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The Prayer Box

Hi friends, this past Sunday I introduced one of St. Elizabeth’s new ways of supporting each other and our loved ones in prayer.  Because not all of us were able to be here this past Sunday, I’ve decided to write about it here, as well.
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.
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+

Carningli, or the Rock that is Higher than I

Hi friends, it’s good to be home.  Lucy and I so enjoyed our time vacationing and Wales.  It was restful, replenishing, and rejuvenating—and all just in time for the new school year! 
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.
God’ Peace,
Fr. Daniel+

Guest Author: Will Piferrer on the Camino de Santiago

Dear Friends,

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.

Will Piferrer

584,000,000 Miles: a Celebration

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?

God’s Peace,

Fr. Daniel+

Epistles, Part 8: P.S. There’s Always More

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.”

God’s Peace,

Fr. Daniel+

P.S. Thanks for reading.

Epistles, Part 7: Disputed and Undisputed Letters…What’s the Difference?

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.

God’s Peace,

Fr. Daniel+

Epistles, Part 6: So Which Letters Did Paul Write?

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.

God’s Peace,

Fr. Daniel+

Epistles, Part 5: Citizenship in Heaven

Hi friends, over the past couple weeks I’ve taken this series on Paul’s epistles on a detour so as to respond to Attorney General Jeff Sessions' comments on immigration enforcement practices.  Nowadays, two minutes of speaking by a public figure is old news after only a week (let alone three!), but I’m going to finish responding to his comments today.  I do so because the fundamental theological error Mr. Sessions makes in his comments betrays a worldview that is formally identical to that of the Roman Empire.  Therefore, his comments are instructive for exploring Paul’s epistles, all of which were composed within that historical era.
I’ve already addressed Mr. Sessions’ use of Romans 13.  However, what Mr. Sessions says after his ill-fated stab at scriptural exegesis is more troubling: “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves.  Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing….”  The fundamental mistake here is Mr. Sessions’ assumption that a law is good simply because it is the law.  By his logic, separating immigrant children from their families is good so long as the enforcement of this law is “orderly,” “consistent” and “fair.”  So long as the traumatizing of families is expedient, and so long as Mexican children are not separated from immigrant parents with more or less frequency than children from El Salvador, then the law is good because it is enforced with order, consistency and fairness.
Surely these are qualities we want laws to have; but they cannot make a law good.  Mr. Sessions seems to believe that a law is good simply because it is the law.  The American people’s overwhelming (and blessedly bipartisan) outcry against the practice of separating immigrant children from their families suggests that we intuitively know this to be false.
Why do we believe this?  One answer—and it is a true one—is that at a basic, instinctive level, we know that children belong with their parents.  Few things are more natural.  In what remains of this post, I want to explore an additional, more explicitly theological answer from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “our citizenship is in heaven” (3:20).  Modern democratic societies like ours, however secular in appearance, are indebted to this concept.
To begin, I want to draw the connection I made at the beginning between the worldview evinced by Mr. Sessions’ comments and that of the Roman Empire.  I have already shown that Mr. Sessions seems to believe that a law is good simply because it is the law.  This is formally identical to the worldview of the Roman Empire, which essentially believed that Rome was good because it was Roman.  The Roman Empire saw itself as divinely commissioned, its success authenticated in its military dominance across the Mediterranean.  The emperor was the focal point of this power, a kind of walking deity, though overt worship of the emperors was rare while they were alive.  The emperor was at once father figure, protector, patron, the epitome of Rome[1]  The emperor’s edict was law; he was bound to no other authority.  For the emperor, the only test of whether he should do something was whether he could, be it levying a new tax or invading a foreign land.
Legal magistrates represented the emperor’s power at the local level.  These magistrates had bodyguards who carried a particular kind of axe that both symbolized and enforced their authority.  (Fun trivia fact for your next cocktail party: one of these axes was called a fasces, which is where we get the word “fascism.”)  Just as the emperor had armies, the local magistrates had bodyguards who both protected the magistrate and enforced the law, which again was simply the imperial will.
We can see, then, that at both the imperial and local levels, Rome saw its actions as self-authenticating.  Whether it was the emperor’s ordering his armies to annex a new territory or the local magistrate’s sending his bodyguards to extort tax money from a neighborhood, Rome enforced its will through power.  The use of that power was justified simply because it was Rome using it.  When Rome got what it wanted, it saw its success as evidence that its cause was just.  Because Rome had the most power, the Roman worldview was self-authenticating: what is good to do is whatever Rome does, and no one else is strong enough to argue otherwise.
Thus, we return to Mr. Sessions: “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves.”  This is formally identical to the Roman view because Mr. Sessions’ position also authenticates itself.  Rome is good because it is Roman; the law is good because it is lawful.
