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by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | November 1, 2018
Before continuing, some terminology reminders might be helpful: a tithe is a biblical standard of 10% of one’s income offered to God through the Church. A pledge is a commitment to give a specific amount of one’s household income in the following year. One can pledge without tithing, and one can tithe without pledging. One can also do both.
My hope is that everyone will pledge because as a practice, pledging is good for us spiritually. We are a people of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is a way of saying that the most important aspect of our futures—our redemption as God’s daughters and sons—is already accomplished by God on our behalf. To make a pledge is to practice in the present our security in God’s future. We make pledges each fall for the coming year as a way of offering to God our future in advance, regardless of what that future might contain. To paraphrase Matthew, “where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.” By promising to God the first fruits of our financial futures in the coming year, we also promise to God our hearts for the coming year.
That’s why I hope this for us: because it’s good for us! Now, what about that second word, expectation? I expect that everyone will pledge not only because it’s practically helpful as we plan for 2019, but because the practice of pledging is consonant with our identity as Episcopalians. Christianity is a collection of practices—weekly worship, prayer, care for the needy, pursuing peace and kindness, studying the bible—and those practices form us in a particular direction, so to speak. The Eucharist, for example, is a practice of corporate worship given to us by Jesus. Practicing it forms us into more and more perfect images of God, which is to say it forms us into Christ’s likeness, the perfect image of God (Col. 1:15). We receive Christ’s Body and Blood each week so that we might become more and more like Christ himself.
We are like piano students practicing day in, day out so that we become more like the Master Pianist—people whose native country is the very music we so love to play. And like piano students, we depend on the Master Pianist to teach us the practices that will lead us more deeply into the music.
The practices of Christian discipleship, like the practices of learning the piano, involve a tradition of learning. Those practices—like piano scales and the grammar of sheet music—were here before us. Therefore, just like learning the piano, becoming Christians means becoming conversant in disciplines we would not otherwise choose or could not have invented for ourselves. It’s a bit like learning to spell as a child: we are each befuddled to learn the pterodactyl starts with a P. But the English language was here before we learned to speak it, and if we would be effective communicators, we must learn to practice it with all of its oddities. Sometimes the why of an odd spelling is only revealed after we’ve been doing it for a while—and sometimes never at all!
I say all of this because offering to God of our first fruits is a Christian practice none of us gets to decide is unimportant. Just as piano students do not get to decide but only learn the notes that make an A-major chord, and just like none of us gets to decide but only learn how to spell pterodactyl, certain aspects of being Christian people just aren’t up for grabs. Giving of our first fruits is one.
But we’ve not yet arrived at pledging, which is a specific way of offering to God of our first fruits. So why pledge?
The tradition of Christianity that you and I inhabit is the Episcopal Church. We do not belong to just any room in God’s house, but in this room. Another way of saying this might be to say that learning the trumpet and learning the piano are both musical arts, but each will necessarily enter the world of music a bit differently. Just as the trumpet is not necessarily better or worse than the piano, the Episcopal Church is not better or worse than any other in God’s house. But it does mean that our room has its own particular understanding of Christian practices, our own flavor of common life. We celebrate the Eucharist like this. We understand the authority of the bible like this. We have bishops like her and not only like him. Learning the trumpet and learning the piano have much in common, but they are also distinct.
One of our practices in the Episcopal Room of God’s house is that we take vows: at baptisms, at confirmations, at weddings. We expect our clergy to take vows at their ordinations, promising (amongst other things) to be an “example” for those entrusted to our care. Simply put, pledging is another kind of vow. Pledging is only one kind of giving, but it is an avowed practice of giving that fits with our understanding of Christian culture as Episcopalians. It’s my expectation that we will behave accordingly.
Some of us resist pledging because we fear making a commitment we might break. This is certainly understandable, and this resistance stems from a virtuous place: a conviction that we should keep our word. As Christians, however, we believe that our calling in following Jesus is faithfulness, not perfection. For example, during our bishop’s visit a few weeks ago, each of us reaffirmed our avowed commitment to “respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP, pg 305). Yet none of us would claim to fulfill that vow perfectly. Moreover, I doubt any of us expects to fulfill that vow perfectly in the year to come! But we do expect to get better at it, day in and day out, little bits at a time.
Why? Because we believe that we are finite and fallible creatures, and that our redemption as God’s sons and daughters depends on God’s action, not ours. When we break our baptismal commitments, we ask for God’s forgiveness, and we strive to do a little better. This is why I use this word practice so much—we’re all still working at it.
