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Hi friends, you may be puzzling over the title of this article. 584,000,000 miles is the distance the earth travels in one full revolution around the sun. In other words, it’s the distance we travel through space in a year. This week—Wednesday, August 1, to be exact—marks one year since I first came to St. Liz as vicar, my first year as the priest in charge of a worshipping community. I don’t know if this year will prove to be typical of all the years we’ll spend together as vicar and mission or not. I do know that it’s been busy, but more important, it’s been fruitful. It’s also gotten me thinking: what does a vicar do in a year? For that matter, what does a mission do in a year? I tracked down some statistics.
Three vicar-specific numbers: in this first year at St. Liz, I’ve preached 53 sermons, counting funerals and non-Sunday holy days like Ash Wednesday. I’ve knocked on the doors of 54 visitors to say how glad we were to have them at worship. (That’s a lot of coffee cups!) I’ve written 45 newsletter articles of various kinds.
There are other numbers I could track down, but those three are important ones. The preaching number will likely stay about the same. I sincerely hope the number of coffee cups I deliver only goes up! The newsletter number will likely decrease. For this next year, I’m considering cutting that number in half and writing an article every other week, though I’ve not made up my mind yet. Regardless, we’ll continue to send out relevant events info every week.
Now, what have we done as a community in our first year together? Here are just a few reminders: we filled hundreds of bags with necessary supplies for people fleeing or displaced by Hurricane Harvey. 4 people reaffirmed their baptismal vows during Bishop Reed’s visit in October, and we witnessed 1 confirmation. Our corps of LEMs and lectors doubled. We had 9 participants in our fall newcomer’s class and another 6 in the spring. We blessed all kinds of critters—including a horse, a squirrel, a lizard, and a guinea pig—at our Blessing of the Animals for the Feast of St. Francis. Our Tuesday Morning Prayer Group has grown from 2 or 3 to 7 or 8.
We had an amazing Epiphany Bonfire—really, you missed out on that event if you weren’t there! (And nobody got hurt!) Some of our acolytes served in the Diocesan Council Eucharist. We provided breakfast tacos to 100 hardworking teachers and staff at Tom Green Elementary School at the end of the spring semester. We’ve continued—and are almost finished!—with our work wit Dr. Whitesel, our consultant. We took field trip adventures to the Wildflower Center, McKinney Falls, and the Camp Mabry Air Museum. We saw Phyllis Bess graduate from seminary, and we got our very own Andrew Green ordained to the diaconate!
We buried Fred, George, and Keith. We baptized Joni, Evelyn, Jacob, and William David.
We’ve increased in some important ‘bottom line’ kinds of numbers, too. For 2017, our average attendance on a Sunday was 90. That was a drop from 2016, which had us at 102. But given that 2017 was a year of transitioning from one priest to another, that 12-person drop really isn’t too significant. As of the end of June 2018, that number is back up to 95. A few new families have joined us over this summer, and I expect that number will continue to rise—so long as y’all continue to spread the good news about what God is doing here at St. Liz!
Our financial situation continues to improve as well. From 2017 to 2018, our total number of pledging households increased from 50 to 62 (24%). Our total amount of pledge dollars increased from roughly $153k to $171k (12%). This allowed us to decrease our reliance on diocesan support from $50k in 2017 to $40k in 2018. As many of you know, continuing to strengthen our financial stability and independence is part and parcel of approaching parish status. Because of the good work financial work y’all have done, Bishop Reed has appointed me to the Diocesan Department of Stewardship. I hope to make us proud.
And all of that is just some of what’s in the year behind us!
I hope you’re as excited as I am about what’s to come. Who knows what the next 584,000,000 miles will hold?
Hi friends, two weeks ago we looked at questions of authorship: which letters in the New Testament did the historical Paul actually write and which ones were likely written by a later follower of his? Last week, we looked at two characteristics that often help us distinguish between a letter of the historical Paul (an undisputed letter) and a letter composed by one of his followers (a disputed letter). While I’ll continue preaching on Ephesians for another week or two, today I’m going to wrap up our newsletter series on the epistles. In a similar vein to last week’s post, I want to compare an undisputed letter (1 Corinthians) to a disputed letter (Ephesians) as a way of showing how early Christian ideas about God and Christ grew and developed over time; they didn’t just drop whole cloth out of heaven.
