The story today is about three people: a runaway slave called Onesimus; the slave master or owner called Philemon. And lastly - Paul.
In our story, Onesimus the slave ran away from Philemon, the slave owner. Onesimus the slave ran a long distance away, all the way to the city of Rome, where Paul was living. And so there in Rome, Paul met this runaway slave called Onesimus.
In those days, rich Romans would keep slaves to help with jobs around the house, or to work in their fields. If they ran away, they could be punished very seriously. (Sometimes they were even killed).
So in our story, Onesimus ran away from Philemon the slave owner. And he met Paul in Rome. Paul kept Onesimus with him for a little while. Paul taught him all about Jesus, and soon, Onesimus became a Christian.
Onisiumus had been living with Paul for a little while and had become like a son to Paul. But at some pointboth Paul and Onesimus knew he needed to go back to Philemon who still legally his slave master. It so happened that Paul knew Philemon. Philemon had also become a Christian after having met Paul. And so Paul wrote a letter to Philemon that Onesimus could take with him and give to Philemon. It went something like this...
I have recently met someone. He happens to be your slave Onesimus. You might have thought of him as a useless slave, but I assure you he is not. I ask that you welcome him back to your house and to receive him back, as though you were welcoming me. Though I would like to keep him I will wait for your answer. Please receive him as though he were your brother and not like a slave anymore, because he is now your brother in Christ, he is a Christian.
Now I want you to look at the piece of paper in front of you... (See picture above)
Is it a duck or is it a rabbit? Some people think it is a duck. Some people think it is a rabbit. It all depends on where you focus. If you focus on the one end it looks like a duck and if you focus on the other end it looks like a rabbit.
It shows that sometimes in life two people can see the same thing and have different ideas about what it is. To one person the picture looks like a duck. To another it looks like a rabbit.
In the Bible story we see the same thing. Philemon thought of Onesimus as a useless slave. But Paul thought of him as a child of God. We don't know why Onesimus ran away, but he wouldn't have run away if Philemon had been treating him well. To Philemon, Onesimus was just a useless slave. But to Paul, Onesimus was a beloved child of God.
When we look at another human being, what do we see? Do we see a beloved child of God or do we see someone who is useless to us and irritating to us?
Just a few closing comments for the adults on our reading:
The book of Philemon is Paul’s shortest book. In fact it is one of the shortest books in the bible. But it is one of the most explosive books. In this short letter, Paul in effect undermines the whole Roman institution of slavery. Outwardly, he sends Onesimus back to his master Phiilemon. But in truth, what Paul writes to Philemon makes it impossible for him to receive Onesimus back as a slave. By asking Philemon to receive him back like a brother and even as though he were receiving Paul himself, Paul in effect is asking Philemon to reject the whole system of slavery and to set Philemon free.
It is a reminder just how socially radical Christianity was. I believe that the whole notion of human rights finds its roots in this small letter of Paul to a slave master. It is a reminder to us that in God’s eyes every human being is infinitely valuable.