I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)

Philemon 10, 11

This is a difficult relationship to consider, for it is clear that Onesimus was a slave. His name means either “useful” or “profitable” and was one that was commonly given to slaves. It would seem that he has run away from service to his master Philemon and has come to be among the group of people who had gathered around Paul while he was under house arrest in Rome in around 62 AD. Something has happened during this time with Paul. Elsewhere the apostle describes a hard and a painful process that is much like a woman giving birth to a child. So, too, Paul uses parent-child imagery when he describes Onesimus and their relationship. It is also clear that Paul trusts this former runaway slave with important tasks such as carrying his letters to Colossae and to Ephesus. Now, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon while he is also appealing to the slave holder to see the transformation that has taken place in Onesimus through eyes and with a heart that have undergone their own transformative work.

This is a fundamental aspect of what it means to follow Christ. In so committing to that relationship, Christ also makes a commitment to each of us. We will not come out of this relationship the same as we were before. That change may not happen quickly; in fact, at times it may seem as if it is progressing at a pace that is too slow to measure. Still, it does come about, for the Spirit of Christ is present in all of us when we embrace faith in Christ, and that Spirit is relentless and powerful in His capacity to bring about the conforming of our hearts and so our minds to that of Christ. Now some people do radically change in a matter of moments, but most of us do this over the course of the remainder of our earthly lives. There will be days when Christ will be very apparent on and in us, and there will be others when the old self seems to raging forth and causing the same sorts of havoc that it did previously. This is the reality of what it means to be a new person in Christ. The work of the Spirit is continuous and on-going, and we need to remain faithful and committed to obedience to God’s Word and to His Spirit in order to fully develop as Christians.

Philemon was asked to be patient and gracious in his reception of Onesimus. Paul implores him to see the new man before he assumes that the old one is present. This is how we are to engage with people who have come to Christ in our world, too. If we believe that Christ works in people to change them, then we must also believe that people can change. So, we are called upon by God to extend grace and understanding to these people, who are new beings in Christ. In the letter to Philemon there is an unstated appeal for the slave owner to extend freedom to the slave upon his voluntary return, for in fact, Onesimus has already been set free by Christ. He is no longer a slave to the greater mastery of sin and its death; so, the freedom that Philemon can extend is relatively minor in its importance or in its impact upon Onesimus. Still, it is important for Philemon’s spiritual growth that he trust Christ enough to release his hold on another human life. We do not know how this aspect of this story concluded, but we can enter into the same form of trust as Philemon was called to do. So, we can seek the Spirit’s guidance as we encounter people who are undergoing the transformative work of the Spirit in their lives so that we, too, can extend the grace that is needful for the day at hand and truly embrace fellow new creatures in Christ with the love and the acceptance that we would desire to receive from them in return.

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