I appeal to you for my son Onemimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to me and to you. (verses 10-11)
Paul is writing to his friend Philemon with an appeal that will stretch both friendship and faith.
It seems that Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had run away, likely stealing from Philemon as he went. A Roman slave who went AWOL was under the penalty of death. This would be justice in Onesimus’ case.
But there is a new circumstance. Onesimus has become a follower of Jesus – this is what Paul means when he says that he “became my son” (verse 10), employing the same phrase he uses to describe Timothy’s conversion (1 Timothy 1:2). Now everything is different. Onesimus is transformed, having new commitments, obligations and loyalties. Philemon, too, has a new circumstance. Onesimus is no longer simply a slave, but now also a brother.
So, the stretch of faith ensues. Will each of these players embrace the full significance of the new reality? It seems that Onesimus is willing. Apparently, he carried this letter personally to Philemon, putting both the letter and himself into his owner’s hands. Having made a commitment of life to Christ, he willingly lives out his new devotion in the real context of his own circumstance. He makes restitution for his wrong by surrendering his freedom to his rightful earthly master.
The ball is now in Philemon’s court. Will he receive Onesimus as the brother he is, or simply categorize him as a run-away slave, exacting the full measure of Roman law in condemnation? How far will faith stretch?
Meanwhile, Paul himself is stretched again into the shape of peacemaker and leader. Although what he says sounds manipulative, I think we should take it as playful, but strongly directive. He is very clearly telling Philemon what he should do. There’s no question about the response Paul expects. The only question is, will Philemon give it?
Here, then, is the stretch of friendship. It is Paul’s connection with Philemon that provides the opportunity for this request, accentuated by his eagerness to see his friend grow in discipleship. All of that, put together with his knowledge of Philemon’s character and faith, leads Paul to expect a favourable response. But it’s not a “done deal” until Philemon actually makes the choice himself. In the meantime, Paul is stretching friendship with the risk of offense. Will Philemon get his back up and push Paul away, tearing the fabric of relationship itself?
We don’t know the end of the story. Which, in itself, is instructive. When we, too, take steps of faith and commitment, we’re never guaranteed the outcome. All we know is that we are being obedient to the Lord.
Will we do it?
Lord, give me open ears to hear clearly your calling in the midst of faith and life today. Strengthen my resolve to step into any “stretch” you require of me.
Listen: Is the Lord calling you, in any area of your life, to take a fresh step of faith in obedience to him? Is there a necessary “stretch” that might keep you from doing it?
Photo by lalesh aldarwish: https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-chain-147635/