The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18), Year C.
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love ‒and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother‒ especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, 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.Philemon 1:1-21
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple”. The idea of taking up one’s own cross and emulating Jesus has captured the imagination of Christians for millennia. The image is so beautifully simple, yet so powerful that it appears in saint stories, art, and of course, in the very hymns we process into church with. It distills difficult doctrine into a simple set of instructions for anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus. You want to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus? Then follow Jesus, take up your cross and go bravely into the world as He did.
Yet for as striking and intuitive an image it is, it’s not as simple as it sounds. Like all the most important wisdom in our lives, the challenge is not discovering the truth, but how to actually live it out. Of course we all want to be disciples, to be like Jesus taking up our own cross. But what does it mean to take up the cross? Does it mean sell all your possessions and live as a hermit in prayerful contemplation? Does it mean stirring up a revolution and vigorously fighting against injustice? Does it mean safeguarding the tradition against those who threaten our way of life? Does it always mean dying?
It’s when we get into the specifics that this simple command from Jesus becomes so complicated. When we approach this difficulty, it is easy to become resentful and bitter. Why do I have to hate my mother & father, wife & children, and even life itself to be a disciple of this itinerant preacher? When the cost seems so high, it can feel like sitting through a seminar on the importance of healthy diet and exercise, while being expected to remain seated for four hours and the only refreshments provided are coffee and doughnuts. Though unlike those seminars that lack self-awareness, after making the pronouncement that His disciples must also take up the cross, Jesus tells us to be like an accountant examining the cost of a building project, or a king considering if he can really afford to go to war. Jesus instructs us to examine the cost of discipleship, to stop and think about what it really means to see the work through. What does it mean to take up your cross?
There’s an old saying, supposedly by the American general Omar Bradley, that “Amateurs study strategy, professionals study logistics”. So often, the most important things in life are not glamorous spectacle like a brilliant battle strategy, but the dull, tedious work of preparation, logistics, and cultivating relationships. For some, taking up their cross means bold action and standing at the forefront for all to see, but for most of us, opportunities to take up the cross come in the most mundane moments.
There are few better real, practical, examples of what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus than Paul’s letter to Philemon. This little letter, only twenty-five verses long and often overlooked, is quite different than Paul’s usual grand theological treatises. A quick reading of it gives more of the impression of a tedious email, complete with backhanded compliments and the illusion of choice, than a book of the New Testament. “One more thing, set up a guest room for me, I intend to visit soon, also Epaphras says ‘hi!’”
Make no mistake, in this humble letter is an incredible request, no less that Philemon take up his cross and follow Jesus. Paul is asking Philemon to give up not only his property, but his sense of justice, his understanding of the world, his sense of honor, his understanding of economics, and his biases. Though Paul uses skillful rhetoric to ease the shock and audacity of his request, Paul stands firm on what is the right thing to do, and hopes to convey to Philemon that it is exactly these kind of moments that define true discipleship.
The letter centers around Onesimus, a slave belonging to Philemon who escaped Philemon’s household in Colossae and made it to Paul, who at the time was in one of his many prison stints. Though legends and speculations abound, this little letter is our only record of events. We no nothing about the circumstances, why Onesimus ran away, if he deliberately went to Paul to act as an intermediary, or if he ever intended to return to Philemon.
What we do know is that Philemon has a close relationship with Paul, has been a leader in the Church at Colossae, was probably seen as an upstanding, well-to-do man, likely an important financial supporter of Paul’s mission. Being an upstanding, well-to-do roman with an estate, Philemon was a slave-owner. In the world of the roman patronage system, the economic reality that much of the empire’s wealth was built on the exploitation of slaves, and the philosophies about “natural order” that were used to justify such a system, being a slave-owner was seen as “perfectly natural”. Philemon, though he viewed slaves ultimately as his property, likely thought of himself as an honorable patriarch, caring for his household with a firm, but ultimately loving hand. Whether he was a cruel master or not we do not know, but whether he was cruel or merciful, what we now know to be cruelty he would have understood as his right and duty to manage his property. Upon his conversion to Christianity, he probably would have understood Jesus’ teachings as an exhortation to be just and kind to his slaves. Philemon probably saw taking up his cross as giving up all the public festivals, military honors, any political ambition, and even his reputation as a respectable roman, all for the sake of the Gospel. Not to mention the likely financial contributions and even willingness to open his home to being the church in Colossae. Was this not enough to take up his cross?