So, if we don’t think twice about promising to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” why would we hesitate to promise something as simple as money?
The amount of money is for no one to decide but you, your family, and God. Whatever step God is calling you to take this year, however, I hope and expect you’ll give it a try. It may be that the practice brings you a greater sense of abundance in your life. It may be that, by this time next year, you decide you tried a bit too much, or maybe not quite enough. Remember: our goal is faithfulness, not getting it exactly right. We’re all still practicing.
Part of the grace of being people who take vows is that, when we make a vow, we are usually promising an unlimited amount of time, whether to God or to a person or to a community. Our baptismal vows affirmed at Confirmation, for example, don’t have an expiration date: we’re promising to do this for as long as we walk the earth. There’s grace in this because it means that there’s no hard deadline for ‘success.’ Only meet 90% of your pledge this year? That’s okay. Pledging is a lifelong practice we renew each year. Another year is on its way already. Only 25% because of those medical bills, or the house you lost in the storm? That’s also okay. Another year is on its way already. Our whole futures are in God’s hands, and God has promised us an unlimited amount of time, on this side of the grave and beyond, in which to grow into the full stature of Christ, His Son. We have seasons of feast and famine, of rising and falling. We are each of us always starting over on our journey into holiness.
And that’s okay. This is the Church, and St. Liz is your church. We are a community of grace, a community of ordinary people on an extraordinary journey—and a journey worth taking may involve our falling down a time or two. But God doesn’t ask for our perfection, only for our faithfulness. Our best efforts are pleasing to Him, however small or insignificant or imperfect they may seem to us. Everything belongs.
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | October 18, 2018
Hi friends, Lucy’s and my eighth wedding anniversary was on October 9th. I was still foggy with a concussion from my (heroic, unbelievable, action-packed) scooter accident on that particular day, so we didn’t do too much celebrating. Instead, I was mostly on the receiving end of Lucy’s love “in sickness and in health.” I’m immensely grateful for and proud of her. Being Lucy’s husband is one of the forms of life into which God has led me, for my good and for hers and for those around us, and it is through my vocation as her husband that I have learned much of what I know about belonging to God. Today, I want to reflect on what being a husband has taught me about worship.
In the 1662 edition of The Book of Common Prayer, there was no exchanging of rings in the marriage service. The only ring involved was one the man gave to the woman. After the vows, when it came time for the ring, the man said to the woman, “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow….”
Let’s pause here and acknowledge the obvious: this one-sided giving of rings is one of a few places in the 1662 marriage service that reveals an unhealthy relationship between the sexes. Perhaps the most glaring is the discrepancy in the vows themselves: only the woman promises to “obey” and to “serve,” and only the man promises to “comfort.” As though wives don’t deserve obedience and service, or husbands comfort!
Having said that, I confess that despite the problematic contextual dynamics that contributed to this piece of the service, I find these words to be beautiful and true: “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow….” The ring is a symbol of a total and unequivocal offering. All my worldly goods, even my body itself—they’re no longer simply mine because I am no longer the center of my universe. My body and my wealth have found a newer, richer home in the presence of one who is not I.
That line, “with my body I thee worship” is probably the sexiest thing ever said in a church outside the lines of the Song of Solomon itself. But those words are not simply about sex. At their most basic, those words are a way of acknowledging that everything we do as human beings we do with our bodies: run errands, fold laundry, wash dishes, walk the dog. When we enter into a relationship like a marriage, we have new disciplines and demands placed upon us, and those disciplines and demands change our physical experience of the world. I wash dishes I didn’t dirty; I fold clothes I don’t wear; I try to go to bed and rise when Lucy does; I no longer ride scooters after dark.
This is no less true of “all my worldly goods.” None of the money in my paycheck is simply mine; it’s ours. The stipend I receive as Vicar of St. Liz is our only household income. I am the one who does the work of vicar’ing, yet Lucy need not ask before buying a book or getting a haircut. The mutual commitment of worldly goods made in our marriage precedes any change of job or income status. What I mean is that it’s not the case that, on payday, I ‘give’ Lucy ‘my’ money. The work I do at St. Liz and its compensation is all part of our marriage. I’m not ‘giving’ Lucy ‘my’ money because those categories have been subsumed by the categories of marriage: our worldly goods, one household, shared life and work.
