Commemoration of Philemon and Onesimus
The Lord be with you
Today, in America, we celebrate “Presidents’ Day.” As with all the holidays on which the banks close that have been created in my lifetime, this day is not fixed to a certain date but floats around so we can always get a three day weekend. This year it falls on February 15.
On the liturgical calendar used in the LCMS, February 15 is recognized as the Commemoration of Philemon and Onesimus (no matter which day of the week it falls). The Eastern Church recognizes Onesimus on this day (not Philemon), calling him “Apostle Onesimus.” They were introduced into the Lutheran tradition by Wilheim Löhe, a remarkable liturgical scholar, back in 1868 (remembered on January 2).
Philemon was a prominent first-century Christian who owned a slave named Onesimus. Although the name Onesimus means “useful,” Onesimus proved himself “useless” when he ran away from his master and perhaps even stole from him (Philemon 18). Somehow Onesimus came into contact with the apostle Paul while the latter was in prison (possibly in Rome), and through Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel, he became a Christian. After confessing to the apostle that he was a runaway slave, Onesimus was directed by Paul to return to his master and become “useful” again. In order to help pave the way for Onesimus’s peaceful return home, Paul sent him on his way with a letter addressed to Philemon, a letter in which he urged Philemon to forgive his slave for running away and to “receive him as you would receive me” (v. 17), “no longer as a slave but … as a beloved brother” (v. 16). The letter was eventually included by the Church as one of the books of the New Testament.
In the 2nd century Ignatius relates that Onesimus became bishop of Ephesus and was responsible for an early collection of letters written by Saint Paul. This could easily explain how this private letter was available for inclusion in the New Testament.
Not surprisingly, this letter was the subject of great interest in the decades leading up to the American Civil War. Those who were pro-slavery pointed out how Saint Paul sent Onesimus back to his master. Those who were anti-slavery pointed out how Saint Paul urged Philemon to set Onesiums free and consider him an equal brother in the faith.
The general tone of the letter is simple: do what is best for the sake of the Gospel. Onesimus returns because that provides the best witness to Christ. Philemon sets Onesimus free, because that is the best witness to the Gospel of Christ. When we think of the modern practice of “human trafficking” (aka slavery) this story calls for us to do what is best for the witness of the Gospel. In my opinion, that would be at least to pray for the end of this dreadful practice (which is more widespread today than it was in the 1800s).
The main point of the letter, though, is not slavery. It is wonderful example of reconciliation between people. In this case Onesimus might well have held a grudge again Philemon for keeping him as a slave. Philemon might well have held a grudge against Onesimus for stealing from him. By the grace of God in Christ Jesus, they were reconciled. Those who hold resentment for offenses of the past could learn a thing or two from Onesimus and Philemon about the reconciliation found in Jesus.
Prayer: Lord God, heavenly Father, You sent Onesimus back to Philemon as a brother in Christ, freeing him from his slavery to sin through the preaching of the Apostle Paul. Philemon received him as a brother and released him from temporal slavery. Cleanse the depths of sin within our souls and bid resentment cease for past offenses, that, by Your mercy, we may be reconciled to our brothers and sisters and our lives will reflect Your peace; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Blessings in Christ,