It must not be missed that the letter is addressed to the church in Philemon's house. It may seem strange to modern Western minds that Paul seems to be making the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus a public matter. In the twenty-first century we are so imbued in a hyper individualistic context that it's hard for us to understand why such matters should not be private. It is important to realize that Paul and his contemporaries did not have such an individualistic notion of privacy that we do today. To be sure, they understood that there were matters of a personal nature, but they rightly knew that even personal matters could affect the larger community. Since Philemon's household and his house church are so intertwined, Paul seems to assume that he situation with Onesimus is a concern of the entire house church. For Paul and the first-century Christians, church was family. Nowhere does Paul appeal to the congregation to make the decision on what to do with Onesimus, that decision is left to Philemon alone. But the public nature of the discussion would have put more pressure on Philemon to submit to Paul's request. It could also have been the case that if Onesimus were a runaway slave, that would not only have disrupted the household, but also the house church. Thus, Onesimus may have needed to be forgiven and restored to the fellowship.
Too many people today have the very mistaken view that it is possible to be a Christian without the church. All that matters is that one believes in Jesus. Unfortunately, such a view is not surprising in a culture like ours that puts the individual as the primary moral agent. Such a context has trouble making sense of Paul's seeming assumption that the situation between Philemon and Onesimus is a matter for the entire church. But for the New Testament and for most of church history, the church has been viewed as indispensible to the Christian life. Jesus and the church go together.
The frustration people face is that all too often the church doesn't really look too much like Jesus. It is frail and fallible and everyone who has been associated with any church can tell stories of the church behaving badly.
There's an old story that I and more than a few preachers have used in a sermon at one time or another-- that Noah's Ark was not a very pleasant place to be during the flood with the smelly animals and the stale air and being cooped up with no place to go. But as difficult it must have been for Noah and his family, the Ark was still the best thing afloat at the time.
It is an obvious observation-- the church is far from perfect. That is not an excuse; it is just a fact. And while we the church need to be going on to perfection, such perfection continues to elude us this side of the Second Coming. The church is a very leaky boat.
Like many others, I have been very critical of the church at times. We do not point out the church's failings because we hate the Body of Christ; on the contrary, we love it, and we know that if we are to faithfully follow Jesus, we need it. If we didn't love the church, we wouldn't care enough to raise the concerns we encounter.
To be part of the Church of Jesus Christ can be a very frustrating experience for all of us who are individual members of Christ's Body. I can list my reasons why I get so frustrated on occasion and so can many others. Some of those reasons are similar, others may be very different. There has been much talk about the church and how it has turned off the younger generation and how others who were very involved have given up on 'organized religion." These concerns are legitimate and should be discussed with compassion and vigor and critical reflection.
But it serves no constructive purpose to focus only on the church’s frailties and foibles... though they seem to be many at times. What I would like to do is remind us that the church is not only an all-too-human institution, but it is a creation of God and brought into existence by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and through the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit.
We must never forget that Jesus told his original disciples and, therefore, all of us who are disciples, that the gates of hell would not overcome the church (Matthew 16:18). I have often pondered the image offered to us by the Apostle Paul that the church is the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-30), that the church is Christ's presence in a special redemptive way that cannot be seen anywhere else. In the church, God's kingdom ushered into the world and established by Jesus continues even today. And such work can be found in no other institution. If Jesus is the very presence of God in this world, then in a very real sense the church is the very presence of Christ in the world. But we must remember that unlike Jesus, who was sinless, the church consists of disciples, who are sinners, but hopefully going on to perfection... the emphasis in this context is "going on."
There are times when I am very discouraged with the church for various reasons. And on such occasions, it is helpful for me to remember that the church has struggled from the very beginning. In the Book of Acts after the wonderful event of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Birthday of the Church, God's creation (Acts 2), it doesn’t take too long before there is disagreement and fighting in the ranks (Acts 6). In other words, the church in the twenty-first century is not facing any more difficulties, any further disagreements, any more intense strife than what our Christian sisters and brothers faced in the first century. God, who always works in the context of the human situation has created and called a people to be his presence in the world. God has been more than willing for that presence to be imperfect; for even, and especially, in the church's imperfection, God can reveal God's grace.
One of the early symbols of the church is a boat in the midst of troubled seas. And while that image is meant to primarily convey the church staying afloat though tossed to and fro by worldly challenges and threats, it must also be remembered that the church continues to stay afloat and continues to stay on divine course even though the deck hands at times struggle and fight with one another. The captain of the ship, Jesus Christ, insures that nothing—threats from without and strife from within-- will steer the church off its divinely appointed course and one day into the safe harbor of eternity.
We need Jesus and we need the church... and we cannot have one without the other.*
*This reflection is an edited excerpt from my book, Colossians and Philemon: A Participatory Study Guide.
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)