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Windows into the Word: Letters

Scripture: Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 2:13-14; Galatians 3:27-28; Colossians 3:12-14; Ephesians 3:18-21

Mark D HPaul, a servant, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,    

To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called saints, to the church of God that is in Corinth, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, in Ephesus, to the church of the Thessalonians, Colossae, Galatia, to Timothy my loyal and beloved child, to Titus, to Philemon, our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus

I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing of the gospel from the first day until now.

In our prayers for you we always thank God, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love that you have for all the saints.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.

And so the letters begin. With salutations and greetings. With specificity and a love of the people and congregations receiving these words, and in some case, pretty soon to admonition and correction as specific situations and issues are addressed. The bulk of the New Testament, outside of the Gospels, Acts and Revelation, consists of letters written from Apostles and church leaders to particular congregations. This morning we want to look at the nature and message and significance of these letters in the life of the Bible and the life of the church.

Think a little bit about the nature of letters. How many of you regularly write letters – the pen to paper kind of letters that you put in an envelope, lick a stamp, and send to someone by Canada Post? _____ Not too many... How many used to? (It looks like more letter writing from the older end of the congregation.) I suspect that letter writing is becoming a lost art. It has been transformed into email and social media like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. That is where we communicate instantly with photos, social commentary and quick remarks. Very few words. Brevity is key. Depth often lacking. For the most part I use and like this social media form of communication, but there is something missing that we find, or used to find, in letter writing. Letter writing gave the gift of time and attention. People would take the time to write down all of their thoughts, ponder what they really wanted to say, how to phrase things, what images to use, what stories to tell. When I went to college in Winnipeg, my mom would write a semi-regular 4 to 5 page letter to me – and I felt like I was up to date on life back in Edmonton. I don’t think I wrote back much. Sorry Mom! For years she and her mother would write weekly from Edmonton to Niagara, letters that are now a kind of diary of their lives and their love. I have a rather introverted uncle and my aunt who first met briefly at my parents wedding, but then for several years wrote long long letters to each other in a time when travel was limited. That is the only way they got to know each other. They proposed and married a few years later, having only been in the same physical geography a handful of times, but knowing each other intimately – through the depth of their letter writing. In a letter you can step back and say what you really mean. You can be pointed, loving, insightful, honest, direct. You speak from the heart. Your personality shines through.

A couple of years ago, my mother and my Aunt Martha found a collection of old letters from their great Aunt Anna Ediger Wall, a women they had only met for a few months in their childhood. The letters were written in the years 1926 to 34 and again from 1946 to 48. Anna was the family member left behind in Russia, in the Ukraine, when the rest fled to Canada in the 1920’s. She had married and her husband Franz ran a hospital until he was arrested and taken away to Siberia in the mid 1930’s and presumably died in hard labour. Anna eventually began a long trek in World War II through Poland and Germany to Paraguay on the Volendam and finally to Canada in 1947, with many losses and hardships along the way. For 12 years no letters could be sent. What I find fascinating in these letters is the strong character that comes through, the faith and perseverance, the personality quirks and idiosyncrasies I can still see in other family members, the honestly of a life and the deep longing to meet family again. She died only a year and half after she finally reunited in Canada. My mother writes that through these letters ‘she discovered a woman of courage and deep faith, someone whom she would have loved to get to know better.’ These handwritten Gothic Germany letters were transcribed and translated and put into this self published 100 page book that I can now read years later, something Anna would never have imagined.

I wonder if this is a little bit like the letters of Paul and others in the New Testament. They did not know that their letters would be gathered up and translated and read and examined centuries later, providing inspiration and guidance to the broader church of Christ. They simply wrote their letters in trust and faith to the congregations they loved and had accompanied, letters to be read outloud to the whole gathered community. We don’t get to see the return letters – the other side of the conversation. We often only get hints at what the particular issues are they are responding to. But to understand these writings, we need to take seriously their nature as letters, as words written from the heart to address specific situations and issues, not as theological treatises and timeless truths with no context. The gift of the theology we read in them is that it is practical theology, a working out of what Jesus might mean for followers trying to be faithful in the complex world they lived in.

