Philemon is the master, the slave holder, the old southern plantation owner who’s a lifetime deacon in the First Baptist Church in the town bearing his name. His family settled there, started growing cotton and pretty soon had built a cotton gin and began ginning other folks cotton. Supplies were needed so a general store was built, and then a baling and weighing station, finally the family built an exchange where they’d buy up cotton from the local farmers then ship it on to Charleston and sell it for a tidy profit. The town grew up around all this. Farming before the mechanized era was labor intensive, and as the family business grew so did the need for dependable workers. So the trips to Charleston would often include a stop at the slave market where young, promising, well built Africans could be purchased for work planting, picking, breeding, and caring for the children, and cooking and cleaning, and anything else that needed doing.
A traveling preacher came through the town and spoke at some outdoor gatherings on Sundays. Philemon invited him over for Sunday dinner and took a liking to this fellow. He told the preacher that this town needed a church and that if he’d stick around to preach in it, well old Philemon’d see to it that the church got built. And to emphasize the seriousness of his offer, Philemon said he’d get baptized and be the first member. And so he did. He built that church and also added a slave balcony, because he wanted his slaves to hear the message too; especially that part in Timothy
about slaves obeying their masters. And so the slaves were forced to go on Sundays, sit silently and still in the balcony, and at least look like they were paying attention.
But there was one young slave, Onesimus, who seemed more curious than the others about this religion thing. To him it was more than moral advice and yet another way to be kept in his place. He asked questions of his brothers, sisters, and parents. He’d be hoeing and stop and lean on his hoe and say to those around him, “You know, I been thinking ‘bout what preacher said on Sunday….” The overseer’d have to yell at him to get back to hoeing, and Onesimus would turn ‘round and ask the overseer what he thought of that verse the preacher went on and on about, the one about “for freedom, Christ has set us free, so do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”
“Nonsense! Nothing but preacher talk. Now get back to hoeing before the yoke of slavery comes down on your head.”
The morning sun was already burning off the dew and they’d been picking cotton for a couple of hours when the overseer noticed Onesimus wasn’t there. “Heh! Where’s Onesimus? Where is he? Is he back at the cabin? The master need him for something else today?”
When they discovered he was missing, no one was surprised, but the white folks was pretty angry. They got out the horses and dogs and looked all over, but Onesimus was good as gone, weren’t nowhere to be found. Word went out to neighboring farms, and even to the town up the road, but no one had seen him. He’d said not a word to anyone about what he was gonna do, not even to his own family, ‘cause after the beaten they took, if they’d a known anything they’d a said so.
After a week or so, a letter came from the preacher down at the church. Guess where Onesimus was. He was holed up in the sanctuary sleeping under the pews, and he and the preacher had been conversing for nigh these many days ‘bout religion and praying and the plagues on the Egyptians who wouldn’t let the Hebrews go free. Onesimus was proving to be a huge help to the preacher who’d been having a hard time keeping up with things at the church. Onesimus had painted the inside of the sanctuary, he’d cleaned all the windows, put a nice coat of wax on all the pews, and fixed up the rotten wood ‘neath where the preacher stood behind the pulpit. And the best part about
it was, the preacher had someone to talk to, someone who was desperately interested in what the preacher had to say, someone captivated by the stories of David and Goliath, and Daniel in the lions den; someone who couldn’t stand not knowing more and more about God and God’s Son Jesus, and who was wondering what to make of the Spirit while the preacher could tell the Spirit was making a believer out of him. It seemed the preacher had a captive audience, in more ways than one.
And that’s what prompted the letter to Philemon. In it, the preacher told Philemon how thankful to God he was for Philemon, for his faith, his love of God, and his love of all God’s people, which were all people everywhere. Philemon’s love brought joy and encouragement to all, but especially to the preacher. And the church was deeply indebted to him and would always be, for by Philemon’s generosity the hearts of God’s holy people had a home.
“And now,” the letter read, “I’m appealing to your love, though I could pull spiritual rank and tell you what you ought to do. But that would never be necessary with you. Onesimus, who’d been a bit of a challenge, to say the least, has been with me now for over a week. He has been such a huge help, and has learned so much about the faith,
well, he’s become like a child of mine. He’s been like a sponge, soaking up the word, and stories, and instruction, and all the things I can tell him about God, and Jesus, and forgiveness that brings freedom from sin.
But the time has come for me to send him back to you. I feel like you sent him to me to be of special assistance, and he has proven to be so much more. Now I send him back to you, no longer a slave but a brother in the faith. I know you’ll welcome him back, and if he’s wronged you in any way or owes you anything, well, put it on my account. I’ll pay, though I needn’t remind you of what you owe me, your baptized and saved self! I’m counting on you Philemon. My heart is at peace about all this. I’m sure you’ll see your way to do even more than what I ask.
“Oh, one more thing. Could you host the prayer meeting this next week at your place? It’d be a good chance for us to celebrate the grace and unity of the Spirit we all share. I’ve taken the liberty of asking Onesimus to say a few words and lead us in prayer. Grace and peace to you, my brother.”
And it was signed,