A Visit from Philemon

Started by Richard Johnson, September 08, 2007, 02:38:47 PM

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Richard Johnson

A Visit from Philemon (a monologue for Lectionary 23/Proper 18 Cycle C)
by Richard O. Johnson
Copyright 2007 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.

The time: late in the first century
Our special guest: an old man named Philemon

It has been many years now since our brother Paul was put to death by the Emperor Nero. Most young Christians today never knew him; he is just a name to them, a legend. I am now an old man, and I knew him! And how I miss him! He was like a father to me—indeed, in Christ Jesus he was my spiritual father. I am now an old man, but I remember him as if it were yesterday. And I am blessed and honored to have more from Paul than memories. I have a letter, written to me in Paul's own hand, sent to me just weeks before his death, written while he was in prison in Rome. You may have read the letter; it has gotten rather wide circulation, especially since Paul's death. The call the letter by my name—"Philemon"—and yet I wonder at times if that is not too great an honor for one such as I. They say now that Paul's letter to me is a part of God's Word, that it speaks God's word to the whole church. I don't know about that.  I know only that it spoke God's Word to me one day many years ago. I would like to tell you the story of that letter, and perhaps then you will understand what an impact it has had on my life.

I was once a very rich man. I have learned since then, thank God, that there are greater riches in life than money! But I'm getting ahead of myself. I was once a very rich man, and a well-respected member of my community. I lived in the city of Colossae, in the land that you now call Turkey. I was a young man, only recently married, when my friend Epaphras joined the Christians. He was always a bit impulsive, and at first we all just laughed about his conversion. But this time Epaphras seemed serious.  "Philemon," he said to me one day, "you must meet this man Paul. He will change your life!" And Epaphras seemed so earnest that—well, to make a long story short, I went with him to Ephesus, the major city in our area, where Paul happened to be staying for a few months. And in talking to Paul, in listening to his experiences and his knowledge, I came to know that Jesus of Nazareth truly is the Christ, the Messiah of God. And I dedicated my life to him.

When I told Paul of my decision, he smiled at me rather sadly, and said, "My dear Philemon, the Lord Jesus said to his disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter God's kingdom. I plead with you, count the cost of what you are doing. Be sure you know your own heart. Following Christ will be very difficult for you. But if you still desire to be baptized and follow our Lord, I will pray that you may have the courage to live the life you have chosen." I told Paul that I was prepared to do whatever was necessary to follow Christ, and he embraced me and we wept together. The next morning Paul himself baptized me, and I began the life in Christ which has been such a joy and a challenge these many years.

But I did not know what was coming! Epaphras and I returned to Colossae, and found that God was turning many hearts to the gospel. I offered my home as a meeting place for the church, and soon each Lord's Day my courtyard was crowded with those who sought after Christ! Naturally, I was eager for my own household to know the Lord, and God began to reveal himself to them as he had to me. My wife Apphia became a woman of great faith. My little son Archippus grew into a fine young believer. Most of our servants were quick to follow the Lord as well. But my personal servant Onesimus would not listen to my words about Jesus. At that time in our city there was great discontent among the slaves. There were many masters who were brutal and cruel, and when occasionally a slave would run away, most owners would go after the fellow with all the strength of our laws. We were permitted to kill a runaway slave on sight. If a slave was too valuable or his owner too kindly to kill him, we were permitted to brand him with an "F" for "fugitive," or to cut off his hand or his foot to convince him not to try to escape again.

Now I was always kind to my slave Onesimus. He was a helper to me—indeed, I named him "Onesimus" because in our language that name means "useful," and he was most useful.  But in those days he began to be a bit surly and angry, influenced, I suppose, by the rebellious slaves of Colossae. I began to notice that his eyes were filled with hatred when he looked at me, and I began to be concerned about his behavior. And then one morning he was gone—disappeared in the night, taking with him a rather tidy sum from my personal treasury! Of course I was furious, and sent bounty-hunters after him. But he was too fast, and they came back empty-handed. I resolved then and there to punish him severely if he should ever show his face again! And I knew he would eventually be captured; runaway slaves do not get far in the Roman Empire!

