where (and he was in prison a lot, so that doesn’t exactly narrow it down for us). And Paul is writing to Philemon. Philemon was a member, or possibly one of the leaders, of a house church. Specifically, Paul is writing to Philemon concerning one of his slaves, named Onesimus. Onesimus seems to have run away from Philemon, possibly stealing from him in some way before leaving, and ended up with Paul. He has since become a Christian, and become a helpful and beloved companion to the imprisoned Paul. Paul is now sending Onesimus back to Philemon in the hopes that Philemon will free Onesimus.
Paul doesn’t just come out and ask for this, of course. First he builds a framework: he reminds Philemon that the two of them have worked together before, not just as fellow Christians but as friends and even as men who were like brothers. Then Paul tells Philemon how Onesimus too has become like family after the time they’ve spent together, and even calls him “my own heart.” Therefore, Paul writes, Philemon too should consider Onesimus as a brother, “both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Philemon should consider Onesimus family, not just in the way that all Christians are family but even more so than that. They are bound together more deeply than that. And therefore Philemon should welcome Onesimus back as family, not as a disobedient slave.
We don’t know what happened. We don’t know if Philemon did as Paul asked, and welcomed Onesimus back as a brother in Christ and an honored member of their church, or if Philemon punished Onesimus for his disobedience. Imagining the possibilities, however, reminds us just how extraordinary Paul’s request was. He was asking Philemon to forgive a criminal, one who had robbed him and even humiliated him. That is even more true now that Onesimus has returned; if Philemon forgives Onesimus, everyone will know about it, and not only know it but also see Onesimus unpunished and more honored than before. There will be talk about how Philemon is soft, about how he is too weak or stupid to defend his own honor. Paul’s request is huge and shocking and life-changing.
That’s because Paul is dreaming big. He’s dreaming huge–he’s imagining and hoping that the gospel is big and powerful enough to change things, really change things. Christians shouldn’t hold each other in bondage in any way. They’re brothers and sisters, after all. That’s why Paul talks so much about family in this letter. God makes us all family, and anyone who’s ever had a family knows that comes with some serious fighting, but that beneath that is some even more serious love. And Paul is dreaming that the Christian family treats one another even better than families do (As I’m sure every sibling has said, “Hey! Only I’m allowed to be that mean to him or her!”), to treat one another so well that they’re willing to look foolish in order to love each other well. No one ever said that Christianity was easy or would come without sacrifices. Paul, too, writes about his sacrifices, of the time he’s currently spending in prison. The Christian life is not easy. It was never meant to be.
Instead, we are called to do things that are strange and odd, the kinds of things people will gossip about and wonder about, out of love. We are called to love one another so much that it seems strange and reckless. What would that look like today? Who are we called to love so recklessly?