When I do all of these things, I am ordering my physical, embodied life and my material resources so as to acknowledge the worthiness of Lucy’s desires. Her desires are a gift given to me, and they lay a unique claim on my life. They safeguard me from the illusion that I am the center of my own universe.
We can begin to see how these words from the 1662 marriage rite might be instructive in learning about worship, not just for husbands but for any Christian person.
To worship God is to acknowledge God’s worthiness and the worthiness of God’s desires. Since God is our creator, God’s worthiness is absolute. To worship God is to ascribe ultimate worth to our Creator. (The words worship and worth have the same root.) When we acknowledge the worthiness of God, then God’s desires begin to lay upon us new gifts, new disciplines and demands.
God’s desires are two, and they constitute a total claim on our lives: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength….You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31). This claim is also unique: “you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3).
Our bodies and our worldly goods are no longer simply our own. We kneel in prayer, we use words instead of fists when we’re angry, we listen to each other, we visit the sick, we care for each other with food and affection, we receive this bread and this wine, we open our homes for life groups, we pledge to our church. All of these things are simply ways we acknowledge the worthiness of God’s desires—worshipping with our bodies and all our worldly goods, receiving as a gift the disciplines and demands of living in God’s presence.
This past weekend we had our bishop’s visit. We witnessed several folks, most of them new to St. Liz, be confirmed or received. Others reaffirmed their baptismal vows, and if you were present at church on Sunday, you renewed your own baptismal covenant. You promised to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.” You promised to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” You promised “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” You promised to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” (Book of Common Prayer 1979, pgs. 416-417).
These are not little promises. It’s as though we all looked at God and said, “with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow….”
Powerful vows. Imagine God’s pleasure, Her Divine Joy, at having the promise of your whole life glittering on the gentle finger of heaven. Imagine your own unending joy, for as long as you both shall live, the life everlasting.
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | October 4, 2018
Hi friends, one of my favorite books is The Divine Comedy. It’s a poem about a lost pilgrim named Dante who is rescued from perdition and travels through the realms of the afterlife as he understood them: hell, purgatory, and heaven. The third section of the poem is called Paradise, and it’s about Dante’s journeying through the spheres of the heavens, meeting saints and learning to drink more and more deeply of God’s blessing.
Near the end of the poem (Canto XXVIII), Dante emerges into the ninth sphere of heaven, the primum mobile, which in his worldview represents the very edge of the created universe. Outside of this particular sphere, there is nothing but the dwelling of the Triune God and the countless souls enjoying God for all eternity. Needless to say, it’s a particularly mind-blowing moment of an already mind-blowing poem.
At this point in the journey, way out there at the very edge of creation, Dante has a vision: a single, blindingly bright point of light, and around it spin all these shining rings at various speeds. What Dante comes to understand about his vision is this: God is the shining point of light at the center, and all around God are the many, many layers of creation—earth and us critters, the moon, stars, angels, the whole shebang.
This is a comforting image. God, our creator and redeemer and sustainer, is the shining center of complete unity, stillness, and peace at the heart of everything. In Dante’s vision, creation moves around God. The angels, who are more perfect than we, move at fiery speeds with musical regularity. For us on earth, however, our orbit is fitful, frequently torturous, and prone to haphazard change.
Yet the Word God speaks, the Word through whom all things were made, is that bright Truth at the center, the gravity which anchors our many flights of being and allows us to belong to part of a coherent, intricate whole.
One of the ways to describe Christian prayer is to say that when we pray, we are sharing in Dante’s vision: we are being centered, seeing clearly that I am not the center of the universe because God is. In fact, I am not even the center of my own life because God is. It’s as though when we pray, we are being attended by an angelic orthopedist setting a spiritual break, re-centering our souls dislocated bones.
Sometimes, when we have to make a difficult decision, we do something similar. We ponder, we take time, we occasionally agonize, hoping that the anxiety and fog will part and we’ll catch a glimpse of where the center is. Ah, yes, I see now. This is the path of faithful action or inaction.
Imagining God as the center of all that is helps us to navigate the world. Because God is a fixed point of stillness, we have a kind of reference point, a north star on the horizon. We can discern important questions, judge truth from falsehood, recognize when we are in need of repentance and seeking forgiveness. This is not to say that we ever fully understand the decisions before us, let alone God, but it is to believe in something solid and unchanging by which we can attempt to make faithful judgments about the world. We do this through prayer and worship, study, and participating in a community of faith.
