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Philemon 1-21
A Taste of the Gospel

As she stood in the middle of the group assembled in the house, you could hear a pin drop. Apphia stood next to Archippus, holding the letter in her hand. Leaning on one of the many stately pillars, just across the way was Philemon, the one who owned the house in which this small but scrappy community of Christ followers met.

As she looked across the room, from face to face, Apphia smiled. She smiled at the thought of all that had brought them together, of the one, Jesus, who had—who was!—transforming their lives. She thought of the struggles they’d already had as a community, knowing there were more ahead. But in that moment, she was content. Grateful.

Various moments in their community life flashed before her eyes as she looked on those faces. Memories shared. Hard conversations. Abundant feasts. Walking side by side through the birth of new children. The death of beloved members of their new family, the family many were experiencing anew, through this life in Christ. 

There were good times, and there were plenty of challenging times too. But somehow, they were making it through. 

And today they were gathered in fellowship. To share a meal. To share a meal and to listen for words from Paul, the famed apostle. Paul, the one to whom they owed so much. Paul who had first pointed them on the way of Jesus. Paul who had sacrificed his own self that they might experience this life.


The letter itself was surprising. But more surprising than that was the messenger. Onesimus. The slave. The one who ran away. And he was standing there. More than a little nervous. More than a little scared. Not quite sure why he was back here, or if he’d made the right choice. All the while, across the way his master, Philemon, with jaw set, eyes straying distractedly between Apphia and Onesimus, he prepared to listen. 

And with the opening words, we know that something is up. We know that Paul’s got something up his sleeve. This letter, a sort of PS after the main letter that the community in Colossae had just read, is addressed directly to Philemon. Philemonn, the powerful householder in whose home we’d gathered. And yet nobody moves a muscle. 

Apphia begins reading, bringing Paul’s voice into the room: 

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.

So far so good. Apphia reads the letter as Paul continues on:

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

Paul always had a way with words, and in this moment, you can hear him building Philemon up. Encouraging the community with all that he’s heard. “I hear of your love,” he says. “I hear of your faithfulness to the way of Jesus,” he goes on. 

And then something awkward, something a little strange. “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective.” What does he mean by this? Is it not effective? Not enough? But before I can think too much about it, Paul’s letter moves on from this subtle criticism to once again commend Philemon for the joy and encouragement he’s given. 

Paul has always had a way with words. It was his training, I guess. Training to convince, to win an argument, talking his way around a problem, and then leaving you with no option but to see it his way. 

Which is to say, if he lived in a different time and place, you can bet he’d be a very successful car salesman. 

This is where he leans into the real substance of his letter, reminding us, reminding Philemon of all he owes. That although Philemon is head of this house, he owes everything to Paul—not that Paul’s thought too much about it, mind you. Just that, it might be important to remember, Philemon, that you owe Paul your very life.

And so, what he’s about to ask—while it may seem strange, hard, downright impossible—it’s actually not too much to ask, all things considered. 

I wonder this morning. 

Have you ever felt trapped? Have you ever found yourself imprisoned by life, by circumstance, by the state of  the world? Have you ever found yourself trapped in the way things are, not knowing what you—or anyone—can do to change them? 

And then one day, after sticking around, after trying to work it all out, after trying to figure it out in the least disruptive way possible, you know that the only way forward is to leave? To head out into the wilderness, knowing that there will be consequences for your leaving. Some that you know about. Some that you’ve thought through. And plenty more that you haven’t yet imagined.

There will be consequences, and it’s scary. The path is uncertain. Every decision cuts off one possible future, making another possible. 

Have you ever felt trapped? After wrestling with it for days, weeks, years, decades, you know that you can’t stay any longer, and so you set out into uncertain territory, territory marked by no small amount of anxiety and fear. 

I was thinking about that a lot this week, as the Pride Flag was raised at City Hall on Friday, an act that only years ago would have been unthinkable. I was thinking about how in our church, in our diocese we have worked long and hard to move not only towards acceptance, but embrace of 2SLGBTQIA folks. Even so, coming out can be risky for some. In our community. Amongst our friends. 

I was thinking about the ways in which it is still an incredible journey for many people to reveal to others—their family, their friends, their community of faith—their sexual orientation or gender identity. Because in many places it’s still not safe because not all congregations who claim that everyone is welcome have moved beyond surface level tolerance towards full embrace. 

I think of so many friends who have fled abusive situations, situations in which their humanity was questioned as they shared these deep truths with their families, as they were pushed away by friends,, pushed out of their church, told that they were less than human now that this had been revealed. 

Less than human. Unworthy of respect. Like Onesimus. Like a filthy household slave. 


And then there are stories like this one. This week I spoke to my friend Michael, the priest at St. Alban’s in Ottawa, a congregation that we worked together to restart eleven years ago. And he told me about this moment at the end of the service during announcements. An older woman, a newer member of the congregation, came up to the microphone. She stepped up to the microphone and said this: 

 “I’ve known since I was in Grade Three. I’ve known since Grade Three. But it was a different time then. I married. I lived my life. I raised two wonderful boys. Today I’m 83. I’m 83, and I’m stepping out of the closet for the first time...”

