Above: St. Onesimus
Image in the Public Domain
Freedom in Christ
The Lections for the Feast Day:
God of liberty, through St. Paul the Apostle you brought your servant St. Onesimus to spiritual and temporal freedom; liberate us, we pray, so that we may be equipped to serve you fully. In the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
The brief Pauline epistle to Philemon is one of my favorite books of the New Testament. St. Paul was in custody in Rome when Onesimus, a slave (according to nearly two thousand years of Biblical interpretation) of his good friend Philemon, arrived to visit the Apostle. Onesimus had allegedly stolen from his master. After some time, during which the Apostle converted Onesimus, St. Paul sent him back to Philemon with a letter of recommendation, which, fortunately, we can still read today in the New Testament. It is a personal letter and a masterpiece of positive manipulation. “I could order you to take Onesimus back as if a brother, not as if a slave, and to forgive him,” Paul wrote, “but I know that I do not have to this, for I know that you are a good Christian man.” That is my paraphrase of the essence of the epistle.
Philemon did take Onesimus back as if a brother, not as if a slave, and did forgive him. Then Philemon sent Onesimus back to Paul in Rome. Both Philemon and Onesimus became bishops and martyrs. Philemon became Bishop of Colossae, where he and his wife died together. And Onesimus served as Bishop of Byzantium (the position known today as Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople) from 54 to 68, then as Bishop of Beroea (in Macedonia.) He died circa 90 C.E., after prolonged tortures.
One final note: There is a Greek pun in the Epistle to Philemon. The name “Onesimus” means “useful.” As The Jerusalem Bible renders verse 11, “He was of no use to you before, but he will be useful to you now, as he has been to me.” (I like puns.) Seriously though, Onesimus became quite useful to God. May we be likewise, however God has called us to that.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
JUNE 12, 2010
THE FEAST OF ENMEGAHBOWH, EPISCOPAL PRIEST
Edited on November 11, 2011
Revised on November 30, 2016
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