Onesimus: A Portrait (Philemon 1-21)

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 4, 2016
Text: Philemon 1-21
The story of Philemon and his slave, Onesimus is one of redemption.  Cultural background: slavery is integral to households in the Roman world.  Masters, even though they owned their household servants, were responsible for their wellbeing.  In turn, slaves served their masters in a variety of ways and kept busy households functioning.  Onesimus, however, was a wicked slave who run away for his own selfish reasons, having lied to and probably stolen from Philemon, his master.
Philemon may have been a believer when it happened.  Perhaps that’s why Onesimus gets away.  Whatever the case was, Philemon has become a leader in the Church because a congregation gathers at his house (v. 2).
But while he’s away, Onesimus meets Paul of Tarsus.  After hearing Paul preach about the Lord Jesus Christ, Onesimus is brought to faith and baptized.  As Paul would write to the church in Corinth, “he who is called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:22).  But having died with Christ and risen, Onesimus begins to realize there’s unfinished business with his former master.  Paul, who has become like a father in the faith to Onesimus, writes a letter of appeal to Philemon.  In it, he addresses Philemon, not just as Onesimus’ owner, but as a brother in the Lord.  So we have as part of the God-breathed Scriptures, the Book of Philemon.
It’s funny that Onesimus never really caught on as a name, considering how much biblical names are in our society.  But what you and I should realize is that this is our story too—after all the Holy Spirit inspired this Epistle to be written for our learning.
God has appointed us to be His servants, from the moment He created our human race.  But, in our vocation as servants of God, we have acted wickedly.  When it was His will for us to lead a pleasing life, we chose our own path.  When He has called out to us, we have fled (Gen. 3:8-9).  Think about all the times we’ve lied to Him—promising to do better after we’re caught but then going right back to our evil.
In our flight from Him, we’ve also broken ties of friendship and household, too proud to admit our selfish ambition.  Like Onesimus, we have left a wake of destruction behind us by our sin.
But Jesus found us in our flight from God.  His Word came to us through a pastor, a parent, or a friend.  We were baptized, joined to our Savior’s death and resurrection.  He redeemed us from the slavery of sin that we foolishly mistook for freedom.
Out of households broken by our sin, He has made us each to be members of a new household: God is our Father and Jesus our Brother and Lord.  In His household, we are a new kind of slave: “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the doctrine to which you were committed, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness(Rom. 6:17-18).
With the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, our service to our heavenly Master is not merely with our lips or our hands.  It is a service from the heart we love our Master.  “Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into His presence with singing!” (Ps. 100:2)  This could only be possible because of the peace which God made with us through Jesus and our union with Him!
Think about those whom you have hurt in your own sinful wake of destruction.  Would you willingly stand in front of them?  Like Onesimus before his betrayed master, Philemon, would we be able to approach those we have wronged?   But like Onesimus, you have been baptized into Christ.  Your guilt and shame has been nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14).  The debt you owed to God has been canceled because Christ said to His Father, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (Phm. 18).
God has given you a new heart along with washing away your sin and canceling your debt.  He has given you confidence to stand before God, forgiven with all your misdeeds covered.  It’s out of this that Onesimus approached his former master, and it’s out of that which we are able to approach those we have wronged in the past to make peace—to ask forgiveness for hurtful words, to restore what we stole, and to heal the rifts which can only be closed by the blood shed by Jesus.  This is what it looks like to fulfill what St. Paul writes to all of us, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
Even though very few are named Onesimus, we can see that his story of redemption is also our story.  Slave or free, Greek or American, man or woman—we all have one Lord who has redeemed us from the prison house of sin and death and made us servants of a gracious Master.  Truly we too can say, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23:6).