Good morning. Maria and I thank you for the invitation to share a message with you. We’re happy to be here. We miss UBC—the staff, the building, the people, parking in the same spot, my clip-on name badge, Medici’s coffee, and I especially miss the chicken enchiladas at Manuel’s Mexican Restaurant. Thank you for welcoming us back to the family.
By way of Philemon, I can remember the first time I read this epistle. It was twenty years ago. I was a junior in college and had recently declared my major. I was going to study religion. Philemon, or as my professor jokingly called it, the only Jamaican epistle in the canon—‘PHILLY-MON’—fascinated me. It was so short and yet what Paul accomplishes, and, importantly, how he accomplishes it grabbed my attention. Paul drew me in and produced a response by persuading my mind and moving my emotions. Much of this was the result of repeated reading asking myself:
- What was Paul asking from Philemon?
- Is what Paul is asking Philemon similar to what he poses to the house church?
It is with these questions in mind that I return us to the story.
Philemon is a personal letter written to, well, Philemon but also the house church that meets in Philemon’s home. Philemon is a convert of Paul’s—one who Paul considers as verse 1 notes, “a dear friend and fellow worker.” There is familiarity and commonality among these two men.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that epistles or (letters), like this one, were often read aloud. Imagine a friend writing you an intimate letter and having it read aloud in church for a minute. I wonder what Philemon was thinking as the reader spoke. I wonder what the rest of the church was thinking about Philemon as the reader spoke.
Philemon, we gather, was a person of respect and means. Proof of this is that the house church met at his home. He was viewed as a leader within his church. Similarly, we know he was a person of means because he had slaves. One slave, Onesimus, makes up the bulk of the epistle. Onesimus ran away from Philemon. In Verse 18, Paul may have provided us a clue as to why Onesimus ran away when he writes, “If he (Onesimus) has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me”. One theory for running away is Onesimus stole something. A modern reader, such as myself, is inclined to think: No, he ran away because he was a slave.
Either while as a runway, or while imprisoned for stealing, Onesimus met Paul. Imagine the odds: meeting your master’s spiritual mentor and friend—whom you may have just stolen from so you decided to run away—and your master’s friend just happens to be the Apostle Paul.
We know through that relationship, Onesimus is converted. The purpose for the letter, at least on the surface, is Paul’s appeal to Philemon on Onesimus’s behalf.
At a deeper level, as Paul continues we see the plea is not just to accept Onesimus back, rather, as one commentator notes, the plea is “for a transformed relationship.” This transformation is predicated on a reality that Paul, Philemon, and now the newly converted, Onesimus, share. As people of Christ, they share—or as Paul is trying to remind Philemon—should share—a common consciousness.
Today, I offer three features of a common consciousness, in hopes it will help us better understand the story, ourselves, and the call of Christ.
First, a common consciousness is absent ordering. Ordering is hierarchy. Something, or someone, is first or higher; while another is last or lower. Intrinsic to the ordering is the notion of utility or value. There are several examples of ordering in this epistle: Master and slave; Partner/fellow worker and non-partner/non-fellow worker
Notice, however, what Paul does with this ordering. He does not participate in it. For example, in other Pauline epistles, Paul gives his credentials—he calls himself an Apostle, he barks orders, he rebukes and he does so under the umbrella of a pecking order. Instead of doing those things in this letter, he calls himself “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (verse 1), he makes appeals “on the basis of love” (verse 9), and he identifies as Philemon’s partner (verse 17). Paul positions himself shoulder to shoulder with Philemon and the church. No one is above or below another.
Interestingly, Onesimus, in Greek, means useful. Hierarchies hold hands with value-claims, like one’s usefulness. This then makes Verse 11 all the more powerful: “Formerly he (Onesimus) was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” Paul recognizes the call of Christ, the call to have a common consciousness, is one that is absent ordering and hierarchies.
The second feature of a common consciousness ups the ante. Ordering and hierarchy are gone, now the call is to be a family.
Seven (7) times in twenty-five (25) verses Paul uses the language of family
In verse one he calls Apphia “our SISTER”. Acknowledging Philemon in verse 7 he says, “your love has given me great joy and encouragement because you, BROTHER, have refreshed the hearts of the saints. Paul, again calls him a BROTHER in verse 19.
Petitioning for Onesimus in verse 10 Paul exclaims, “I appeal to you for our SON Onesimus, who became my SON while I was in chains.” And in Verse 16, while telling Philemon how to re-welcome Onesimus into the fold, he suggests welcoming him back “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear BROTHER.”
Families regardless of education, socio-economic status, race or ethnicity, color or creed share one thing—they have warts. In other words, none are imperfect. An awareness of the imperfection is, in my view, what concretizes the familial bond. At a families’ core they know they are imperfect, lean on, and love into one another. That is our call, UBC—acknowledge our imperfects, lean on, and love into one another.
I can almost hear Paul saying, “She is your sister. He is your brother. You are God’s child. Welcome to our church. Join our family, would you?”
The last feature of a common consciousness is, in my view, the hardest. In verse 16, Paul tells Philemon, Onesimus “is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.”
Ordering is absent. Familial bonds are in place. Now, welcome Onesimus a member of God’s family. If Philemon is a child of God so too is Onesimus, right? The implication here is that Philemon is to see Onesimus with new eyes. Philemon is to see him as he sees himself—as a child of God. He is no longer slave, he is actually more than brother, so see him, love him, and welcome him as God has welcomed you.
Rarely do I understand this, friends. Honestly, I have only understood this a handful of times in my life. Those moments are precious and powerful. All of them came through moments with another person. The most recent example was when I got married—about 18 months ago. I stood on the lawn of a Bed and Breakfast, held hands with Maria, looked into her eyes, and felt a love the likes of which must have come from something beyond the both of us. In that moment, through her love for me, I gained a small glimpse into what it meant to be loved by God.
Feeling that is powerful. That powerfully feeling, however, is a reality—the reality that I am, that we are, all loved by God. That is the consciousness we all have friends. Try as we might, we forget it. Be reminded today.
Be reminded that in God there are no hierarchies and all are useful. Be reminded that in God, our common consciousness, is that of an imperfect family. Lastly, and most importantly—let this be raised to a level of consciousness that when we all walk out these doors we have one awareness in common…that we are loved by God.
For this, dear friends, is the Word of God for the people of God.