Sermon: What Should I do with my Returned Slave?

A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison for

Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, September 4th 2022


In 2020, slavery made it back into the headlines when the statue of Edward Colston, a merchant who had made a lot of money from the slave trade, was pulled down and dumped in the harbour in Bristol by anti-racism protestors. More recently, the United Reformed Church Legacies of Slavery Task Group reported on our denominational ancestors’ links with the slave trade, and upon its continuing impact upon British society today. This led the URC to issue an apology for those links and commit to finding constructive ways to make good some of the lasting damage from the trade.

For those expecting to find a how-to-end-or-make-up-for-slavery-manual, the Bible is likely to disappoint. The books of the Bible were written in ancient times, in societies where slavery was part of the warp and weft of economic and social life. It was accepted as a given in life and no one was going around suggesting an alternative.

Nor is the Apostle Paul obviously helpful when trying to find an argument against the existence of slavery. Although he was frequently radical in his religious views he seemed much more cautious about challenging social structures. For example, his letter to the churches in Rome contains an injunction to obey governments, regarding them as having been put into their office by God. (13:1-7)

Furthermore, in his letter to the churches in and around Ephesus, his suggestions on handling relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves, (5:21-6:9) were about working the system as well as possible from a Christian perspective, not questioning the system itself.

And this brings us to Paul’s short letter to Philemon, someone Paul refers to as his ‘dear friend and [Christian] co-worker.’ (1) Other people get addressed at the beginning of the letter. There’s ‘our sister,’ Apphia, who may be Philemon’s wife, and ‘Archippus our fellow soldier,’ who may be their son. Then there’s reference to those who form ‘the church in your [Philemon’s] house.’ (2) That said, Paul’s conversation with Philemon alone is the focus of the letter.

This letter is about a slave who is owned by Philemon, (16) and the question is, “what’s to be done about a slave called Onesimus?” Although the conversation is with Philemon it’s one that the congregation would have got to hear read out to them. So let’s listen in along with them …

First, Paul compliments Philemon. He is known for loving all of the saints – his fellow Christians, and for his faith in Jesus, (5) taking a full part in sharing the Christian faith. (6) Also, Paul says, he himself, probably in prison at this time,  has been encouraged and made joyful by Philemon’s love for him. You might almost think that Paul was buttering him up for some reason!

Then Paul writes, ‘for this reason …’ (8) I could, says Paul, ‘command you’ (8), yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love (9); me, who’s an old man, and prisoner. (9) If Paul had not been a saint he would have made a great emotional blackmailer.

So, having set Philemon up, next comes the request. It’s on behalf of Onesimus, whom Paul, this friend and co-worker of Philemon, this old man and prisoner, regards as his child (10), his very ‘own heart.’ (12) It’s about someone Philemon has found ‘useless’ in the past but who has proved useful to Paul. (11) (There’s a little word play going on there. The name “Onesimus” means “useful”.)

Paul tells Philemon that he would like to hang on to Onesimus: ‘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.’ (13) Oh, by the way, did I mention that I’m in prison, Philemon; me, an old man?

‘But’ says Paul, ‘I preferred to do nothing without your consent,’ (14) I who could have commanded you (8). Much better, says Pasul to Philemon, ‘that your good deed might be voluntary, and not something forced.’ (14) Come on, Philemon, you know it makes sense. Who could turn down a friend and co-worker, who is also an old man and in prison?

Actually, the law is on Philemon’s side here. Slaves are the property of their owner. They are not at liberty to leave. If they run away, which Onesimus might have done, then everyone is under an obligation to return them to their owner, kicking and screaming and in chains if necessary. Once returned, the master may punish the slave as they see fit, even killing them if that’s what they prefer. And the law is on their side. So there’s a lot at stake for Onesimus when Paul sends him back to Philemon.

Then Paul ‘ups the ante’: perhaps this is the reason that he [Onesimus] was separated from you [Philemon] for a while, so that you might have him back for ever.’ (15) ‘The reason that he was separated,’ sounds to me like a hint from Paul that this is God’s doing. God is at work to accomplish something far greater than Philemon could have envisaged, at least until Paul drew it to his attention.

And that greater thing is that Philemon might not only free Onesimus from slavery upon his return – have him back ‘no longer as a slave’ (16), but even more than that, to receive Onesimus ‘as a beloved brother.’ (16) Paul is pushing Philemon to make real for Onesimus what Paul had on another occasion declared to be true for the whole Church: ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal. 3:28)

And in this cause Paul continues to pile on the pressure: ‘so if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.’ (17) ‘If he [Onesimus] has wronged you in any way [which he has, at least legally, by absconding], charge that to my [Paul’s] account.’ (18) Oh sure, as if Philemon would dream of publicly taking out his frustrations on Paul! And at this point, in order to ram home his point, Paul takes over from whoever (Timothy? (1)) was scribing the letter: ‘I, Paul am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me your own self,’ (19) Oh wait, Paul did just say it!

Just imagine being Philemon, reading the letter, or hearing it read out to the family and the church congregation, which may have included household slaves: ‘brother [Philemon], let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. [I’m] confident of your obedience [even though I said I wasn’t asking for it – oops] … that you will do even more than I say.’ (20, 21) In other words, free Onesimus and send him back to me … me, an old man, languishing in prison. (Did I mention that I’m old and languishing in prison?)

What will Philemon do? Will he free Onesimus and send him back to Paul? Alternatively, will he hang on to his slave, as he’s entitled to do, and which most people would expect him to do. If everyone went around freeing slaves economy and society would come crashing down. And after all, Paul’s in prison. What could he do about it?

‘One more thing,’ writes Paul, ‘prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.’ (22) Just when you thought you were safe, you find out Paul’s coming to stay; travelling all that way, old man that he says he is. Paul is not going away, Philemon. You know it makes sense, Philemon. Free the slave, Philemon. It will please Paul (and maybe make him shut up for a while), and you will end up receiving a new brother in Christ.

Now this letter from Paul to Philemon is not a tract against slavery. It about a specific situation concerning one slave, one master, and Paul. We don’t even know for sure that Philemon freed Onesimus, as Paul requested, though he would have been a much stronger man than I not to have done so after receiving this letter. We do know that a few decades later the leader of the Christian church in Ephesus was one ‘Onesimus,’ so perhaps he went from slave to brother to bishop as a result of Philemon acceding to Paul’s request.

Just as the letter is not a tract against slavery neither is the Christian Church simply an institution devoted to the abolition of slavery. That said, the situation shared in the letter to Philemon does suggest why slavery could not continue to exist within the Church in the longer term. Near the beginning of the letter, when talking about Philemon’s good qualities as a follower of Jesus, Paul described him as one who brought love, joy and encouragement to those without freedom. Philemon, Paul said, loved all of the saints; he shared his faith with others. (4-7)

As it was with Philemon, so it should be with other Christians: bringing love, joy and encouragement to those not free, loving all of one’s fellow saints, sharing that faith with others. Once Christians shared with others as brothers and sisters, slave-master relationships could not be sustained. Once Christians began to export those gospel values into wider society, then the whole edifice of slavery came under threat. People cannot continue to be masters and slaves when they are beloved sisters and brothers in Christ. That’s what they were discovering then; that’s what we believe now, and Paul, Philemon and Onesimus have helped us to do so.

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