I said last week that in an undisputed letter of Paul, which is to say in one of the older letters written by Paul himself, we frequently find Paul addressing very specific concerns. This is true of 1 Corinthians, a church with a great deal of potential but also a great deal of troublesome habits. One of the issues plaguing the Corinthian church was internal divisions. There were two kinds of division: socio-economic and spiritual.
First, the socio-economic. In the earliest Christian communities, it’s likely that communion, or the Lord’s Supper, involved a full meal, a kind of ritualized dinner party. Some of the Corinthian Christians were more well off than others, so when it came time for the Lord’s Supper, the wealthier Christians started partying and eating all the best food and drink before the less wealthy ones arrived (1 Cor. 11:17-34). This meant that the Church wasn’t unified: it was split into rich and poor. Imagine if we all came to communion in the order of how big our paychecks were!
The second kind of division was spiritual, particularly in regard to spiritual gifts. It appears that in Corinth, speaking in tongues was regarded as a sign of God’s special favor. Those who could speak in tongues got a little puffed up with themselves and looked down on others (1 Cor. 12-14).
How does Paul address these divisions? Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are one in Christ:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. […] Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor. 12:12-13, 26)
This is where Paul makes his famous analogy of the body: “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. […] If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” (1 Cor. 12:15-17)
The important thing to keep in mind here is that Paul is using the image of the Body of Christ as a way of instructing a specific community to be united. Hands need feet; ears need eyes; the nose isn’t more important than the toes. What is important to Paul is that the community change their attitude and behavior; the emphasis on the oneness of Christ’s body serves to strengthen that exhortation.
Now, let’s fast forward a decade or two to Ephesians. In the two short passages from Ephesians below, notice that the church is described as Christ’s body, just as it was in 1 Corinthians. However, the image of the body of Christ is now expanded and put to different use:
[God] has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph. 1:22-23)
…speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in the building itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16)
Notice anything different? While the image of the church as Christ’s body is still of central importance, and while the contexts of both passages emphasize the importance of unity in love (1 Cor. 13, Eph. 4:15-16), in Ephesians the image of Christ’s body has expanded to emphasize Christ as the head of the body. Furthermore, in Ephesians, Christ is not only the head of his body, which is the church, but Christ is now also referred to as the “head over all things for the church” which God has put under Christ’s feet.
Let’s highlight again the specific similarities and differences. Both 1 Corinthians and Ephesians employ the image of the Church as Christ’s body, and both use that image to emphasize a kind of oneness. In 1 Corinthians, however, this unity is local and specific to a community riven by socio-economic and spiritual divisions. Ephesians, however, emphasizes a cosmic unity in which Christ is the head not only of his body the church, but of all things. 1 Corinthians lacks both the emphasis on Christ as the head of the body and Christ as the head of “all things.”
What we see, then, is that this passage from Ephesians retains the tradition of 1 Corinthians that refers to the church as Christ’s body, but that this central idea has grown and gained
additional emphasis. By the time we reach Ephesians, the image of the Church as Christ’s body serves not primarily to exhort a specific community to practice unity, but to emphasize the exaltation of Christ: the Church is Christ’s body, and Christ is the head. However, Christ is also the head over all things which have been put under his feet. Since we know already that the church is Christ’s body, and that therefore the feet are also part of Christ’s body, Ephesians also subtly emphasizes the exaltation of the Church: Christ is the head, the Church is the body, and all other things are under Christ’s feet.
Why does any of this matter?
This matters because too often Christians talk as though God is done speaking to us. What I am trying to demonstrate is that what’s clear from the New Testament itself is that the Church’s knowledge of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, grows and develops over time. As we’ve seen in the transition from the undisputed letters of the historical Paul like 1 Corinthians to the next generation of Christian leaders in Ephesians, old images gain new significance. Local problems spark cosmic reflections. In short, there’s always more to be said.
Because God is a mystery and cannot be known fully, we can never ‘finish’ reflecting on His presence with us. Our reflections are always incomplete. And yet because God has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ, God has made himself profoundly known and knowable. Therefore, we should expect that no matter how new our reflections on God are, they are always somehow recognizable. The letter to the Ephesians riffs on and expands the wisdom of letters like 1 Corinthians. The wisdom of Ephesians, however innovative, is therefore both new and recognizable as a ‘Pauline’ take on Christ.
