Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. .
-Philemon 15-16 (NIV)
If you’re like me, the holiday of Juneteenth has not always been on your radar. I was an embarrassing number of years old before I even heard the term. Juneteenth, I’m sure you know now, is a celebration of the date in 1865, June 19th, when Union Army general Gordon Granger announced General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas, proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Texas — the last state of the Confederacy with institutional slavery. While the holiday has been celebrated in some form by Black people in the US — and even internationally — since 1866, it wasn’t made a Federal holiday until last year.
Growing up in the South, there were Confederate and Civil War memorials literally all around me — but no mention of Juneteenth in school or church or even by the local or Federal government. It just wasn’t on the radar of anyone I knew — at least not enough for them to ever mention it. This was no doubt partly due to the fact that, for decades, Black people in the US were denied access to public parks in which to hold celebrations. In many places, they pooled finances to buy land for the purpose of celebrating Juneteenth. Many parks that are now public in the southern United States originally were purchased by Black people for this reason.
This year, Juneteenth falls on a Sunday. I hope that churches everywhere will take at least a moment in their services to thank God for the equality under the law of every worshipper, Black or White, that is enjoyed today, to recall the sins of the past, and to ask for resolve, wisdom, and love to make the slavery of racism, hatred, and bitterness something unknown among us. Because I think we all know that there’s work still to be done.
I’ve been re-reading Philemon the last couple of days. It’s so short that you could miss it if two pages in your Bible stick together. It’s in some ways an odd little letter, probably Paul’s most personal. He isn’t trying to correct bad theology or practice in a church, as he usually is in his letters. He’s just writing to a man named Philemon on behalf of a man named Onesimus who he’s met.
The story, as nearly as we can reconstruct it, goes something like this. Philemon is a householder, probably in the area of Colosse (compare the name “Archippus” in Philemon 2 and Colossians 4:17). He owes his conversion to Christ to Paul. A church meets in his house, which means he is wealthy enough to have a good-sized home. Paul considers him a “partner in the faith,” has been encouraged by reports of Philemon’s love for the church and his faith, and compliments him on how he has “refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.”
Paul and Philemon have a mutual acquaintance: a man named Onesimus. Paul considers Onesimus his “son” and “his very heart.” Onesimus is “dear” to him and has become “useful” to him in his current circumstances: he is in prison. In Paul’s day, that would have meant that a friend or family member would have to supply his food and other needs, and that seems to be what Onesimus has been doing for Paul. At some point during Paul’s relationship with Onesimus, he has brought Onesimus to Christ.
Here’s the twist: Onesimus owes Philemon a debt. He is an escaped slave. He has perhaps even stolen some of his master’s money. In any case, he has violated the law by running away. No doubt trying to hide in whatever city Paul is imprisoned in, he has met the apostle and come to Christ. And, together, they have come to a difficult decision: Onesimus should return to Philemon.
It bothers me that Paul sends him back. Three things, though: One, slavery in the Roman Empire was not the same thing as African chattel slavery in America. It was still slavery. People were considered property. They were often mistreated. But there were laws regulating it, and slaves could earn their own freedom or be freed by others, and it wasn’t based on race, but on usually on economics. Place Paul in 19th century America, and I have no doubt he would have been an abolitionist.
Two, to hide Philemon would be to sentence him to a lifetime of hiding and running.
Three, the gospel calls us to repentance. How else can Onesimus repent of this crime of defrauding Philemon besides returning — especially now that Philemon is not only his master but also in Christ is his brother?
But that’s also true for Philemon; Onesimus is now his brother. That’s why Paul writes. He wonders in the letter if God wasn’t at work in these events so that Philemon might “have [Onesimus] back forever — no longer as a slave, but…as a dear brother.” The clear intent of his writing Philemon is to plead for Onesimus’ emancipation. Based on their relationship as “partners” in the gospel, he asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus back “as you would welcome me.” That is, not with a set of chains, or punishment for his misdeeds, but with the same love Paul has heard that he has shown for other believers.
Paul sends Onesimus back in the end, because, dear as he is to him, he is “dearer to” Philemon “both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” I think Paul means that Onesimus is “dear” to Philemon as the embodiment of the idea that the gospel creates family and equalizes status. The letter doesn’t demand that Philemon free Onesimus. But it makes it very clear that if Philemon doesn’t see that the gospel makes them equals, then he doesn’t understand the gospel.
This letter is all about the question of what demands the gospel makes on the way we deal with one another — especially in the church. I’m reminded in this little letter that a gospel that doesn’t change the way we see the people around us is no gospel at all.
If it doesn't cause us to liberate people from the chains of our prejudices and selfishness, then perhaps we don’t understand it. If it doesn’t lead us to see others as family in Christ or as fellow human beings, it isn’t the gospel of Jesus.
If the gospel doesn’t make us rejoice in the liberation of other people — and weep over their enslavement — then we don’t get it. If it doesn’t make us care about the injustice and prejudice that our brothers and sisters of color still experience, we don’t get it.
If the gospel doesn’t cause men to stop objectifying, victimizing, or dismissing women, we don’t understand it.
If we can hold grudges for offenses others have committed against us, then maybe we don’t grasp it
If we can worship and serve with people in a church for years and not come to love and care for them, then perhaps the gospel hasn’t really done its work in our hearts. If we can’t listen to believers older than us with love, respect, and deference, then I wonder if we’re partners in the same gospel that Paul experienced and spent his life proclaiming. If we can’t hear believers younger than us, and want to meet their expectations of us, then it’s hard to believe that the gospel has really taken root in us.
The gospel, when believed, experienced, and turned outward, should “refresh the hearts of the Lord’s people.”
May we refresh the hearts of the people around us in an oppressive world of brutality, bitterness, prejudice, and slavery.