The Apostle Onesimus was originally a servant of the Apostle Philemon, who was a man of love and treated his servants with kindness. It turned out, however, that he was a useless servant, because he abused the kindness of his master, stealing from him and fleeing secretly to Colossae. In Rome, where he fled, he was catechized by the Apostle Paul in the “faith of Christ”, he was baptized and he became “wonderful in virtue”. From a useless servant he became an Apostle of Jesus Christ, and he became truly useful and truly free.
The Apostle Paul, who was imprisoned in Rome “for the sake of the Gospel”, wanted to keep Onesimus near him in order to serve him, but he did not want to do this without the consent of the Apostle Philemon, so he sent Onesimus to give the letter. This is the Epistle to Philemon by the Apostle Paul, contained in the New Testament, which is a wonderful text worth studying daily. This letter informs Philemon of the spiritual rebirth of his servant and begs him to no longer receive him as a servant, but as a beloved brother. He continues: “If, therefore, you consider me a friend, receive him as you would receive me. And if he did you any wrong or if he owes you anything, charge it to me.”
After the martyric end of the Apostle Paul, the Apostle Onesimus was arrested and he also “for the sake of the Gospel” suffered horrific torture. Finally, they shattered his legs and in this manner he left this temporal life and transferred to eternity.
The life and deeds of the Apostle Onesimus gives us the opportunity to highlight the following:
First, the passions enslave man and make him useless. He can conquer them and be rid of their tyranny with sincere repentance, which is the foundation of the spiritual life and, according to Saint John of Sinai, it “is the renewal of baptism and an agreement with God for a new life”, together with the entire experience offered by the Church. It should be noted that with the passage of time the powers of man begin to gradually leave him and then the passions, if not conquered by then, dominate his will with the result that he is vilified and humiliated. Indeed, sometimes one happens to fall so low to the point that they are a sad sight and they invite pain and sadness or even scandal, if this person, due to his position, should have been a role model in society.
Freedom is primarily an inner state that a person experiences regardless of exterior conditions. In prison the Apostle Paul was truly free, while Onesimus after his escape, though he had money and exterior freedom, in reality he was a slave, because he lived under the burden of guilt which sin creates, and it was thus impossible to have inner peace and true joy.
When a person is not purified of the passions or at least not struggling to be purified of them, then it is impossible to be free and truly be glad in life because, among other things, there is a chance they could undergo any kind of blackmail. And, of course, when under pressure and found in a climate of blackmail and intimidation, then it is impossible to truly act free. They become unfortunate, a pawn of all who took advantage of their passions and wrongs and they are “in their hands”, as it is commonly phrased, in the blackmail. On the outside they may seem free and comfortable, but in reality they are a prisoner and slave.
Second, sickly phenomena and ill situations, such as theft, abuse, interlaces, etc., are encountered in every age, and even ours, of course, cannot be the exception, since we live in a fallen society. In reality, the healthy members of society are the Saints, as well as all those who struggle to achieve their own sanctification. The Saints with their spiritual struggles conquered their passions, arrived at their illumination and theosis and experienced the pre-fallen state. They acquired perfect love, which is the treatment for selfishness, the operative cause of avarice, sensuality, vanity and all the other passions.
Because nowadays we hear and read about many things, it must be stressed that the Church is not a club of “purified” people, but it is the Divine-Human body of Christ. Christ Himself is the head and the members are all those, clergy and laity, who received baptism and struggled, in one way or another, to live according to the will of God. Also, that the Church, as His Eminence our Metropolitan Hierotheos stresses, is a spiritual hospital, and therefore it is natural for it to have sick members that it tries to heal, without ever violating their freedom. Moreover, with their weakness, passions and wrongs each person bears personal responsibility and are accountable before God and men.
The Church does not need purification, because it is pure, holy and immaculate. We need purification and spiritual rebirth.
Let us pray that God shows us true spiritual fathers even in our days, who can help people be reborn, so as to acquire perfect love, and from useless servants to become useful and free.
By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas
Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, “ΑΠΟΣΤΟΛΟΣ ΟΝΗΣΙΜΟΣ”, February 2005.
Translated by John Sanidopoulos.