With God, there is always more to know. Yet every innovation and development of a theological idea will also be somehow familiar to us if it is true; the Holy Spirit prompts us to ‘recognize’ Jesus in it. Hopefully, our own spiritual journeys are marked by ever-renewing encounters with the Truth of Who God is, encounters in which the Holy Spirit comes to us as fresh and familiar. Hopefully, like the first folks to hear the letter to the Ephesians, we have occasion to say, “Wow, I never thought about it that way before—but that makes sense. That fits with what I know to be true of God.”
P.S. Thanks for reading.
Hi friends, last week our epistles series continued by focusing on the question, “Which letters did Paul write?” A refresher on that question: there isn’t much dispute about whether Paul wrote Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, and Philemon. Therefore, we call these seven letters the undisputed letters of Paul. There is, however, dispute about whether Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, 2 Thessalonians, and Titus. We call these letters disputed letters. Today, I want to demonstrate two ways we might distinguish a disputed letter from an undisputed letter.
The first way we might distinguish between disputed and undisputed letters is that undisputed letters of Paul tend to address very particular situations, whereas disputed letters that were likely written later tend to be more general. For example, in 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses a very specific kind of sexual immorality (5:1), a question regarding whether or not women should prophesy with their heads covered (11:1-16), and concern over food sacrificed to idols (chapter 8). Furthermore, in 2 Corinthians, Paul writes at length to persuade the Corinthians to participate in a specific project: the collection of material support from churches in Macedonia to benefit the mother church in Jerusalem (chapters 8-9). The specificity and sheer ‘messiness’ of these situations suggest that this is a single author addressing concerns in a specific community.
Compare these examples to a disputed letter like Ephesians. Ephesians contains ethical and theological instruction as well, but these instructions have a more general feel. For example, in Ephesians 4, our Pauline author advocates living with “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:2-3). Our Pauline author then directs his audience to “[put] away falsehood…be angry but do not sin…do not make room for the devil,” and says that “thieves must give up stealing” and that “no evil talk [should] come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up” (4:25-29). Our author condemns “fornication and impurity of any kind” and says not to associate with folks who “deceive…with empty words” (5:3-6).
All of this is good stuff and worth reflecting on—but unlike instructions about collecting monetary support for another church, these instructions could be addressed to any church in the first century Mediterranean world. Thus, it’s more likely that Ephesians is the work of one of Paul’s followers, and that this follower is trying to preserve and disseminate ideas like Paul’s to a broad range of recipients. Finally in this ‘specificity’ vein, whereas the best ancient manuscripts of letters like 1 and 2 Corinthians include an address specifically to the Corinthians, the same is not true of Ephesians. The best (but not all) ancient manuscripts omit the specific words “in Ephesus” from Paul’s opening greeting. This is further evidence that perhaps the text we now have as “Ephesians” did not begin as a specific letter from the apostle Paul to one community in Ephesus, but as a more general writing of one of his followers.
The second way we might distinguish between a disputed letter and an undisputed letter is the way they discuss household relationships. For example, Ephesians 5-6 offers instruction on how different kinds of relationships should work: husbands and wives, children and parents, slaves and masters (5:22-6:9). Ephesians advocates (mostly) traditional hierarchies of husband over wife and master over slave, hierarchies which were typical in the 1st century context. Titus, another disputed letter, argues for similar relationships.
Compare this view of household relationships with an undisputed letter like Galatians or Philemon, written by Paul himself in closer historical proximity to the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Undisputed letters tend to make more radical claims about household relationships: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). In Philemon, Paul tries to persuade the master of a household to welcome back an escaped slave “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (v.16).
We see, then, that disputed letters tend to argue that Christian household relationships should look similar to the household relationships of non-Christians living in the 1st century: wives be subject to husbands, slaves obey your masters. However, in undisputed letters, we see that the gospel disrupts the traditional forms of those relationships: greater equity between male and female; slave and master might become brothers.
Why would that be the case? One answer is that the historical Paul was waiting expectantly for the return of Jesus. Thus, we might say that his understanding of how the gospel impacts the inner workings of a household was more extreme than that of later generations of Christians. In simplistic terms, if Jesus is coming back really soon, why not let the gospel disrupt everything?! However, a later disciple of Paul’s would have had to reconcile the expectation of Christ’s return with the Church’s ongoing need to live life in their historical context. In other words, the longer the Church is around without experiencing Jesus’ apocalyptic return, the more Christian writers like that of Ephesians discern and adopt ways for Christians to live peaceably with the world around them.
More next week as we continue through Ephesians.
Hi friends, it’s back to basics this week as I continue our series on the epistles. Today, I want to address the question of authorship: which letters did Paul write?
