This letter is written to a man named Philemon who is a leader in the church at Collosae. From the way Paul addresses him, he seems to be a person who is really taking hold of who he is in Jesus and has demonstrated that through the way he has expressed love and encouragement to Paul and others. But at the heart of this letter is an appeal to Philemon on behalf of a man named Onesimus. Onesimus is a slave in Philemon’s household… except it appears that he has run away. Can you imagine what it would be like to be a slave? I’m not sure that any of us can really understand what that would be like, but I can imagine what it does to a person when their identity–at least as defined by those who hold the power– is property… which to Philemon is exactly what Onesimus was. To Philemon, Onesimus’s identity was slave. But when we look at how Paul talks about Onesimus in his letter, he identifies him as something quite different than a piece of property. In fact, he calls him, “my son.” That’s quite a contrast to “slave.” But what Paul understood, that Philemon apparently did not yet, was that in Jesus
Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:11).
WHAT PAUL UNDERSTOOD IS THAT IN CHRIST, WE ARE ALL ON EQUAL GROUND.
So can you imagine what it would have been like for this man Onesimus, who had been a slave, to come to the realization that no matter what anyone else has ever told him, that in God’s eyes, his identity is just the opposite. He is not a slave… he is a son… he is a child of God… he is a child of the King… he is part of the royal family. Can you imagine how Onesimus’ life became different as he began to live in this truth. He who was once powerless now had claim to all of the power and privilege of one who is royalty. Can you imagine what it would be like to experience such a transformation?
The question that immediately comes to mind for me is, if Onesimus is now free… he has become a follower of Jesus… he has made the transition from slave to son… if this is the case, then why on earth would Paul send him back to his “owner?” Why do you think this might be? Well here’s what I think: I think the reason is actually two-fold, but they are both ultimately about, again claiming their identity. 1st) For Onesimus, through his relationship with Paul, as we’ve been saying, he has come to know who he is. He has a new found identity in Jesus. But I think in sending him back to Philemon, Paul is saying to Onesimus in effect, “You will never fully know and experience your new found identity in Jesus… and you will never fully embrace the power and authority that comes with it, unless you are able to claim this identity as a child of God in the place where that identity would be questioned and challenged the most… in the household where your identity has always been “slave” not “son.” 2nd) For Philemon, and the rest of the church there, I think that Paul is in effect saying, You will never fully know and experience your new found identity in Jesus… and you will never fully embrace the power and authority that comes with it, unless you are able to claim this identity as a child of God by accepting one who had been your slave… your property… as a brother… as a fellow child of the king… a member of the same royal family. So in sending Onesimus back to Philemon, he is imploring them all to be who they really are… and “who they are”, remember is a people for whom there is no SLAVE OR FREE… but there is family… and that changes everything.
So, can you see the implications something like this might have for people like you and me? It means that just like Onesimus and just like Philemon and just like the Colossian church… whatever it is that enslaves us… or keeps us from claiming our identity as children of God… and all the power and authority that comes with it… this means that we can look whatever has held us in captivity right in the eye and say with confidence, YOU HAVE NO CLAIM OR AUTHORITY OVER MY LIFE. I AM FREE BECAUSE OF WHO I AM IN JESUS. It doesn’t matter if that which holds you captive is self-image, or lack of knowledge, or finances, or sickness, disease, or whatever. None of that stuff can in any way shape or form tell us who we are. We, like Onesimus and Philemon are children of the king and that creates possibilities beyond our imagination.