It was many months later that he reappeared. Apphia came running out to the fields where I was inspecting the work, and I could tell by her face that she was upset. "Philemon," she called, "come home at once!" "What is it, what's wrong?" I asked.  "Tychicus has just arrived from Rome!" she replied. Now Tychicus was one of brother Paul's closest associates, and Apphia's expression made me think at once that something had happened to Paul. "Is it Paul?" I asked. "Has Nero put him to death?" "No, no—nothing like that," she said quickly. "Paul is well, and Tychicus has a letter from him. But do come, Philemon. Tychicus has brought—Onesimus."

At that I ran toward the house, my curiosity overcome by my anger. I burst into the courtyard and saw Tychicus and that no-good thief Onesimus, laughing and playing with little Archippus. Tychicus was the first to see me. "Brother Philemon!" he called out. "What a joy to see you again! I believe you know Onesimus?" "What is he doing with you?" I growled. "Don't you know this man is a criminal and a fugitive?" Tychicus didn't look at all surprised. "Now just sit down, Philemon," he said.  "Onesimus has something for you."

My temper was difficult to keep in check at that moment, but something in Tychicus' voice gave me pause. I did sit down, and Onesimus came and knelt before me. He seemed a little nervous, but there was no fear in his eyes. And his old hatred was also gone. "Master," he said, "I bring you greetings from Paul, our brother in Christ." I could not believe what he said! "What kind of trick is this?" I demanded. "Peace, Philemon," said Tychicus. "Let our young friend tell his story. Go ahead, Onesimus."

Onesimus cleared his throat and began to speak. "When I left you, Master, I did not think I would be coming back. That first night I hid with friends in Ephesus, and then with the money I . . ."—he looked down at his feet—"with the money I stole from you, I hired a ship to take me to Greece, and then to Rome.

"In Rome I made contact with the slave underground. As you know, there are hundreds of fugitives in Rome, and there is a very good system of protection. I was startled to find that many of the slaves there had embraced Christianity, the religion of my own master! At first I tried to ignore their talk of Jesus, but I began to listen a little, and to attend their meetings.

"One night we were all huddled in a small house for prayers, when a group of Roman soldiers burst through the door and arrested the whole group of us. You may have heard that Christians in Rome are going through a difficult time now, with that madman Nero as Emperor. They dragged us off, even women and children, and cast us into prison. There we remained for some weeks, until at last we were set free—those of us who had not already been used as food for the lions."

Onesimus was trembling as he told of his prison days, but suddenly his face lit up. "But God be praised!" he said. "While in that prison God granted me the privilege of meeting one who changed my life. We had been there only a few hours when the word was passed through a Christian guard that among our fellow prisoners was the blessed Paul! And that next morning he came to us, and prayed and talked with us, to give us courage.  How old he seemed to be—his months in jail have been very difficult for him. But how much he strengthened us with his words. As I listened to him, at last I knew that this Lord Jesus, for whose sake I was so mistakenly cast into prison, had made a claim on my life as well."
Onesimus fell silent, and the only sounds were Apphia's muffled sobs. I did not know what to say! So many thoughts were racing through my head—and still I felt the need for retribution against this slave who had done me such wrong.

But my thoughts were broken by another word from Onesimus. "Master," he said, "our brother Paul has sent a letter to you." He reached into his shirt, pulled out a small, tightly rolled scroll, and handed it to me. Slowly, carefully I opened it, and I recognized at once Paul's handwriting. I began to read, speaking the words slowly and sometimes with difficulty. I could, even now, recite them to you.

