All you need is love. Love is all you need. You don’t need money, fame, credit cards to ride this train. It’s not just a second class emotion. Love hopes you don’t mind that it put down in words how wonderful life is now you’re in the world. It’s enough to make kings from vagabonds. Can you feel the love—this afternoon? Because love doesn’t want to close it’s eyes, doesn’t want to miss a thing. So pay attention, O Theophilus—my fellow God-lovers—because I’m going to talk about the love tucked away in Philemon, that little discussed book squeezed between the pastoral epistles and Hebrews. Philemon is a book that’s usually far from my mind when I think about instruction on love in the New Testament. But baby, Philemon’s got the love we need, and, maybe, more than enough.
Philemon is a short letter, twenty five verses, written from Paul to the leader of a Colossian house church named Philemon along with a handful of others associated with him. The occasion for the letter is a runaway slave named Onesimus, who has sought asylum through association with the imprisoned Paul and has been converted to Christianity in the process. Paul had that effect on people, it seems. The book of Philemon grants us a rare insight into Paul handling a pastoral situation, a complex one where gospel values and social values are tangled and competing. In the end, we’re given a stunning example of how the gospel works in real life and what it looks like when people live under the authority of the selfless servant king rather than the tyranny of the psycho-socio-economic-political web we call “the world.”
Philemon begins with a standard Pauline introduction, “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy, etc., etc.” and immediately segues into lavish praise of the main recipient. Paul is thanking God for Philemon, his faith, his love, his reputation for spiritually refreshing others. So, Paul reasons, Philemon ought to be willing to extend this same spirited generosity to Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave. Nevermind that running away was punishable by flogging or worse. Nevermind the social normality of treating slaves as property—that nagging question, “What will the slave-holding neighbors think?” Nevermind that Onesimus not only ran away, but also, uh, crossed the Red Sea laden with more than shirt and sandals, if you get my drift. He took the money and ran.
But now Onesimus has converted and repented of his theft. Reconciliation is appropriate, even necessary to make a true gospel witness of this situation. What must Philemon have been thinking? Something like, “Headlines read, ‘Master and thieving-runaway slave reunite peacefully!’” The shame! Yet Paul refrains from commanding Philemon. “I would rather,” he says, “appeal to you on the basis of love.” This basis of love shows itself in several ways.
First, I have already mentioned Paul’s gushing praise of Philemon. He clearly respects the man and hopes that he will do the right thing. His refrain from command him to obey only further highlights that trust. Near the end of his petition he pleads with Philemon to do for him what he has done for others: “Let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” A declaration more than demonstrating Paul’s love and trust for Philemon.
Secondly, Paul clearly loves Onesimus and says as much. He calls the slave “my child” and “my own heart,” emphasizing how useful he is to Paul and how much he wants him to be on the church planting team. He vows to take upon himself whatever debts or crimes Onesimus owes Philemon. He loves him by praise and by purpose—the whole letter is a testament to Paul’s loving concern for the runaway slave.
Finally, the undercurrent of Christ’s love runs through the entirety of this brief correspondence. The letter presumes the power of the gospel as a direct shaping force on each of these lives, and Paul reminds everyone of this by modeling Christ throug his actions. Having been a criminal and slave under the power of the law and without recourse, Paul knows the love and freedom of Christ through the good news of his life, death and resurrection. Now he intercedes on behalf of a criminal and slave without recourse in order that Philemon “might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” And, even though Paul hopes Philemon will respond redemptively, he secures his commitment to Onesimus with what might seem as a threat to Philemon: “Prepare a guest room for me. I’m coming.”
When was the last time you loved people so well that others were inspired to love more? I’m preaching to myself here, too. Our ministry, our lives ought to be marked by sacrificial love inspiring sacrificial love. We’ve been loved by Jesus and so we love him and then others and then they love Jesus and then others. It’s meant to be a glorious and holy cycle of redemption. And when we live this way, we see another small piece of God’s kingdom come to earth. We see another part of this world not dominated by sin and manipulation but rather by the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ our Lord. And that’s the power of love. Amen.