Paul’s letter to Philemon is a masterful example of applying the petition from the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I used the letter in Bible Class on Sunday.
One member of the class asked if I thought Philemon laughed when he read the letter. I suspect that he did and humor is part of the reason the letter was accepted as Scripture. Paul was well known to Philemon and the congregation which met as his house in Colossae. Like a congregation knows the quirks and tendencies of their pastor, so they knew Paul.
Paul thanks God for Philemon’s faith and good works. He could command Philemon to welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus. But Paul appeals to him on the basis of love. Then for the second of three times he mentions that he is a prisoner of Christ or for Christ. Somehow Onesimus (means useful) found Paul either in Ephesus or in Rome. Onesimus had become useless, but now he has been useful to Paul. Paul reminds Philemon that he could keep Onesimus himself and regard him as someone sent by Philemon to help him out.
However, in sending him back, he is sending his very heart. It will break his heart of if Philemon does not accept Onesimus, not only as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Paul, though in prison, as he reminds Philemon three times, offers to pay for any damage and loss that Onesimus may have caused. Of course, Paul reminds Philemon, he owes Paul his very life, because it is through Paul’s preaching that Philemon is now a Christian. He is to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul. In fact, Paul says, he plans on coming to visit once he gets out of prison.
All congregations have Matthew 18 is their constitution as the guideline for working out problems. I told the class that I thought Paul’s letter to Philemon should be included as a practical example of how to go about settling issues in a congregation. An example of grace, humor and gentleness.