It began, Paul, in chains for Jesus Christ, and brother Timothy, to Philemon, our beloved co-worker, and dear sister Apphia, and Archippus, fellow soldier in the gospel, and the church at your house, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

As I continued, there wasn't a sound in the courtyard. Even young Archippus stopped his playing when he heard his name in Paul's letter. I continued to read.

I always thank my God for you when I remember you in my prayers, for I have heard of your love and your faith in the Lord Jesus and all the saints.  I pray that the sharing of your faith may lead to the knowledge of all the good we have in Christ.  What great joy and encouragement your love has given me!  Because I know how greatly you have eased the hearts of the saints, my brother.

Paul's words made me feel warm all over, but I was not yet prepared for what was to come. Therefore, Paul continued, though I am bold enough in Christ to order you to do your duty, I much prefer to appeal to your love. I, Paul (now an old man who is in chains for the sake of Jesus Christ)—I  appeal to you on behalf of my child Onesimus. For he has become my child since I have been in chains. He was really useless to you before, but now indeed he is useful to both you and me. I am sending him to you—he himself, who is my very heart. I would have liked to keep him for myself, so that he could represent you in caring for me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I didn't want to do anything without your knowledge, so that whatever good you do may be deliberate and not from duty. 

I stopped reading, as the full weight of Paul's words began to sink in. He was asking me to forgive this man who had betrayed my trust, robbed my purse, and left my household! He was saying that Onesimus was now his own child, and that I must therefore forgive him! My mind flashed back to Paul's words to me when I asked to be baptized: "Count the cost," he had said. I now began to see what he had meant.

But there was more to the letter, and I continued to read.  You know, wrote Paul, it may be that he was separated from you for a time in order that you might have him back forever—no longer a slave, but better, as a beloved brother. He is especially dear to me, but even more so to you, both as a man and as a Christian brother. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. And if he has done you any injustice, or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will pay you back." I stumbled over those words, but more was coming. I won't mention the fact, Paul wrote, that you owe me your own soul! Yes, my brother. And I expect to profit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ! For I write, confident of your obedience, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. And one more thing: Please prepare a room for me, for I hope, by your prayers, to be returned to you myself.

And Paul closed his letter by sending greetings from the dear friends in prison with him: Epaphras, my oldest friend; young Mark; the beloved physician Luke, and others whose names only were known to me.

We sat there in silence, thinking of the dear old man who sat in prison, in a situation we all knew to be hopeless, but writing with faith that he would soon be visiting us. Onesimus sat on the floor with head bowed. Apphia was weeping quietly, holding little Archippus close to her. Tychicus was the first to speak. "What do you say, my brother? What reply can I give to Paul when I return to Rome?"

"Tell him," I said slowly, "tell him that I have counted the cost, that I have laid a good foundation and by the grace of Christ I will continue to build. Tell him that I rejoice to welcome Onesimus my brother, and that I ask only for his forgiveness for the anger I have harbored against him. Tell him that from this day forward Onesimus my brother is a free man. Tell Paul that our guest room is ready for him when God grants him to us."  And at that I embraced Onesimus, and soon all five of us were laughing and hugging one another like dear friends.

All of this was many years ago. When Tychicus returned to Rome, he found that Paul had already been put to death, and with him my dear friend Epaphras. It was a sad day when that word reached Colossae, but a day of thanksgiving that those two mighty ones were with God. Onesimus soon afterward left my house again, this time not as a fugitive, but as a brother going out to preach the gospel. As I speak to you, my former slave is still alive, a very old man himself, and he has been for some time the greatly beloved bishop of the church at Ephesus. I see him often, when I am well enough to travel, and our friendship is very close.

A young man once, who did not know the story of Onesimus and me, asked him how he, a former slave, could have such a love for me, a former master. Onesimus replied by quoting from another of brother Paul's letters, one written to the church at Ephesus: "Jesus Christ is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall." The young man did not understand, for he has never had to count the cost of following Christ in his own life. I pray that one day he will know, and I pray that you will know, too. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

Copyright 2007 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.   
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

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