Enter Paul and his Christian contemporaries.  From the very beginning, Christian witness proclaimed that the source of goodness is not the coercive power of an empire or legality; the source of what is good is God.  When Paul refers to Jesus, rather than the emperor, as “Lord;” when Paul refers to the “good news of Christ” rather than the good news of Caesar Augustus; when Paul writes that “our citizenship is in heaven” rather than our citizenship is in Rome, Paul is proclaiming that for Christian people, the highest good is participation in the life of God in Jesus Christ, not conformity to the will of the emperor.  This is what the Rome of Paul’s day could neither understand nor tolerate: Christians proclaimed that the earthly empire in which they lived was not the kingdom to which they most fundamentally belonged.  Their citizenship and deepest loyalty were elsewhere. 
We can see, then, how the gospel drove a wedge between what is good and what is Roman.  This is not to say that the two were never the same—Paul relied on walking well-paved Roman roads, after all!—but it is to say that it’s not a given that goodness and Roman-ness are identical.  Perhaps for the first time in history, a group of people began to understand themselves in such a way that their most fundamental identity did not depend on the survival of an earthly political body or geographical area.  This was because for early Christians like Paul, the true King, the true banner around which heavenly citizens rally, is the crucified Lord.  According to Paul, “the rulers of this age” like Caesar are “doomed to perish” because they do not recognize God’s wisdom in the crucified Jesus (1 Cor. 2:6).  Instead, Rome ruled by claiming and defending a monopoly on legitimate coercive power.[2]  When they “crucified the Lord of glory,” Rome just assumed it was exercising its natural supremacy and justice by eliminating a potential threat (1 Cor. 2:8).  This is how Rome survived: crucifying competitors.
But notice what this means: the moment Rome’s coercive powers of crucifixion and the like fail, then so too does the Roman notion of what is good.  How can Rome coerce people whose king suffered crucifixion—the worst of Roman coercion—and then was raised from the dead in glory?!  How does an earthly empire compete with that?  The goodness offered by that kind of King rests on a foundation more solid than strength of arms or whims of an emperor.  Thus, the Church may remain after an empire falls. 
What has any of this to do with Mr. Sessions?  As I have shown, Mr. Sessions’ assertion that the law is good because it is lawful evokes the self-authenticating specter of the Roman Empire.  And yet the outcry of the American people—not just Christians—was overwhelming against the practice of separating children from families.  This is because embedded in our understanding of democracy is the Christian idea that laws are not simply good because the state says they are lawful: the gospel has driven a wedge between goodness and state-sanctioned legality.
The United States of America is based on the conviction that the governments of the world can and should order themselves so as to safeguard the rights of their citizens, but that no State can claim to be the source of those rights.  In other words, the State can organize its laws so as to allow people to pursue what is good, but the State is not the source of goodness.  As American citizens, we are indebted to Paul and the early Christians who proclaimed that we have loyalties that run deeper than loyalty to our earthly country.  Thus, in our own context, we can never say, as Mr. Sessions did, that a law is good simply because it is our country’s law.  Instead, Americans instinctively understand that goodness comes from elsewhere: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  No law, or enforcement of a law, should transgress what has been endowed by our Creator.
Two closing thoughts: first, to clarify, I’m not suggesting that all citizens of modern democratic societies like the United States are somehow secretly Christian.  I am suggesting that modern democratic societies are indebted to a Christian idea.  Societies like ours would not have been possible had Paul and the first Christians not claimed “citizenship in heaven,” thereby driving a wedge between what is truly good and what the governing authorities legislate and enforce.[3]  The second, less comforting truth is that for Christian people who claim “citizenship in heaven,” the failure of any worldly society in which we live must always be a live moral option.  Christian faithfulness simply doesn’t depend upon the maintenance of an earthly political reality, or even on our fully realizing the kingdom of God as an earthly nation.  Because we belong to a kingdom not of this world, we are freed from the temptations of totalitarianism: what is good is not simply what is Roman or American; what is good is to participate in the life of God in Jesus Christ.  Therefore, American Christians can and must always proclaim that we would rather these United States fail than perpetrate evils like separating children from their parents, actions which seen theologically are no less than a re-crucifying of the Lord of glory—which was perfectly legal the first time.
Thankfully, it’s not a simple choice between the two.  However, when public figures like Mr. Sessions speak in a way that conjures the thinking of an empire better left in the historical dust, American Christians do well to remember Paul’s witness: we are called first and foremost as patriots of Another Country. 
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+
[1] See Michael Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, pg 17. 
[2] This phrase belongs to former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. See chapters 2 and 3 of Faith in the Public Square, Bloomsbury: New York, 2012.  The notion that sentiments like Philippians 3:20 are precisely the ideas that make modern democratic societies possible is also Williams’.
[3] Williams, pgs 28-29.

