(Paul enters the chancel and begins writing)
Dear Phil, and Amy and Archie, and all those gathered near you, Grace and Peace to you from God our Beloved, and the Lord Jesus Christ. I pray for you every day that you may be active in sharing your faith and that you may fully understand all the good that we do for Christ. Your love for me has encouraged me and brought me joy during this difficult time since I’ve been in prison. Even from prison, I know that I have the authority to command you do your duty, but I’m not going to command you. Instead, I will appeal to you not on duty, but out of love. I am old now, bound to Jesus and his Way, as much as I am chained in this prison. Onesimus, your slave who ran from you, is here with me. I have come to know him quite well. I think of him almost as a son to me. He has cared for me while I suffer here. Formerly, he was useless to you, but now he is useful to both you and me.
(Onesimus enters and addresses the congregation)
That’s me he is writing about. Onesimus they call me. My very name means “Useful.” That’s what I’ve been all my life: useful to someone, used by someone. I’m not a real person, just an invisible useful force—useful to gather the wood—useful to clear the land—useful to tend the garden and scrub the pots. I got tired of just being useful. I wanted to be a real person. I wanted to be more than a slave to some rich guy Phil, so I took what I could—figured I’d earned it—and I left. Turned up here, meet this old guy, Paul they call him.
(Paul continues to write letter)
Onesimus was hired to bring food to me in prison. He did quite well. Then he lingered a bit and overheard conversations between me and Timothy. We were telling stories you know, remembering the story we share about the day Jesus fed the many and remembering the teaching Jesus was always going on about if he said it once, he said it a thousand times— “love one another” I’m surprised that Onesimus had heard none of these stories—surely you—as a follower of Jesus—you tell them at your house. Do you not? Nevertheless, he began spending longer time bringing me food, and a clean tunic, more time sitting near my jail cell than out and about on the town as a young man could do. Finally, he declared that he wanted to follow the Way of Jesus also. He’s been a big help to me.
(Onesimus speaks again)
This old one and his friend, Tim, told me about someone called Jesus. I really could not believe it at first. A crucified leader? A man who listened to the poor people? A man who fed multitudes of people and cared for those of us others thought of as property to them, and he did not do so to try and get anything out of them, just to care for them—he said because God did. Wow, that’s something. No one ever cared—just because. I could tell that to this Paul guy, I was more than just the guy who brought him food. I was more than just Useful Invisible. He saw me. He began to ask me about my life—about my family that had deserted me long ago. Turns out he knows the guy I ran away from—my “master.” He says in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, no male or female, no slave or master. Now, I want to be part of this group that follows this Way of Jesus in truth and love. I want to stay here and learn more, but the old man says I have to go back.
I have to go back to my “master.” He says it is the right thing to do.
(Paul continues his letter)
Phil, I would love to keep this young man here with me. He is very useful—but more than that he brings me comfort. I love him like a son. I know I could order you to release him to me. I could buy him from you, but I will not. You are a good man and I trust you will do the right thing by him—if no other reason than your love for me and your love for Jesus. So, as a friend, as a comrade in this pathway of Jesus, I ask of you, welcome him back as you would me. I know this will not be easy for you. I imagine what you are thinking: what will others say if you elevate this man from slave to brother? What would that mean to other slaves of yours? How will you save face? And reputation? And control over your household if you receive him back? If he has stolen from you, I’ll pay you. I will pay restitution. I wish I could come be there with you, but treat Onesimus as if he were I.
(Onesimus speaks again)
What? This Paul guy is sending me back, but not as a slave? He is willing to pay for my mistake—for my thievery? This is a strange sense of honor code these fellows have. Paul trusts that Philemon will receive me back, no longer a slave to him but now a brother to him. This teaching of the Way of Jesus makes no sense according to the ways our people know. It is risky for me to go back… shall I trust this Christian man with my life?
(Onesisus takes letter from Paul and exits)
Those who would follow the way of Jesus are called to risk. Risk what others might say about you when you treat all as brothers and sisters and not some as less than, not some as named useful as far as they can serve our wants, but as full human beings created in God’s image. Those who would follow the way of Jesus are called to welcome strangers with outlandish love, and risk seeming a fool to do so. Those who would follow the way of Jesus are called to meet others in all their humanity.
How many of us know the names of our postal carrier who brings us mail every day, our garbage collectors who remove our garbage every week, even our neighbors all the way down the block? How many of us know the names of our co-worker’s family? How many of us know the trials and joys of people we speak to every day? How many of us see a young man sacking our groceries on the late shift—and give no thought to the homework that will be started at midnight? And the school bell that will ring a few hours later?
How many of us get frustrated with the young lady serving up our fries, not thinking about her young child who was crying when dropped off at a crowded day care that morning? How many of us put one another on pedestals because of their work—then get angry when we discover our hero is really a human and can’t meet our need of perfect? How many of us see one another only to the degree that we are Useful?
Paul writes in his letter to Philemon, speaking of Onesimus, “formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.” Onesimus is useful—not as an object or a slave—useful not as a function of a task.
Onesimus is useful in teaching about Love given to all. Onesimus is useful as an example of a new relationship status not slave but brother and sister. Onesimus is useful in giving an example of Jesus’ principle of non-dominance—of embodying a refusal to dominate other people and judge other people by their usefulness to us.
Onesimus is useful in helping us to open our eyes to the Invisible ones all about us: invisible ones upon whom our nation runs, our economics thrive, our food is produced,
Our homes are built—and even the invisible ones in our own family.
As followers of this strange Way of Jesus we are called to truly see the people all around us. May it be so.