17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. 22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. 23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. 25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
In this passage, Paul is asking Philemon to be radically counter-cultural. How counter-cultural am I willing to be?
In Paul’s world slavery was a given. Today we see slavery as abhorrent – and so it is. But it was normal then. It was the way society got things done. It was also normal for society to be very stratified. Status was vital to them, and everyone was constantly striving to climb higher up the ranks.
So, it was really radical for Paul to ask Philemon, a wealthy, high-status slave owner, to accept back his runaway slave and to welcome him as though he were welcoming Paul himself! This letter would have been read aloud to the whole church so Philemon can’t wriggle out of Paul’s request. Philemon is really in pickle. Is he game to refuse a personal request from the apostle Paul? If he does what Paul wants, will the rest of his household and the church and society look down on him, diminishing his authority and status and honour in the world?
Paul’s point is clear. Christians should not have any ranking or preference in their midst. In Galatians 3:28 Paul says there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We are all brothers and sisters no matter who we are, where we live or what we have done in the past.
And so, I ask myself: am I willing to do something like Philemon was asked to do? Something so counter-cultural, so apparently disgraceful in others’ eyes? As a Christian, I am called to honour others above myself, to welcome everyone and to stand up for the poor and the oppressed.
Lord Jesus, you sacrificed yourself for us. Help me to be brave enough to follow your lead.
Written by Megan Cornell