Another poet I like uses a similar image to describe God, suggesting that God is “the still point of the turning world.” What I have begun to notice is that, when the world whirls too chaotically, the still point becomes difficult to discern. And when that happens, we start looking for substitutes, for anything that has the appearance of God’s fixity and stillness, anything that we can grab hold of and say, “This much I know to be true; I’ll stand here and judge accordingly.”
This desire for a still point in a turning world is a way of banishing the terror of the unknown. It’s made acute when we know we are in the presence of someone who must be lying, perhaps someone who has lied to us in the past. Family members with certain mental illnesses, situations with loved ones in the midst of addiction, even something as simple as two siblings trying to explain which of them is responsible for the cat’s being covered in blue Kool-Aid. The presence of deliberate untruth decenters us: without a clear vision of the still point against which we make judgements about ourselves and the world around us, by what are we to discern the way forward?
When I lie, I build a world of which I am the architect, in which I am the primary author of history. If it is a world and a history of my own invention, then it is a world of which I am the center, not God. This world will inevitably collapse because the task of a human being is not to create and sustain an entire world. In the Rite I confession at Morning Prayer, we confess that “we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts” (BCP, pg 41). It’s an apt phrase for our decentered lives.
In our public life as a country, as we watch the hearing and investigation around Judge Kavanaugh’s potential Supreme Court appointment unfold, we cannot help but feel that someone is lying about something. Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony is incompatible with Dr. Ford’s and vise versa. Whether deliberately or not, someone is preventing the whole truth. When we watch clips of one or the other’s testimony, we are thrust into a room of which it would seem God is not the center. We’ve entered the devices and desires of a human heart.
Human beings were not made for such an environment. Thus, as we watch, and as the turning of the world inside the senate hearing threatens to jettison us into the void, we begin to search for a still point of any kind. Without knowing it, we begin to settle for the security of a world built around a subtle lie.
The subtlest of lies is when a partial truth is treated as the whole truth and nothing but the truth. For example, did you ever notice that the serpent isn’t lying when it says, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4). When Adam and Eve eat the fruit, they don’t die; their eyes are opened; and they do become like God in that they now distinguish between what is good and what is not. The serpent isn’t lying; it’s just not telling the whole truth and nothing but.
Seen in this light, it’s ironic that a witness should swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth “so help me God.” It is ironic because the simple fact of our not being God precludes us from telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We are finite creatures, and thus any truth we tell cannot be the whole of it. We do not have the capacity to create and sustain the world; how could we then tell the whole truth? We are broken creatures, and thus any truth we tell cannot be ‘nothing but’ the truth.
Each of us has been born into and grown up in a broken history in which best intentions go awry, where an accidental tone of voice can lace a simple ‘thank you’ or ‘goodbye’ with unintended sarcasm or condescension. It is impossible for us to communicate ‘nothing but the truth’ because the truths communicated to us are rarely clear, whole, and purely motivated. In a history like this, the admission of being unable to remember details of an event over thirty years old should be expected, yet it renders us untrustworthy. In a history like this, the admission of having drunk too much as a young man is not surprising, yet it renders us wicked and incapable of having changed.
My point is that if none of us lives the whole truth and nothing but the truth, how can we expect to testify otherwise? And if this is true, how can we observers expect more from witnesses than we ourselves would be able to provide?
This is not to say that we should therefore assume that Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh are both equally telling the truth. But it does allow some room for grace. Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh have both testified in a world-history whose brokenness is not their sole responsibility. They have each inherited a world in which men all too often assault women and get away with it, a world in which the voices of men are valued more than the voices of women. They have each also inherited a world in which people lie and obfuscate under oath, even people with significant public responsibility. This is a world in which, at best, any truth a person tells is partial and contains a sliver of falsehood, and yet nevertheless we expect the whole truth and nothing but.
By now, I’ve watched, listened to, or read almost all of Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony and responses to questions, and I’ve watched, listened to, or read almost all of Dr. Ford’s testimony and responses to questions. Like many of you, I have drawn conclusions, and like many of you, I have drawn them from wrestling with two mutually exclusive stories.
But what I crave is certainty, and this I do not have. I have had moments close to certainty, but if I am honest, when I heap the burden of my desire for the Truth on the conclusions I have drawn, the weight is too much. This is not to say that, at the end of time, I will discover that my conclusions have been wrong, or that you will discover your own to have been. It is simply to acknowledge that here and now, they are finite. The truth we build from partial, imperfect truths will inevitably be partial and imperfect. It cannot bear the full responsibility of being the still point of a turning world. Only God can do that.
