ďA Change of the HeartĒ
Paulís Letter to Philemon
September 15, 2002
Of the 27 books of the NT nearly half of them are textually attributed to the apostle Paul.† Most of the letters written by Paul, like Romans, Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians, have been the driving force and foundation for much of our Christian theology and faith for nearly 2000 years.
But there is one of Paulís letters that we donít hear much about.† Preachers donít usually preach from it, and not very many of us can quote a passage from it.† It is tucked away deep in the NT canon.† It is easily missed and hard to find.† The only reason I can find it quickly today is because I have the page marked.†
But this little letter is a precious treasure; a small gold nugget buried under the theological mountains of other NT writings.† This little letter contains no theological treatise, no early church creedal formulas, nor any Christological arguments.† It is simply a personal letter from the heart of Paul, a prisoner of Christ, to a fellow servant of the Lord, Philemon concerning the return of Philemonís runaway slave, Onesimus.
For all the theology that Paul has given us, in this letter we see that what matters the most for Paul is the new relationship we have with each other in Christ.† A relationship built on faith, hope, and love.† This new relationship is not a relationship of mere casual acquaintance, but a relationship of mutual forbearance and agape love for one another.† It is this new relationship that defines us as Christians.† We are not just separate people who happen to confess Jesus is Lord, but rather we are brothers and sisters in Christ saved by the grace of God.†
We are a family, not related by blood, but by the predestined adoption by God into Godís family through Jesus Christ.† And for Paul, being in Godís family means that the spiritual change of our hearts by God demands a change of our hearts for others.† No longer can we live in a relationship with others based on human-made divisions of social class, race, or wealth, but rather we must live in a relationship with others grounded upon our faith and based on Christian love.† For Christians of the first century, like Philemon, this was a radical new concept.
We donít know much about Philemon.† He lived in the town of Colossae and was probably wealthy given his ownership of at least one slave, Onesimus.† We do know from the letter that Philemon is one of Paulís converts, and he probably met Paul in Ephesus.† In any event, Paulís name would have certainly been known in Philemonís household.† We are not sure of exactly what happened to cause Onesimus to run away.† It may have been over the theft of money or some other monetary loss like performing inadequate work, but whatever the case may be, Onesimus found it necessary to flee.†
For a slave to runaway from his masterís home was a serious offense.† There is much evidence to suggest that runaway slaves were hunted down and returned to their masters, who had complete authority to punish the slaves, by torture or death at their discretion.† Somehow Onesimus got to Rome where he met Paul and was eventually converted to Christianity.† Paul developed a deep affection for Onesimus and took delight in his dedicated service, but Paul knew that Onesimus must return to Philemon if reconciliation and forgiveness was to take place.
In many ways, perhaps because of our changed social context, it is hard for us to understand or even to agree with Paulís handling of this matter.† It seems that the last thing anyone would want to do is to condone slavery, yet that is what Paul seems to be doing.† Slavery was so common that a large proportion of the population belonged totally to another person, with no rights, no prospects, the possibility of abuse, and the chance of torture and death for trivial offenses.†
One wonders why Paul did not simply ask for Onesimus to be released from slavery?† Why did he not order all Christian slave-owners to release all their slaves, rather than profit from an unjust social structure?† Why did Paul not passionately protest against the whole dehumanizing system?†
It is important for us to remember that slavery back them was so engrained into the society that it was considered as common as owning cars in our society, and just as impersonal.† For Paul to engage in open and loud protest, at that time in history, would have simply been taken as criticism from an old man against the system.† It would have done more harm than good, making life harder for Christian slaves and drawing the wrong sort of attention from the authorities.
Many people find it disgraceful for Paul to insist that Onesimus be returned back to Philemon citing that texts like these promote and propagate the maintaining of destructive relationships, especially against women and minorities.† Many people have used texts such as these to force women to stay in abusive marriages saying that it is their Christian duty.† It is never a womanís Christian duty to stay in a marriage if she is being abused, just as it was never the Christian duty of blacks to stay in slavery even though the church said they should.† In no way is Paul condoning abusive, destructive, dehumanizing relationships.
