I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. —Philemon 1:10–14
Here we see the transforming power of the gospel and a foundation for the old adage that the ground is always level at the foot of the cross. Onesimus was a runaway slave. Now before anyone asks, “Why would Paul send a slave back to his master?” it is important to understand that slavery was closer to an employer-employee relationship in Roman times than to our picture of slavery today. People often sold themselves into slavery in order to pay off debt or to simply survive, and it was not uncommon for someone to willingly become a bond-slave. Such a person was free from obligation but chose to remain in servitude out of love for his master.
Onesimus had, in essence, stolen something from his master, and under Roman law, he could be put to death for his crime. Paul, however, appealed to the unity that Christ brings to all, even between master and slave. Paul asked Philemon to willingly receive his runaway slave as a brother, as Onesimus had now become part of the family of God. The issue at hand could be deemed cross-cultural ministry, though in this case the cultural differences were that of status rather than race. It is amazing what knowing Christ introduces into our hearts and lives. I have been in many places around the world where I did not speak the native language and they did not speak mine, but the sense of family in the faith was undeniable. I have heard “Amazing Grace” sung with words I could not understand, yet I could share the moment with brothers and sisters who had been touched by the same amazing grace, and we were in unity.
Knowing Jesus pulls down all racial and cultural prejudices, and this is what Paul is exhorting Philemon to act upon here. We would do well to heed his advice and help the church to be as it was meant to be. As many of us have sung since childhood, “Red and yellow black and white/They are precious in His sight/Jesus loves the little children of the world.” And, might I add, Jesus’ children are to love His other children, just as He does. Do not let old prejudices creep into your faith. The church is made up of many people of different colors and stations in life, but we are all one in Christ. In the melting pot known as America, we need to beware of church becoming a place where everyone is the same skin color or of similar financial status. If so, prejudice may have crept in, and cultural differences have yet to die. We are one family in Jesus Christ, and our bond is our faith—not cultural similarities!
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