For Easter 2016, we engaged in an immersive, interactive exploration of the book of Philemon using improvisation to turn our monthly communion dinner into an opportunity to challenge ourselves in our understanding of forgiveness, group decision making and what it means to be Christian community.
The congregation met around the table and imagined that they were members of Philemon’s household celebrating Easter together and eagerly anticipating reading a letter from their friend, the Apostle Paul. What they weren’t anticipating was that the contents of the letter would challenge them all to re-examine the message of Christ in their own lives.
Volunteers agreed ahead of time to take on the roles of Philemon, Onesimus, Apphia, Archippus and the Narrator. Everyone else was asked to create a character and define their relationship to the story during the event. Are they ready to put the message of Jesus into action? (Download the full Philemon improvisation script here…)
As our congregation became a more cohesive community of faith we realized that soon this loosely connected group of people, would find ourselves faced with real relationship and with it, the need for group decision making. How would we handle conflict among a group with diverse political and religious backgrounds? While we have a baptistic polity, our congregation is not united in one particular denomination or understanding of the Bible. How could we practice decision making and start to think through what it means to be a community of faith as opposed to merely a group of friends? Immersing ourselves into Paul’s letter to the house church of Philemon was a way to do that.
— Philemon 1: 1-3
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our congregation was surprised at how connected they were to the story. During the improvisation, Onesimus visited different tables letting them know who she (Onesimus was played by a woman) was and asking them to please not be offended by her presence as she had a letter from Paul. This alerted the participants that there was something deeply wrong with Onesimus being there and drew them into the story. Some people offered to allow Onesimus to sit with them but she chose to sit alone so as not to draw more attention.
The person playing Philemon was surprised by his own reaction to the letter. He internalized the scenario of someone who had hurt him greatly returning and asking for forgiveness and realized how hard it was to do. The person playing Onesimus expressed that she felt a great deal of discomfort at returning to the estranged community. All the participants struggled with their responses as they were constantly reminded of Paul’s wishes for them as a Christian community.
While many were eager to forgive, those playing Apphia and Archippus asked the group not to be too hasty and to consider the implications in their own households; pointing out that if Philemon received a runaway slave in this way, other slaves might get the idea they could do anything they wished. Would the rest of the community then start to have difficulty with their households? Would this destroy their economy and current way of life? Radical forgiveness seemed like the right thing to do but the consequences would also be radical – and not necessarily in ways that benefitted them.
The exercise was left open ended. While Onesimus and the crowd were asked to decide what they would like to do, we were left with questions and we were encouraged to think about how this might translate into our own personal lives.
- The prayer for Onesimus and Philemon gave us the opportunity to connect more deeply to the story and to be challenged for ourselves about forgiveness.
- This experience has stayed with us as a leadership team, providing a reminder that all issues are complex with multiple implications. It also helped us see how valuable it can be to have a larger group involved in decision making that impacts the whole community.
- “Playing” together in this way was memorable and meaningful Bible study that helped to create a shared understanding of Scripture.