It is worth noting that Dante does not start off with his vision of God as the pure brightness at the core of everything; his journey through creation ends there. When his journey begins, he is lost in a dark wood and beset by temptations of every kind. He has no still point of reference amidst the shadows that haunt and threaten to devour him. His journey is long, and on it he is confronted by his own sinfulness before seeing clearly the Still Point of the turning world. His journey is one of repentance followed by blessing.
The Christian life is one of discerning the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the Truth Who is God alone. This takes a lifetime of repentance and receiving God’s blessing. At the end of all things, when we’re gathered together before the throne, the devices and desires of our own hearts will be cracked open and revealed as hollow, and together we’ll finally see ourselves and each other and the vicissitudes of history clearly in the light of God’s stillness. On that day, we’ll know for sure the answer to the drama we’re seeing unfold in the arena of American politics.
Between now and then, however, be wary that your confidence in Judge Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence is not the serpent’s voice tempting you to treat a partial truth as the whole truth and nothing but. Dr. Ford’s testimony and Judge Kavanaugh’s are mutually exclusive in regard to Judge Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence, but it does not follow that one of them is simply willfully and knowingly lying and that the other is a lone beacon of virtue. Human lives are messier than that because the history into which we are born and in which we tell our stories is messier than that. For example, Judge Kavanaugh himself does not deny that Dr. Ford was assaulted. Surely if the man accused can afford his accuser at least that much good faith, we can do the same for all parties involved.
One last thing needs saying before I bring this partial, imperfect truth to a close. On Tuesday of this week, President Trump held a rally in Mississippi in which he mocked Dr. Ford’s testimony. This is abjectly sinful behavior and what one should expect from a tyrant, not an American President. Even if we were to suspend all belief in the veracity of Dr. Ford’s specific allegations (a thought experiment which should discomfort us), the unmistakable message to the victims of sexual assault who nevertheless hear their own stories being told by her is this: “Don’t speak up. The abuse will only continue verbally and in public.” Thankfully, the bipartisan criticism of President Trump’s actions suggests other leaders are aware of this.
In the vocabulary I have been laying out here, President Trump’s mockery of Dr. Ford demonstrates the degree to which it is possible for us as human beings to follow the devices and desires of our own hearts. Yet President Trump himself is not simply inventing whole cloth a world of which he alone is the center. Like each of us, he lives and acts in a broken history. What I mean is this: not only did he mock Dr. Ford’s testimony, but he was cheered for doing so. Had we not already been willing to cheer, he would not have been able to mock.
It is too easy simply to say, “Well that’s the Mississippi crowd’s problem!” Again, that’s turning a partial truth into the whole truth and nothing but. Rather, it seems a thicker truth would be to say that each of us is culpable for the environment in which we as the United States find ourselves. I mean American Christians; I cannot claim to speak for anyone else. We too quickly settle for a partial truth rather than the whole because God does not simply show up in a senate hearing room and tell us what is what. This is deeply uncomfortable for Christian people because our natural disposition is to order ourselves around that shimmering, immutable center which is God alone. Yet being willing to sit still in the midst of anxieties like our current climate is precisely the path towards the Truth. Remember Dante’s vision: drawing near to the still point of God’s clarity means first passing through the whirling anxieties of creation, including the dark woods and tempests of our own sins and subtle lies. The only way to the light is through the dark.
All that is rather mystical, but scripture provides us a plainer example. Remember Jesus’ trial before Pilate: Pontius Pilate cannot bear to linger with the discomfort of his own question, “What is truth?” and so he proceeds directly to crucifying the very Still Point of the turning world which he so desperately seeks (John 18:38). Pilate, too, was part of a broken history not entirely of his own making. Political pressures and hierarchy, a cheering crowd, the doubts of his own heart, his utter perplexity about the strange testimony of Jesus. It’s a familiar environment for us.
Our leaders will make a decision about Judge Kavanaugh’s appointment. It may be a good decision, or it may be a bad one—and we may not know which for a long time. As you draw your own finite conclusions about this, remember that the hammer and nails of Golgotha will always be there for us to pick up, as they were for Pilate. If we would avoid crucifying the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth, we must arrive even at our partial, specific judgments, judgments like whether Judge Kavanaugh should be appointed to the Supreme Court, by passing first through the dark wood of our own ignorance. There we will find a way to the still point of the turning world.
