Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Grace that makes all the difference ... the story of Onesimus and Philemon

It’s going to be wonderful.

You’ll be able to see it in ways you haven’t seen it before.

The National Trust announced this week that it has won more funding for its re-development of the Chedworth Roman Villa site. You will be able to see the mosaics in a way that you have never seen them before as walkways are built to enable you to look down on them. Along with a new visitor centre a re-designed museum and all sorts of other improvements to the site it promises to become one of the National Trust’s star attractions.

What excites me about it is that it gives you a little bit of a feel for the kind of house that hosted many a house church in the days of the New Testament. And it looks very much as if Chedworth Roman Villa, perhaps towards the end of the Roman occupation of these islands was home to just such a church.

In the top corner of the site the spring still deposits water in the octagonal pool that was the shrine to the Roman gods, revered by the first occupants of the house. It is on the paving slabs that originally surrounded the pool that the very first chi rho Christian symbols in this country were discovered. I hope they will take up a more prominent position in the new museum than they did in the old. You had to get down on your knees to see them.

From the shrine the water from the spring was then channelled to the boiler house and to the baths, passed the dining room to the latrines at the lowest point in the villa complex.

What’s interesting about the layout of the house is the way it highlights the sharp divide in such a Roman house between the house-holder and the slaves who kept the household going. The Householder and the family would have used the shrine. The slaves would have been stoking the furnace. The householder would enjoy the baths, the slaves would have been stoking the furnace to keep the water warm.

It’s in the dining room that the divide becomes most apparent. Half the floor is a beautiful but simple mosaic in geometric design. That’s where the table would have been. The other half is a wonderful pictorial mosaic of the four British seasons, complete with a hooded figure for winter.

The householder and the family would recline at the table. The slaves would serve at table … the householder and family would from time to time during a banquet excuse themselves to use the latrines outside. The slaves would keep the latrines clean.

The divide was great between house-holder-and-family and the slaves who kept the household going.

It is against this kind of backdrop that we should try to visualise the house church that meets in the home of Philemon in Colossae. Far away, hotter climate, but basically the same social division.

This had been a household where there had been friction. And maybe that should come as no surprise.

Maybe it was his birth name. Maybe it was a name given to him by the householder, Philemon, but Onesimus had at one time been ‘Useful’ by name and ‘Useful’ by nature.

He was a hard worker. He got things done. And usually he didn’t complain.


But something had happened.

He didn’t just complain.

He ran.

He ran away as far as he could.

And he ran away to the place so many runaways run to.

The great city.


An anonymity in the greatest of crowds.

An exciting city, a dangerous city, a scary city. Rome – where the power of Rome was at its greatest.

And where there were all sorts of underground movements, offering a different way of life.

Maybe that was what drew Onesimus to one particular circle of friends. There was an openness about them that he hadn’t discovered before. They came from all levels of society, but there was something different about them. The lowest of the low slaves were treated as equals with the most influential and powerful.

Luke was a physician, a doctor, who was willing to share his expertise and reach out his healing hands not just to the well-off who had plenty of money, but to the poorest of the poor, to slaves as well.

Maybe Onesimus had had something wrong with him. Something that really troubled him. Maybe Luke had been the only one to help. Who knows. But Luke was a kindly person. Onesimus got on well with him.

And then there was Mark, he had been hard at work writing up an account of someone they all spoke of. They spoke so highly of this person. He had lived in the far-off Eastern frontiers of the great Roman Empire among the Jewish people.

Onesimus wanted to learn more of this Jesus and the difference he made in people’s lives. Aristarchus, Demas, Mark and Luke knew just the person who would be able to tell Onesimus all he needed to know.

There was, however, a snag.

He was in prison, along with Epaphras.

In prison is putting it a bit strongly. He was under arrest, under constant guard … but kept in a house, a secure house. The circle of friends could come and go, take him his meals, even share a meal with him. And he could host small numbers of people and tell those stories of Jesus, and explain what it takes to follow in his footsteps and the difference it can make.

Would he have time for Onesimus? Of course, Luke, Mark and the others insisted.

And so it was Onesimus made his way, no doubt under cover of dark, to the house where Paul was being held under arrest. He was an old man by now. But still as lively as ever.

