Look at it like this. Maybe this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you could have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but much more than a slave, as a beloved brother, beloved especially to me, but how much more to you, both as part of your household and in the Lord. So, anyway, if you reckon me a partner in your work, receive him as though he was me. And if he’s wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, put that down on my account.

-Paul, in his letter to Philemon about a runaway slave named Onesimus

Act 1, in Colosse:

Onesimus (stomping across the platform from stage right): I’ve had it! I’m leaving. I mean it this time.

Clara (dusting the choir rail): Oh, you always say that. Every time you get in trouble, that’s what you say.

Onesimus: And every time I say it, I get a little bit braver, and I mean it a little bit more. This time, I mean it for sure.

Clara: Sure. And when you’ve gotten over yourself, we’ve quite the list of work to finish.

Onesimus: Clara. I have some silver coin in my bag. It’ll pay for two to get to Colosse. Come with me.

Clara: SILVER?! You are so reckless! Don’t you realize what will happen, if you get caught stealing from the household?

Onesimus: No worse than what happens to runaway slaves. You know that as well as I do. You’ve seen what they do.

Clara: Yeah, that’s why I try to avoid it. This place may not be safe, but it’s safer than being on the road, alone. Please don’t do this. Please don’t go.

Onesimus: I can’t convince you? Nothing I say will bring you around?

Clara: You’re playing with your life. You won’t be playing with mine as well.

Onesimus: I’ll come back if ever I can buy your freedom. I promise you this. *exit stage right into the Fairley room*

Clara (visibly upset, still dusting the choir rail): I won’t be expecting you.

Philemon (entering from stage left): Which is worse, girl, a thief or a runaway?

Clara: I’m sure they’re both…

Philemon (cutting her off): Don’t bother, they’re one and the same. That boy was useless anyhow. I’ll send out messages just in case he shows up, so I can make an example of him.

Clara: Sir…

Philemon: Don’t interrupt, hasn’t anyone taught you anything? Yes, Onesimus will never learn his lesson, but if we find Onesimus, then perhaps other slaves will learn from his experience.

Clara: Sir…

Philemon: What is it, girl?

Clara: I just wanted to remind you that the Followers of the Way are coming tonight.

Philemon, visibly softening: Oh, good. I’ve missed their fellowship. It’s a potluck, and everyone brings what they can, but of course we’re the hosts and should put on a good spread. Go to the kitchen, Clara, and check on the preparations. I think I want to spend some time in prayer before they get here.

(Clara exits stage right into the Fairley Room, Philemon exits stage left and sits by the piano. Dim and brighten lights.)

Act 2, in Ephesus:

Paul and the jailer are sitting on the facing bench with their legs connected by a length of rope.

Voice offstage, sarcastically: A very important visitor is here for the great apostle, prisoner Paul.

Jailer: Let him in.

Onesimus, nervously entering from the Fairley Room: Hello, Mr. Paul.

Paul: It’s just Paul, thanks. This man (gestures toward jailer) works for a kingdom that uses titles. I work for King Jesus.

Jailer, jokingly: Is this how you intend to convince Caesar that you aren’t a traitor, by constantly speaking of another king?

Paul: What I intend to do is find out who has come to visit me. Speak up, friend. It’s hard to see in here.

Onesimus: I am Onesimus, from the household of Philemon of Colosse. I was a slave there, but, um, now I am free.

Paul: He freed you? But you are still a part of his household, of course.

Onesimus, bashfully: Well, not exactly…

Paul: But you are here under his authority?

Onesimus, angrily: I am under no one’s authority!

Paul: So he freed you, then? Philemon paid the manumission tax?

Onesimus starts to speak, but is silent.

Jailer, to Paul: Come now, my dear apostle, it’s clear what has happened here. You’ve been spreading all these rebellious words about freedom, about how your King Jesus liberates people. Here is one of your disciples! He has listened to your teachings, and has left his master.

Paul, to Onesimus: Is this true?

Jailer, to Paul: Now he is yours to command, slaves being good for little else.

Paul, to Onesimus: Son, is this true? Have you run away?

Jailer, to Paul: Apostle of the runaway slaves, I will call you.

Paul: Son?

Onesimus, faltering: Yes, this is true.

Jailer: See, my dear apostle? Look at this great freedom you have brought him!

Paul: But this is not what I meant at all!

Onesimus: Not what you meant? It’s exactly what you said, isn’t it? I’m sorry, sir, but now that King Jesus has come, there aren’t any more slaves and masters, that’s what you said.

