Stories of slaves and Bishops
One of the most interesting letters in the New Testament scriptures is the one that Paul writes to Philemon, a church leader in Ephesus. In it Paul is doing his best to encourage this wealthy Christian to take back a runaway slave that Paul has befriended and who has become a colleague in his ministry. And not only to take him back but also to not punish him. And on top of that to entertain the possibility of giving him his freedom as a ‘brother’ in this new community of Jesus followers.
If I had been Onesimus, that runaway slave, I think I would have been terrified and probably would have second-guessed my decision about disclosing who I was to Paul. I would have thought long and hard about just fading away again, taking on a different identity and finding a new place to live in Athens or some other part of the empire that was far away, where no one would recognize me. If I had been Onesimus, when Paul showed me the draft of the letter I think I would have been worried to the point of an anxiety attack. My guts would have tightened up, I would have begun to sweat and would have started to breathe more quickly.
But what would have kept me from bolting was the hope I had in the good news that Paul kept reminding me of, that this Jesus we were following was instituting a new community in which all were equal and equally valued and loved – whether Jew or Greek, female or male, and most unbelievably slave or free. But it’s one thing to teach this, and quite another to have it actually lived out especially when you’re on the short end of the relationship.
We don’t know at what point the disclosure happened, when he lets Paul in on his secret past, but somehow he has had the courage to share this secret with Paul and his community of fellow Christians. And it turns out that Paul knows his former master Philemon and has been influential as a teacher and mentor in his life.
Paul too faces a dilemma when he is let in on this secret – what to do with this information. Ignore it or turn him in. And so we find him deciding to write a letter to his friend Philemon, explaining to him that ‘guess what – that runaway, that useless slave you had – he’s here with me and I’m sending him back to you. And further I trust that his return will be like the one in Jesus’ parable about the wayward younger brother, and that you will welcome this prodigal back as a son, and not as a sinner.’
But nothing is certain. There is a huge built-in inequality in his society that respects and holds up the notions of slavery, of a clear delineation between people who are treated as human beings and those who are not, between those with absolute power and those with none – it isn’t just practiced, it is valued.
Paul, however, has this hope that the reign of God is breaking into the world and particularly into the world he inhabits in the Empire. As best he is able he lives out the revelations he has experienced about a new order that is erupting where the barriers that have been entrenched in his society can be undone – women and men, Gentiles and Jews and even owned and owners can find a new way to live together. He is betting on a world that is the antithesis of what is the norm all around him.
But if this happens, if this way of living takes hold, all the traditions and structures of society as he and Philemon, and Onesimus know them, would break wide open. Who knows where this might lead. The consequences were (and are) staggering. As Richard Walsh writes,
“…Grace makes sense (but) only to the socially dislocated and to those marginalized by present orders, to those in the depths, to the botched and bungled, …to sectarians and criminals [and slaves]… To those ensconced in the present order, grace is anarchy. Grace simply does not make sense within an existing world…[and so] the exodus story makes sense only to Hebrew slaves, not to Pharaoh and his army, as they are overwhelmed by the sea. Equal pay for unequal work makes sense to those who have worked an hour, not to those who have borne the heat of the day. Feasting on the elder brother’s fatted calf to celebrate the prodigal’s return makes sense to the prodigal but not to the elder brother.” (Finding St. Paul in Film, p. 30)
We don’t have solid evidence of what happened to Onesimus but the fact that this letter has been preserved for us as scripture strongly suggests that Philemon did welcome Onesimus back and took him in as a brother. There is also another clue. The 2nd century church leader Ignatius wrote a letter to the churches in Asia Minor in which he identified Onesimus as the bishop of the church in Ephesus; signs that the eruption of hope, the breaking in of the reign of God, was happening slowly but surely.
For all the times when we see the failures of the church and the ways we get it wrong, we also see signs of hope, sightings of the new creation being evidenced in lives around us. The stories of slavery and apartheid being dismantled are signs of hope that, despite the power of structures and old systems which are at work holding back the reign of God, light does break through and we now look at these ways of treating others as history rather than as the way things should be.
And one final thought – from our position we can second-guess Paul. Why didn’t he speak more forcefully about slavery? Why did he send Onesimus back to his master rather than confronting the powers? These are easy questions to ask with centuries of hindsight at our disposal. And so it encourages us to be gentle, and to be humble with what we think we have achieved or arrived at. As with Paul we are catching glimpses of the potential of this new reality God is growing in our world. Sometimes we get it right and other times we get as much right as we are able to see.
This much we know – that God is at work in our world, renewing and recreating all things, and we are part of this holy experiment. And even if we don’t always get it all right, we are still beloved children. Paul invites us to imagine what the world can look like when there are no longer divisions that we nurture and accept as ‘givens’ in the new creation God is imagining with us. Just imagine.
Thanks be to God.