Now officially retired, I'm the Director of a volunteer church outreach: Trinity-at-Waiake eLearning Centre. Our website and ePortfolio is kiwiconnexion.nz for lifelong learning and spirituality, creating an online community of best practice and resourcing for professional development, with an emphasis on Methodism. Read more
- First name: David
- Last name: Bell
- Blog address: http://trinitybells.blogspot.co.nz/
- City/region: Auckland 0630
- Country: New Zealand
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We Don't Know How It Turned Out: Onesimus and Philemon
Welcome to Tall Tales and True from the Far Country.
Today's very tall tale is a great piece of detective work from ancient times. It all happened around Ephesus, one of best known ancient cities mentioned in the Bible.
It was a very wealthy, cosmopolitan city, when St Paul lived there. And it grew even more so for a few centuries afterwards. Paul would probably have been in his early fifties when he came to Ephesus.
Because of its size, strategic location on the coast, and because there was already an existing Christian community, Paul made it his base for three or so years.
Now Ephesus is mentioned a number of times in the New Testament. There is the letter to the Ephesians, which Paul wrote when he was under house arrest in Rome. It's also mentioned in Revelation, as one of the seven churches, as well as the Book of Acts.
Now bible study can be quite, quite boring. But usually there's a tale tale or two to make it come alive.
Ad that's the case with a little letter that Paul wrote to Philemon. So we are in a far country, two thousand or so years ago, and a letter comes to us. That was a rare event, unlike the billions upon billions of emails that circulate round the globe today.
There is one small line Paul wrote in that letter that I want to concentrate on: Refresh my heart in Christ. I like that a great deal and without pushing any religious barrow - here's why.
The letter to Philemon is preserved in the New Testament. It's one of the shortest books in the Bible. Now if you read it, and - and it will only take you a few minutes to do so, you won’t find Ephesus mentioned. But Philemon and Ephesus are linked, but you will have to decide whether or not this tall tale is also true.
This is how it happened.
Ephesus was the centre of many competing religions because it was so cosmopolitan. Everyone had their favourite kind of god, but there was one goddess particularly associated with the city. She was Diana to the Romans, Artemis to the Greeks, and Astarte when the Phoenicians ruled Ephesus.
Diana was the goddess of fertility and sexual drive. I like that as much as I like my heart refreshed in Christ, if truth be known, because that's how we humans are made. But there's a difference between Diana or Artemis of Ephesus compared to Artemis in Greece.
Artemis in the Greek mythology was cool, and she was sexually chaste, the sister of the god Apollo. She was more than a bit more promiscuous in Ephesus. There, worship of the ancient earth mother resulted in a city which had legal prostitution and a whole industry devoted to worship of Diana and her instinctual drives.
The silversmiths of Ephesus had a thriving trade making icons of Diana, talismans for earrings and rings and bracelets and statues. It had to be silver for Artemis, because in Greek mythology was the goddess of the moon. So when St Paul first arrived in Ephesus he would have been amazed by the great Temple of Diana, for it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
So what an interesting situation the great missionary of Christ found himself in. A thriving city with many fine amenities, thoroughly Greek in outlook, which would have struck responsive memories in Paul. For he had grown up in Tarsus, also an hellenstic city of Asia Minor, southwards along the coast.
The story of Paul in Ephesus needs to be told in a different story from the Far Country. And I hope it will be soon enough. But for our story we can say that Paul had much help in Ephesus, from Priscilla and Aquila, and he went about his task of sharing the newly minted and still emerging Christian faith around the Ephesus area.
He did it effectively. But after a number of years, he drew the wrath of the silversmiths. Their head man Demetrius realised that Paul’s preaching was actually harming their trade in icons, jewellery and so on.
Paul found himself before a very angry crowd. The Book of Acts tells us the whole city was in an uproar and Paul was taken to the theatre to answer charges. As matters turned out, he and his companions, who had also been arrested, were allowed to go free. But it had been a close call, a very tense moment, where just one wrong word could have resulted in Paul’s death.
Now it's probably about 4 years after this, Paul went to Rome, where he seems to have been under house arrest or in prison. He came into contact with a man called Onesimus. This Greek name means “really useful” and that is exactly what Paul found.
Onesimus was very helpful to Paul. But Onesimus was, in fact, a runaway slave, and he had run away from Philemon. Under Paul’s influence Onesimus now decided to go back to his master. He took with him Paul’s letter. Paul has been much criticised for a long time for not taking a much more definitive stand against slavery, but he had written that in Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile, slave nor free, male nor female but all are one.
This implies a radical unity, a radical equality. This was an explosive concept in the ancient world. His appeal to Philemon the slave-owner was, 'you too are a Christian of Asia Minor, therefore I appeal to you, in a formal sense, set him free. Refresh my heart in Christ, in this matter.'
Philemon could have dealt to Onesimus with the usual brutal contempt Romans masters treated slaves. Well, it is a wonderful story: we don’t know the outcome. Yet, because the letter has survived, I think it is not stretching the bounds of probability to infer that Philemon set Onesimus free, free to be really useful in other spheres.
There the story could end, but it does not. By about 90 AD the letters of St Paul were being gathered up and preserved by congregations scattered around the vast Roman empire. There were some letters at Ephesus. The city had an emerging importance as a centre of learning, which was to culminate in the library of Ephesus. So the letter to Philemon, along with other letters, were studied, and all that Paul had written was carefully weighed up.
This process of collecting letters, gospels, and other Christian writings, and assessing their historical worth is known as the formation of the canon. It’s the start of how we got the collection of scriptures we call the Bible, the Old and New Testaments.
Around this time, it happened that a Christian Bishop called Ignatius, who himself was being taken to Rome as a prisoner, just as Paul was, wrote to the Church at Ephesus. Ignatius praised the Bishop of Ephesus, who lived a really useful life, a truly Gospel-filled life.
The name of the Bishop of Ephesus? Onesimus.
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