That first evening, Onesimus would never forget. Paul spoke of the teachings of Jesus, the love he had for all, that sense those followers of his had that getting to know Jesus was touching the very nature of the God who created the heavens and the earth.

Putting your trust and faith in this Jesus meant a transformation in your life. Paul was sure of that.

It was like getting rid of all the dirty, mucky, horrible clothe – Onesimus thought of those duties he had to do mucking out the latrines and knew exactly what it was to long to get out of the stench of filthy clothing.

He also knew the world of abuse where a slave could be used for the gratification of his master: it made him shudder to think of it, he knew the world of impurity, passions gone wild, and as for the world of greed, the world of lying. He knew it all … so well.

An end to all that, said Paul. To put all your trust and faith in jesus Christ, to see him as Lord, to see him as Saviour, to see him as Son of God – Onesimus knew how dangerous such talk was. No wonder the Romans were holding Paul captive – Lord, Saviour, Son of God – those were words reserved for the Emperor himself.

Look to Jesus as Lord and Savior – he died at the hands of the Romans at their cruellest – but not even death could hold him down. He had risen again. And what’s more all who follow him can be raised to a new life and become a new creation.


Onesimus could scarcely believe his ears. Was this something for everyone? Could all be raised to new life in Christ?

Paul was adamant.

In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

No longer slave and free. This was a teaching Onesimus had not encountered before. In his world the lines were too strictly drawn. You couldn’t cross them.

There was a newness of life for everyone.

Paul was sure – it was like getting out of those stinking clothes, being completely washed clean, and then stepping into a new set of clothes.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
That night, Onesmus knew there was nothing else for it.

He committed himself, stepped out of those old clothes, was washed clean with whatever water of baptism was available, and he stepped into that new set of clothes.

He so wanted to go back. And he did. Over and over again. He became really useful to Paul. Paul began to look forward to his visits. He really was Onesimus, useful by name, useful by nature. And then, slowly, Onesimus began to open up to Paul.

He told of his roots in Colossae. Of the fall-out he had had with his master.

Colossae. That’s a place Paul had visited. He knew it well.

Onesimus felt a little uneasy as Paul asked him the name of his master.


Philemon, Paul exclaimed. And then he began to tell Onesimus of his visits to Colossae, of that circle of friends, an open, welcoming circle that he grown up in of all the houses in Colossae, Philemon’s house.

You must go back! Said Paul.

Onesimus wanted to stay. But the big city was scary, a fearful place.

To think there was such an open, welcoming circle back in Colossae, in Philemon’s house, a house he knew so well.

Could he start all over again.

Yes, you can. You will no longer just be a slave, though no doubt you will be as useful as ever to Philemon, you will be brothers together, more than that you will be beloved brothers.

I’ll write a letter, I’ll write two, Paul said.

And so it was Onesimus found himself travelling in the company of someone who was one of Paul’s beloved brothers, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord – Tychicus was wonderful company. He was always bubbling over with conversation. And he guarded those two letters with his life.

News went ahead of them and as they arrived in Colossae the whole of that circle of friends had gone to Philemon’s house. They were packed into the courtyards, every available space. And they were eager to hear all the news.

Onesimus lost his nerve. How would he be received? He held back. Lost in the crowd. Tychicus thought it wise too. There was no telling how Philemon might respond. They agreed, Tychicus would present himself alone, Onesimus would stay as anonymous as he could. He had changed so anyway.

Tychicus handed over the larger of the two letters … and listened as the familiar words Paul had dictated were read with excitement and attention …

Paul an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae. Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

In our prayers for you we always thank God …

Onesimus could hear at a distance – the teaching was so familiar – Christ the image of the invisible God

You have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above.

It’ll be the clothes next, he thought. And it was

Put to death whatever is earthly in you – all that abuse, the lying, the greed.

He looked around and could scarcely recognise the house he knew so well. It seemed somehow different. In the distance through the crowd he could just about make out the householder, Philemon. He too was changed. Had he really put off those old clothes and put on the new. Maybe he had.

As God’s chosen one holy and beloved clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another, and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you.

Was it possible? Was Paul right? Would Philemon forgive … Onesimus?

He hung back even more.

Hoping the shadows would swallow him up.

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me.

The person reading the letter must be getting to to the end by now. Onesimus could see his travelling companion Tychicus was bursting to tell everyone all the news and more.

“he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister and a fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts.

