Learning from Paul’s Letter to Philemon: all in this together
Unlike his other letters included in the Bible, Paul wrote this short letter to an individual rather than to a group of believers. This was a personal request from one follower of Jesus to another.
There’s been much speculation about the identity and position of Philemon and Onesimus, but the generally accepted view is that Philemon was a wealthy Christian overseeing the church that met in his home and Onesimus was one of his slaves who had left for some reason, encountered Paul and converted to the faith.
And now Paul is sending him back.
Whilst the context of this letter is not familiar to us, the theme speaks clearly into our world, our churches, our individual lives today: forgiveness and reconciliation.
It’s a short letter and we have a month. I’m ready to take my time and learn what God is saying to you and to me through it – are you ready to join me?
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Philemon 1-3
Paul could never have brought about the establishment of the early church across the known world alone. Yes, he was a key figure, but we get a sense from the beginnings and endings of all his letters that there were many others, working with him, working for God. Paul needed people. He could not go it alone. He had many friends, supporting him and praying for him. As he moved from city to city, he had to rely on others to carry on the work he had started. As followers of Christ, these individuals were fellow workers for the gospel and fellow soldiers in the fight for good.
When Paul was imprisoned for his faith, he no longer had the freedom to travel. His hands were tied – potentially literally. He had to trust these friends he had made along the way to step up and do the right thing. Whilst this letter was written to an individual containing a particular request, it’s written in the context of a crowd of believers, all working together for the same end: that Christ be made known.
In our individualistic society, we are encouraged to be independent. It can be seen as weak to need anyone, to need help. We can go it alone. We don’t need anyone else. The only person who will look out for you is you. Any of this sound familiar? And yet, what we’re seeing is that this mentality isn’t working. Loneliness is at an all-time high. A fragmented society offers no structure and support for those who need it (actually we all need it). We expect the ‘welfare state’ to care for us all, when life should be about community, about us all caring for each other.
We were created to live in community. We were never intended to go it alone. Yes, trusting others to care for us and support us is scary. We’ll offer help to others – we like to feel needed – but don’t expect me to be vulnerable and admit that I need you…
We are all in this together – regardless of rank and status and popularity and gender and wealth and education and whatever else we judge others by. As Christians across the world, we are all on the same team. We are fellow workers and fellow soldiers.
Let’s learn from Paul’s example and greet one another with God’s grace and peace. Let’s lay aside our prejudices and fears and differences and suspicions.
I come in peace.
I come in the grace of God.
I am a grace dispenser.
I am a bringer of peace.
Let’s find a way to be friends.
Let’s find a way to work together for Jesus.