Love One Another. We know St. Paul as the Apostle to the Gentiles and a fearless missionary. But Paul was also a dedicated pastor who taught people how to live out their faith together. He taught that, just as God had transformed people’s lives, he wanted to transform their relationships as well.
This month, we want to see how Paul’s words can help us in our own relationships. We’ll start with his advice to his friend Philemon. Then we’ll see how he addressed divisions among the Christians in Galatia. Finally, we’ll see how he urged the Corinthians to overcome enmity and scandal and sin. Christian love goes beyond good feelings. It’s solid, intentional, and unwavering. May we all grow in this love together!
It’s one of the shortest books in the Bible—only 335 words in the original Greek. It’s also the only book that is focused solely on a domestic issue—whether a wealthy man should welcome back a runaway slave. But embedded within this household drama are some of the most revolutionary statements in Scripture.
The book is St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon, and the revolution it reveals is the radical effect that life in Christ can have on our relationships. Let’s take a look at this letter to see just how challenging Paul’s words were for his time—and how they continue to challenge us today.
Onesimus’ Predicament. Scholars tell us that Philemon was probably a leader in the church in the city of Colossae in what is now southwestern Turkey. He and his wife, Apphia, hosted the church’s weekly Eucharistic celebrations in their home, and they were respected members of their small community of faith.
It’s possible that Paul met Philemon in nearby Ephesus, where he preached the gospel to him (verse 19). Philemon’s life had been transformed by the message that Paul shared with him, and he came to faith in the Lord Jesus—and Paul became like a father to him. But Paul was now in prison, and Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had come to ask him for help. It seems that Onesimus had run away, perhaps having stolen something of value from his owner. He probably came to see Paul because he knew how much Philemon honored the apostle, and he was afraid of the trouble he was in. Onesimus was hoping that Paul would help him somehow. Maybe Paul would convince Philemon to forgive him or at least lessen his punishment.
A Bold Request. So far, nothing seems extraordinary. Of course, Paul would try to convert Onesimus. He was always preaching the gospel. But Paul makes a bold request of Philemon:
Perhaps this is why he [Onesimus] was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me. (verses 15-17)
Imagine how Philemon might have received this unusual request! As has always been the case with slavery, slaves in the Roman Empire were considered the property of their masters. They had few, if any, rights, and the punishment for running away could be severe. But here is Paul asking Philemon to treat his former slave as a brother! No punishment. No consequences. Perhaps no more slavery either. Just a brother in the Lord, as he has become Paul’s brother in the Lord.
Now, that’s revolutionary!
Relationships Revolutionized. Paul’s request of Philemon actually reveals three revolutionary shifts that have to do with the way brothers and sisters in Christ relate, both then and now.
• First, Paul and Philemon’s relationship is clearly one of brotherly affection as well as apostolic authority. It’s clear that Paul considers Philemon a friend, a “partner” in serving the Lord and a “brother” in Christ (verses 17, 20). He refers to him as “beloved” as well as a “co-worker” in the mission of spreading the gospel (verse 1). At the same time, Paul says that he has the “right in Christ to order” Philemon “to do what is proper” but that his affection for Philemon makes him reluctant to do that. Instead, he decides to “urge” Philemon “out of love” (verses 8-9).
Imagine how radical this must have seemed! Paul, the Pharisee who once arrested Christians, now considers this Christian a dear friend and brother. Paul, the rigorous Jew, has become close friends, indeed a family member, with this Gentile. There was something in their relationship that overcame traditional divisions and brought them together in a community of love and respect.
• Next, Paul and Onesimus’ relationship was radically changed. Before his conversion, Onesimus probably looked at Paul as two “levels” above him. First, there was his master, Philemon, and then above him was Paul, whom his master clearly respected and revered. But now, rather than seeing Paul just as his master’s mentor, he sees him the way a son might see his father or how a man might see his older brother: wiser and more mature in the Lord, but also a fellow child of God.
Notice also how Paul uses the same words to describe Onesimus that he uses to describe Philemon. He calls both of them “beloved” (verses 1, 16) and urges Philemon to welcome Onesimus as his “brother,” the same word he uses to describe his own relationship with Philemon (verses 7, 16). In Paul’s mind, all three of them are loved by God, they are redeemed by Christ, and they are filled with the Spirit. In a world like the Roman Empire, with its rigid class system and unbending social structures, relationships like these undoubtedly spoke volumes to the people around them.
• Finally, Onesimus and Philemon’s relationship now was to undergo perhaps the most radical of all revolutions. They may still be slave and master—we don’t know—but everything about the way they were to relate has changed. Philemon once viewed Onesimus as his property, something he could trade or sell. But now Paul is sending him back so that Philemon can have him “forever” (verse 15). Their relationship in Christ is an eternal relationship, with heaven as their goal. No matter what happens, they are now bound together as brothers and coworkers in the Lord.
“If you regard me as a partner,” Paul tells Philemon, “welcome [Onesimus] as you would me” (verse 17). That word, “partner,” sums up everything in this letter. The Greek word is koinonon, which is closely related to the word koinonia, meaning “community,” “communion,” “fellowship,” and even a sharing of each other’s lives and hearts with one another. It’s the same word that St. John uses to describe our relationship with Christ: “Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).
So Paul is urging Philemon to treat Onesimus with the same love, respect, and honor he has for Paul—Jesus himself died for each of them equally! They are all partners in Christ, united in Christ. Together they form a brotherhood that rises above all other ways of viewing their relationships. As Paul once told the Christians in Galatia, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person” (Galatians 3:28). Or to put this in modern-day wording, there is no “us” and there is no “them” in the Church. There is only “everyone.”
The One Who Holds Us All Together. There is a fourth person beyond Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. In the background of this whole letter but clearly the most important of all is the Lord Jesus Christ. His death and resurrection changed each of these disciples’ lives individually, and it changed their relationships with each other.
Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus all came to embrace Jesus as their Savior, as the One who took away their sins and opened heaven for them. And that experience of God’s love—the same degree of limitless love offered to each of them—bound them together in ways that class, race, or status never could.
This experience of unity was the same experience that many in the early Church knew: Gentiles and Jews became brothers and sisters. Slaves and masters became coworkers in the Lord. Rich and poor worshipped side by side. Roman citizens belonged to the same family of faith as foreigners who did not enjoy the privileges of citizenship. All of this happened because Jesus redeemed everyone from sin and offered everyone full membership in his kingdom.
Relationships Run by Love. Radical. Revolutionary. Unprecedented. These are some of the words people have used to describe the message of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. Division, social status, class, and power were the engines that drove the ancient world—just as they drive our world today. As our world strives for an inclusiveness that breaks down these boundaries, this simple, personal letter shows us that faith in Jesus and trust in the Holy Spirit’s power are what truly break down divisions and produce real unity. Because we know the Lord Jesus personally, our faith urges us to be transformed in our relationships.
The love of Christ belongs to everyone, everywhere, in equal measure. It’s the love that forgives a runaway slave. It’s the love that heals wounded relationships. It’s the love that overcomes racial, ethnic, financial, or educational differences. The transforming love of Jesus Christ makes everyone who embraces it into equal members of one family—the people of God.