Epistles, Part 4: Romans 13…Isn’t It Ironic?

Hi friends, last week I responded to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ use of Romans 13 during his comments about the enforcement of immigration policy along our southern border.  I argued that Mr. Sessions misused Romans 13:1 in three ways.  Yet my critique of his comments took for granted that Paul actually means what he says in that passage.  Today, I want to offer an alternative possibility: in advocating subjection to the governing authorities, Paul is being deliberately ironic.1   When I say Paul is being ironic about the authorities, I mean that Paul praises them for virtues, motivations, and behaviors they obviously lack.  It’s as though he’s praising the cat for its compassion and restraint towards the mouse.  I offer two primary reasons for this reading.
I. First, and most significant, if Paul is not being ironic, then the historical events of the decade leading up to Paul’s letter to the Romans render much of Paul’s language in Romans 13 either grossly insensitive or nonsensical.  A likely date of the composition of Romans is 56 CE, about two years into the reign of the Emperor Nero.  Several years before this, around the year 49 CE, the Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome, apparently for rioting at the instigation of a figure one Roman historian refers to as “Chrestos.”  This figure is probably a (Roman non-believer’s) misspelling of “Christ.”  As Christ had already died, risen, and ascended by that point, the proclamation of the Christian gospel probably caused the riots.  It’s unlikely that Roman imperial authorities would’ve spent much time distinguishing between traditional Jews and Jewish Christians, or between Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians associated with them.  To Rome, everyone was guilty.
So, around 49 CE, Emperor Claudius sends his goons to round up and expel from Rome a host of Jews, Jewish Christians, and (likely) Gentile Christians.  However, around five years later (around 54 CE), Emperor Nero suspends that edict, allowing everyone to return.  These are the people to whom Paul is writing in the letter we have today: people who were forced into exile by the authorities’ swords, who lost their property and livelihoods and homes in the process, and who had to start all over upon their return.  It’s likely all these Roman believers were poor, which meant they had almost zero support from the authorities even before the exile.  (For example, if a robber attacked a poor person, the poor person was personally responsible for catching the robber and bringing him to trial.) 
To recap the timeline: in 49 CE Emperor Claudius expels all Jews, Jewish Christians, and their Gentile associates from Rome.  Homes and livelihoods are lost.  In 54 CE, Emperor Nero undoes that edict and allows everyone to return, but after exile, they’re materially very weak.  In 56 CE, Paul writes his letter to the Romans.
Keeping all of this in mind, an ironic reading of Romans 13 actually makes the most sense.  When Paul writes, “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad,” he is clearly attributing characteristics to the Roman authorities that aren’t true!  These very “rulers” were a terror to everyone, not just the “bad.”  They indiscriminately rounded up everyone with even a hint of Judaism about them and kicked them out of Rome because some of them were preaching the gospel.  If Paul is not being ironic, then Paul must be suggesting that the Roman believers’ expulsion from Rome was God’s “wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:4).  And if Paul is suggesting that, then we must either say that Paul is being intentionally insensitive to the experience of Roman believers, or that Paul is ignorant of their situation.
The former objection does not make sense.  Unlike with the Corinthian church, for example, with whom Paul had a good deal of contact both in person and via letter, Paul has never been to Rome (Rom. 1:13).  Paul is also not the founder of the Roman church.  Thus, while Paul clearly knows some members of the Roman church (see below), he has very little relational authority there.  If he wants the Roman church to take seriously his reflections on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation, for example, he jeopardizes his own credibility by being insensitive to his recipients’ history of being persecuted.  Thus, insensitivity is counter to Paul’s purposes.
