by Heidi Haverkamp—
My mother taught me to be to be a letter writer. She and her mother, my grandmother, wrote letters back and forth to their relatives in Norway for decades. Mom was a great believer in sending thank you notes, birthday notes and when you knew someone was having a hard time. And in almost every letter she wrote, my mother told you something wonderful about yourself. She tried to capture who you were, even very simply, and write it to you in her own handwriting. I try to do the same in my letters. In reading over her letters after her death, I find a glimpse not only of who she was, but of who I am too.
A strange thing about the New Testament that I’m not sure we often appreciate is that we have the actual, signed letters of Paul in the Bible. They are perhaps the most personal texts in all of Scripture. Paul wrote them in his own voice, calling people by name, telling them to stop fighting, asking them to say hello to so-and-so, to watch out for that Apollos character, and to please share their food with everyone else at the church supper. They are truly letters, not just theological essays.
The letter Paul wrote to Philemon is even more special. It is so short that we can read the whole letter aloud on a Sunday morning, just as it would’ve been read aloud at Philemon’s church, in about 60 A.D. It was written to address one problem. Here is where the letter may become a bit strange or uncomfortable for us, because it is about a slave. Philemon owned Onesimus. Now, slavery in Roman times was not precisely like the human chattel slavery that was the foundation of our own American economy. But let us not forget that this text and others signed with Paul’s name were used by people in America to rationalize and justify the existence of slavery for hundreds of years.
Paul does not use this letter to argue against the Roman practice of slavery, but he does open the letter by identifying himself as a “prisoner.” He was writing from jail, maybe in Ephesus or in Rome. We’re not sure. He was not a slave, but he was not free, either. Paul and Onesimus have gotten to know one another while Paul was in jail—it may be that Onesimus was also imprisoned, or that Philemon sent Onesimus to minister to Paul in prison, since Paul is able to send Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter.
I love this letter because it’s such a powerful snapshot of life in the early churches and of Paul himself. We can hear Paul speaking, almost, and we can be reminded that these were real people (not just stained-glass-window
images of people) who held this letter in their hands. These people decided to save this very short, very personal letter and pass it along, for generations, until it became part of biblical canon.
What is Paul doing in this letter? He is asking Philemon to do something big: to give up a privilege, a possession, a source of income, and something he has as a man of means, for the sake of someone else. Most of us hate being an imposition or asking too much of someone else. Not Paul.
Paul asks this question in a way that is very interesting and very particular to Paul. He does not apologize for asking too much. Nor does he make a command, like a general or a boss. Instead, he is full of enthusiasm and affection! He is direct, without guile, and yet without any doubt that his request is right. The authority he calls on is that of friendship and love, and that of the cross of Christ: of submission and sacrifice. Paul writes that he “appeals” to Philemon “on the basis of love.” He asks him to do a “good deed” that is “voluntary and not something forced.” He writes of Onesimus, not as a piece of property, but as “my own heart” and “my child,” and asks Philemon to welcome him as Paul himself would be welcomed.
On the other hand, we may also hear a bit of manipulation in Paul’s letter. He says, “I am confident you will do even more than I say.” He reminds Philemon, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.” And yet, perhaps what Paul writes is simply the truth? That Paul has brought Philemon to a new life and new self in Christ.
In this and in his other letters, Paul did not dispute directly or politically the culture or traditions of his time: slavery, class, the place of women and children, the lack of rights for non-citizens. And yet, over and over in his letters, he tells the communities that he addresses that their relationships are to be transformed. All will sit and eat at the same table, women will be listed as disciples alongside men, and Onesimus is a full human person, loved by Paul, loved by God, and that he must be free, as soon as Philemon gets this letter.
What if the entirety of the gospel is a letter, written to each one of us, inviting us to be transformed by God’s love and affection for us? Written, like a letter by my mother, to tell us something about how wonderful we are, but also to tell us what God expects us to do—to resist injustice, to choose compassion and sacrifice, to truly affect the lives of others—and beyond even that, to be transformed ourselves?
Jesus’s message, his life and his death are about abundance of life; but this is a kind of abundance that also asks us to sacrifice. The gospel is almost frightening in its insistence that we give up everything for the sake of the cross. I’m not always sure what that means, to be honest, but I think it’s something like Paul’s letter to Philemon.
So: What if Paul were writing you a letter? A letter that demanded something of you? That asked you, with genuine love and affection, to give up a privilege, or a possession, a source of income, or even a right, for the sake of someone else? I invite you to ask God, in a spirit of prayer, what that might be.
Heidi Haverkamp is an Episcopal priest and author of Advent in Narnia and Holy Solitude, both published by Westminster John Knox Press. She lives in DeKalb, Illinois, with her husband, two cats and a beagle.
This article is excerpted from the June 2021 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.