Paul’s basic claim in Philemon is the same as it is in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
At least here, Paul is not arguing for an end to the institution of slavery in the Roman world–however much we might want him to. But he is arguing for an end to distinctions of class and status within the church. Labels and status within the broader world do not apply within the body of Christ.
Philemon views Onesimus as a useless. Paul re-presents Onesimus as useful (which is what “Onesimus” means–a cute little word play). Philemon views Onesimus as a slave. Paul re-presents Onesimus as a son, as “my own heart,” as a brother.
The word of God and the testimony of the prophets make clear that there is a time and place for Christ-followers to address justice issues in our broader culture. There are times to speak out against slavery, racism, sexism, heterosexism, fear of foreigners, classism.
This little letter, however, helps us understand that the first calling of the church is not to speak out against injustice, but to actually live out the justice and peace Jesus taught. To live in relationships of equality regardless of how the broader culture–or even the law–says we should relate to each other. To share our resources with those in need. To welcome the stranger–whether they have legal citizenship or not.
As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, the church should be the headlights, leading the way toward justice.
Some of the light we shed may come in the form of history–or sociology or literary theory–any type of helpful academic analysis.
Some of the light we shed may come in the form of narratives–good stories told through word and image.
Some of the light we shed may be through prophetic words–institution rattling words and actions.
Scripture attests to a place for all of this.
Paul’s letter to Philemon, however, reminds us that much of our light comes not from what we say or write or preach, but from how we live. Especially how we live together. How we live together in love as brothers and sisters.
“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”