Jailer: That’s exactly what you’ve been saying.

Paul: I didn’t mean that households should be torn apart, though! I thought that you would obey, and that Philemon would treat you well.

Onesimus: What? Begging your pardon, but I think my master forgot that second part.

Paul: You must go back. This is a disgrace.

Onesimus: I am never going back. I am free now. What is disgraceful about that?

Jailer: Indeed, my dear apostle. Answer the boy.

Onesimus: Do you agree with Philemon, then, that I’m just a worthless slave? All of this big talk about the gospel, about freedom- did you really mean any of it?

Paul: I meant every word. I just didn’t envision this outcome.

Jailer: The empire certainly did. That’s why you’re in jail.

Onesimus: Look, when I left Colosse, I wasn’t sure about this King Jesus idea. But as I walked, I became more certain that I was meant to be free- that freedom is what King Jesus wants for me.

Paul: Yes, freedom is what King Jesus wants for everyone.

Onesimus: I would rather choose to live as a fugitive than return to the life of a slave.

Paul: But of course you must go back, child! We can’t run from these things. We must face them honestly.

Onesimus: Who but a fool does not run from death?

Jailer: He has you there, dear apostle. He has committed a capital crime.

Onesimus: If I go back, I will die. You know as well as I do that Master – Philemon – cannot let disobedience go unpunished. He has made an example of me before, over smaller matters, and he will make a bigger example of me now.

Paul: It is up to you. You must choose. If you choose to stay here in Ephesus, then that is your choice. If you choose to return to Philemon, however, then you will do so with my blessing.

Onesimus: What good will that do? And what slave has ever willingly stepped back onto his master’s property?

Paul: Perhaps never. And when has a father in the faith been chained to a jailer, and when has a father in the faith taken the side of a slave? Perhaps never. Nevertheless, I will write you a letter to take back with you.

Onesimus: You will tell Master Philemon to set me free?

Paul: The choice is Philemon’s, just as the choice to return is yours. I will make my own wish plain, however, to see you treated as a brother rather than a slave. Your freedom, Onesimus, is in making the choice to return to Colosse or to stay in Ephesus.

Jailer: What could you, a prisoner, possibly say to sway the heart of a powerful man like Philemon?

Paul: I think you will see that love and rhetoric are a formidable combination. Onesimus, so long as you are here, would you be willing to help me?

Onesimus: Anything. Just say the word.

Paul: Go into the marketplace and find me a scribe. I have a letter to write.

(Dim lights. Paul, Jailer, and Onesimus leave. Bring the lights back up. Philemon enters with a stack of papers.)

Act 3, in Colosse:

Philemon is sorting papers. Clara enters from the Fairley room.

Clara: Excuse me, sir.

Philemon: Yes, girl, what is it?

Clara: A letter has arrived for you, via courier.

Philemon: What of it? I get lots of letters, and you are in charge of delivering none of them.

Clara: Yes, sir, but this courier asked to be brought to you directly.

Philemon: And you agreed?

Onesimus enters stage right, bearing a letter.

Philemon: Clara, what is this? Onesimus, runaway, you dare waltz into my presence? Your foolishness knows no limit.

Onesimus: Believe me, I had no intention of returning. But my time away has taught me that wisdom and foolishness are not what I expected.

Philemon: You speak flippantly. Know that I can – and may – have you crucified for this.

Onesimus: Yes.

Philemon: And yet you have returned. Why?

Onesimus: To foolishly bring you this letter.

Philemon, mockingly: Well, this is surely the strangest thing I have ever been involved in. A slave has run away, then returned to face a death sentence in order to deliver a letter. And who, if I may ask, is this letter from?

Onesimus: The apostle Paul of Tarsus, who is imprisoned in Ephesus.

Philemon, serious now: Paul? The founder of our band of Christ-followers?

Onesimus, falteringly: Yes, sir. I don’t know what it says, but Paul has asked me to bring it to you. And also, I am sorry for my part in the conflict between us.

Philemon: Clara, fetch a scribe. We shall have the letter read aloud, and then I shall deal with Onesimus as Paul instructs.

(Clara exits stage left, returns with the Scribe. Philemon, Clara, and Onesimus sit on the facing bench. The Scribe reads the letter in full to the audience, from the pulpit or the choir director’s position. Actors react as appropriate.)

The Scribe reads:

Paul, a prisoner of King Jesus, and Timothy our brother: to our beloved Philemon, our colleague and partner, to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our comrade-in-arms, and to God’s people who meet in their house: may grace and peace be upon you, from God our father and King Jesus the Lord.

