Anyone who’s been a parent, or loved a child into adulthood, knows the anguish and the anxiety of releasing a child into the world—of sending them across the state or across the country to move into the next phase of their life, be it college or their first job.
I received a letter with this kind of concern from a parent—well, actually, it was a message on Facebook, but in today’s world, that constitutes a letter! A friend wrote and shared that her daughter was driving to Austin for an internship and she could stay at our house on the way. We were delighted, especially since we rely on similar hospitality from other parents for two of our college-age children in Missouri.
It’s a letter that most of us have both written and received—seeking the blessing of someone else’s love for our child and sharing our love for someone else’s family member.
The book of Philemon is also such a letter—a letter written by the Apostle Paul to Philemon. Paul writes as Onesimus’ Father—not his blood relative—but instead, as his father in the body of Christ, his father in faith who brought the Gospel message to Onesimus. Rather than being sent by mail ahead of time, Onesimus carries this letter in his pocket as he travels from Paul, who was imprisoned in a different town.
The circumstances of this letter are different from the one my friend sent, because Onesimus is Philemon’s slave. But at its core, this really was the same letter for it carried in the anxiety and anguish of a parent sending his child into the world. Paul is sending Onesimus back to a difficult situation because Onesimus, who is owned by Philemon, has left him. We are not sure why or how—but Onesimus fled from Philemon to Paul who is the founder of the Christian community that gathers in Philemon’s house.
More than a simple night of lodging, this letter carries in it, life and death for Onesimus. In the first century, a slave who left his master and owner without permission, would have been severely punished or even put to death for his transgression. This is part of our own country’s history country, so we understand all too well, the implications of Onesimus’ situation.
Imagine the fear and trembling with which Onesimus traveled—wondering if this short letter in his pocket is sufficient to persuade Philemon to spare his life and not give him the punishment allowed by law.
In the letter in Onesimus’ pocket, Paul reveals to Philemon that Onesimus has become a believer in Jesus Christ, and because of this, he appeals to Philemon to end the owner-slave relationship. Paul encourages Philemon to forego his legal rights as a slave-owner, and instead, to transform their relationship to one of brothers—as equals—in the body of Christ.
This is the hard, spiritual work of walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. Paul beckons Philemon to leave behind social stratifications and class privileges and instead to live by Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
“I am sending you my own child,” says, Paul, “my very heart”—a precious one whom Jesus loves and forgives and saves—he is Jesus’ possession, not yours, Philemon, so change how think about Onesimus, so you can be freed to behave differently toward him—not as one who commands his behavior as an owner, but as one who loves him as a brother in Christ Jesus.”
In the words of Jesus, Paul is asking Philemon to “carry his cross”—to choose suffering for the sake of the sake of the Gospel, to choose sacrifice for the sake of another, to choose loss for the sake of Jesus’s purpose, and God’s claim on all of who we are and all that we “think” we possess. Grace is free but to live in that freedom for Onesimus comes at a cost for Philemon—so “count the cost” of discipleship. To make Onesimus his brother in Christ could mean financial loss, loss of social status, it could make others in the community, including his own family, angry.
Paul says clearly: “Philemon, it’s not enough that you believe in Jesus’ love, forgiveness and power, Jesus asks you to behave with his love, forgiveness and power. Let go of your rights and the anger that goes with them, and change your behavior, transform your relationship with, and reform your treatment of Onesimus.”
This is the best part, Paul adds, “I could command you to do it—for I am in authority over you, but I want you to choose it through the power of Christ who dwells in you. Can you receive this son of mine, my own child, my own heart, into your home and care for him as your own child, your own brother, rather than a slave?”
As in so many other passages, Scripture does not give us the satisfaction of telling us the end of the story. What happened? Did Philemon forgive Onesimus and love him as a brother in Christ? Did the church gathered in his house, join Philemon in receiving Onesimus as a brother, carrying the cross of true Christian community and equality in Christ?
The only answer we have is the one we ourselves choose. Paul’s letter asks us if we will forego our rights and privileges accorded us by race, income, education or other measures to love others as equal brothers and sisters in the body of Christ our Lord, loving them as we do our very own family. Paul’s letter asks us to extend the radical love of Christ himself in our relationships, communities and churches.
Last Thursday, I was at a meeting at the Richardson School District with their Community Relations office and the non-profit, Unite the Church which is working to build community relationships between faith communities and schools. They are working together to pair every school in the district paired with a house of worship to build relationships, help with needs, support teachers and families, and do whatever is possible to be a connected community that works together to educate our children.
Our new Justice and Advocacy Team is exploring a relationship with the High School since we are right next door—we would look for other church partners as well since it is a big school.
At this meeting, I also learned that the Richardson School District just received 500 new children who were recently released from detention at the border—most of whom are from Honduras. The Dallas School District received 1,000 students.
Our schools need our support in helping these families because each one of these children, like Onesimus, has a letter in their pocket. A letter from Jesus himself that carries life and death and says, “this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive her and love her as you would your own child.”
Today is God’s Work, Our Hands Service Sunday. Right after church, you can help the Hunger Helpers pack lunches so that everyone of us has a few meals in our car that we can give with a smile and a prayer to someone who is begging on the corner—because every homeless person has a letter in their pocket from Jesus himself, that carries life and death and says, “this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive him and love him as you would your own child.”
Some of us will do God’s Work, Our Hands service at the Richardson Civic Center after church packing meals for Feeding Children Everywhere, and some of those meals will stay right here in our area. That’s because nearly 60% of children in this school district are receiving free and reduced lunches. Richardson High School and other schools are opening food pantries on site. Network of Community Ministries now has a mobile refrigerated food pantry truck going to some of our schools. Every one of those hungry children at school have a letter in their pocket from Jesus himself that carries life and death and says, “this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive her and love her as you would your own child.”
Paul makes one final promise in his letter for Onesimus: If Onesimus owes you anything, any money for labor lost, charge it to me. And when I come back to you, I will pay the price of whatever he owes.
Paul himself is walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. I will pay the price myself. Paul is not just counting the cost, he is paying the price. He is the living example of the love of Christ in action—carrying his cross—in his willingness to suffer for the sake of life for others.
We hear in Paul’s own transformed heart, the promise of Jesus Christ to all of us. Paul calls us to join him and Philemon in relinquishing our rights whether of citizenship or church membership, whether of race, education or class, and instead, allow Jesus to transform our lives around his love, which has paid the price for us.
We are the Pauls and the Philemons of the church today, carrying the cross, and embracing everyone as our sister and brother in Christ, for don’t we each have a letter in our pocket from Jesus himself, that carries life and death and says, “this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive him and love her as you would your own child.”