Commemoration of Philemon and Onesimus
February 15, 2010
The Lord be with you
On the liturgical calendar used in the LCMS today is recognized as the Commemoration of Philemon and Onesimus. Philemon was a prominent first-century Christian who owned a slave named Onesimus. Although the name Onesimus means “useful,” Onesimus proved himself “useless” when he ran away from his master and perhaps even stole from him (Philemon 18). Somehow Onesimus came into contact with the apostle Paul while the latter was in prison (possibly in Rome), and through Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel, he became a Christian. After confessing to the apostle that he was a runaway slave, Onesimus was directed by Paul to return to his master and become “useful” again. In order to help pave the way for Onesimus’s peaceful return home, Paul sent him on his way with a letter addressed to Philemon, a letter in which he urged Philemon to forgive his slave for running away and to “receive him as you would receive me” (v. 17), “no longer as a slave but … as a beloved brother” (v. 16). The letter was eventually included by the Church as one of the books of the New Testament. Some (like me) connect this Onesimus with the bishop praised by Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the church at Ephesus in the early 2nd century. He would have been quite elderly by this time. This connection appeals to me because the bishop Onesimus gathered together one of the early collections of Paul’s letters (all of which we now have in the New Testament). It certainly would make sense that Paul’s Onesimus would include in his collection of Paul’s letters the letter that paved the way for his freedom and service in the Church.
Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert