Christianity in Action

by Tom Wacaster

The book of Philemon takes up less than one full page in my Bible. Though small, it tells in a remarkable way the story of how Christ comes into the lives of men and women and, acting as leaven, slowly changes individual lives and the society in which they live. Perhaps just as importantly, this little book tells how Christianity sweetens the relationship between men who otherwise might be at odds with one another. I like the way Hastings put it: “Christianity tells how Christ steps in to dissolve the bitterness, to soften the misunderstandings, to put us right with one another in the little things in which we often go wrong, and finally to set our varied relationships on such a footing that our little circle of friends or associates shall become part of that blessed society of souls which is the Kingdom of God.” The background leading up to the writing of this epistle is a story in itself. Yet, it is what comes out of that story that provides us with the greatest value. There are two characters in the story: Philemon and Onesimus. Philemon had been converted by Paul, and it would appear that their friendship had grown over the passing of time. Onesimus was a slave; Philemon’s slave. One word sums it up. A “bond slave” (as the Greek puts it), with no essential rights of his own. Onesimus must have grown weary as a slave and made his escape, taking with him something of value belonging to Philemon. He must have fled to Rome to get lost in the maze of human debris and there spend his ill-gotten gain. Somehow, he came in contact with Paul. How, or under what circumstances we are not told. Paul took the man, taught him, converted him, and molded him. When the time was right, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon to make things right. This letter we now have in our possession by divine inspiration, is Paul’s plea that Philemon receive Onesimus back and treat him as a brother in Christ. From this epistle we learn two lessons on human relations.

First, this little epistle tells me that Christianity enriches the relationships in life. When Onesimus ran off, Philemon had lost an indifferent and insolent slave. Onesimus was a Phrygian slave, and history tells us such men were stubborn and hard to deal with. Paul’s observation that Onesimus had been “unprofitable” to Philemon, leads me to believe that Philemon’s loss was not all that big a loss. When Onesimus returned to Philemon he was a different man. He had been a slave to whom duty was drudgery and life was miserable beyond description. Did Philemon accept Onesimus back? Who can doubt it? Both were now brothers in Christ, and everything else being equal, Onesimus’ relationship to Philemon was forever altered. Whether now as a slave under Philemon’s house, or returned to minister to Paul, to Onesimus duty was music, and life was lit with love. Your relationships in life may not be ideal. You may have a poor employee, or a pathetic boss, but Christianity does not giver either the right to worsen that relationship. One author put it this way: “The conditions of life may not be good, and the relations in which we stand to one another may not be ideal, but Christianity, when it is real, will make them as good as they can be. When Christ comes in, the whole outlook of life and work and service is lifted above the narrow horizons of our own pleasure, or even the accepted standards, and becomes centered on Christ.”

Second, Christianity breaks down the barriers that keeps the brotherhood of man from splintering into thousands of fragments thereby producing civil unrest. Don’t tell me the book of Philemon is not relative. Look at what is happening in Portland, Washington, Wisconsin, Chicago, and Minneapolis. When Christ came into the lives of Philemon and Onesimus, he gave them the essential tools and understanding in life to break down those barriers that keep men from acting the best toward each other. It was Christianity that broke down the institution of slavery in Rome. It is Christianity that broke down slavery in America, and the rest of the civilized world. It is Christianity that will break down the civil unrest and racial tensions that are spilling out into the streets of America, even as I write these lines.

I once read of a play depicting the life of Abraham Lincoln, and with which I will close this article. One scene in that play depicted an aging, black preacher by the name of Fredrick Douglas, who was invited to visit Mr. Lincoln in the White House. When he walked into the room, the President invited Douglas to take a chair. Douglas was reluctant to sit down, and said to the President, “No sir. I am black and you are white.” “No, no,” replies Lincoln, “we are just two old men talking together.”

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