15 October 2007

A Flippin' Sweet story from back in the day

So....I have been reading Thomas Cahill's Desire of the Everlasting Hills, and I came across this gem of a story. As a matter of fact, many of us are slightly familiar with part of the story, since it is given to us partially in the New Testament book of Philemon. Those of the Eastern Orthodox persuasion will no doubt be more familiar with this story than us Westerners, or for that matter, we of the Protestant traditions.

The Apostle Paul, after his spectacular conversion experience (recounted in Acts, ch 9), then travelled extensively throughout the southwestern portions of the Roman Empire, starting churches and making many believers out of his listeners. Along the way, he and his followers wrote many letters to those churches, giving out teaching and instructions, spreading love and the Good News to all. It is commonly believed that the Apostle Paul, through his letters to his churches, is responsible for up to 60% of our New Testament. Quite the writer, indeed!

One of his letters, however, stands out among the others. Not for it's length-it's one of the shortest books in the Bible-not for its spectacular theological musings, but for it's intended audience.

Most of Paul's letters were written to specific churches, intended to be read out loud when the church gathered, that the whole community might benefit from the letter. But Paul's letter to Philemon is different.

Philemon is a specific person. He lived in Colossae, and was a man of some importance, both in the church community in Colossae, and also in society. Exactly what he did, or how powerful he was, is not really known. But from Paul's letter, it is evident that Philemon and his household were very important to the church in Colossae.

Philemon, as was the custom for affluent Romans, owned slaves. Paul is writing to Philemon on behalf of one of Philemon's slaves, Onesimus.

Now, a word about men of Philemon's status. They had, quite literally, the power of life and death over their household. Their word was the law, and you could not go against it. The laws regarding slaves were extremely drastic. Slaves could not vote, did not have property rights, or even personal rights. Slaves were property.

If a slave stole from his master, his hand was cut off. If the slave ran away and was captured back, he was usually executed.

Now, it just so happens that Paul, who is in prison (probably in Ephesus, but no one knows for sure), has come across Onesimus, a slave of Philemon's household. The details of what happened are not presented, but somehow or other, Onesimus is with Paul, and has heard Paul's message, and has become a Christian. He has been helping Paul with his ministry.

Enter the dilemma: Paul knows Philemon. Paul knows Onesimus. Paul knows the right thing to do. Onesimus probably knows the right thing to do as well, but obviously does not want to do it, considering the right thing for him to do will result directly in the end of his life.

Paul knows that he cannot tell Philemon how to run his home. That would be (still is) the most insulting thing that Paul could do. So Paul appeals to the love of Christ, approaching Philemon not as one man ordering another, but as two equals in Christ, both of whom know of Christian love, fellowship, and compassion.

It is amazing to read Pauls words, deferring to the power that Philemon has over his household, yet overpowering him with the love of Christ.

Philemon still had every right to punish Onesimus under the law. Onesimus was a runaway slave, and could be killed for it. But Onesimus returned as a Christian, a fellow brother in the community, and within the community, an equal in Christ. So, while Philemon did still have the right to execute his runaway slave, he also had the obligation to love him as a brother in Christ.

No doubt Philemon knew exactly what he must do.

Fast forward a few decades.

It is the beginning of the second century. The church that Paul started while in prison in Ephesus is growing. Many more people are joining, and wonderful things are happening in the community, and also in the local area. Ephesus was becoming the most important city for Christians in Asia Minor.

The church, as churches do when the grow, decide that they need a leader. They elect a man who has been in the community for a long while. This man takes it upon himself to collect Paul's writings, to save them for future generations. This collection is the first of it's kind, and was fairly important when, centuries later, people began to decide what books were in the Bible.

This leader, this upstanding man in the Christian community, this first Bishop of Byzantium, this collector of Paul's writings, started out as a runaway slave.

Destined to die an early death simply from his place in life, Onesimus was freed from slavery, and became an early bedrock of the church in Ephesus and the whole Byzantine area, collecting Paul's letters, and teaching new believers.

And now you know.....the rest of the story.



-Tim said...

Cool! That's a great story. And you're right. I had no idea.

Good Post!

Chris'n'Timmy said...

So, can i borrow the book? I just did a study on the book of Philemon. Would love to read the rest of the story for myself! christy