I always thank my God when your name comes up in my prayers, because I’ve heard of your love and faithful loyalty towards the Lord Jesus and to all God’s people. My prayer is this: that the partnership which goes with your faith may have its powerful effect, in realizing every good thing that is at work in us to lead us into the king. You see, my dear brother, your love gives me so much joy and comfort! You have refreshed the hearts of God’s people.

Because of all this I could be very bold in the king, and order you to do the right thing. But, because of love, I’d much rather appeal to you—yes, it’s me, Paul, speaking, an old man as I am and now a prisoner of King Jesus! I am appealing to you about my child, the one I have fathered here in prison: Onesimus, ‘Mr Useful’. There was a time when he was useless to you; but now he’s very useful, to you and to me.

I’m sending him to you, yes, the man himself; and this means sending my own heart. I would have liked to keep him here with me, so that he could have been your representative in serving me in the chains of the gospel. But I didn’t want to do anything without you knowing about it. That way, when you did the splendid thing that the situation requires, it wouldn’t be under compulsion, but of your own free will.

Look at it like this. Maybe this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you could have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but much more than a slave, as a beloved brother, beloved especially to me, but how much more to you, both as part of your household and in the Lord. So, anyway, if you reckon me a partner in your work, receive him as though he was me. And if he’s wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, put that down on my account.

This is me, Paul, writing with my own hand: I’ll pay you back (and far be it from me to remind you that you owe me your own very self!). Yes, my brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in the king.

As I write this I’m confident that you’ll do what I say. In fact, I know you’ll do more than I say. But, at the same time, get a guest room ready for me. I’m hoping, you see, that through your prayers I will be granted to you.

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in King Jesus, sends you greetings. So do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my colleagues here. The grace of the Lord, King Jesus, be with your spirit.

Actors exit.


 

Sermon:

What Jennilou just read is the entire book of Philemon. It’s a short but difficult book. I think that’s why it doesn’t get much airplay, these days.

It was used in the run-up to the Civil War, along with other texts about slavery in the Bible, to argue that slavery is actually part of God’s divine plan.

Paul didn’t tell Philemon to let all his slaves go, right? He sent Onesimus back with a letter, and sure, maybe Onesimus was freed and welcomed as a brother, as Paul wanted.

What about the rest of Philemon’s household, though? Is this just about showing mercy to one man: Onesimus? Maybe it’s enough to set Onesimus free, since he’s a real true Christian now, but keep everyone else enslaved?

One could conclude that the institution of slavery as a whole didn’t concern Paul much, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

I doubt that Paul could have imagined a world without slavery, to be honest. It was how households worked. Abolishing slavery would leave a gaping hole in the community. They simply couldn’t have done without it.

It would be like imagining all of us suddenly giving up on driving. Look: we know that extracting and burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment, so we seek out cars that get good mileage and we carpool and so on.

We don’t just throw our keys into the trash, give up on the motorized world as we know it wholesale.

Likewise, the Jewish law lays out particular protections for slaves, that they’re included in the Sabbath rest and can’t become slaves due to kidnapping. And Paul himself repeatedly says that masters must treat their slaves with compassion, as well as saying that slaves must be obedient and diligent in their work.

They’re trying to do slavery well.

But, that’s not what I want the Bible to say! I’m a descendent of radical Wesleyans who, in the run-up to the Civil War, saw their abolitionist printing presses burned because they wouldn’t shut up about the evils of slavery. I’ve joined a religious movement that played a central role in the Underground Railroad.

I want the Bible to be crystal clear on this point. I want it to say that slavery is evil and must be abolished. It doesn’t even come close. The Bible doesn’t say, free the slaves.

It just says: be reconciled to one another, love your friends and enemies alike, put your faith and your work into a kingdom in which all people can flourish.

And then, with the Spirit’s guidance, we’re left to discern the shape of that kingdom.

Paul sends both Onesimus and Philemon into the world as it is. He tasks them with the job of seeing the world as it might be. It’s clear what he wants, but he doesn’t tell them what to do. They have to see it for themselves.

Later on, Paul writes a letter to the church in Colosse- that’s where Philemon and Onesimus are from. In it, he says that he’s sending a man named Onesimus, who has been working for him.

The tradition holds that Philemon has done what Paul asked, and Onesimus is now getting a chance to visit home. We don’t hear anything else about Philemon’s household, though. We don’t really know what happened.

