“So if you consider me your partner,
welcome him as you would welcome me.”
– Philemon 1:17
Here is a letter from Paul, who is now old and in prison. To Philemon, Paul’s dear friend and co-worker in the early church, and to the church who gathered in his home, about Onesimus, a runaway slave owned by Philemon, who cared for Paul in prison and became a Christian.
The law of the land required Paul return a runaway slave to his master. The punishment for runaway slaves is death. Paul didn’t ask Philemon for his freedom. There is no clear condemnation of slavery.
Paul acknowledges Onesimus as a slave in the flesh but argues that his new Christian faith makes him equal in the eyes of God. He carefully navigates between the law of the land and the command of love in his request to Philemon welcome Onesimus back with grace.
“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… So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”
Paul makes his appeal on the basis of love and a common heart. This is a place inside us where we share an essential oneness with all humanity. The common heart is a place of deep union and belonging. We seek the common heart through practices of softening our heart.
“Refresh my heart in Christ,” Paul appeals.
We don’t know how the story of Paul, and Philemon, and Onesimus ends.
Did Philemon welcome him and keep him as a slave?
Did Philemon punish him as the law of the land commanded?
Did Philemon welcome Onesimus and free him?
We don’t know. And I like this. It means the end of the story is in our heart. Onesimus’ story is in the newspapers. His story is written in our neighbour and perhaps in the person sitting next you. It becomes our story to work out in our day as we engage the injustice of the world with the heart of Christ.
Close your eyes if that is comfortable for you. And take a few deep breaths. Draw attention to your heart. Imagine your heart softening, yielding to Love. Perhaps your shoulders drop, perhaps a tear comes to your eye. With each breath, imagine your heart opening and love washing over it. Our softened heart will help us see. Our softened heart will help us chose how to respond.