Summary: This sermon can be done as a drama with Onesimus as the speaker. You can use a copy of Philemon as prop and use it to read the sections of the letter if you don’t have time to memorize them.
Good Morning! What a beautiful day it is down here on the docks. I hope you are going on an exciting journey. I know I am. I am headed to Colossae with Tychicus over there. We are going to deliver a letter from an incredible guy named Paul to the Colossian church. Then, I have a letter to deliver myself to a man named Philemon. Something, I never imagined I would do.
You see, my name is Onesimus. In your language, my name means, “useful.” Kind of an ironic name, at least lately. You see, I was Philemon’s slave, and awhile back, I ran away. I had to get as far away as I could to avoid getting caught, so I tried to lose myself in the big city of Rome. But while I wasn’t living as a slave to Philemon anymore, I was a slave to a guilty conscience. You see, I stole from Philemon as I left town. So, in fact, I wasn’t very useful to him at all. It bothered me that I left that way. Philemon is a good man, and always treated me decently. So here I was in Rome, feeling alone, guilty, and scared.
But one day, all that began to change. It was the day I met a prisoner named Paul. I know what you’re thinking, “you met a prisoner who did something much worse than you did, and it made you feel better about yourself.” But it’s not like that at all! Paul didn’t deserve to be in jail. He is an innocent man, suffering in jail simply because some people don’t like what he believes and teaches about God.
But I don’t know how people could hate him, or his beliefs so much. God used Paul, and what he preaches, to change my life in some incredible ways. You see, it was Paul that taught me all about Jesus. How God sent his Only Begotten Son into the world to die on the cross for sinners like you and me. Paul said it so beautifully when he quoted from a letter he wrote to the church in Rome. He said: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:6-8)
This was just the Good News that my hurting heart needed to hear. It was as if a huge weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. I never imagined that I could ever be a free man again when it came to my conscience. To live in awe that Christ was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (Rom 4:25)
I came to the prison see Paul all the time. I wanted to learn from him all that I could about Jesus and his great love. I couldn’t get enough of it. And Paul loved sharing about Christ. So I would come by. The guards would let me hang out with Paul. And while he was teaching me, I would try to help him out, bring him some food, run some errands, anything I could do. After awhile, this old man became like a father to me. And I became like a son to him. The whole time my faith grew and grew, and I came to appreciate the love of Christ more and more.
But, while I found that I had peace with God, it still bothered me that I was not at peace with Philemon. The Good News of Christ’s love for me had changed me. And I wanted to make up for the wrong that I had done. I wanted to go back to Philemon and tell him how sorry I was, and pay back all that I had stolen. But getting back home was not something that could be done easily.
You see, I am a runaway slave. And in the Roman empire, there are people who make a good living roaming around and hunting down people like me. And trust me, you don’t want to get caught. If any of these people found me, they would brand my forehead, make me do double labor, and that only if I was one of the lucky ones. Some runaway slaves are beaten in the public squares, and others are thrown as food to be devoured by wild beasts in the amphitheater for the amusement of the crowds. (Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 3 [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1946], 519).
And besides all that, even if I did make it back, I have nothing with which to pay Philemon back. I have no way of making amends for my crimes against him. So I was stuck. But when I confessed all this to Paul, he said he knew Philemon, and would write a letter to him on my behalf. I have to say, I was shocked when I read the letter. Never had I read anything so powerful and yet so gentle and loving at the same time.