Racism remains rampant in the U.S. November 2015 CNN poll: 49% of Americans call racism (belief that one race is superior to another) “a big problem”. Surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t openly condemn racism–not even slavery. But it does attack slavery in an unusual way.
Paul has arrived in Rome. He’s now under what we might call “house arrest”, chained to a Roman guard, while awaiting his trial before Caesar. He writes a letter to a friend–Philemon.
“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philemon 1-3).
Paul calls himself “a prisoner of Christ Jesus”, not of Rome, nor of Caesar. He believes Christ Jesus has captured him and sent him to this “prison”. “Philemon” is Paul’s “dear friend and fellow worker”, a member of the Colossae church. Philemon is a slave owner. Paul addresses his letter not just to Philemon, but also to Apphia and Archippus and “the church that meets in your home”. Paul mentions Christ twice in this greeting—signifacant because Christ is the “hidden star” of this letter.
“I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints” (Philemon 4-7).
Paul tells Philemon how he always thanks God for him, hearing of his faith in Christ and love for all believers. Paul tells him, too, how he prays for Philemon—that Philemon may actively share his faith, so that he may have “a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ”. (Sharing the faith deepens our understanding of Christ!). Philemon is known for “[refreshing] the hearts of the saints”, and this love encourages Paul and gives him great joy.
“Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul– an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus–I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending him– who is my very heart– back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good–no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 8-16).
Onesimus. His name means “useful”, this one who became a useless slave to Philemon by stealing from his master and running away. But he has providentially found his way to Paul’s house. Paul has led the slave to faith in Christ Jesus. He now is sending him, with this letter, back to his master.
Paul writes persuasively. Since Onesimus has become a Christian, Philemon should welcome the slave back as his “dear brother in Christ”. Paul could command Philemon. After all, Philemon “owes” Paul. It was the apostle who led him to Christ.
Instead, he “appeals” to him “on the basis of love”. In other words, Paul wants this not to be a law-matter, but a heart-matter.
“So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back– not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask” (Philemon 17-21).
How can Philemon refuse? Paul urges him to “welcome him as you would welcome me”. He promises to personally pay Philemon back anything Onesimus owes him. Paul even tells Philemon he’s confident he’ll exceed his requests.
“And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Philemon 22-25).
How to understand Paul’s request for a guest room? Did he really expect the Lord to answer Philemon’s prayers, so he’d be freed? Or was he “warning” Philemon he’ll soon show up and know how he’s treating Onesimus?
Paul sends greetings from five men with him. But is what most compelling is what Paul doesn’t write at the end of this letter . .
What did Philemon do when Onesimus returned?
* * *
The same question can be asked of us. Now that we know what Paul wrote to Philemon, what can we do about the scourge of racism? I’m not suggesting that any of our “doing” will wipe out racism, any more than what Paul wanted Philemon to do would wipe out slavery.
I am suggesting we can make a small difference, especially in our churches. (Yes, we find it even there.) If there is someone in our church of a different ethnicity, or someone we might discriminate against (a poor person, an unkempt person, etc.) . . .
Now that we know what Paul wrote to Philemon,
what can–what will– we do
about racism, about discrimination?