Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.
It is surely very difficult for us to imagine Philemon's predicament. A runaway slave has returned to him after a successful escape. The man has come back freely and offered to take up his former condition. But he has in hand a letter from the most important person Philemon has ever known, the Apostle Paul.
By most standards, of course, Paul is nobody. He has no standing in any government, Roman or local. He has no money and no family to speak of. His recognition comes only from the Christian congregation which Philemon has lately joined.
Philemon is a man of standing within the church and beyond it. He owns slaves. Perhaps he actually welcomes the local community of Christians -- Jews and gentiles, men and women, slaves and free -- into his spacious house where they celebrate the "breaking of bread" each Sunday. If he was admired by Saint Paul we can assume he ran his enterprise very well; his family both immediate and extended, and his slaves both household and external were content to remain in his service.
But he was not happy about the disappearance of Onesimus. A well-run household needs dependable, intelligent and able servants. Onesimus was reliable, trusted with substantial duties, and esteemed -- until he fled. Eventually Philemon might have learned where the slave went -- in pursuit of the Apostle Paul. Religious fever can do that even to steady, level-headed sorts. They go a little crazy.
There might have been a general unease in the whole church as they waited to see what the powerful man would do. Would he quit the church and shut them out of his house? And forbid his wife, children and slaves to attend the services? If he did nothing other slaves might get restless and begin to scheme their own escape. The peculiar institution demanded a rough, violent discipline of both master and slave. There was little leeway for experimentation in different kinds of relationship. They might call each other friends, or "brothers and sisters in the Lord', but everyone knew the bottom line was slave and master.
So here comes Onesimus with the claim of baptism on his head and a letter of reintroduction from the Apostle. It is a reintroduction because Onesimus is a new man in the Lord. His identity and all his relationships -- including master/slave -- have been reconfigured by the Name of Jesus.
What did Philemon do? What would you do if you were running a business tightly wound around your household with no boundary between private and public?
We don't know what Philemon did. We have this short letter from Saint Paul and that's it; no further history. Not even a hint as to what happened.
What we have now is an open-ended, ancient document, a proposal from one friend to another, that remains in our Bible these many centuries later as a challenge to the power relationships that we take for granted.