As for Onesimus, we don’t know what the conditions for his enslavement were; whether he was stolen from his homeland as a war prize from one of Rome’s many conquests, or if he had fallen on hard times and was enslaved due to debt, or if he had simply been born as a slave, his lot in life being dictated by the supposed “natural order”. We also don’t know how or why he ran away from Philemon’s household. However, we do know one crucial fact for understanding this situation, and Paul’s shocking request for Philemon to take up his cross, Onesimus is now a fellow Christian.
Whether Onesimus became a Christian before he met Paul, or as a result of meeting Paul, the fact that all parties involved claim to be followers of Jesus pulls the Gospel teachings about reconciliation and the new creation from heavenly rhetoric into a real-world situation. A crucial opportunity for Philemon, Paul, and Onesimus to take up their cross and follow Jesus.
Understanding the opportunity before them, Paul makes outrageous demands of Onesimus and Philemon. That Onesimus return to the household that enslaved him, and that Philemon receive Onesimus not as a slave, not even a freed slave, but as an equal and full member of Philemon’s family.
Paul uses every rhetorical trick in the book to soften this tremendous request, especially for Philemon whom the letter is addressed to. I can only imagine the rhetoric and convincing Paul used to sway Onesimus to return to Philemon, who by law had every right to punish Onesimus however he saw fit. Despite this, Paul does not shy away from demanding that Philemon take up his cross. Paul even goes so far as to frame Onesimus’ escape as a short separation to give Philemon the opportunity to learn that in God’s Kingdom, there are no masters or slaves.
“Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother‒ especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
Paul very carefully and skillfully presses for what is right, while at the same time doing the difficult logistical work of keeping a relationship with Philemon and Onesimus. Reconciling the wrong done to Onesimus, especially when it was culturally understood to not be wrong at all, is no small feat. It would be so much easier for the two to stay separated, to write Philemon off as a slaver than to expect both to see each other as brothers in Christ. That’s one of the hardest parts of the Gospel, though it would be easier just write off those who disagree with us a sinners, the Gospel demands that all are worth saving.
In this rare opportunity where reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus is even possible, Paul shamelessly uses every tool at his disposal to push for what is right. Every mundane line and detail Paul uses to show Philemon this opportunity to take up the cross. Paul refers to Onesimus as “his son”, using the ugly paternalism that Philemon would have understood to make the point that Onesimus is a family member, not property. Paul restores some of Philemon’s self-respect by pretending to ask for his permission for having Onesimus help him in prison, that Philemon’s “good deed is voluntary”. And in my favorite line, the one that has the same air as “…per my last email”, Paul really presses Philemon’s understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, “…though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love…” And of course in closing, in a rhetorical move that any grant-writer and stewardship committee would be proud to emulate, Paul finalizes the demand by acting as if Philemon has already made the right choice, “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”
For all the clever rhetoric that Paul uses, the message is just the same as Jesus to the crowd: to be a disciple, you must take up your cross. The cost of discipleship is the willingness to give up everything for the sake of the Gospel. Though oftentimes what we are expected to give up are not grand displays or material sacrifices, but our understanding of the world, our view of people, our sense of self-importance, and the many evils we unknowingly participate in. The truth is taking up your cross will likely not be one moment of glory, but a thousand tiny, mundane, everyday moments when you have the opportunity to fight for what is right and love both your friends and enemies as yourself.
There is of course one question left unanswered: how does the story of Philemon and Onesimus end? Did they reconcile? Did Philemon listen to Paul and welcome Onesimus back not as a slave but a free brother in Christ? As our little letter is the only record we have, we don’t know. But a remarkable, though mundane detail worth noting is that this letter was considered significant enough to be included in the New Testament canon. Sure, it was written by Paul, but so many of Paul’s letters about such ordinary business have been lost to time. What made this one so special that it was worth preserving? Though we cannot say for sure, some believe the fact that it was kept tells us Philemon’s answer; that it was kept to help future generations learn to take up their own cross, just like Philemon and Onesimus. Amen.