So what are the letters we are talking about? I invite you to take out your Bibles and turn again to the Index at the front. Last week Kevin preached about the 4 gospels, the stories and testimony of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. You will see the book of Acts next. We are not picking up Acts specifically in this worship series. I guess it could have fit with History, the telling of the story of the early church in a certain way. It also gives much of the story of Paul, the author of so many of these letters. Then you see the many letters – 21 in all, before getting to the book of Revelation – my daunting task to unpack next Sunday. The Pauline letters begin with Romans all the way to Philemon. What we sometimes forget is that many of these letters were written before the Gospels were penned. Scholars suggest that First Thessalonians may have actually been the first letter penned by Paul, around 50 AD, with several following right afterwards, written to these many congregations Paul had founded in his travels. The Gospels are generally seen as being written between about 60 and 90 AD, so these letters are the first and very fresh written windows and testimonies we get into the life and growth of the early church and how they struggled and worked out the meaning of Jesus in their lives and communities. There are developments and shifts and particular themes Paul picks up depending on who he is writing to and their particular situation. There has been much scholarly debate about the authorship of some of the later Epistles, including what is called the Pastoral Epistles – 1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus, but whether it was Paul himself, or disciples writing in the voice of Paul, they continue the themes and direction of his thought and passion for the church. We will spend most of our time on Paul this morning.

I do want to note the other letters briefly. Hebrews stands alone as having some marks of a letter, but also sounding very much like a sermon. The exact authorship and audience is unknown, timeline somewhere between 60 and 100 AD, but it is clearly addressing a congregation and people that is exhausted and tired in their efforts to live as people of Jesus (Hebrews, Thomas Long, Interpretation, John Knox Press, 1997, p.3), and are falling away. There is much encouragement and a strong call to faith, to become part of the cloud of witnesses, looking to Jesus. James is this gem of a letter with lots of practical advice, a strong theme of justice and regard for the poor and a warning that faith without works is dead. 1st and 2nd Peter and Jude each have their unique window into the ethical and pastoral dilemmas of their day, with empowerment to bear witness to their Lord in the midst of persecution, and to love the enemy. 1st, 2nd and 3rd John arose out of schisms in the church and emphasize the essential nature of God as seen through Jesus as love, and so we also ought to love each other. Each of these letters could have their own preaching and worship series.

So, let’s look more at Paul. A few Tuesday nights ago Bryan Moyer Suderman said quite perceptively that ‘some people really really like Paul. Others really really have a problem with Paul.’ (at a Reading the Bible with Jesus session). Paul has been a polarizing figure. There is a harshness of personality and strong ego that seems to come out at points. His intense zeal for Christ, that before his Damascus Road experience had been directed against Jesus-followers, can be too much to take for some. What we do need to remember is that Paul continued to be a passionate Jew – but one asking what this new found gift of Christ now means as that covenant gets expanded. People get confused and frustrated by his comments on sexuality and gender and male-female relationships... things like the Household codes, and yet we read a passage like we heard from Galatians about there being no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for we are all one in Christ. Paul and his communities are experiencing the amazing freedoms unleashed through Christ, and yet like any of us, still bound and struggling with the cultural expectations and histories around him. It’s not all worked out yet. Paul can also be a dense read – with thick theological passages that are hard to unpack, and arguments that run for several chapters. At the same time, we turn to Paul for some amazing rich passages – poetic and deeply profound. I love the 5 we heard today, and afterwards realized that 3 of them were passages used at my baptism, my wedding and my ordination.

Back in my 2nd year at Canadian Mennonite Bible College, I took a tough Pauline studies course taught by Peter Fast. One of the things we had to do was read through each one of the letters and journal on them. I tried to find that journal this week, and it is probably good that it got recycled somewhere along the way. But what I remember was being struck by the particularity and uniqueness of each letter – starting to imagine the churches they were written to, and the everyday issues Paul addresses, even in all his thick theological language. Paul is doing theology on the fly – again, remember that these are letters – thoughtful and insightful, and yet in response to the real world of the listeners. One of the most helpful frameworks for me was articulated by J. Christiaan Beker. He names that we need to hold together the balance in Paul between coherence – the core message, the centre, the convictions of Christ, the universality – and contingency – the immediate audience, the problems of that day, the concrete historical setting and situations, the particularity. (J. Christiaan Beker, The Triumph of God – The Essence of Paul’s Thought, Fortress Press, 1990, particularly pages 3-9)) You can’t separate them out. They are bonded together. You can’t just extract a timeless systematic theology. The point is the struggle itself, Paul trying to make sense of the gift of Christ and the Spirit in very real congregations, filled with real humans also trying to follow Christ. This is the same interpretive task that we have now as followers of Christ. It is what Bryan Moyer Suderman was saying in his sessions with us on how Jesus used the Scriptures. The Scriptures only come alive, only become owned and real when they are lived out again and again in each new situation. Coherence and contingency.

