This Sunday’s epistle is the shortest one in the Bible; the Letter to Philemon. So short, in fact, that we read the entire thing in one go. It illustrates quite well, I think, the context in which we ought to read all of Paul’s letters, as it evidences that letters to specific people are exactly what they are.
I have found myself in several conversations recently, on the topic of St. Paul and his writings. Now, Paul is the sort of character whom most people either love or hate — it’s hard not to feel strongly about him one way or another. I happen to be in the former category. I have a lot of time for St Paul, and I’m always delighted to talk about him and his letters.
One of the things that many people (including those who have used his words as a weapon) may not realize is that Paul himself never imagined his writings might become scriptural canon, read and taught to churches thousands of years later in a completely different time and culture. Each letter was written to a particular audience, in a particular place and time, and many of them were likely read aloud like a sermon, in front of the “congregation” by an appointed leader. Applying Paul’s teachings to our modern life is a bit like — if you can imagine — applying the Sunday homily of your parish priest to an unknown future congregation in the year 3984. Of course, some wisdom is timeless — and Paul makes a lot of really powerful theological points that still hold weight today — but the specific stuff (like how people ought to wear their hair or behave in public) often makes very little sense out of context, and may even cause a lot of damage when we try to force it to do so.
And so, I urge you to read the Letter to Philemon this week in its entirety. It is a letter which may have very little context for us in its specifics. What it does include, however, is solid theology that is still very relevant. Paul addresses the women and men of this faith community as his family members. He prays for them. He expresses his love and gratitude for them. He models humility, generosity, and obedience, and respectfully entreats them to offer hospitality. In all he says and does he exhibits unwavering passion for Christ. No matter what we think of Paul himself, I think we can agree that these are timeless qualities we might all hope to emulate in our Christian communities today.