Time stood still. Not a dry eye in the house. It was a moment of liberation. It was a moment of embrace.

And it's never too late.

Paul writes to Philemon, and to the church in his house:

I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, he was a slave, less than human to you. You pushed him to the side. You maligned him, and treated him as property at best.  

But now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. He has become as close to me as my very heart. And I’m sending him back to you. I’m sending my heart back to you, that you might hold me in your heart, that you might care for him, as you care for me. Welcome him as you would welcome me. Embrace him as you would embrace me. Grant him all the honour and care you would grant me, were I there with you in this moment. 

As Apphia reads these words aloud, everyone’s eyes shift between Onesimus and Philemon. Onesimus, the slave. Philemon the master. Onesimus the runaway. Philemon the one who could have him punished—maimed or killed—under Roman law for this infraction. Under the law, he is property, less than human. And yet Paul, founder of this community, the one who had set them out on their journey with Jesus, is setting them out on a new way. A new journey. A new path. 

Eugene Peterson, in his introduction to the book of Philemon, writes this:

Philemon and Onesimus, the slave owner and slave who figure prominently in this letter from Paul, had no idea that believing in Jesus would invovle them in radical social change. But as the two of them were brought together by this letter it did, and it still does.

The story of Onesimus and Philemon is one that plays out every day in our world. It’s a story of the way in which God brings freedom, not just for runaway slaves, but for all of us. For you. For me. It’s a story of liberation that has clear implications for us as individuals, and for us as communities.

And all of it good news, if sometimes hard to swallow. 

I can’t imagine how it felt for Onesimus, agreeing to take the letter to the church in Philemon’s house. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to go back to a community and a situation where he felt uncertain of all that would come next. But it was probably scary, don’t you think? To know the dire personal consequences that could come his way, and to step foot back into his master’s house. 

I can’t quite imagine it, but across the years, I can feel the upset stomach, the tightening throat. The tension in the shoulders as he gets closer and closer, letters in hand, ready to deliver them to Philemon. 

And the letter is read. And what happens? Paul proclaims gospel. Good news. Paul proclaims a message of liberation of captives, freedom for slaves, a message in line with Jesus’ own words on the first day he preached and set forth his manifesto in Nazareth, the proclamation of the years of the Lord’s favour. 

The good news, dear friends, is that This One Is Your Sibling.

In Christ we are all related. In Christ we all have a place at the table. In Christ, we are One. Praise the one who breaks the darkness with a liberating light! Praise the one who frees the prisoner, turning blindness into sight!

This is grace, grace, God’s amazing grace. And it comes for one. And it comes for all. It comes for you, and it comes for me. We are free! We can step into the light. This is the implication of the gospel for us as individuals. 

And as a community, there are implications too. As a community, Paul reminds us in this letter, that we were set free by this same grace. That the sweet sound of God’s grace rings true for all of us, that we are a part of that good news, are invited to live in relationship with one another, so that we might be good news for ourselves and for the life of the world. 


This week I’ve been thinking of those who don’t come to church anymore. Of those who stay away. We all have our reasons, don’t we? We all have our reasons for leaving at one time or another. And while it might be one thing to blame it on the individual, there’s also something else there. 

Sure, Onesimus left for his own reasons. But those were reasons related to his oppression.

I like to think Onesimus got enough of a taste of the gospel from Paul and from the church that he couldn’t stand the mismatch between the story of the crucified God of liberation, and his own enslavement. Nothing was changing for him. The words were there, but he was still a slave. Still sub-human. 

And so he left. He left to figure some things out. To find out if he was truly beloved of God, or if that was just a sham. He left and returned to the one he  knew could help him sort this out. And sort it out they did. 

And now he’s standing back in the midst of the community he left. Knees shaking, heart in his throat. 

Apphia reads the letter, and the community turns towards one another. A new layer of the gospel is being understood. A new layer of the call is being revealed. This one who was a slave is a slave no longer. He is a brother. All of us together, brothers, sisters, siblings in Jesus the Christ. And if that is so, it changes everything. It changes everything. It changes everything. 

As a community centered on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, this changes everything for us.

It changes everything, as we find ourselves invited into this radical embrace. Of those who this world, who we have treated as less than human. Of those who have left the church, perhaps because of the mismatch between what we have proclaimed as Good News, and the Gospel we have lived out. 

But with Jesus, everything changes. Jesus changes everything, inviting each and every one of us to pull up a seat at his table. Inviting us to go out into the highways and byways of life, to invite people to join in this feast of justice and community. 

To know that in Jesus, we are all beloved children of God, as we are, and that we are invited to embrace our whole selves. We are invited to embrace ourselves and one another with the fierce love of the Father who welcomes us all back home.