The reality is that reconciliation is hard to practice. The situation between Philemon and Onesimus was tough, and Paul knew this. That is why he begins the letter by praising Philemon’s work and love for the saints (verse 4-5). This is not flattery but a way of showing appreciation and respect. We also notice that Paul appeals to Philemon’s emotions before introducing his mission in writing the letter. Reconciliation between two people, for Paul, is at the heart of the Christian life because it is an expression of the reconciliation between humans and God achieved in Jesus.
Community functions on forgiveness and reconciliation. We reconcile not because we don’t recognize the severity of the harm done in the process, but because we have been given the ministry of reconciliation by God. In a letter probably written shortly after Philemon, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to be reconciled to God because of the work of Jesus. In turn, we also have to call people to reconcile with God. In doing that, we have to be the embodiment of the message through seeking to be reconciled with others too. People in Christ cannot afford to live estranged, and that is why Paul mediates this reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus. He encourages him to take Onesimus—who is suspected to have stolen in his house—as his brother in Christ not a servant any longer (verse 16). Paul wants Philemon to show his love to Onesimus despite what he has done to him. He wants him to treat him according to the shared identity they have in Jesus, not through the social hierarchical categories.
Reconciliation is an expression of love towards the other person despite what they did wrong to you. Fritz (2000) says, to reconcile is “to demonstrate that as Christ freely accepts us so we should accept others without reservation.” This means it is our role to forgive and reconcile as Christians. Paul wrote, “Welcome one another, therefore, as the Messiah has welcomed you, to God’s glory” (Rom. 15:7, Kingdom New Testament). In Jesus through his faithfulness, God loved us and welcomed us to himself. Philemon had to show his love for the saints (verse 5) by welcoming Onesimus back (verse 17). Paul also plays the role of Christ by offering to pay back whatever Onesimus owes Philemon (verse 18-19). As we can see, reconciliation is rooted in Jesus’ work for us.
In his magnum opus, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright says, “Paul’s practical aim was the creation and maintenance of particular kinds of communities; that the means to their creation and maintenance was the key notion of reconciliation.” For Wright, Paul’s theology is summed up in reconciliation between human beings as a direct result of the great reconciliation between God and human beings. The truth is that reconciliation is not easy, and it is painful. This is because you cannot forget what someone did to you yet you need to forgive and be together again. However, God designed us for fellowship, and reconciliation is the key to that fellowship.
For further reading
Fritz, P. (2000, 10 10). What Are Some Of The Reasons We Should Be Reconciled To One Another? Retrieved from Sermon Central: https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/what-are-some-of-the-reasons-we-should-be-reconciled-to-one-another-paul-fritz-sermon-on-faith-30311
Woodruff, W. J. (2019). Reconciliation. Retrieved from Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology: https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/reconciliation.html