Thank you for reading, and God’s Peace,
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | September 13, 2018
Several weeks ago, a new idea of how to pray for each other presented itself. One of our members, Will Piferrer, wrote a guest article about his upcoming pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. (You can read about his pilgrimage here. He’s almost finished!) In preparing for that pilgrimage, Will invited us to write our prayers and intentions on little cards, which he would then carry on our behalf into the cathedral of one of our sister churches in Spain at the end of his journey. Those cards were available on the sound table near the front of our worship space. I, like dozens of you, wrote one and sealed it for Will to take.
Many of us noticed how good it would be to have something like that going on all the time, a simple, informal way to commit our prayers into God’s hands by way of our community. Thus, the Prayer Box from Will’s pilgrimage remains, only now put to broader use.
It’s simple: if you have a prayer request, write it on one of the cards on top of the sound equipment table, and put it in the Prayer Box. When our Morning Prayer group gathers on the following Tuesday at 8:30am, as we do each week, we will take the prayers from the Prayer Box and pray them out loud before God’s altar on your behalf—without judgment and without assuming you want us to do anything other than pray for you.
Your prayers can be as specific, general, brief, or long as you feel necessary. You may simply write a name down, or write a longer, more specific prayer addressed to God, if you like. You may sign your name if you wish, or you may leave the prayer anonymous. All I ask is that you write legibly J And as a reminder, Morning Prayer is Tuesdays at 8:30am, and everyone is welcome.
I want to be clear: the prayers and intentions we sent with Will on his pilgrimage remained sealed and confidential, unopened by anyone. From now on, the written prayers in the Prayer Box will not be confidential; we will read them—pray them on your behalf—before the altar. This means I will see them, as will one or more of the folks who have come to Morning Prayer that week (which is open to everyone). When Morning Prayer is over, I will dispose of the prayers appropriately.
One of my favorite prayers from Morning Prayer is a prayer attributed to St. John Chrysostom. You can find it on page 102 of The Book of Common Prayer. It goes like this:
Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.
This past week we had five prayers in the Prayer Box on Tuesday morning. When it came time for intercession, the handful of us who had gathered prayed our own prayers, and then we divided up those five from the Prayer Box amongst us and prayed them on behalf of the folks who had written them. Then we said those words from St. John Chrysostom, making our “common supplication” to God. In praying out loud what others had written, I was struck by just how true those words are: our supplications are “common” because they belong to each of us, for each of us is part of the Church, Christ’s Body. Christ is with us always, yet even more so whenever “two or three are gathered together in his Name.”
But even more deeply than that, our supplications are “common” because they are the supplications of Jesus himself to God. Each Sunday morning, we pray “in the words our Savior Christ has taught us,” and then begin the Lord’s Prayer. Yet we don’t pray those words only because Jesus told us, too (though that’s reason enough). We pray them because the pilgrimage Jesus invites us into, the one he has pioneered and perfected on our behalf, the Way of the Cross—that pilgrimage ends with our becoming one with Christ, becoming his body and blood, which is to say that our earthly pilgrimage ends with our coming to enjoy God with the same fullness as Jesus does.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, that’s what we’re practicing: that we, too, can and will call God ‘Father’ as Jesus himself does. We are praying the words of Christ our companion on the way, and in those words we speak to God from within Christ’s relationship with Him.
When we pray for each other, we are trusting that God accepts our prayers on their behalf as though it were Christ Himself praying, as though each of us were praying on their behalf something similar to Jesus’ words in Gethsemane: “Take this cup from them, Father, but thy will be done.”
This Tuesday morning, we prayed in the words of one of our sisters or brothers in our community here at St. Liz, and we spoke to God through their words. And just like we are with Christ when we say the Lord’s Prayer, in that moment we were somehow with them in their journey. Whatever Golgotha or shining mountain top is on their horizon, we were with them, and they were with us—because Christ has already traversed all terrain, and so whenever we pray, whatever shadowed valley or mountain top we pray from, the words God hears are those of his only begotten Son.
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | August 30, 2018
One of our favorite things to do in Wales is just to walk the countryside or hike one of Wales’ many, many giant hills and little mountains. I want to tell you about one of our hikes.