The latter objection, that Paul simply was unaware of the Roman authorities’ oppression of believers in Rome, also doesn’t hold up.  Even though he had never been there in person, the specificity of some passages in Romans demonstrates that Paul knows what’s happening on the ground.  For example, Paul responds to a lack of clarity regarding what kinds of food are appropriate to eat (14:3-4, 14-15).  Furthermore, Romans 16 is filled with Paul’s namedropping of people he knows there.  Paul greets Prisca and Aquila in 16:3, for example.  Acts 18:2 lists them as having been expelled from Rome by Claudius.  Perhaps Paul met them and heard their story during his travels, while they were themselves in exile.  By the time of Paul’s writing, they had returned to Rome.
II. Second, irony serves to unite ‘insiders’ while leaving ‘outsiders’ in the dark.  In other words, Paul is offering up an inside joke to the Roman believers.  Folks who are on the inside feel united, while those who are on the outside are left ignorant of anything beyond the surface meaning of the text.  It’s as if a bunch of Texas A&M fans traveled to England together, and one of them makes a wisecrack about Longhorns in reference to, say, some rude Londoner on the sidewalk.  The Londoner, who is ignorant of the ways of Aggies and Longhorns, likely wouldn’t know he was being made fun of.
By being deliberately ironic in Romans 13, then, Paul accomplishes two goals: first, Paul’s ‘inside joke’ builds a sense of community between himself and people he has never met.  Paul knows Roman officials have persecuted the people to whom he is writing, just as he himself has been persecuted.  To suggest that the authorities have been ordained for their collective “good” (13:4) generates a shared, if grim, laugh.  Another example: for poor Roman believers, tax collectors are notorious extortionists.  Thus, Paul’s recipients are smiling wryly when they hear Paul say, “[pay] taxes to whom taxes are due” (Rom. 13:7).  Everybody knows that tax collectors ask more than what is due.  They work for Rome for free; extortion is how they pay themselves!  Paul’s irony communicates, “Hey, I’m one of the gang!”
Two weeks ago, I wrote that in Paul’s day letters were frequently delivered by messengers who were familiar with the author.  This is no doubt true of the deacon Phoebe (Rom. 16:1), who delivers Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Whereas we may have a harder time picking up on Paul’s irony while reading it, the original recipients heard it read aloud by someone who knew Paul’s intentions and could accentuate her presentation accordingly.  In short, Phoebe may have hammed it up during her presentation of Romans 13 so as to better communicate Paul’s irony.
This brings me to the other goal Paul accomplishes with irony: keeping Phoebe safe.  For Paul and his contemporaries, one risk of sending a letter was that it might fall into the wrong hands.  In Rome, the ‘wrong hands’ were Roman authorities who, as demonstrated above, had a history of picking on Jews and Christians.  By using irony, in one stroke Paul not only creates an inside joke for him, Phoebe, and the Roman believers, but he also leaves Roman officials in the dark.  If they were to confiscate Phoebe’s letter, they would simply interpret it the same way Attorney General Jeff Sessions did in his comments earlier this month: at face value.  Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.  No irony, no nuance, no complexity—just “be subject.”  Full stop.  No reason to arrest Phoebe for that.
Other factors suggest Paul is being ironic in Romans 13.  As an apocalyptic thinker, for example, Paul understands the existing political order as broken, as counter to God’s purposes, and as ultimately fading away.  In 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, for example, Paul writest that the “rulers of this age” who “crucified the Lord of glory” are “doomed to perish.”  The “rulers of this age” are the same “authorities” Paul is talking about in Romans 13.  This is hardly an unequivocal endorsement of state power and suggests we should be cautious in assuming there’s nothing beneath the surface of a verse like Romans 13:1. I’ll continue this theme next week and try to bring some of these ideas to bear on our own context.
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+
1. I am indebted to T.L Carter’s argument throughout this piece.  See “The Irony of Romans 13” in Novum Testamentum XLVI: 3, January 2004.  Pages 209-228.  Carter does not, however, attend to Phoebe’s potential role in performing Paul’s meaning.  Her performative role only strengthens the rest of Carter’s argument.

