At the ArtServe creative writing workshop held in Thetford on 31 August 2013, Sue Carne, Claire Watts and Brian Watts chose one character each to explore as they fleshed out the story of Onesimus. Here is the result of their labours, threaded into the Epistle to Philemon (from The Message).
Paul: Most of you know me well – I’m Paul, focussed, go-getter, no-nonsense, Paul. I am, and have been since my eyes were opened on the road to Damascus, whole-heartedly committed to my apostolic calling. However there are moments when I am very nervous, uncertain and anxious about the outcome of my own actions. This is one of them.
Onesimus: I remember the first time I saw this door. I was a young slave, bought that morning in the market. I arrived at my new owner’s house with a heart filled with bitterness and hatred.
Paul: Philemon is a long-standing friend of mine, a fine upstanding follower of Jesus Christ. I love him as a brother and when, some time ago, he told me of the trouble he’d had with a slave of his by the name of Onesimus, I was indignant on his behalf, to say the least. I’d met Onesimus on a visit to my friend and was frankly outraged when Philemon told me what this slave had done.
I, Paul, am a prisoner for the sake of Christ, here with my brother Timothy. I write this letter to you, Philemon, my good friend and companion in this work—also to our sister Apphia, to Archippus, a real trooper, and to the church that meets in your house. God’s best to you! Christ’s blessings on you!
Paul: Imagine then my feelings when this Onesimus arrived on my doorstep in Rome! All my preaching about practising the love and grace of God flashed before me in one of the most challenging moments of my life.
Onesimus: Now, here I was again, a grown man, an escaped slave returning of my own free will to my master’s house. Ordinarily this would be considered madness. Death was the inevitable consequence for a runaway slave. But life was no longer ordinary.
Paul: I dug very deep I can tell you to find grace for this fellow, but as time passed I have to say that both he and I changed. I grew very fond of Onesimus, he became as a son to me. He in turn grew to love and follow Jesus Christ, and so became very sorry for all that he’d done to Philemon’s household.
Onesimus: The Lord had been watching and waiting, and had given me a rescuer in Paul.
Paul: Then came the dilemma. In truth Onesimus belongs to Philemon and I realised that I had to send him back. I’d happily have kept him with me, he had become such a help and encouragement to me. I wrote a letter. How I agonised over that letter!
Onesimus: Now Paul was watching and waiting in prayer. Well, we both were. This letter I held in my hand would change my life again. Not only mine, but Paul’s and Philemon’s. Only God knew how the day would end.
Every time your name comes up in my prayers, I say, “Oh, thank you, God!” I keep hearing of the love and faith you have for the Master Jesus, which brims over to other believers. And I keep praying that this faith we hold in common keeps showing up in the good things we do, and that people recognize Christ in all of it. Friend, you have no idea how good your love makes me feel, doubly so when I see your hospitality to fellow believers.
Onesimus: Trust and obey for there’s no other way was easily said. But facing that door I was realising that trusting and obeying could easily end in death. My hand shook as I grabbed the knocker. ‘Help me Lord,’ I said, as I banged it three times.
Philemon: Mmm – nice meal.! I really enjoyed that. Now back to work … but what’s this? It’s that no good slave that broke my best china then ran off with stolen cash, never to be seen again. If he thinks he can waltz in here now he’s hit hard times and needs a square meal, without getting a good dose of my judgement, he’s in for a shock!
In line with all this I have a favour to ask of you. As Christ’s ambassador and now a prisoner for him, I wouldn’t hesitate to command this if I thought it necessary, but I’d rather make it a personal request.
Philemon: What’s this you say?
Onesimus: Meeting Paul transformed everything about me – how I viewed my capture, my slavery, my escape, my desperate, lost situation.
Philemon: You!You’ve been with Paul? Apostle Paul? The Paul? But how? A dog like you. One Plus, One a Puss, or whatever your name is… How?
While here in jail, I’ve fathered a child, so to speak. And here he is, hand-carrying this letter—Onesimus! He was useless to you before; now he’s useful to both of us.
Philemon: You’ve become a Christian by his teaching? But you’re my slave! Give me that letter!
I’m sending him back to you, but it feels like I’m cutting off my right arm in doing so. I wanted in the worst way to keep him here as your stand-in to help out while I’m in jail for the Message. But I didn’t want to do anything behind your back, make you do a good deed that you hadn’t willingly agreed to.
Philemon: Oh, it is from Paul. I recognize his handwriting.
Maybe it’s all for the best that you lost him for a while. You’re getting him back now for good—and no mere slave this time, but a true Christian brother! That’s what he was to me – he’ll be even more than that to you.
Onesimus: Thankfully, Philemon read the letter before “dealing with me” as he had threatened.
Philemon: Oh yes … Oh I see … but …
If you still consider me a comrade-in-arms, welcome him back as you would me. If he damaged anything or owes you anything, chalk it up to my account. This is my personal signature – Paul – and I stand behind it. (I don’t need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?)
Philemon: But surely … Oh … yes … well … Yes, I understand …
Paul: Now I’m wondering what has happened, how Philemon has reacted and how Onesimus found courage to continue his journey back and offer the letter to dear Philemon. I only hope and pray that my friend read my letter to him before reacting to the sight of his runaway slave returned to his door.
Do me this big favour, friend. You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good.
Paul: A full month has passed since that agonising day when I watched Onesimus disappear into the distance. I could do nothing but fall to my knees in prayer and trust my God to take care of him. Once again my preaching came back to test me. I must surely hear news from them soon. Waiting is tough. Only God knows.
I know you well enough to know you will. You’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written. And by the way, get a room ready for me. Because of your prayers, I fully expect to be your guest again.
Onesimus: When I was finally brought back to Philemon, he had my chains removed and, in front of everyone he came forward and shocked them all by embracing me. “This is my brother,” he said. “Once he was lost but now he is found.”