First, a note about Wales. I think one of the reasons Lucy and I love Wales so much is because it’s a liminal place. What I mean is that traveling through the Welsh countryside feels like being in two worlds at once. In some way this is obvious. For example, all the signs in Wales are in both Welsh and English—so everywhere you go you’re seeing two very different languages right beside each other. Another example is the history. Wales has more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world. So a city park, for example, might have all the things one would see at a park in the US, things like picnic tables, public restrooms, and bags for picking up after your dog. But the park might also include the ruins of a 12th century castle! (Or, even more astonishing, a Neolithic monument as old as—or older than—the pyramids.) Welsh and English, the ancient and the 21st century—it’s all there, all at once.
But there are other, less obvious worlds co-existing. Wales has a long and rich history of saints. St. David, with a cathedral named after him, is far and away the most famous Welsh saint. Most, however, are ones we (myself included) will never have heard of before. Saint Non, Saint Rhychwyn, Saint Brynach, Saint I’m-Not-Sure-How-To-Pronounce-the-Name. There are some saints about whom we know not much more than that he or she founded this or that church way back when. Others were members of monasteries long dissolved.
For many of these saints, hilltops and mountains were important places of prayer and meditation. The saints are gone, as are their monasteries, and yet the hills and mountains remain. Lucy and I did a day hike up from the coast, through a village and across a long moor, and finally up onto a craggy little peak called Carningli (carn-EEN-glee), Rock of the Angels, where St. Brynach spent hours in meditation. It’s right next to some farmland and a friendly herd of cows. It was raining badly for much of the final stretch through the moor. We were hungry, soaked through, and were having trouble navigating in the poor visibility. The views are usually great from the top, apparently, but that day our eyes could press no further than the thick grey fog and rain surrounding us.
Then, at the top of Carningli, standing in the shelter of a rock overhang, we met an older couple in red rain jackets, Keith and Sion (pronounced like Shawn). They were enjoying a snack after their hike. They were friendly and showed us the way back down, he leading and she walking behind with us in between.
It’s tempting to say that Keith and Sion were the same angels St. Brynach spent time with in meditation centuries ago. I don’t know if St. Brynach’s angels walked back into town for tea and cakes after their hikes, but that’s what Keith and Sion did. I think instead that Keith and Sion were friendly fellow hikers who were more experienced navigating Welsh moors in bad weather.
Whichever they were, we shared an unspoken connection in the short hour or so of down-hiking we did together. For some reason, in weather in which no one should be out hiking, all four of us felt drawn to the Rock of the Angels that afternoon. All four of us were drawn up, just as St. Brynach was in his century. Just as Moses went up onto Sinai to talk to God. Just as Jesus went up onto the mountain to speak with Moses and Elijah and his Father in heaven. Just as countless anonymous hikers have climbed the hills and mountains in their own countries for who knows what reasons.
Often in the bible, when God speaks to someone on the top of a mountain, the mountain is shrouded in a cloud. I imagine it’s like Welsh fog. You’re up high, but apart from the howling of the wind you wouldn’t know it because you can’t actually see how far up you are. It’s as though with the fog God is saying, “Yes, there’s a lot of world out there. But for now, just be here, with me, on top of the earth.”
The tops of Welsh mountains are liminal spaces, parts of earth that are somehow also the bottom floor of heaven. But more than that, there’s something about the act of climbing them that is itself a liminal experience. Walking up to Carningli, I was both a hiker on vacation, and making the ancient, prayerful climb of St. Brynach. I was both praying and not thinking about much in particular. I was both lost in the mist and found by my fellow travelers. I was both hiking through an ancient place of spiritual power and skirting alongside a stretch of moor pocked with cow poop. Even now, the memory of the hike is profoundly nourishing, and yet it’s also true that nothing particularly dramatic happened, let alone something obviously spiritual. We just went up, and then came back.
In Psalm 61, the psalmist beseeches God to, “Set me on the rock that is higher than I” (v.2). The psalmist is asking for safety from his enemies, but I can’t help invoking that verse when I think about our hike up Carningli. Like a lot of us, I tend to think in clearly distinct categories: vacation vs work, prayer vs play, lost vs found, kind strangers in red rain jackets vs. possibly angelic fellow pilgrims; the ancient topography of St. Brynach vs cow poop. Those distinctions are not illusory, but neither are they final because each is the spiritual terrain in which we meet God. Every now and then, God gives us a little change of perspective by setting us upon a rock that is higher than the distinctions we customarily make.
Perhaps none of us has ever taken a step apart from the angels.
