Welcome to the Philemon Advent calendar. For the next 25 days, receive short holiday devotions in your inbox. Together we will deepen our anticipation of God's coming kingdom and prepare for the nativity of Christ.
Philemon may seem like a strange text to pair with the holidays. The excuse is numerological. There are 25 days in a traditional Advent calendar. There are 25 verses in Philemon. Each verse will open space for a brief reflection and a prayer.
In addition, Philemon is perhaps unique in the whole New Testament as showing us how personal, and interpersonal, letters can be. This letter between Paul and Philemon is much like a good Christmas letter. It helps sender and recipient know each other better. The letter connects them, even across great distances, and unites them in the love of Christ.
Because Paul identifies himself so closely with Onesimus (the slave on behalf of whom he is writing the letter), he models the shape of the incarnation in his own life. In the same way Christ took our part in the incarnation in order to reconcile us to God, Paul takes the part of Onesimus in order to reconcile himself to Philemon. It is a beautiful model for how Christ's incarnation, his birth, truly matters for our own life of faith, because all of our interpersonal relationships are transformed in Christ.
We are all in this holy story together, players in God's drama. Our place in that story is determined by our place "in Christ," and as Paul models it in his letter to Philemon, we are improvisers, free in Christ to perform the gospel in creative and generative ways, ways that matter for the life of the world.
1: Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker.
This is the week many of us sit down to draft Christmas letters. Some are old school, hand-written notes to many and sundry. Others are mid school, typed and crafted, with bible quotes and poems and photos, then laid out in Publisher. Others are new school, typed quickly and updated on Facebook or Instagram.
However you write your Christmas letter, or even if you don't send one at all, you have some that are arriving. So you can imagine by comparison this little letter from Paul. He sends it from jail (are any of your Christmas letters addressed to those in prison?). He sends it together with a co-author, Timothy (Is yours sent as a family? Do you include your cat as co-signatory? Is your new baby the author?). He addresses it to a dear friend and co-worker in the gospel.
It is enough, on this first day of our journey, to simply be aware. Paul is writing a letter. He puts pen to parchment, friend at his side, another friend in mind, and he opens that most basic and intimate of moments: To say what needs to be said, and hope against hope it is heard.
Lord Jesus, we are also your prisoners, free of all other allegiances and tuned to your reign. Set us free in you. Make us mindful of our brothers and sisters in Christ, our friends and family, our co-workers in the gospel. Guide our hands as we write our words, and by your Spirit make them your words also. Amen.
2: to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Paul's letter is addressed not simply to Philemon, but to his household. It is likely (but not certain) that Apphia is Philemon's wife, and Archippus his son. In other words, although the title of the letter may make us believe it is a personal letter, it is actually a communal letter, addressed not only to Philemon's whole family, but to the church that meets in their house.
This house church receives a letter from Paul that is radical in its implications. The letter is about Onesimus, Philemon's slave. Philemon sent Onesimus to Paul in prison, probably delivering food and other necessities. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon and his house church with this letter. The letter is transformative. It invites Philemon and his church to reconsider how Christian community is conceived. If Philemon receives the letter in the spirit in which it is sent (and there is every reason to believe he and his community did), it would "collapse the all-too-frequent oppressions that mar our world still today" (The New Testament Fortress Press Commentary on the Bible, Eric Barreto, 615).
Onesimus went to Paul as a slave. He returns to Philemon not as a slave but as a sibling, property no longer but rather brother. The gospel of Jesus Christ transforms Onesimus's relationship to the church at Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus's house.
Imagine what this might look like in each of our own households. That each of our households thought of itself as, and sometimes gathered, a church. That we sent food to those in prison. That we received letters challenging us to make less distinctions based on wealth, class, power, and race. That because Christ came as a child, one of us, we can imagine ourselves becoming like those whom we consider most different, or lower.
3: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the classic Pauline greeting. It's so brief and beautiful and clear. No wonder many Christians borrow it for their own letters, and churches use it in their liturgies. When we borrow it, we align ourselves with the author, identify with him, so anyone who hears us speak or reads a letter with these words thinks to themselves, "That sounds like Paul. That is Paul. It's a New Testament thing."
How we associate, the posture we bring to an encounter, makes so much difference in our communication. Paul has already opened his letter self-identifying himself as "a prisoner of Christ Jesus" (v. 1). Because he is a prisoner of Christ, he is associated with the lowest of the low. He is a prisoner, a slave, poor and weak and vulnerable. So when he writes verse three, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ," he does so not from any sense of superiority or power, but from vulnerability and weakness.
So he is already inviting the recipient(s) of the letter into that same vulnerability. It is a gentle, non-coercive invitation, but it is an invitation nonetheless. He is saying, in effect, "May I greet you in solidarity and mutuality as someone like me, a fellow prisoner in Jesus Christ? May I call you slave?"
Christ approaches us through the Incarnation in a similar manner. He does not descend in a ship from a position of power and say, "Take me to your leader!" Instead, he arrives clothed in the humility of swaddling, resting in the feeding trough of the animals, housed in temporary shelter, hungering for mother's milk and gentle touch, and washed in the waters of new birth. In this way Christ is the very "grace and peace" Paul mentions in his letter. This is grace and truth, to know this one Jesus Christ, and his/our Father, God.
God our Father, you are grace and peace for us in your Son Jesus Christ. We pray that his Lordship might make us fellow prisoners, equally slaves, all servants of you and of each other, and so recognizing the full humanity and vulnerability and mutuality of all. Amen.
4: When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God
Paul was remarkable for many reasons. One of those was his commitment to prayer, and his commitment to giving thanks. In fact, although Paul is famous for his doctrine of justification by faith apart from the works of the law (the classic insight of faith Lutherans in particular emphasize) Paul actually spent as much or more of the content of his letters on the topic of thanksgiving. In part, he did this because it was an important standard form in Christian letters of the early church. Gratitude for early Christians was a major virtue.
Opening the letter with thanksgiving, and appealing to Philemon's faith (in verses 5-7 Paul refers to Philemon as a model of faith), is also a winning rhetorical strategy. It has sometimes been popularized (and vulgarized) as a "criticism sandwich." If you have a criticism, sandwich it between two compliments.
This is not precisely what Paul is doing in his opening thanksgiving. What he is doing is offering a favor to Philemon, the favor of his thanksgiving and prayer, and anticipates/hopes that Philemon will reciprocate. Not all gifts are free. Some are given in the hopes that the free exchange of gifts will be reciprocal. A classic Roman author, Seneca, wrote a whole book On Favors. The voluntary economy of favors was a rich and gracious tradition, and Paul situates himself in the middle of it with these thanksgiving verses at the beginning of the letter.
We can learn from Paul this simple spiritual practice: If you wish to make an appeal to a brother or sister in faith about a matter around which there may be disagreement, first do the important spiritual work of giving thanks for them, and say thank you to them. Then pray for them. Imagine them praying for you. In this holiday season, as we shop for a prepare gifts for one another, let us deepen our commitment to a free exchange of favors that honors God as the great gift giver.
God of all favors, we give you thanks for the many gifts we receive from your gracious hand. Strengthen us to see your gifts even in those with whom we disagree. Through your most gracious gift, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.
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