It is easy to stand in a pulpit or behind a podium or in front of cameras and microphones and with a loud voice obnoxiously criticize certain social systems while ignoring others.† The volume of oneís voice or the political correctness of oneís words will never solve the problems of this society nor of this world for that matter.† The problems will only be solved when a spiritual awakening happens in the collective heart of people.† A spiritual awakening through the Holy Spirit that causes a change of the heart.†††
Paulís letter to Philemon therefore is not about the evils of slavery; it is about something far deeper than that.† Paulís letter is about the koinonia, that is the sharing and participation of faith of the church.† The sharing and participation of faith working through the love of a group of people who no longer belong to themselves but to the Lord.†
It is the koinonia of the church whereby, through the waters of baptism and the bread of life and cup of salvation, we acknowledge our interconnectedness with others.† It is through this interconnectedness that we look upon each other as Godís children and brothers and sisters for whom Christ died.† It is our mutual bond as the body of Christ that makes our much-prized individualism become shallow and petty.†
Paulís letter is about putting into practice the principles we confess.† It is about a change of heart so that we might be guided by the Holy Spirit in a new and higher principle of the equality of and responsibility to all people before God.† It is about the assertion of human dignity, reconciliation, and forgiveness through which we relate to each other as Godís children and brothers and sisters for whom Christ died.†††
This was Paulís motivation for sending Onesimus back to Philemon.† Paul wanted to bring about reconciliation and forgiveness of two estranged Christians.† If the gospel preaches a message of reconciliation, then it must be able to bring together slave and free as it did Jew and Greek, or male and female.† Paul is not asking Philemon to let bygones be bygones, he is seeking a specifically Christian virtue of loving forgiveness by appealing to Philemonís genuine love and faith as a Christian.†† †
For Paul, God is not a distant, unbending and reluctant deity whose concern has to be purchased and loved gained by some special way.† Paul knew and taught that Godís love is not purchased nor gained for us by the cross.† God does not love us because Christ died; rather it is that Christ died because God loves us.† Paul had come to know the love of God in Christ, and in that love of Christ he could rejoice in the knowledge of Godís love for him.†
In the same way, Philemon had also discovered and experienced Godís love for him in Jesus Christ.† It was Philemonís faith toward Jesus Christ and his love for the saints that had gladdened the heart of the apostle and became the means by which Paul could appeal to Philemon to release Onesimus.
It would have been very easy for Paul to have asserted his apostolic authority and command Philemon to forgive and free Onesimus.† There were many occasions when Paul had to exert his authority as an apostle of Christ in order to change the way churches lived and how they cared for others as Christians.† But Paulís desire is that Philemon should act freely for loveís sake and by his own free will because of his faith in Jesus Christ.†
Therefore, Paul reminds Philemon that faith and love are not something we have in ourselves.† They are all that is good that flows from our union with Christ.† Therefore all active workings of faith and love, which have been bestowed upon us in Christ, should have Godís glory as its goal and aim because we too who were formerly estranged from God have been received back through the faith and love of Jesus Christ.†
For Philemon to receive Onesimus is, then, is to do a God-like act.† For it is God-like to receive one back just as God has received us back through Jesus Christ.† Paul hoped that once again Philemon would show the same genuine character of faith and love toward Onesimus just as God had done for him who also is in need of forgiveness and reconciliation.†
Paul knew that Philemon was the only one who could make the decision to free Onesimus.† It is Philemon who must have a change of heart and see Onesimus, not as a runaway slave, but as a fellow brother in Christ.† Only then would their relationship change and true reconciliation and forgiveness take place.†††††††
And this is what koinonia is all about.†
In our Christian faith and agape love for others we can no longer claim superiority or dominance over others for we are all members of the same family, Godís family.†
No longer can we come to church on Sundays and then continue during the rest of the week living as before.† No longer can we consider ourselves as individual Christians, because we have a mutual bond and interconnectedness with others who are also loved by God.† No longer can we divide ourselves into insiders and outsiders of Godís kingdom and salvation, because all of us at one time were estranged from God and God is still at work in the world reconciling others to Him.††
Paulís letter to Philemon is a call for all of us to have a change of the heart and start living in this new relationship with others everyday of our lives.† It is a call for all of us to have a change of the heart and to start seeking a relationship of reconciliation and forgiveness with others who are estranged from us.† It is a call for all of us to have a change of the heart and to start preaching and teaching others about Godís ministry of reconciliation in the world and to participate with God in Godís work in the world.† It is a call for all of us to have a change of the heart and to start sharing and participating in the working of faith through love, because we no longer belong to ourselves but to the Lord.†
††††††††† Brothers and sisters, let today be the day that you have a change of the heart.