Going back to church with a runaway slave

I am looking forward to that moment the thread of love pulls the church back together as a face-to-face family, and to the moment that we realise we are so dear to each other that we owe each other our very selves (Philemon 1:19).

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As we get back to an ordinary-now-extraordinary communion over post-church service cups of tea and coffee, I’m looking forward to offering and receiving the most important refreshments of all: joy and encouragement, the refreshments that go straight to the heart (Philemon 1:7).

This time in Corona-exile has given us an opportunity to think about how we can best make our way back to seat-by-seat, face-to-face communion at church when the lockdown eases.

This letter speaks to us in our experience of rising joy and anxiety as we make our way back to face-to-face church.

You will see that I have referenced “Philemon” in the opening paragraphs. Philemon is a short letter that Paul wrote to smooth the path of a runaway slave back to the home of Philemon, his master. This letter is now in the New Testament for all to read.

I have been reading this letter while in isolation and am struck by the lessons this short and obscure, but very provocative, letter from long ago can offer us as we return to our spiritual homes after COVID-19 isolation. This letter speaks to us in our experience of rising joy and anxiety as we make our way back to face-to-face church.

Let me properly introduce this runaway slave to you: his name is Onesimus. As I read Philemon, I like to hear his anxious steps, feet slapping the dirt with some exhaustion.  Occasionally, the steps speed up in hopeful anticipation of the reunion with his master and a joyful recount of his conversion to the way of Jesus. Occasionally, the steps slow down as anxiety and self-loathing kick in and Onesimus remembers that he stole from Philemon before he bolted.

The reader wonders: will Philemon be generous enough to let Onesimus back, and will it be on friendly terms?

Paul smooths the way for Onesimus by composing this letter. It’s a letter that Onesimus will be able to show Philemon upon his arrival. Paul’s writing has a light touch, filled with humour and gentle reminders. This allows us to see Paul’s smile, hear his laughter and feel the conviviality he conjures as he writes to his friend Philemon, the head of a large household in Colossae (the Roman Empire) and host of a church that meets in his home.  The reader wonders: will Philemon be generous enough to let Onesimus back, and will it be on friendly terms?

We may wonder at the boldness of Onesimus, going back to the master he had wronged, as well as the boldness of Paul, who suggests to Philemon that this runaway slave is actually his “dear brother” (Philemon 1:16).

But remembering what Paul wrote in another letter might help us understand this boldness: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Onesimus has come to believe this, and this belief underlines a new confidence and a new expectation: he is now part of the family.

Some believe that this letter shows Paul giving the gentle heart-tug that leads to an inevitable unravelling of any theology used to justify the institution of slavery.

The storied-time of this letter does not let us know how the complication (Onesimus’ status within the household) resolved. In a sense, we are invited to be in this in-between moment, to be on this journey with Onesimus. After all, we think of ourselves as pilgrims, journeying through life and awaiting wonderful fellowship with Jesus and with the whole of God’s family in our ultimate home, the new creation.

Anthropologists who study “real-life” examples of pilgrimages note that pilgrims enjoy the opportunity to be free from oppressive social hierarchies on their journey, and to return home with a new understanding of themselves and their relationships with others. Does this sound familiar?

Of course, when we speak of pilgrimage we know that Jesus is The Way, because he has already made his lonely and pain-filled way through punishment and death on our behalf.  We know that we can’t undertake any pilgrimage or take any steps (literally or figuratively) to cure our essential wretchedness, because he already has. He came out the other side, and now welcomes us into his house as family.

The way back

There is much to think about on our way back home to our church family. Is there anyone who has wronged me, who I can offer a clean slate to when we come back together? Do I need to acknowledge the wrong that I have done to another person in the past, and seek help to smooth the path back to friendship with that person?

Is there a new humility that I can bring to a position of leadership? Have I used my authority (knowingly or unknowingly) to keep a person in “their place”? Have I excluded someone from fellowship or made them feel that their contribution to church life is unwanted or unworthy? Can I do something that will “free” someone up to share the goodness of Jesus?

Is there anyone who has wronged me, who I can offer a clean slate to when we come back together?

Paul was keen to remind Philemon that we are dear to one another, as fellow human beings and as brothers and sisters in Christ (Philemon 1:17). I wonder exactly how things went when Onesimus knocked on Philemon’s door, letter in hand? Did Philemon recognise him straight away? Did the hurts of the past rise up, all at once? Was the temptation there to slam the door in Onesimus’s face?

I am guessing that even if things didn’t go well at the outset, that they worked themselves out in the end. I’m imagining that this letter was read and re-read at gatherings and parties, to celebrate the return of Onesimus as a member of the family and even to laugh at the awkwardness of that moment of return.

And I’m thinking that there is a reason this letter is still in circulation, and that we can look forward to re-reading it and re-living it as we celebrate life together with our church families.

Danielle Terceiro is an English high school teacher at a school in Sydney’s western suburbs. She is married to Michael and they have four school-aged children. They go to New Life Christian Reformed Church, Blacktown. Danielle has always loved stories, and loves thinking about how God has told us his Big Story of love and redemption through Jesus.

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