Preacher, have you ever preached from Philemon?
Yeah, me neither…
Maybe you’ll be able to glean some preaching help from this commentary, but I’m deviating slightly from the telos of this project because I believe Philemon is used better as a pastoral reflection than as a homily.
With this in mind, let me change the audience.
Pastor, when was the last time you had to have a hard conversation with one of your most faithful and generous parishioners? How do you address difficult situations with those who have not only great influence and wealth, but those who are genuinely spiritual leaders and disciples in your congregation?
In this brief, undisputed, letter we see a side of Paul that can sound kind of unfamiliar. When we think of the apostle Paul we think of one who was not afraid to acknowledge his role as apostle to influence readers. Of the undisputed Pauline epistles, Philemon and Philippians are the only two where Paul does not appeal to his apostleship. (See Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 1, 2 Corinthians 1, Galatians 1, and 1 Thessalonians 2.)
Also, we tend to think of Paul as a “straight shooter,” perhaps lacking in diplomatic skills all pastors today employ. He’s been willing to use profane language (skubalon from Philippians 3), to say that agitators should castrate themselves (Galatians 5), or to even intimate that when Christians sleep with prostitutes a member of Christ has been united with a prostitute (1 Corinthians 6). So often Paul says these hard things that many pastors only wish they could say to their congregations and still keep their jobs.
In this lection, though, we see a different Paul. Perhaps we see a different side of Paul than is stereotyped because Paul is not, primarily, addressing a congregation, but a person. This is one of those rare occasions where we have a personal correspondence, not an ecclesial address. Included in this letter to Philemon are two others, Apphia and Archippus, as well as the church that meets in his house. We may presume, then, that Philemon was a wealthy man, owning land and slaves. He would have been held in high esteem my the congregation as the one with a compound capable enough to hold a church.
When Paul appeals to him, though, he does not appeal to him as a man with wealth or a man of influence. He is not trying to butter this leader up before he asks him a very challenging favor, he is appealing to him as a faithful person; as one with love for the saints and faith in the Lord. He appeals to this one who has been an encouragement both to himself and to the saints.
Then Paul makes a challenging plea, a plea that Philemon receive back his former slave. Not to be his slave again, but to be his brother. This was a bold thing to ask. We don’t know why Onesimus is no longer Philemon’s slave, he may have escaped for one reason or another, but we do know that Onesimus has become a Christian. Probably, Onesimus has become a Christian under the ministry of Paul for Paul calls him his child.
There are many grounds for which Paul could have made an appeal for Onesimus. Politically, Paul could have functioned as an advocate for Onesimus. Roman law permitted free men to legally defend slaves.
Ecclesiastically, Paul could have appealed to Philemon as an apostle. He could have interceded for Onesimus on the grounds of his status within the church. He says that he could invoke this authority, “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do you duty.” Instead, he appeals on the “basis of love.”
He makes a plea, perhaps a plea that would have been met with justifiable frustration on the part of Philemon, out of mutual love for both Philemon and Onesimus. He doesn’t “come down” on Philemon, but still pleas on Onesimus’s behalf.
So, pastor, how do you handle confrontation? For many of us, confrontation is a four-letter word. We’d rather not deal with it, or if we do, we often make heavy handed appeals based on our merit or our office. This is one instance where Paul feels that to be inappropriate. Philemon does not have malicious intent regarding the church, he has been a faithful leader and disciple, therefore it would be incongruent for Paul to deal with him as a usurper. Philemon is a man who loves the church, has lived faithfully, but needs to make a change regarding the acceptance of Onesimus.
How do you deal with those who have great love for the church yet need some correction? How do you confront those in positions of leadership who may have the best of intentions, but miss the mark on a very important matter?
Perhaps we can take pastoral counsel from Paul here. Confrontation need not be avoided if done with mutual love for the one being confronted as well as the issue at hand.
Continue preaching and pastoring well, my friends. This is the most important work in the world!