The year is 95AD.

I’m old, I’m the oldest man I know by a goodly margin. 

Most people around here don’t live much past 50 but I have just turned 75.  75 in my world is like 105 in your years. 

For decades I have been the bishop of Ephesus, funny thing that I should have been replaced a dozen times, but there was always another church that needed a new bishop.  So, the elders would say to this young tyro who was going to succeed me, young man, you need to go to Corinth or Athens or wherever it was.  The old dog will do for us for now, yes, he’s a bit shop soiled but we will make do for another year or two before we put him out to pasture.   

Yesterday they did finally let me stand down after we finished the Paul project.  What’s the Paul project you ask?  It was me and a couple of other regional bishops pulling together the definitive list of Paul’s letters. 

It wasn’t really that hard because they’ve been known and used in church worship and teaching all over since Paul was martyred in the 60s, but occasionally a letter would appear that claimed to be one of Paul’s lost letters.  You could pick them easily because they just did not sound like him, the ideas were generally a little off beat, sometimes way off beat and there were not masses of them.  You see, we made lots of copies of the real thing, so that each church could have its own and use them for ongoing teaching.

Anyway, there was one letter that we did spend some time talking about whether to include, and that was the letter to Philemon.  Now, there’s no doubt that it was from Paul, I know because I saw him write it, but it was whether to include it as it was not really a teaching letter like say Corinthians. 

It’s a personal letter from Paul to Philemon, as you skim your way through your bible its blink and you will miss it, just half a page sitting between Titus and Hebrews.  It’s like one of those places on the highway, that there is so little there that they don’t drop the speed limit from 100kmh.  A bit like Owaka.   

But everyone really likes the story and it was addressed to Philemon and also to the church at Colossae, so we included it by a gnat’s armpit hair.  I was quite chuffed about it really. 

Why?  Oh sorry, I didn’t introduce myself, my name is Onesimus, and I’m in the letter.

Let me tell you my story. 

I was born a slave, my mum died giving birth to me and I’m not sure who my father was.  In our world you can buy slaves, sell them, beat them, kill them, whatever.  We are the means for other people’s ends, not ends in ourselves. 

My first memories were running messages between my master and his freedmen who ran his farm and his businesses, and the mistress who ran the household.  These men weren’t slaves but some of them had been, and had bought their freedom or perhaps been given it as a reward for loyal service.  You would call them managers or foremen in your world, but the master still had a lot of power over them.  They could not work for anyone else, and I have never heard of a freedman resigning.  You would never work again if you did, because no other master would hire you.

That Master, Master Chris was a brute.  If you were 100% obedient he was right as rain but if he thought that you were slacking the slightest bit, you would be whipped.  I still have the scars on my back from taking too long to deliver a message one day, my scars have grown with me.

Then when I was about 10, I am not exactly sure how old I am.  Master Chris needed cash for some new chariots so five of us were sold one day, no heads up to us.  Not bad for me cos I had no people left but he split up two families that day.  I am not sure that he knew or if he did, whether he cared.  He was a cruel and selfish master that Master Chris.  

I was sold to Master Phil who was a very good man, his full name is Philemon.  No whippings serving him but he would let you know if he was unhappy, which is fair enough.  What you folk might not realise is that being a slave means that you have a roof over your head, and two square meals a day.  That’s a lot more than many people get in my world, so sometimes people sell themselves into slavery.

Anyway, things were quite good for me but I had this itch.  I wanted to see the world that I kept hearing about when Master Phil’s friends came visiting.  It sounded amazing as they told stories about Corinth, Rome, Egypt.  The world sounded big and exciting but I knew that I would never see any of it.  I was a merchant’s slave in a backwater of the empire called Colossae, where nothing ever happened.  In your world, maybe like Dipton.

The master and his household had become followers of Jesus, and had thrown out all of the idols.  This scared me a bit because I had always thought that Diana the Huntress protected me, but no one asked me.    

They would all go off to the synagogue on Sunday to talk about their Jesus, and from the bits of conversation that I overheard they were not getting a great reception from most of the Jewish worshippers.  But there was this trickle of people who met and prayed and did bible studies.  I heard a bit of what they did, because I would take the pizza and sausage rolls up to them for supper.

On Monday evenings the place would be full as about 30 guests would come in for dinner, and worship together. 

Well, one day there was a big meeting in town of all the Christians, there was some big wheel in town that they all wanted to hear, so they went to Nympha’s house to hear him.  She was very wealthy so had a much bigger courtyard that all the house church congregations could fit into. 

This was the opportunity that I had been waiting for, I was going to get out and see the world.  Most of the other slaves were going to Nympha’s place, and there were only a couple of us left.  I made an excuse and slipped into the main house where the family bedrooms were.  There were still slaves in the kitchen but otherwise no one was around.  I went straight for the mistress’ changing room and there it was as it always was, her jewellery box and about 100 drachmas in change.  Enough to keep me going for a long time.  So, I grabbed them and ran.

