When I saw that the scripture for this week’s blog was the book of Philemon, I had no idea where this was going to go. Lucky for you (because let’s just say draft one should probably be burned so no one ever has to read it. Ever.), God took over and I think has shown me some great truths about walking alongside others. In this short book I have discovered a fantastic story about Christian friendship, love and accountability.
Philemon is a letter, written by Paul, to a wealthy slave holding Christian. The letter is written on behalf of Onesimus who had run away from Philemon, his master, and is now hiding from his past in the large city of Rome. Through God’s sovereignty, Onesimus and Paul crossed paths in Rome and Onesimus hears the gospel message, believes, repents and gives his life to the service of Christ. Okay, that’s pretty straight forward. But let’s stop here for a minute to dig in a little further. If you have been through the Journey/Way of Life, you are familiar with the idea of imagining yourself as a bystander in the biblical text. This isn’t a theological analysis so put your commentaries away for a minute all you smarty pants. What we want to do is imagine the scene, get attached to the characters and let it penetrate your heart as you use your mind to think about how these events might have played out, all while keeping Christ as the substance of the passage. I know it might seem strange but I think it’s really useful especially because we want to explore the heart of this friendship, which isn’t a cut and dry kind of topic. If you have never done this before, don’t worry, we will search the story together.
Think about how Paul and Onesimus’ friendship may have started and the conversations they must have had. How did they meet? How did the fact that Onesimus was a run away slave come to the light? How did Paul react? Was Paul already aware that Onesimus was Philemon’s slave or did that come out after the friendship had formed? Did Paul have to help Onesimus understand that he had to go back to Philemon and make it right or did Onesimus come to Paul on his own for advice? How did Paul share and teach the Gospel to him? In what ways did Onesimus help Paul out so much? It is fascinating to think that these were real people, with real stories and real God-given missions. We can’t know all of the details of this story but what we do know is that Onesimus encounters Paul and through his encounter with Paul, Onesimus actually encounters Jesus. I picture Paul leaning in and listening to his new friend’s story with compassion, love and life-giving truth. And after a time of listening and loving well and building this deep kind of soul friendship, I picture him telling Onesimus, as a father tells his son, that he has to stop running from his past and face the hard task ahead of him. We all have a past that we are running from or have run from at some point. We run from our past because we are desperately trying to secure freedom for our futures. Paul knew that full well. Before his own conversion, he was so passionate about the traditions of his ancestors that he had become a terror to the ones who were bringing the truth, freedom and life he himself had been searching to find. Paul thought he was running side by side with God, doing His work but he was actually running from the One he was seeking. But God pursued Paul. And He pursued Onesimus. And He is pursuing you. He is a Father who literally runs to us. Just think about the tale of two sons. Luke says “But while he was a still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” He runs to us with a love and passion so compelling, so overwhelming and so unrelenting that we eventually have no where else to go but to collapse into his arms. In this space there is no more running and we discover true rest.
So what role did Paul play in Onesimus’ life? First, he noticed Onesimus. He took time to get to know this man, to know his story, to believe in his potential and to see what was beneath the surface. Second, he shared the truth with him. He helped him understand his sin and his need for a Savior and pointed him to the truth. Third, he got involved in Onesimus’ burdens. He didn’t just preach the message and say “Well, good luck buddy! As soon as I bust out of this prison, I am heading back to see Philemon. Should I send a greeting from you?” No, he spoke some hard truth to him about how to move forward with his life. He is sending him back to Philemon. But why? Is it because Christianity has a set of rules and checklists and if we don’t follow all of those just right, God is waiting to curse us? Is it because we are all called to miserable lives and have no place to dream or desire better things? Absolutely not! It is because Paul wanted the best for Onesimus. Not only did he want him fully restored to the Lord, but also he wanted to restore him to Philemon and not just as a slave but as an equal. Verse 15 says “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother-especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Paul did not want this precious son in the faith to continue running from his past. He wanted him to have freedom but he understood that true freedom comes when we are not running or hiding. There is power in bringing things hidden in the darkness into the light of Christ and Paul was willing to step into some of Onesimus’ darkness and help him into the light. Paul did not view Onesimus as a project, he didn’t project a savior complex onto Onesimus and lead him into some weird codependent relationship and he didn’t think he was better than Onesimus. It actually seems like Paul just wanted to serve him. Is this the upside down kingdom Jesus eluded to?
One of my most powerful experiences in community has come through the part of the Journey process when we shared our personal narratives. And coincidentally, this is the time of year our Journey groups at WRCC are sharing their narratives. I don’t want to give too much of it away for anyone who has not yet had the privilege of doing this but I will say that it has been a key part in my own journey to stop running from my past. It forced me to think through what God has been up to all of my life and opened a fountain of gratefulness for his faithful love and pursuance of me. It also opened my eyes to the stories of others. And here is the thing, I couldn’t have done it on my own. I needed other people around me to listen to, love, and know me and I needed to reciprocate that to others. I think that is what we can see here with Paul and Onesimus. Paul loved Jesus enough to love Onesimus enough to listen well and walk with him into the truth. That is a beautiful picture of Christian fellowship. If that is what the world saw in the church instead of the division, slander, pride and, honestly, just plain old crustiness, how could they pass up that kind of abundant life!
So today think about who God has placed in your life. Is there a person you could be walking alongside as they journey through a difficult season? Is there a person who says one thing but it seems like there is something else going on underneath the surface. Is there a person who seems to be looking for freedom but is in bondage to something that was never intended to control them? Do you know someone who is running from their past? Do you have a voice or position of influence you could use for the good of someone who has no voice? I think these are all things Paul saw in Onesimus. And Paul did what Jesus calls us all to do. He humbly entered the mess, helped carry the burden and showed him the way of freedom. May we all be brave enough to know and be known in this kind of Jesus community that is marked by love and truth.