Philemon was a prosperous business man living in Colossae. He held church meetings in his home, was a leader of the local church and was highly respected. I imagine the whole church might have listened to the reading of the letter addressed to him from Paul. Paul, writing the letter from prison, sets the stage early by calling himself a “prisoner”. He appeals to speak in love rather than command, not taking advantage of his title and prestige. In his request, he sends the slave Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, to be freed. Paul didn’t act without Philemon’s consent event if it was the right thing to do. As there’s much application about assuming the best of a Christian brother, something else stood out to me in my recent reading of Philemon. Paul didn’t just encourage freedom from slavery, but transformation of a relationship (see Philemon 1:17).
Paul could have easily told Onesimus to move to another city and begin a new life in hiding. But instead, he instructed Onesimus to return to Philemon with a request for friendship. Sending Onesimus to live in hiding would have never released his fear. Can you imagine the anxiety his life would be filled with? This wasn’t just about freeing a slave; this was about a new life in Christ and Christian brotherhood. Sending Onesimus away might have temporarily relieved him, but it wouldn’t have freed him. Paul gave Onesimus a new life through a new relationship, and he asked Philemon to do the same.
As I look at the recent events of our country, a new America is not unfolding. We’re all just seeing what has been swept under the rug for far too long. You want to know what the worst part about all of this is? Sunday is the most segregated day of the week. The Church has unchained sufferers to only push them off to the side. Maybe instead of focusing on equality we should be focusing on new relationships. Equality is still a battle needed to be fought even today, but it can’t end there. Providing equality does not remove the divide in culture, only friendship can do that. I'm reminded of the story of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. Almost twenty years before the Civil Rights movement, these two were showing American a new kind of equality: friendship. Their intentional efforts changed equality in sports forever.
Paul gave Onesimus a new life through a new relationship. It wasn’t a new ministry, program or law that gave Onesimus freedom; it was a new title. Brother.
As you reflect on how to deal with racism in our country, maybe the simplicity of Paul’s actions is an effort to explore. It might not be as big and as large as what Branch and Jackie took on, but that doesn't mean it can't have the same impact. It may even be as simple as a cup of coffee at a shared table.