It’s good to be home.
by Will Piferrer | August 16, 2018
I’m humbled and excited by the opportunity to be a guest author in our weekly newsletter! A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to share with you a message that has become something of a recurring theme in my life. That is, the idea of walking – not necessarily as a physical activity – but as a spiritual activity. The last few years of my time at St. Liz have been increasingly devoted to finding new ways to walk with God, and grow in faith, and I’m grateful to be walking alongside this wonderful community that we’ve built together. In that spirit, I’d like to share with you once again, a very exciting personal journey that will unfold in September, and invite you to join me in prayer and reflection as we move into our seasons of Stewardship, and Thanksgiving.
When I was a boy growing up in South Florida, my family endured Hurricane Andrew, a vicious Category 5 storm which devastated our South Miami community, and took with it the sense of normalcy and tranquility we had enjoyed in the years prior. Following the storm, there was no electricity or clean water for months on end. It was nothing short of a disaster zone, and it was hot (think August in Texas, but slightly less forgiving). The roads were impassable, and we were frequently forced to walk together in order to acquire the things we needed – clean water from the National Guard Armory, food from the local supermarket, shelter from the unrelenting rain, or just simple peace of mind from checking in on our family, neighbors and friends. In those days, it was an unambiguous reminder of how we took for granted the ease with which we went about our lives, and secured the things we needed from day to day. We prayed for strength to find a way forward amid the devastating circumstances, and we found that despite the hardships, walking and praying together brought us closer as a family, and gave us the courage to persevere.
Sometime later when my mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and slowly became unable to walk, we lost the ability to enjoy those familiar things we had always done together – roller skate, go to the beach, or just have an impromptu dance party in the living room. We took for granted that we would always retain our physical abilities; we didn’t really spend a great deal of time thinking about something as simple as walking, until we couldn’t do it anymore. Here, it was my mother’s inability to walk that ultimately brought us closer together as we found new ways to enjoy familiar things, even if they didn’t quite look and feel the way they did before. We found new ways to walk together, and continued to pray for the patience and clarity we knew we would need to accept this new stage of life.
And so it seems only natural that walking would re-emerge as a central theme in my own spiritual growth at St. Elizabeth where I’ve made new lifelong friends, baptized my children, and consistently sought new ways to give thanks and pray for the extraordinary community we’ve build together over the years.
The Way of St. James, or the Camino de Santiago is a medieval pilgrimage route that runs across the north of Europe, primarily through northern Spain. For more than a thousand years, the faithful have embarked on religious pilgrimages from their doorsteps, walking until they reached the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, where tradition holds the remains of the apostle St. James were located in 812 AD. Today, pilgrims from all Christian denominations embark on Camino journeys to renew their connection with Christ and the natural world, and to find peace and comfort in an otherwise noisy and sometimes turbulent world. Pilgrims walk together for hundreds of miles on personal journeys to seek meaning in the greater world, reconnect with their faith, unburden their souls, and find healing and comfort from the losses that have devastated their hearts.
At St. Elizabeth’s, none of us has ever walked alone. In that spirit of community and friendship, I’m excited to invite my church family to continue to walk with me on a version of this journey, undertaken in the name of our congregation. On the audio table at the front of the church throughout the month of August, you’ll find a small letter box next to a scallop shell – the symbol of the Camino – and some stationery, where I’d like to invite you to send your prayers, letters, thoughts, poems or other petitions with me on this spiritual journey of renewal. My walk begins on August 31st in St. Jean Pied de Port, France. Your devotions and prayers will be sealed and remain confidential, and will be carried from the town of St. Jean across the Pyrenees mountains, stopping in of Santiago de Compostella for the traditional Pilgrim’s blessing at the journey’s end. They will then continue on to the capital of Madrid, where on Sunday, September 16th, they’ll be placed upon the altar of the Anglican Cathedral of the Redeemer, our sister church within the worldwide Anglican Communion in Spain, for a blessing and prayer of kinship between our respective churches.
As we approach our stewardship season, I would humbly ask each of you to reflect upon this theme of walking together in a continuous renewal of our faith, and of our commitment to one another as members of this extraordinary spiritual community. I’m very thankful for all of your prayers and good wishes (for safety, serenity, and strong knees), and invite you to follow the journey as it unfolds on a blog I’ve established to capture the good, the bad, and the muddy along the path. Link: https://wpiferrer.wixsite.com/camino.
It would be my privilege to carry your prayers and expressions of faith on my shoulders, and in my pack, across the miles as we walk together in Christ.
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | August 2, 2018
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?
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | July 26, 2018
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.
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | July 19, 2018
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.
by Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | July 12, 2018
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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