Let’s assume that Philemon freed Onesimus, though. What would his other slaves say? Would they, too, run away- or might they come to Philemon’s house church and demand their freedom there, during worship, where all were understood to be equal?

And what happens to all of these people, if they are freed? Would they still be part of Philemon’s household? The economy was based on households, not on individuals. There weren’t many legal ways for a person to make a living if they were on their own.

And what about Philemon’s neighbors, what would they think? Philemon would surely lose honor within the community. He would no longer be seen as someone who managed a household wisely.

And what if this new way of living catches on? What will even become of the little town of Colosse? How will anything function?

This is where it’s so similar to the idea of all of us giving up on driving to avoid damaging the environment. Personally, I could walk to the church and to Kroger and so forth. I could ride my bike out to Cape May. Just try not to need pastoral care if you’re out of town, and I could make it happen.

But what happens to this community? If not for gasoline, would we see the Harpers here? Would we see the Kincaids? That’s a long way to travel, by horse, for morning worship.

And what about the Currys, though, or the Hartmans, or the Pickards? How are you going to put in crops, if you can’t use a tractor? How would you harvest?

If we told all the nation’s farmers to suddenly stop driving tractors, there’d be a mass panic, and food shortages. The system that we all rely on would come unglued.

Crude oil is an exploitative source of energy. The air would be cleaner if we stopped burning it. But an awful lot of us might not be here to appreciate that clean air if we suddenly outlawed driving tractors.

We may not like burning fossil fuels, but as we’re currently organized, we can’t live without it.

Likewise, in the little city of Colosse, everything runs on slavery. There’s no such thing as a guy like Wendell Berry on his own farm. Farming requires hundreds of people, and more importantly, one at the top.

A master, like Philemon, owns the land. The servants sow and harvest. The work gets done, and everyone gets fed.

Take slavery out of the equation, and it comes tumbling down like an unsteady tower of Jenga blocks. The crops aren’t sown, and no one does the sweaty work of harvesting, and suddenly this winter there’s no food to eat.

This is exactly what Paul is gambling on, in a sense. He sticks love like a time bomb up against the notion that one human being can own another. I don’t mean that he’s hoping for mass starvation, but he is hoping for this sort of mass effect.

The difference is that the world expects a mass effect of fear. Paul, on the other hand, is hoping with Gospel eyes to see the aggregate effect of love.

Because where we might look at the problem through the eyes of fear, Paul is seeing it through the eyes of love. Perfect love drives out all fear, remember?

So Paul’s talking to Onesimus, and he’s writing to Philemon, but he knows that there are consequences like ripples on a lake:

If Philemon opens up the possibility of mercy, of freeing a runaway slave and treating him like a brother, then everyone else might think that’s an option for them.

Paul, throughout his writings, sees love as an almost invasive force. If Onesimus and Philemon both act in line with love, then it’s possible that a whole town might have to wrestle with how to build righteous communities. One candle lights the next candle, and on down the line, and so the subversive gospel love spreads.

People thought that God was going to come back with trumpets and tubas and angels banging cymbals and throwing lightening around, with all the pomp and show and greatness that God deserves, but that’s not how it works at all.

Instead, it looks tiny, like this: two people with everything to lose placing reconciliation front-and-center, choosing to live in peace with one another.

I want the Bible to give me clear answers to the questions I care about. Slavery is bad. Marriage equality is good. War is bad. Combatting climate change is good. Misogyny is bad. Simplicity is good.

I want the Bible to sort everything into two neat camps, the good camp and the bad camp. Ideally, while supporting my already held views.

Most of the voices we meet in Scripture, on the other hand, are interested in getting us to think righteously, to think Christianly.

Take on the mind of Christ. Dive into the richness of the tradition behind us and the wisdom of the community that surrounds us. And then, we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, just like Philemon and Onesimus. It’s on us.

That’s how it is in this story. If Paul simply commands Philemon to release Onesimus, then Onesimus will be free but Philemon will remain enslaved. Not in a literal sense, of course- there’s little chance here that Philemon is going to end up washing his own dishes and plowing his own fields.

But both Onesimus and Philemon have to freely make their own choice to live into love.

So. What about us, Friends? Paul called on Philemon to accept Onesimus freely, for love’s sake. And God’s message of love challenges our culture just as much as it challenged the time of Paul.

And we, too, are given these stories of hope and freedom and forgiveness and mercy, and then asked to live with the Spirit of Christ in a world that needs to see that courageous and loving life.

As we sit together in the presence of Christ, ask yourself this: How can we begin to think more Christianly? Where is love leading you?