Onesimus was beginning to relax a little – but alongside Tychicus he felt so inadequate. He hoped the shadows would swallow him up.

Then it came like a bombshell. He hadn’t been expectinig it. Tychicus hadn’t told him what was in the letter.

The person reading, came to those fateful words …

“… he is coming with Onesimus.”

You could hear a gasp as those in the inner circle, closest to Philemon, instantly recognised the name.


Could it be THE Onesimus.

There was nothing else for it … he stepped out of the shadows as the words echoed in his ears

He is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here.

Onesimus scarcely heard the rest of the letter. But something deep inside him said it would be all right.

Tychicus was holding forth by now, and everyone wanted to hear all the news. And then Onesimus could see Philemon was inching his way through the crowd. Tychicus must have seen it too. He was one to encourage the heart of anyone.

Tychicus broke off from what he was saying and called across to Philemon – there’s another letter here. It’s a personal one. It’s for you.

Philemon took it and, standing there on the edge of that circle of friends that was so much a part of his transformed household, he began to read it.

And as he read, Onesimus could tell, that everything would be all right.

And this is what Philemon read …

From Paul, a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus, and from our brother Timothy —

To our friend and fellow-worker Philemon, 2 and the church that meets in your house, and our sister Apphia, and our fellow-soldier Archippus:

3 May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.

4 Brother Philemon, every time I pray, I mention you and give thanks to my God. 5 For I hear of your love for all God's people
Philemon raised his eyebrows and a smile spread across his face, he sneaked a look at Onesimus, the runaway slave …

I hear of your love for all God’s people and the faith you have in the Lord Jesus.

6 My prayer is that our fellowship with you as believers will bring about a deeper understanding of every blessing which we have in our life in union with Christ. 7 Your love, dear brother, has brought me great joy and much encouragement!
There’s that word again, thought Philemon.

Your love, dear brother, has brought me great joy and much encouragement.

You have cheered the hearts of all God's people.
All God’s people … Philemon stole a glance at the figure behind him. A lot had happened since last they met. And both of them had changed. He could see that. He read on …

8 For this reason I could be bold enough, as your brother in Christ, to order you to do what should be done.Philemon knew Paul could give his orders …

9 But because I love you, I make a request instead. I do this even though I am Paul, an old man and at present a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus.

10 So I make a request to you on behalf of Onesimus, who is my own son in Christ; for while in prison I have become his spiritual father.
Philemon glanced at Onesimus once more … did he know what was written in this letter?

11 At one time he was of no use to you, but now he is useful, useful by name, useful by nature, both to you and to me.

12 I am sending him back to you now, and with him goes my heart. 13 I would like to keep him here with me, while I am in prison for the gospel's sake, so that he could help me in your place. 14 However, I do not want to force you to help me; rather, I would like you to do it of your own free will. So I will not do anything unless you agree.

Philemon knew there was nothing else for it. More than that he knew it was the right thing.

15 It may be that Onesimus was away from you for a short time so that you might have him back for all time. 16 And now he is not just a slave, but much more than a slave: he is a dear brother in Christ. How much he means to me! And how much more he will mean to you, both as a slave and as a brother in the Lord!

17 So, if you think of me as your partner, welcome him back just as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to my account. 19 Here, I will write this with my own hand: I, Paul, will pay you back. (I should not have to remind you, of course, that you owe your very self to me.)

A smile had been creeping across Philemon’s face. But now he was serious. How right Paul was. He too was a changed person. He could tell Paul was getting old, his writing was shaky, so different from the confident script the rest of the letter had been written in. He wondered who it was had acted as Paul’s scribe this time.

This time when he looked at Onesimus he saw him through changed eyes. He read on …

20 So, my brother, please do me this favour for the Lord's sake; as a brother in Christ, cheer me up!
21 I am sure, as I write this, that you will do what I ask — in fact I know that you will do even more. 22 At the same time, get a room ready for me, because I hope that God will answer the prayers of all of you and give me back to you.

23 Epaphras, who is in prison with me for the sake of Christ Jesus, sends you his greetings,
24 and so do my fellow-workers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke

25 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

That day, there could be no doubt about it, it was the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ that made all the difference to Onesimus, to Philemon and to them all.

In what way will the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ make all the difference to each one of us, to our families and to those we are linked with this week?

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