There are twenty-one letters in the New Testament. Of these, thirteen are attributed to Paul. When I say “attributed to Paul,” I mean that the letters themselves bear Paul’s name. The attribution forms part of Paul’s opening greeting. For example, 2 Corinthians begins, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God that is in Corinth….” (1:1). The attribution is up front: “I, Paul, am writing to you….”
These are the thirteen letters attributed to Paul: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. This is where it gets tricky: just because an epistle is attributed to Paul doesn’t mean that Paul himself actually composed or wrote it.
For us 21st century folks, it’s odd for a text to bear one person’s name if another person wrote it: “Wait, if Paul didn’t write it, then why is his name on it? Isn’t that a kind of plagiarism?!” But in the ancient world, this would not have been quite as problematic.
A hypothetical example might help here. Mary Magdalene followed Jesus of Nazareth in person. (That part isn’t hypothetical!) After Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, let’s say that Mary Magdalene becomes part of a missionary team to Sidon. She preaches the gospel there, and a Sidonian man named Gaius comes to believe in Jesus and is baptized. Gaius, in turn, becomes a missionary and joins Mary Magdalene in her work. Perhaps as they travel, Mary Magdalene composes a letter to the Sidonians. Gaius helps her write it. This letter would likely contain an attribution to Mary of Magdala and might begin like this: “Mary of Magdala, an apostle of Jesus Christ, with our coworker Gaius, to the church of God that is in Sidon….” The Sidonians cherish this letter and spread it around, and Mary Magdalene’s authority grows in the early church.
Years go by. At some point, Mary Magdalene dies, but Gaius, who is a good deal younger, is still out there preaching. Let’s say Gaius travels across the sea to Athens. He’s ministering to Athenians, and uses Athens as a sort of home base for his missionary journeys in the area. Gaius gets older, so before he dies he decides to preserve the teaching he has received and heard over his years, the teachings of and about Jesus Mary Magdalene gave him. Gaius records this teaching in a letter to the Athenians.
In that letter, Gaius might command the Athenians to make copies and circulate the letter to the other churches in the area. After all, this letter contains the gospel as witnessed by Mary Magdalene! This is the key: because of her importance, Gaius would probably attribute his letter to Mary Magdalene. The gospel Gaius received came through her; none of it is really his own stuff, so to speak. Mary Magdalene was the original witness of Jesus, not Gaius. So, the letter Gaius writes to the Athenians might actually begin like this: “Mary of Magdala, friend and apostle of the Lord Jesus, with our brother Gaius, to the church of God that is in Athens: grace to you and peace….”
Do you see how similarly the two letters begin? Yet one was written by Mary Magdalene herself while the other was written by Gaius years later.
Something similar is going on with Paul’s epistles. Paul is a bit different than Mary Magdalene because he never followed Jesus in person—indeed, Paul at first persecuted Christ’s followers! (See Acts 8:1-3, Galatians 1:13-15.) But Paul did have a powerful vision of Christ that converted him irrevocably (Acts 9), a vision that sent him out into the world as an apostle. He traveled extensively, founding and caring for churches across the Roman Empire. He worked with helpers and missionary partners, and just like Mary Magdalene in our example, over time, Paul’s authority grew (though, as we saw repeatedly in 2 Corinthians over the past few weeks, his authority was rarely unchallenged).
Thus, of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament, Paul himself wrote or composed some, but it’s likely that Paul’s disciples composed the rest. Like Gaius’ attributing his hypothetical Athenian letter to Mary Magdalene’s authorship, Paul’s disciples would’ve seen themselves as acknowledging Paul’s rightful authority and continuing his work when they attributed their own compositions to him.
Now, to answer the question with which we began: which of these letters did Paul write? The historical Paul wrote or composed seven of the thirteen New Testament letters attributed to him: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. We call these seven letters the “undisputed letters” because there is no real dispute amongst biblical scholars that the historical Paul wrote them. The remaining six—2 Thessalonians, Titus, 1 and 2 Timothy, Colossians, and Ephesians—are called the “disputed letters” because there is still dispute as to whether Paul or one of his followers wrote them. There is more dispute about some letters than others.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been preaching on 2 Corinthians, an undisputed letter. This Sunday, we start on Ephesians, a disputed letter. Next week in this series, I’ll try to lay out some of the characteristics that distinguish a disputed letter like Ephesians from an undisputed letter like 2 Corinthians.
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