Philemon                                  “Guest Rooms”


            You know what I really love about this letter is the idea that Paul is booking a hotel reservation with Philemon. To be noted of course is that Saint Paul is technically imprisoned while he is doing this. To be sure, he is under house arrest in Rome, a sentence that will last another two years from the time of his writing this. At the end of this imprisonment he is of course executed. He never gets to travel to see Philemon despite saying: “Prepare me a guest room at your church!”

            As a reminder, Saint Paul had been imprisoned before. He had been shipwrecked too. He had been bitten by a poisonous snake. He had been stoned and left for dead. In all of these circumstances, the Holy Spirit allowed for his ministry to continue. At the start of his house arrest it seems that he is so confident in the Holy Spirit coming to his aid once more that he just flat out makes travel plans despite his house arrest.

            WE have to live with that kind of confidence in the Holy Spirit as well! Paul’s confidence is really not even “confidence” is it? He absolutely relies on the Holy Spirit to tell him what to do from day to day and in every situation. The great example of this is when he is on his way to Rome in the ship as a prisoner. An angel comes to him and tells him that the ship will be wrecked and how to handle the situation so all may be safe. From Acts 27:21-26, “Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul then stood up among them and said, ‘Men, you should have listened to me. . . .so keep your courage, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. . ..’”

            Paul lives a life that is so in touch with God and God’s plans that he can even admonish others who do not believe in what is about to happen! Is that not absolutely brilliant? Can we live with that kind of faith  and be in touch with the Spirit to the point of just outright knowing our lives are in God’s hands? Listen to the Spirit speaking in your lives. Be confident. Rely on the Spirit.


            Now, about the hotel reservation that he makes with Philemon: Since when does one have to make a reservation to visit a church? Oh yeah, since Covid 19 actually! Many churches had to go to a reservation system for Sunday services. Christmas Eve last year in Germany was by reservation only. We were able to just be outside in front of the church—not a possibility really in snow-bound Europe.

            At the start of the letter to Philemon, we see that Paul greets his friend Philemon, his wife and his son. Then, Paul says to greet the “church in your house.” Philemon is hosting a house church in the town of Colossae, which lies in the area of Phrygia, which is today Turkey. The really cool thing about having a house church is that indeed you have sleeping quarters in the church! Those early churches had guestrooms for people on pilgrimages or those traveling ministers who might drop in.

            I used to really love sleeping over in the church when I was younger. My mother was in charge of an art festival at the Hillcrest Congregational Church where I grew up. She would spend the entire week before the event working night and day setting up the festival. My siblings and I got to sleep on the carpet in one of the fellowship rooms. Then as a youth, we had opportunities to have youth sleepovers.

            Even when I served in the church in Washington and had to drive four hundred miles to attend their version of Aha Mokupunis, I would ask the host church  to allow me to just sleep on a pew in the sanctuary rather than pay for a hotel room. They thought I was crazy. Maybe I was. I never tried that here. Except I have slept overnight at the Waioli Huiia Church for a youth event and also in Princeville. If anyone here wants to sleep here in the church, your welcome to do that—especially while I am preaching.


            Now, the other really cool thing about having a house church back in the day is that instead of having machines to heat food and do laundry, they had slaves, or servants, instead. Just think about that: If you did not have a washing machine, wouldn’t you prefer to have someone else do your laundry? We had no washing machine as missionaries in Thailand. We paid someone else to do the laundry. That is probably what 90% of the planet does still today.

            In the letter to Philemon we hear about one such laundry machine, servant, named Onesimus. The whole letter seems to revolve around him in fact. You see, Onesimus decided to take off to be with Paul in Rome rather than stay with Philemon. Slave/servants in the day actually had the right to choose their patrons—unlike our American kind of slavery, which is thankfully no longer. As long as the master and the slave agree, one could move from place to place as a slave.

            Now, we know from the “Parable of the Talents” that Jesus told that servants back then did not have their own money. The only money they would ever have would be given to them by their masters for the purposes of the household. Right.

            How did Onesimus afford his trip to Rome? He would have had to pay for ship passage. Why does Paul tell Philemon that he will pay back any debt incurred  by Onesimus? Could it be that Onesimus “liberated” some household funds belonging to Philemon? There really is no other way to read this! Onesimus is a thief. He could be punished by death for that crime as a slave, by the way. However, Paul sends him back to Philemon with the understanding that he will not be killed for his removal of household goods. He is more useful alive. By the way, the name “Onesimus” literally means “useful” or “profitable.”

            The Romans were already doing a pretty good job of thinning the Christian ranks by throwing them to the lions in the arena, so Paul is suggesting that it makes really no sense for Christians to be killing other Christians even if they have transgressed. They are still useful. In this basic calculus is the understanding that had not really been expressed before—A CHRISTIAN LIFE HAS GREAT VALUE. Even a slave, who has come to know the Lord, is useful to the ministry of Jesus Christ.


            Paul just does not send Onesimus back to Philmon with the cash to pay off whatever debt might be owed, but he also tells Philomon to no longer see his slave as a slave but rather as a partner in ministry, a brother in Christ. The word here in the Greek is “synergos.” A literal translation would be that everyone in the church, no matter their class or status, should have “synergy” with everyone else. That would be a very sincere directed energy towards the common ministry.

            What does that look like? Well, it looks like the Pentecost, which we are celebrating this day in the church. Let me reference Acts 2 here. It was the feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem and peoples from all over the world were gathered to celebrate. All of the sudden the Holy Spirit came down in a great wind and changed people’s lives. Tongues of fire rested on each head. Everybody could understand each other’s language even though they had never studied it. It was in fact a time when the Spirit made everyone equal.

            I mentioned before that Paul is writing to Philemon who is where? Colossae. The I wanted to affirm this understanding of Paul pleading that all become as one and equal with a quote from his letter to that church: Colossians 3:11, “In that renewal, there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and un-circumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all.”

            No matter who we are, we are all honored guests in the house of the Lord. In John 14, Jesus says that he goes and prepares a place for us for in His father’s house there are many rooms. The house church is not a physical house as much as a spiritual place where God calls us all to be one together as a family again.

            Since the hotels are still closed in Germany, I have been offered my old room back in Mainz in my Uncle’s apartment there. Whenever I would visit, I would find peace and rest and great comfort in that room when I was younger. There really is something about knowing that there is a place for you—a guest room—ready for that  time when you need it again. The church is supposed to be that place where all are always welcomed home.