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November 11, 2010

Today’s reading
Philemon 7-20


Today’s reading brings us to a very short letter of Paul in the Bible, the letter to Philemon. Often, this letter is glossed over, as it seems it does not have much to offer with regard to pastoral or theological inputs. But what Paul says in this letter is really quite profound. Paul has come to the point where, in addressing the human situation of Onesimus the slave in relation to Philemon the master, he has taken on the very posture of Christ.

Onesimus was a slave who ran away from his master Philemon, was converted to Christ by Paul, served him for a time, and now was being sent back by Paul to his master. How has Paul used this situation to be like Christ?

First, although he had “the full right in Christ to order (Philemon) to do what is proper, (he) rather (just urged him) out of love” (v.8-9). God our Creator owns us as His creatures, Jesus our Lord and Master has purchased us with his blood and we are his slaves, but God never forces us to do what is right and good. Rather, God in effect appeals to us, providing us the grace we need, so that we would freely choose to do good. God, out of love, does not violate our freedom to choose (v.14).

Second, Paul says, “if (Onesimus) has done you any injustice or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, write this in my own hand: I will pay.” (v.18-19a). Jesus paid the price for our sins. How great and inscrutable is that? The King of kings took the form of a slave and gave his life for us on the cross.

Third, Paul tells Philemon, “you owe me your very self.” (v.19b). By giving his life for us on the cross, Jesus freed us from slavery to sin and the dominion of Satan. But now we have become Jesus’ slaves. We are slaves of Christ. We owe him our very lives, our freedom, everything that we are. We are to be obedient to him in everything. We are to live our lives for him.

Fourth, Paul asks Philemon to accept Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me” (v.16). We were all slaves to sin and darkness, but now we are freed by Jesus. Even more so, we are restored to our relationship with God as our Father. As such, we are all brothers and sisters to one another, all part of the one family of God, who dearly loves us all. If so, then we are to love one another with the love of God. We are never to consider anyone as inferior to ourselves, because we are all children of God.

Finally, Paul asks Philemon to “welcome him as you would me.” (v.17). We are first of all to see Christ in each other. We are children of God, made in the image and likeness of God, having the dignity that befits such. Of course our image has been tarnished by sin, but the reality remains. Further, we are to work such that indeed such image is restored. This is why Jesus sends us, his disciples, to evangelize and do mission. We are to help bring people back to God and to fullness of life in Christ.

So we see that Paul has taken on being Christ. Now Paul also says to us, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1). We look to Paul’s example, knowing that if we follow in his footsteps we will be following in the very footsteps of Jesus.

I want to emphasize two concrete aspects of this.

One, we need to realize that hardships, suffering and pain for the sake of the Kingdom are necessary and even desirable. Such suffering is redemptive. Often we suffer because of injustice. That makes our suffering even more beneficial, for we take on the injustice of the cross of Jesus. This cross is the icon of our Christian faith. Like Paul then, we are called to suffer for the cause of Christ, and to rejoice in such suffering!

Two, we are to give our lives for the sake of the gospel. By our work, including the attendant sacrifices and suffering, we are to participate in the redemptive work of Jesus, by helping bring people to conversion and transformation in Christ. God has made Himself dependent upon His people to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus. This is, as Paul claimed for himself, “God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God” (Col 1:25). This too is our calling. It is both a privilege and a responsibility.

Paul addressed this letter to three people: Philemon, Apphia and Archippus. He referred to them, respectively, as co-worker, sister and fellow soldier (v.1-2). In this once again we are reminded of the call to discipleship, that we are to be brothers and sisters to one another, fellow workers for the Kingdom, and comrades-in-arms in the spiritual war that rages around us.

Let us then continue to love and care for one another, and be about the work of the Kingdom through our work of evangelization and mission.

It is then that we, like Paul, can become like Christ.

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