Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Pentecost 16 C - Philemon

At some point during its history the church decided a short personal correspondence was worth including in the collection that would become the New Testament. Maybe even a laundry list signed by the apostle Paul would have made the cut. Who knows? Its inclusion in the lectionary means that people in the pew rediscover it every three years. Onesimus, the runaway slave, will be put to death unless Paul can persuade Philemon to pardon him. He uses all his powers of persuasion, including some that border on the manipulative, but in the end appeals to his relationship with Philemon. Paul loves Onesimus as a child and Philemon as a brother and does not want to lose either one. The happy ending is that Philemon forgives Onesimus and welcomes him into his household as a brother and Paul breathes a sigh of relief. But it is more than just an interesting story with a happy ending. Lives were hanging in the balance. Onesimus will be put to death. Philemon will lose a relationship with Paul whose ministry changed Philemon’s life. Paul will lose a child and a brother. It is the stuff of our stories where one family member pleads for the sake of another that a relationship restored might bring refreshment. It is the stuff of God’s story where the Son is sent to bring back all who have run away that the family circle will be unbroken in the here and now and in the forever home. Maybe Philemon is where the Bible’s rubber hits the road and the master forgiving the slave because he loves Jesus as much as he owes the apostle is why the little letter belongs in the Book.

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