So how does this work? What difference does this make in how we read Paul? (I draw on examples and language from Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible again for the First Time, HarperSanFransisco, 2001, p.227-263) Turn with me for a minute to 1 Corinthians 11, starting in verse 17. The context is the celebration of communion, which began with an actual full meal. But it was one in which the rich and well to do ate first, even overeating and getting drunk, and the poor were left to go hungry – there is social stratification within the community. So in response, Paul writes these beautiful and poetic words of institution for communion, the very ones we spoke last Sunday, ‘for I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you...that Jesus took bread... and broke it..’ The point is not the nature of the communion elements or what the ‘real presence’ of Jesus is, but rather that if we are breaking bread as one body, then we must also all eat together as one body – the social distinctions of rich and poor also being broken apart. Examine yourself, are you eating in an unworthy way? The coherence and contingent meeting.

We saw it also in the Galatians passage. Paul often uses the phrase ‘In Christ’, the new life in Christ, as opposed to ‘In Adam’, in the old life or way of living. ‘In Christ’ gets embodied by a new egalitarian social vision, in a new way of relating as Jews/Gentiles, slave/free, male/female – and that keeps getting worked out. We need to ask what ‘in Christ’ might mean in our context, within our social constructions and realties of 2017. You can’t understand Paul, without taking seriously the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in this new body, this new church. This was their big issue. This was as radical a move as one could possibly dare to imagine, that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus would make such a difference that the chosen people of Israel, the heirs to the covenant, would open up and now include the Gentiles in those promises. This was tough work! It is not easy to be a diverse community. So many differences and outright conflicts! Just look at all the passages about food laws and the requirement of circumcision and cultural misunderstandings and conflicts. So many of the passage about justification by grace and faith are argued as the basis and reason for Gentiles now becoming part of the community directly, without the rites and rituals, without it being earned. Everyone is a part of this. Justification by grace is not simply this personal individualistic act extracted from Paul in the Protestant tradition to deal with a troubled conscience, as one author named it, the introspective conscience of the West. (Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976). It is a communal act of becoming one community in Christ, by God’s grace. In Ephesians it is the breaking down of the dividing wall, making both groups one, the near and the far, the Jew and the Gentile. We can all participate in this new life through dying and being raised with Christ. We could look to other examples too of theology and practice coming together – the ministry of reconciliation given to a community in conflict in Corinth. The one body and many members analogies given to a church that wants to fragment into its many parts. The many affirmations of Jesus as Lord, in a context of a minority church living under Roman Empire and Caesar rule and claiming who really is Lord. These are all embodied, lived theology – coherence and contingency bound together - the task we too are called to. In some ways, our current multi-faith, pluralistic world and the questions this raises, is not that different from the multi-faith, pluralistic world Paul wrote letters in.

I want to look at one more passage together. Turn to 1st Corinthians 1. The church in Corinth was perhaps the most in conflict and yet most beloved by Paul. They are arguing over whether to follow Paul or Apollos or Cephas... Peter. There are camps and divisions. Paul’s response to all of this is to proclaim Christ crucified, to share a message about the cross that makes foolish the wisdom of the world, but is the power of God. We read in verse 22 to 25 of the first chapter – ‘For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’ In the midst of conflict, within all the Jewish-Gentile debates, within all the debates and issues we face today, Paul points to weakness, to foolishness, to the cross, to the transformational way of self-sacrifice love as the wisdom and power of God that truly builds the church and makes all the difference in our world. Paul invites us also to die with Christ, and be raised again in new life, and then to live in this way of the cross. This is how we become ‘in Christ.’ The key Scripture for Menno Simons is found in this section, in chapter 3:11 - ‘For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.’ For me this places all of Paul’s letters and words, even those parts of his personality and his debates that might frustrate me, into the context of Jesus and his cross and resurrection. The letters of Paul, the other letters of the New Testament, all stand as a testimony and witness to the power of God within the nitty gritty of real church life. They are a gift. They teach and inspire us to both enter into our own discernment and theological task of making sense of faith in our day, and to do so looking to Jesus. The letters teach us how to do this ‘practical theology’ in our time and space. Maybe we need to start writing more letters again!

Each Biblical letter ends with a final blessing. Hear these words from Ephesians: ‘Peace be to the whole community, and love with faith, from God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Amen.

Let us reflect on this service by hearing some words from this last passage, from 1st Corinthians 2: (Time of Reflection – song Lofty Words by Bryan Moyer Suderman)