Epistles, Part 3: A Response to Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Hi friends, many of you will have heard Attorney General Jeff Sessions' comments on our American practice of separating children from their parents if the family has entered the United States illegally.  (President Trump has thankfully signed an executive order discontinuing this practice.)  During his remarks, Mr. Sessions referenced the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans.  A number of things in Mr. Sessions’ comments are at odds with the witness of Paul’s epistles.  Today, I want to continue our epistles series by focusing simply on Mr. Sessions’ use of Romans 13. 
During an appearance in Indiana on June 14th, Mr. Sessions said the following (quoted from the video linked above): “I thought I’d take a little bit of digression here to discuss some concerns raised by our Church friends about separation of families.”  Let’s pause here to highlight something hopeful: pressure from Christians in America is clearly reaching the ears of people in power.  This is as it should be.
Mr. Sessions continues: “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”  Mr. Sessions offers this to his Christian critics as a means of defending the enforcement of zero tolerance policies along the border.  Mr. Sessions misrepresents this verse from scripture in three ways.
The first and simplest is that Mr. Sessions misquotes it.  Romans 13:1 reads, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1).  There is no mention here of God’s “purposes,” let alone of an indication that the authorities’ purposes and God’s are synonymous.  (The word “purpose” does not appear in Romans 13:1 in the NRSV, NIV, CEB, or NKJV translations.)  However, we do get something of God’s purposes in Romans 13:4: “for [the authority] is God’s servant for your good.”  The authorities are the servant, and God is the master.  Clearly, the servant’s job is to do the will of the master.  What is the master’s will?  The achievement of “your good.”
Paul continues in verse 4: “But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain!  It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.”  If we keep Mr. Sessions’ comments in mind, we should become deeply uncomfortable at this point.  If we follow his line of thinking, we are obliged to say that children separated from their parents at the border are the objects of God’s wrath executed “on the wrongdoer.”  If we are not willing to say this—and it is my sincere hope that we are not—then we must say that the authorities, divinely instituted by God as they may be if we adhere to this reading of Paul, are not acting according to God’s “good” purposes and have therefore betrayed their divine appointment.
This leads to the second error in Mr. Sessions’ use of Romans 13.  In addition to misquoting Romans 13:1, he has lifted it out of Paul’s argument flowing from Romans 12 and continuing (at least) through 13:7.  For example, consider Romans 12:14, 19-21:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them….Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’  No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
These are the words immediately preceding Mr. Sessions’ chosen verse about being subject to the authorities.  It seems, then, that Paul is actually assuming an adversarial relationship between people and authorities.  To make Paul’s point clear, I have added the bracketed sections: “Beloved [Roman Christians], never avenge yourself [on the authorities who persecute you], but leave room for the wrath of God [to be visited on the authorities on the day of the Lord].”  When Paul writes, “if your enemies [the authorities] are hungry, feed them,” he is referencing the very authorities to whom he advocates subjection. 
Why?  Why advocate feeding the very oppressive authorities to whom Paul says the Roman Church should be subject (rather than, say, take up armed revolution)?  Because Paul worships the crucified Lord and believes that fidelity to proclaiming the gospel—honoring Christ above all others by practicing charity toward your enemies, for example—while in a position of great weakness has power to convert even violent oppressors.  In short, in advocating subjection, Paul advocates shaming the authorities into repentance and conversion to Christ.  This is the example Paul sets when he is in prison.  (See Phil. 1:12-13.)
So, if we return yet again to Mr. Sessions’ comments, it seems he would’ve been more accurate in his use of Romans 13:1 had he addressed himself to the immigrants themselves and said, “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government, all the while extending food and drink to our officials, until we repent of our cruelty and turn to the Lord.”
Finally, Mr. Sessions’ use of Romans 13:1 is misguided because Paul’s exhortation in Romans 13 likely represents his efforts to prevent armed revolution by Jews and Christians.  Armed revolts were fairly common in Paul’s day, and much of the mistakes around Jesus’ identity centered on folks’ expectation that Jesus was going to overthrow the oppressive Roman regime.  (A messiah, after all, is one who is anointed like a king.  In the ancient world that meant leading armies.)  These rebellions usually focused on unjust taxation practices.  Not surprisingly, Paul concludes his argument in this section by focusing on taxation (13:6-7).  His advocating subjection to the authorities is a way of ensuring the survival of the Roman church.  With this in mind, it is unclear how Romans 13:1 translates to separating families of illegal immigrants.
Note that this whole critique (like Mr. Sessions’ himself) assumes that Paul essentially means what he’s saying; it’s just that what Paul is saying is not what Mr. Sessions wants him to say.  There is reason to believe, however, that this particular piece of Romans is a kind of ruse, that Paul does not mean what he is saying, or at least not exactly.  Next week, I’ll walk through a bit of ‘detective work’ to outline this interpretive possibility.
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+
P.S. Mr. Sessions is not the first American political leader to misrepresent Romans 13.  It is a seductive passage for those in government.  If you’d like to read more, this piece in the Atlantic offers some historical perspective.
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