In the case of Philemon, the history might be the best commentary. Philemon was a man who owned slaves. He was a believer in Jesus, and somehow had a connection with Paul, by Paul’s own words he was indebted his life. The story that seems to be taking place in the midst of Philemon is a slave named Onesimus ran away. Philemon was a believer in Jesus, and he had some sort of meeting of the Church in his home. One of the questions that come to mind would be why his slave ran away – but more specifically, why to Paul?
The best thing that can be figured was that Onesimus heard about this man Paul. He heard about this man Jesus. He heard the message of the Gospel, but didn’t see the reality of it lived out before him. His master was quite the Christian man in front of all the other believers, but is it possible that he was less than sanctified while dealing with his slaves? Maybe the reason that Onesimus ran away – especially to Paul – was because he heard the message of hope and redemption, but still felt oppressed and tormented. Onesimus would have ran to Paul as an attempt to find the man who gave his master hope and redemption. He apparently believed the Gospel, but was discontent in the house of affliction – a house that purported to be Christian.
In one way, we can look at this and ask why it must have been that this happened, but in another very real sense, we need to glance at out own lives. Why is it that our friends and family – those who are closest to us – don’t believe our message? Is there anything is me that would hinder my witness of the Gospel? Am I the very instrument that is causing someone in my own home to say, “I would love to believe it, but where is the reality in their life?” All across the world we find this story being played out a million times over. Teenagers, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances are running away from Church to find God. This isn’t a new phenomenon. It has happened from the very first century onward. The question is not why they are leaving. The question is why they have been pushed out the door.
What is it about Philemon that drove Onesimus to such drastic measures? What is it about our so-called Christian homes and church gatherings that have driven the youth away? I have yet to talk to one person that is uninterested in God, except they who are in the Church. The people outside of the buildings have questions that are not getting answered, and they love to talk and discuss the things of God when someone is able to talk reasonably and intellectually. It is the system of religion that has driven them into insanity, looking for life and hope in a dead and dying world. Where are the Pauls of the world? Where are the people that they can run to? Unlike Onesimus, our generation seems to have persecuted the true apostles and prophets so that there is no one to run to.
In a world that is hostile to God, where do they who truly seek run to? The buildings don’t talk about God. They quote from the Bible, but only to talk about self. On September 12, 2001, while churches across America gathered for their midweek Bible studies, and again on the 16th for Sunday service, millions of people flocked to the churches with questions of love and hope. They wanted to know whether America was under judgment because of the terrorist attacks. They wanted to know if God saw their oppression and heard their cry. They wanted to hear a message from the preachers, who are supposed to be God’s spokesmen, but instead found “business as usual”. When they ran to the churches to find hope and redemption, the preachers got up and began the same sermon series from where they left off – as if the World Trade Centers had not just been kamikazed. Where do the people have to run? Who is the voice that they can go to in order to ask these difficult questions?
What I find as a challenge with the book of Philemon is that this man was a Christian who sat under Paul’s teaching, and even had a house church. Yet, Onesimus found it necessary to run away from that in order to find God. What vexes me is that I see the same thing taking place, but where do they run? To whom do they take counsel in? The severity of the situation calls for drastic measures, and yet the majority of Christians see it as a “them” problem and not an “us” problem. They are the ones leaving, right? So why is that our fault? What was it in Philemon that caused Onesimus to run away? It wasn’t because of Onesimus that Onismus ran. He could have very well spoken to his master about the same things he sought Paul for. Yet, he decided to run to Paul instead of asking the very man closest to him.
In considering the book of Philemon, let us consider also the implications that this epistle has on our own lives. Let us reflect on those who have run away from our own homes and lives. Is there anything in us that would have caused for that fleeing? Sometimes there isn’t anything, and they just don’t want to believe. Yet, that shouldn’t be our immediate response, considering the depth of grace and love that we’ve experienced in Christ. Anyone who knew the glory that we have attained to in Christ would sprint 1000 miles to also come unto. The question isn’t our message, nor their hearts, but first and foremost our own hearts and lives and conduct.
I feel like to end, I should quote Mother Teresa: If you don’t want your children, then send them to me. She was talking about abortion, but I’m officially opening my doors for a generation that is asking questions.