Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!”
How are you? Hope you’re well today. The formal greeting that I used for this e Newsletter is taken directly from the opening address of St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon. While the Apostle Paul was known to have written to entire church communities in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica, Colossae, and Ephesus he also wrote letters to individuals named Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus.
You might not recognize the last two names since they did not receive their own personalized letter. Rather, they were included in the letter that was written primarily for Philemon. That particular letter is the shortest of all thirteen letters contained in the Pauline Epistles of the New Testament. (Epistle is just a fancy way of saying “letter.” The Letter to Philemon only has one chapter within it and twenty-five verses.) According to Tradition, Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus were Christians from the community found in Colossae, which is modern-day Turkey. Even though that was their homeland I can assure you that they did more than gobble up delicious food from the Mediterranean. That’s a bad joke even by my standards…
Getting back to the task at hand, St. Paul wrote his Letter to Philemon while he was imprisoned in Rome. He was writing to make an appeal for a fellow Christian named Onesimus, who had been living as a slave in Colossae. Apparently, Onesimus ran away from the Colossians and this upset some folks there. While human slavery is never a good thing, in much of the ancient world it was a socially accepted part of life. It might be a bit surprising for you to learn that St. Paul did not explicitly condemn the practice of slavery.
However, the Letter to Philemon makes a heartfelt appeal that Onesimus be received back into the community, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me” (Philemon 1:16-17). In another passage from one of his letters St. Paul spoke about the equality of all baptized believers stating, “
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
The main focus of St. Paul was not to bring about a change in the social order, per se, but rather to emphasize the salvific changes that took place in human history as a result of the Incarnation. Some of this was because of the belief of St. Paul and other Christians that the Second Coming of Christ would be quite imminent and it was not as important to change the temporal order of the government or other worldly practices. Instead moral behavior and upright living in accordance with God’s will was more important. As we prepare to hear from the Letter to Philemon this Saturday evening or Sunday at Mass may our hearts be free and opened to the Word of God so that we might better live it in our own words and deeds.