The easiest way to put flesh on the bones of theology is to bring it to life in action. This is what Paul does in his letter to Philemon. He demonstrates his overall mission and message in the action of writing this short letter and in the request he makes in the letter, thus demonstrating his theology in both his personal practice and the action he expects from the recipient of the letter.
Read Philemon as a group. (ask someone with a strong compelling reading voice)
What is going on in this letter?
What is the point?
What do we know about Philemon?
What do we know about Onesimus?
What is Paul hoping for? Why?
Small Group Time
Group 1: “Letters of Recommendation”
Read 2 Corinthians 3:1-6
What is Paul saying?
How are Jesus’ people like Letters of Recommendation?
What are they recommending? To Whom?
How are they inked? (written on)
What is the difference between a cold-stone letter-of-law and this new kind of Spirit Letter?
Compare Philemon 1-7
What is it about Philemon that brings Paul such joy?
Comparing this to 2 Corinthians 3:1-6, what is Paul saying about Philemon?
Knowing what Paul is about to ask, how is this opening statement important?
Is Paul setting Philemon up? Or is he setting him free? How so?
Group 2: “Ministry of Reconciliation”
Read 2 Corinthians 5:17-21
What is Paul saying?
What does “being in Christ” mean? What is “being a new creation”?
What steps are present in Jesus’ reconciliation of the world to God?
How do those steps become ours? What is required of us?
What does the “Ministry of Reconciliation” look like?
Compare Philemon 8-14
How is Paul modelling the Ministry of Reconciliation?
How is Paul hoping Philemon will apply the Ministry of Reconciliation?
What is it about Onesimus that brings Paul such joy?
How has Onesimus been ‘useful’ to Paul and Philemon?
How is Onesimus ‘useful’ in applying the Ministry of Reconciliation?
Group 3: “Attitude of Christ Jesus”
Read Philippians 2:1-11
What is Paul saying?
What does it look like to have the attitude of Christ Jesus?
What are we to do in “the same way” as Jesus?
What did Jesus’ humility entail? How does this compare to ours?
What role does self-importance play in Christian life?
Compare Philemon 15-21
How is Paul demonstrating the attitude of Christ Jesus?
How is Paul expecting/hoping Philemon will show the attitude of Christ Jesus?
How is Paul a “partner in the work” with Philemon?
Why is Paul so confident of Philemon’s response/reaction?
How will Onesimus belong to both Philemon and Paul “forever”?
Ask for each group to report a summary of what they discovered particularly focusing on how the mission and message of Paul was revealed.
Where do you see yourself as a Letter of Recommendation for the Kingdom of God?
Where do you see the need for the Ministry of Reconciliation in your world?
Where have you seen the Attitude of Christ Jesus recently?
Conclusion: “A Changing Spirit”
Read 2 Corinthians 3:12-18
The Spirit is changing us from our selfish Glory to His perfect Glory. In the same way that Paul challenged Philemon, we are to make visible, in our every action, the Image of God as revealed by His Son through the work of the Spirit in our lives.
While Paul does not tell Philemon to become a Letter of Recommendation for the Kingdom of God, the letter he has sent, both in printed word and action, invites Philemon to live as a representative of the new Kingdom and leave the old one behind.
While Paul does not use the word reconciliation or the phrase Ministry of Reconciliation, he demonstrates it repeatedly in this letter. First in his original treatment of Philemon, second in his prison treatment of Onesimus and third in his call to Philemon to demonstrate the Ministry of Reconciliation in his treatment of his slave, Onesimus. Overall, it is as if Paul is standing in the posture of the Cross, reaching from one person to the other, from one Kingdom to the other, making things right.
While Paul does not preach a sermon calling for Philemon to have the Attitude of Christ Jesus, he models it by being both strong and gentle, humble and purposeful, merciful and just. Paul’s attitude, like Jesus’, invites imitation.
As true letters of recommendation of Jesus to the world, we are to be making things right between people and God, people and each other and even people and themselves through the Ministry of Reconciliation. And in doing this revealing and reconciling work we are to be humble in our every word and action, revealing the attitude of Christ Jesus.
This is, in both theology and practice, the mission and message of the Apostle Paul.