As we drove toward Ephesus today, Stephen Need lectured on the role of Ephesus in the Early Church. Ephesus was an important center politically and economically being well situated on the Aegean coast. Paul spent at least two and a half years there according to Luke. He was imprisoned in Ephesus. He fought wild beasts in Ephesus. And he wrote at least 1st Corinthians, Colossians, and Philemon there. He may well have written a number of other epistles there, including even the letter ostensibly to the Ephesians but it is actually a general letter for churches in the region. But there’s also a possible kicker. To get it, we need to look back at what I said about Philemon – an odd little book I could never figure out what it was doing in the Bible, but as of this week it has become one of my absolute favorites. To save you from having to look back at LIVE FROM ANATOLIA: PART V, here is the pertinent part:
It was to the family in whose home the Colossae church met that Paul wrote his shortest (only 445 words) letter, Philemon. I used to wonder how this little letter made it into the Bible. Today I see it as showing Paul’s approach to morality with crystal clarity.
Paul is a prisoner when he sends this letter to Philemon and his family by a messenger Onesimus . . .. Onesimus was Philemon’s runaway slave.[i] If Paul were being godly (godlike) and God were an all-powerful individual, then Paul might command Philemon to do the right thing and emancipate Onesimus. But Paul has a different kind of God than that, so he writes, “ . . . I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do; yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is none other than Paul – an old man and now a prisoner for Christ – that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus who became my son while I was in chains.” Paul does not claim his authority as an apostle but appeals, without any claim of power as he is a prisoner, on the basis of love. Paul urges Philemon to similarly relinquish his power, authority, and even legal rights. He asks him to give up Onesimus as a slave that he may receive him back as a brother.
Do you see how Paul is urging Philemon not to emulate Arius’s God but rather the Triune Love of the Creeds, to dance in the relationship of love instead of cling to power? It appears that Philemon emancipated his slave because sometime later Paul sent to the Colossians his more famous epistle, which was also intended for Laodicea and Hierapolis, by way of his friend Tychas who “is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you.”
So Paul, not the apostle but "an old man," "a prisoner" "in chains," pleaded “on the basis of love” for a runaway slave. Later that slave Onesimus was still his brother in ministry in Ephesus carrying messages back to Colossae.
But the story may not end there. Biblical Scholar John Knox notes that according to Eusebius there was at the very beginning of the 2nd Century a bishop of Ephesus. His name was Onesimus. So Knox asks, might that bishop of Ephesus be the slave Philemon freed in order that he might receive him back as a brother? If that is the case, consider this: Someone had to assemble the corpus of Pauline letters to include in the Bible. Who would have been likely to include this odd little 445-word note that does not contain a word of theology? Who would even have a copy? Might it be that Onesimus is the one who collected Paul’s letters for the New Testament?
Biblical scholars believe that some of the letters attributed to Paul and parts of others are not really from the hand of Paul, but are rather the work of one of his followers, maybe Timothy. We call that unknown writer, “Deutero-Paul.” Yes, maybe Timothy was Deutero-Paul. But particularly as two of the letters are written to Timothy, might Deutero-Paul have actually been Onesimus? Just speculation, of course, but it does seem plausible. And if so, what consequences flowed from Philemon’s generosity and forgiveness, “on the basis of love,” given in response to Paul’s concise but heartfelt petition!
The next lecture dealt with Nestorianism and whether we can rightly call Mary “Theotokos” or god-bearer. That battle led to the Council of Ephesus, which actually was two parallel councils as the two sides, met separately. Sigh.
But at length we arrived at the oldest site of Ephesus (not the one that has been so fully excavated) but further inland. There we visited St. John’s Basilica, where it is believed the Beloved Disciple led an early Christian community. The original wooden building was destroyed but rebuilt in stone in the 6th Century. We visited the ruins of that building.
The central holy spot in the Basilica is the tomb of John. I had somehow not gotten it into my head that it was there. I was already awed by seeing the tomb of the Beloved Disciple, the author of the 4th Gospel, but the significance washed over me all the more as our Chaplain Mike Billingsly (with whom I served in the Diocese of Atlanta back in the 90s) read the Prologue to John:
In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God
And the Word was God,
Though him all things were made
Without him nothing was made
That was made.
In him was the life
And that life was the light of all humankind.
The light shines in the darkness
And the darkness has not overcome (or understood) it . . ..
And the Word became flesh
And pitched his tent among us.
“The Word” is Logos, the term from the Stoic philosophy of that day for the blueprint of Creation, the order of the universe. The Logos became flesh. The John who spoke so about Jesus said of us:
(To) those who believed in his name
He gave the power to become children of God.
As I heard Chaplain Mike read these words, I remembered that John would later write:
We are God’s children now.
What we shall be does not yet appear.
But when he appears
We shall be like him.
As you can probably surmise, I was having a moment. Nothing could really take away from that moment. But there were a couple of other groups with secular tour guides. I truly don’t want to judge them. I am sure it is not their fault that they exhibited no reverence whatsoever for this place. I did not dislike them or disrespect them. They did not even bother me. So it truly is without a personal judgment on them that I say this. I was perplexed by how unmoved they were while we were being enraptured by the holy.
My first thought was that they did not know what they were in the presence of. I mean they did not know that John the mystical poet lifted Christianity to a higher spiritual plane than it could have possibly achieved without him or someone like him. Surely they did not know. But then it occurred to me that perhaps they did not care. That seemed just as likely.
Then the two options began to do sa do in my mind. Perhaps they did not care because they did not know – how could they possibly know and not care? But perhaps they did not know because they did not care – what could lead them to truly know if they did not care? And so the symbiosis of knowing and caring, of thought and feeling struck me as the point of spiritual possibility – a string to be plucked that it might vibrate into life – and I sensed that this is the mission God has entrusted to the Church. And I was frightened by the responsibility to share his vibrant life, which “is the light of all humankind.”
Tonight finds us at the Aegean coast. A half moon and stars shine above the waters beside which Paul wrote his epistles, in this place where Onesimus was bishop, in this holy land where John wrote poems about a light that the darkness cannot comprehend but also cannot extinguish.
[i] The text plainly states Onesimus is a slave but some contemporary scholars think this is metaphorical language and imagine Onesimus may be Philemon’s brother. I don’t see that supported by the text at all. It seems clear from the letter to me that Onesimus is a runaway slave as everyone has said since John Chrysostom in the 6th Century.