Letters of Reference

Philemon 1-21
The letter of Reference. If you have ever had to write one for someone applying for a job, you will know how hard they can be to compose. You feel obliged to tell the truth; but your unembellished view of it might hinder, rather than further the prospects of the person who asked you to write the letter on their behalf. The story is told of a bishop who had to write such a letter, commending a spectacularly idle curate to the new parish in which he was seeking to become a vicar. ‘You will be very lucky to get this young man to work for you’, wrote the bishop.
St Paul is writing a letter of reference, to a certain Philemon, on behalf of the escaped slave, Onesimus. But we have to step back a few years to understand why. Scene one, then, in a sumptuous Roman house in Ephesus, with courtyard and colonnade; and we find ourselves in one of the grand, public rooms. The walls are decorated with paintings and tapestries: scenes of the gods cavorting, and of wild, licentious parties taking place. The floor is a huge mosaic, intricately composed to show beasts from the circus, and gladiators, and scenes from Greek and Roman legend. People are sat on the low stone benches, listening intently. One such is Philemon, a wealthy visitor from the city of Colossae, a hundred miles away. And everyone is hanging on the words of their honoured guest: Paul of Tarsus. He expounds the gospel story; and with passion in his voice and fire in his eyes, tells them of the freedom they can enjoy by putting their trust in Jesus and acknowledging him as Lord.
What kind of freedom? Freedom from the worn-out religion of Greece and Rome, with its pantheon of capricious and rapacious gods, believed to behave more like despots than deities. Freedom from the aridity of the prevailing philosophies. Freedom from the excesses, and the materialism, and the violence of their age: from the blood-soaked circuses and the wine-soaked parties. Freedom to serve God. Freedom to become truly themselves!
Philemon is transfixed by what he hears. His life, and its emptiness appal him: the sheer selfishness of it all. This passionate speaker seems to offer a path to freedom, and a purpose and direction that Philemon knows that he lacks. And in due course, after he has returned home to Colossae, he wins others to his new-found faith and its freedom, and the small group of believers begins to meet in his home.
But back in Ephesus, these guests are not the only ones listening to Paul’s radical gospel. Un-noticed, stood unobtrusively around the walls, the servants and the house-slaves are also quietly taking in the message. And one of these, Onesimus, can see no freedom in his life as Philemon’s slave.
Years pass before scene two takes place. Paul is now in Rome. Under house arrest, having appealed to the emperor when detained by the authorities in Jerusalem. Paul is not a category ‘A’ prisoner. He is allowed visitors and helpers; and he is permitted to study, to write letters through a secretary, and to dispatch his correspondence across the known world.
Paul is sitting at his desk and writing now, though his eyesight isn’t what it was: writing the letter of reference to Philemon. Because, for some months past, Paul has enjoyed the help and fellowship of a particular companion, the escaped slave, Onesimus.
What a story Onesimus could tell! How the promise of freedom gnawed away at him back in Colossae, until one day he decided to escape. How, despite all the hazards and the hardships, he made his way a thousand miles across the world to Rome. How he was helped, fed and sheltered by Christians he met along the way, perhaps. How he was baptized. And then in Rome, how he tracked down Paul, the man who had first fired his imagination with the liberating gospel of Jesus. Onesimus seized his freedom: literal freedom from slavery, and spiritual freedom as a Christian; and he has repaid the debt by assisting Paul in his work.
But though he enjoys this freedom of the new-born Christian, yet Onesimus is not free in every sense. As an escaped slave, he could face the death penalty should he be caught. Death is also the penalty for harbouring an escaped slave; so that by being here, he is endangering the life of the man to whom he owes so much. So he sits and watches as Paul writes, preparing in his mind for the long journey home, carrying the letter to his former master, Philemon. Escaping had been exactly that, he can now see. A flight away from the reality of his life back in Colossae. Now he is ready for a truer freedom, but a freedom that requires of him much greater courage. Freedom to accept his past, and work through it, as Paul writes to ask clemency from his former master. What sort of reception awaits him?
Convention suggests that Philemon make an example of the hapless Onesimus. The empire depends for its very existence on slavery, and it is in everyone’s interest that recaptured slaves be harshly punished. But we can only imagine the curtain lifting on scene three, as Onesimus stands anxiously, praying silently, flanked by guards. In front of him, Philemon sits and digests this letter from St Paul, who calls him friend and fellow-worker. And the question is, can he now display the courage that Onesimus has shown? So this is one of those moments when Philemon must act according to what he says he believes.
There was a prayer for use at the end of Evensong, asking that what we believe in our hearts and profess with our lips, we may show forth in our lives, if I recall. Such moments don’t come along every week, but they do come along. When we have to disagree with the direction taken by the group we are part of. When the next Church Gift Day comes along (that’s a spoiler alert, by the way). When the bill comes to less than we know it should; when the church is unfairly, rather than justly criticised. Our members of Parliament have faced such moments this week, and had to make hard choices about which way they should vote, in order to get us out of the political crises engulfing us. And we will face such moments ourselves. People we know and love disagree, perhaps passionately, about Brexit and the way forward; and this divisive, polarising and emotional issue continues to challenge our capacity to offer reconciliation and healing.
Was Onesimus’ courage rewarded? Was St Paul’s power of persuasion sufficient, was his faith in the power of the gospel to change people’s lives justified by Philemon’s pardon of Onesimus? Did Philemon’s faith count, when the crunch came for him? We do not know the answers. But there is just one tantalising piece of evidence, amid all the questions that the letter poses: the fact that we even know of its existence. How does that happen? St Paul certainly didn’t keep a carbon copy; and if Philemon had torn it up and sent Onesimus off to be fed to the lions in the circus, or if Onesimus had simply not gone back to Philemon, no-one would know that it had ever been written.
But in 110AD, Ignatius of Antioch, one of the fathers of the early Church, writes a letter to the Ephesian Christians. Six times in this letter, he mentions their bishop by name: Onesimus. It is just possible that it is he who preserves for us all the aging reference letter from St Paul to his former master. Evidence of faith believed in the heart, professed with the lips, and shown forth in real lives.
© Jon Russell 2019