Becoming Onesimus

August 14, 2013 | Viewpoints
Phil Wagler |

I just turned 41. Finding new aches that never used to be there. Peculiar. Discovering a nap is disturbingly easy to slip into. Odd. Found some hair growing on my ear. Just plain weird. My belly is officially a well-insulated one-pack even though I don’t eat near what I used to. Depressing.

Where are marks of health at this stage of my development people call “over the hill?” Well, my physique needs some fine tuning; it’s not prone to manage itself anymore. But, as a person, I think I’m wiser. Okay, I hope I’m wiser. I’m less prone to rashness and sarcasm with my words. I think before I speak, I think.

I’m more patient with people and their complexities, but less patient with that stuff the bull leaves behind. I’m more awake to the wonder of grace, the power of the Spirit, and the curse of legalism, while being more aware that submissive community and surrendered obedience are the pathways to understanding the marvels of grace, the Spirit and freedom from the law.

I have begun to live in the comfortable world of the paradox and don’t find that paradoxical at all. I identify with other’s sorrow more readily, have a deeper understanding of what it means to be lost and a new humility in having been found.

I have less overt experiences of God than I once did, and yet have a deeper sense of his constant presence, his strong hand that both holds and disciplines.

Maybe this is some of what Richard Rohr hints at when he observes that the big difference between that first stage of life and this one “is that your small and petty self is out of the way and if God wants to use you, which God always does, God’s chances are far better now.”

So, on the one hand, my body is saying I’m a little less functional than in my more beguiling youth. But, on the other, it’s as if I’m actually becoming Onesimus.

Onesimus was that runaway slave belonging to Philemon. In his sly wit, the Apostle Paul pokes Philemon that Onesimus’s turning to Christ now makes him more than a brother to the slave owner: he is finally useful. (“Onesimus” means “useful”.) He was ancient property, but now the deeper work of the Spirit makes him more than muscles. Philemon—in one of Paul’s most radical counter-cultural statements—is to measure usefulness by more than mere appearance. He is to measure him by who he truly belongs to and by the fruit of his life.

And so I find myself in a culture that drools over the measurements of that first stage of life to such an extent that it can barely even describe the second. We measure the wrong things. We do this when we look in the mirror as individuals, households, and even as churches.

When we ask, “What are the signs of a healthy functioning body?” we rarely ask the truly useful questions, like “Am I more able to endure suffering or rejection in a Christ-like manner?” or, “When was the last time I practised the confession of sin with someone?” or, “When was the last time we as a church nurtured a truly broken person to wholeness and restoration in Christ?”

These and other questions are true measures of our body and our soul. And they are work. Which is probably why as individuals we settle for measurements like how much is in our bank account or why as churches we are thrilled to count buttocks in seats. But don’t those types of metrics simply sound a lot like looking at your adolescent biceps in the mirror? Wouldn’t asking different questions be real signs of functioning healthy maturity? Wouldn’t they help us in becoming Onesimus?

Phil Wagler serves a community of disciples in Surrey, B.C., who are beginning to ask new questions. You can travel with him to Israel in February 2014 and ask your own. Send him an e-mail ( to ask how.

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