I caught the coach for Ephesus and was at Laodicea by the time they would have returned.  I was free, not only that but free with serious money in my pockets.  A month later I was in Rome, and for a little country boy it was quite something.  Once I started spending money I found that I made friends very quickly, and life was just one big long party with plenty of wine, women and song.

A few months later I woke up one morning, really just prior to lunchtime with a serious hangover.  Nothing unusual in that but I experienced a pang of conscience, you see Phil’s mistress Apphia had always been kind to me but I had robbed her blind.  Stuff that was precious to her.  They were good people who did not deserve what I had done to them.

The money was starting to run a bit low so I decided that I would give the night’s party a miss, and instead went down to the Colosseum.  I really liked the chariot races.  I was just sitting watching lost in thoughts of home when this random guy sat down next to me.  We chatted idly about the races for a while as we passed a sunny Rome afternoon together.

Eventually he said ‘Onesimus, you seem a little down.  Is everything ok?’  I don’t know why but I got talking about my sense of my life being pointless, that I had had everything that I had ever wanted but it didn’t seem to matter.  None of it was important and I did not know what to do.  All this stuff just came spilling out to this stranger, who just listened quietly with no judgments.  Of course, I did not tell him that I was a runaway slave that had stolen from his Master, that would have been a one-way ticket to the gallows.

He said to me ‘Onesimus, there’s someone that I think you should meet that helped me a lot when I was a bit lost.  I’m going to his place for dinner tonight, why don’t you join me.’  Something about this guy made me trust him so I said ‘Sure, why not.’

That night I met Paul in a small apartment three floors up, in chains with a very bored legionnaire standing guard at the door.  Yet I have never before or since met someone who was so free.  You could tell that he was ready to die, that he expected to die and it didn’t phase him.  When he talked about Jesus his eyes shone and when I talked to him, he made me feel like I was the only person alive.

I was hooked and a few days later I confessed that I too was a sinner who needed forgiveness, and decided that I would follow this Jesus who gave his life for me.  I became Paul’s gopher, doing the shopping and carrying messages for him.  In between we would pray together and he taught me about what it was to follow Jesus.

Then my conscience came back, this time with the support of the Holy Spirit.  One night he found me in tears, I told him that I was homesick for Colossae.  He was surprised ‘Onesimus, I have been to Colossae, do you know Philemon and Apphia, they are friends of mine.’  Then I really lost it and confessed all, in amongst a lot of tears.  Oddly when it was all over I felt much better.

Next day Paul wrote a letter for me to deliver to Philemon.  He won’t show it to me but he assured me that everything will be ok.  I’m petrified, will I be whipped or executed?  Philemon is a good master and all but I stole from him and ran away, the other masters will want him to make an example of me.

Six weeks later Philemon looked up from his porch and thought that young man on the road looks a bit like Onesimus, funny that, and returned to his accounts.  A minute later he looked up again at the young man walking up his path and almost choked on his olive, that young man was Onesimus.

‘You’ve got a lot of nerve showing your face here young man.  Apphia, Apphia – come down here and see what the cat just dragged in.’ 

‘What is it dear – you – stealer of my grandmother’s broach.’

‘Master, Mistress – before you do anything I have a letter for you.’ 

My heart was beating so fast I thought that I would faint.  Philemon took the letter from me and started to read it. 

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

You’ve seen Paul Onesimus?  ‘Apphia, it’s from our friend Paul.  He’s in prison again? Can’t stay out of trouble can he?’

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier [Junus – go get Archie, he’ll want to hear this], and to the church in your house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

Paul’s a great friend of ours, not sure where you fit into this story Onesimus.  Never thought that I would see you again, ratusbagus.

For this reason, 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.

‘He obviously wants something from us and it must be important.  Anything for Paul, I owe him my very life.’  ‘Yes dear, I ‘ll keep reading.’

10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. [well, you suckered him well didn’t you boy, he thinks that you are a Christian – but does he know what you did?]

11 Formerly he was useless to you [Onesimus means useful, he was truly useless], but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 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; 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way [you have boy], or owes you anything [you do – so he does know], charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

22 One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.

Etcetera

 

Can you see why we included this letter in Paul’s collection?  Paul did for me what Jesus did for all of you that have put your trust in his forgiveness.  He paid the debt that I couldn’t possibly pay, he stood in my place.  In Paul’s sacrifice Philemon was able to forgive me and accept me as his brother in Christ.

You and I who have put our faith in Jesus, God the Father’s beloved son, we are accepted in the beloved.  After they got over their surprise, Philemon and Apphia accepted me as if I was Paul come to stay.  I slept in the guest bedroom and they looked after me as if I was their friend Paul, no more bunks in the slave quarters.  I wasn’t whipped, indeed a few months later they gave me my freedom.  The other slave owners were not well impressed with rewarding a runaway thief, but forgiveness and grace are the scandals of the Christian faith.

If you turn to Jesus and ask him to forgive your sins, your falling short or missing the mark, God the Father will welcome you to his table like Philemon welcomed me to his.

Good news?  The best news that you will ever hear.