Adapted from a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, July 3, 2022. Scripture: Philemon 1-6.
Philemon 1-6: Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister [and/or beloved], to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.
The book of Philemon is the New Testament’s one true letter, in that it was written primarily to one individual. Those other “letters” in the New Testament are, as I was taught many years ago, epistles, written primarily to groups of people. Philemon was written by Paul to a particular person, who was conveniently named, Philemon. The whole letter is a very short piece of writing, so short that it isn’t even long enough to break into chapters. It’s just a series of verses.
Philemon also happens to be one of the trickiest and most difficult of New Testament pieces. Many a preacher has held it at arm’s length, and maybe even further. It’s a complicated and difficult situation, with a really problematic history.
The basic story is this: Paul was in prison and learned of a situation in which a slave belonging to Philemon, Onesimus, had run away. Somewhere along the way, Onesimus was converted to the faith. Paul was fond of Onesimus, so he wrote the letter to advise Philemon on how to receive Onesimus upon Onesimus’s return to the household, presumably maintaining his slave status. The letter became something of a favorite of slaveholders in the United States in trying to bolster their claim to maintaining that vile institution in the United States.
We don’t have time, in this small space, to take up the issue of slavery, and the misuse of Philemon. Instead, we focus in on the woman mentioned in Paul’s greeting to Philemon: Apphia.
While the Orthodox Church made Apphia a saint, she doesn’t get much attention in the Western Church—probably because her name comes up only once. And, so it is that we don’t know much at all about Apphia, but we can gather a few hints from the text.
The way through which she is named is a good place to start. There are real differences in the texts that survived and were circulated. In some places, she is referred to as “sister” and in other texts as “beloved.” These may not mean much to us, but they convey a sense of significance, that Paul regarded her as an important person.
Start reading commentaries and the general gist of Apphia is that she was “just the wife.” She must have been Philemon’s wife. Clearly, she was a woman and her name appears near the name of a man. Therefore, she must have been “just the wife.” The end. For Paul she was a “sister” or a “beloved.” To commentators, she can be ignored. She was ”just the wife.”
Take a look at commentaries written by women (and, to be fair, a few men) and the situation begins to alter. Apphia and Philemon are not named in the same way as other couples that Paul knew and worked with, like Prisca and Aquila. Notice the difference. Prisca and Aquila are mentioned with a clear “and.” Philemon and Apphia are not: “To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister [and/or beloved], to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in your house.”
Does it matter that they are not directly connected in the text? Maybe. It’s certainly worth considering—and hauling Apphia out of the “just the wife” dungeon.
It’s quite possible that Apphia was a ministry partner of some kind, a beloved coworker. We should note that the term “sister” was not just a casual reference to a sibling in the faith. Apphia—whether she was indeed Philemon’s wife or not—had a special role and that is why Paul addressed her. He needed her to pay attention, perhaps alerting her to help in conveying the message that he was trying to get across to Philemon.
The label of “sister” is an important one. Clement of Alexandria referred to those called “sister” as women who were not merely companions, but co-ministers of the apostles. These “sisters” played an often crucial, and sometimes difficult and dangerous, role in taking the gospel into new territory. In places that were influenced more by Greek culture than by Roman culture, “sisters” were needed to minister to other women, such as widows, who lived relatively secluded lives.[see the work of Marg Mowczko at https://margmowczko.com/apphia/]
As we seek to appreciate a bit more this mysterious woman, a co-worker of some kind for Paul, it’s worth taking a brief moment to lift up this word, “sister,” or “coworker,” and to consider our own status as “coworkers” in the faith. What are you up to in living out the Good News, in making the blessings of God’s love manifest in the life that you live?
How do each of us and all of us together seek to be about this holy work of sharing God’s love? From the small things to the big things, how are we showing our connection to our Savior? Like Apphia, we may not be well-known, or understood, but what we do, and how we live, matters. And, in a world with so much division and violence, our willingness to share the good news is crucial. So, may we step up, as surely Apphia did, as coworkers in the faith.