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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.
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | July 5, 2018
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 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. 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. 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.
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | June 28, 2018
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.
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | June 21, 2018
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.
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.
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | June 14, 2018
Last week, I said that, even for us in the 21st century USA, mailing a letter involves a bit of risk. Three risks I mentioned specifically were that the letter could be lost, the recipient might not take our meaning the right way, or the postman could deliver the letter to the wrong house. Each of these three risks was there for Paul and his churches, as well.
Before addressing these three risks individually, some general info on the composition of an ancient letter might be helpful. Writing and sending a letter in the ancient world could be expensive and tedious. Even folks like Paul, who knew how to write (1 Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11), usually dictated the letter to a scribe (Rom. 16:22). The author usually kept a copy of the letter. Writing materials like ink, papyrus, the reeds that served as ancient pens, and the services of a scribe, if a friendly one were not available, were expensive. In order to deliver the letter, the author would have to find someone who was traveling to the destination already or commission someone as the messenger. (Phoebe in Romans 16:1, for example, could be either.) Travel was usually on foot, and so it could take weeks or months for a letter to arrive.
Upon arrival, the messenger likely would have read the letter aloud to the intended recipients, depending on the relationship between the author and the messenger. This is one reason why hospitality was such an important virtue in the early Church: the constant travel of Christian missionaries was hard work, and missionary messengers relied on the church communities to which they were traveling to house and feed them. This is probably why, for example, Paul commends Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus in 1 Corinthians 16:15-18. Chances are, they were the ones who brought a message from Corinth to Paul (1 Cor. 7:1, for example), and in turn were the ones who brought Paul’s response back to Corinth. Paul commends them because they need a place to crash!
We can already see, then, some of the risks involved with sending a letter in the ancient world. First, even though when we mail a letter today there’s a chance it will get lost, the chances of that happening in Paul’s world were much higher. The Roman Emperor Augustus had established a relay system for delivering messages (think Pony Express), but it was restricted to government and military correspondence. Folks like Paul and his fellow missionaries were left to their own devices. Rome was famous for keeping its roads in good working order, but there was no protection from weather or the occasional band of outlaws for foot messengers traveling between urban hubs. Sea travel was quicker, but storms and pirates were common and could lead to disaster. Finally, injury or illness could delay a letter’s arrival or prevent it entirely.
The second risk involved in sending a letter is that the recipients might misconstrue our meaning. Unlike the chances of a letter getting lost, the chances of a letter being misunderstood by its recipients might actually have been less likely in the ancient world than it is today. Literacy was rare. Therefore, as noted above, it was common for letters to be delivered by someone acquainted with the author and for the messenger to read the letter aloud to the recipients. This means that the author’s intended tone, accent, humor, and even sarcasm could be performed accurately by the messenger in front of the gathered congregation, thereby decreasing the chances of misunderstanding.
The third and final risk is that a letter might be delivered to the wrong house. In Paul’s day, the risk wasn’t so much that the messenger would be delivered to the wrong house but that a letter might fall into the wrong hands. Paul was not always popular and was frequently persecuted; a messenger getting caught with a letter with Paul’s name on it might be in trouble depending on who discovered them. (I note this as a possibility; I am unaware of any evidence that a messenger was punished simply because the message they carried was Paul’s.) More broadly, a letter filled with Christian propaganda like references to Jesus as “Lord” (1 Cor. 8:6, 2 Cor. 1:2, et al) could run one afoul of Roman authorities, for whom phrases like “Lord” and “gospel [good news] of Christ” were used in reference to the emperor. For Romans, the emperor was the “Lord” and the coming of Caesar Augustus to the throne had brought the “good news” of peace from war. Augustus and his successors were viewed as gods; a letter claiming that Christ is “the image of God,” for example, might be seen as treason against the empire (2 Cor. 4:4).
This last is an important point: because of some of the risks involved with writing and sending letters, part of our ‘detective work’ when we study Paul’s letters has to include attention to what Paul doesn’t say. I’ll focus on this next week.
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | June 7, 2018
Nowadays, with as many different digital media as we have at our fingertips, writing or receiving a handwritten letter is rare. Still, I’m old-fashioned enough to appreciate the intimacy of a handwritten letter. When you receive a letter, you know that someone was thinking of you. And not casually, either. Your emotional gravity in their heart bent, however slightly, the course of their day: they ceased what they were doing, sat down with pen and paper, and set about performing on your behalf the well-worn ritual of incarnating physical affection across great distance: sign the note, fold the paper, seal and stamp the envelope, drop it in the mailbox from which it will be spirited dutifully away, as if by benevolent fairies, to another mailbox far away.
At Lucy’s and my apartment building, the mailboxes are all together in one spot. We run into our neighbors there. Each of us shares this unspoken knowledge that the mailbox is an intimate place. People’s lives change, from one day to the next, based simply on what’s in the mail. The mailbox is a place where our lives are on display.
At some houses, the mailbox stands at the end of the driveway, which is to say the mailbox signifies the end of our property and the beginning of the great in-between spaces we don’t control, the space that separates us from the person to whom we’re writing. To put a letter in the mailbox and raise the little red flag for the postman is to entrust something to the world and its people. This involves risk. What if it gets dropped from a bag and lost in the gutter? What if the recipient doesn’t catch my tone correctly and misses the joke? What if the postman is having a bad day and delivers it to the wrong house? Because of all these contingencies, to mail a letter is implicitly to trust in powers greater than ourselves and beyond our control: others deliver and receive what we have written. The mailbox marks the boundary beyond which that trust must become active if we would reach others and be reached by them.
A mailbox is a powerful symbol. A mailbox is the mysterious container where the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of persons unseen are suddenly receivable despite great distances between us. A mailbox is a place where our lives are on display—doctors’ bills, financial history, and personal correspondence all in one spot. A mailbox is a totem that marks the edge where the familiar realm of our front yard meets the world beyond.
Seen this way, we might say that the bible is a kind of mailbox, albeit a strange one. It’s the container where the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of our spiritual forebears are suddenly receivable by us, despite the great cultural and historical distances between us. The bible is a strange mailbox because even though its letters are our inheritance as Christians, we are usually not their original intended recipients.
However, like a mailbox, the bible is also the place where our lives are on display. Here’s what I mean: even though Paul makes it clear he’s writing not to us but “to the church of God that is in Corinth” (2 Cor. 1:1), the Holy Spirit will inevitably conjure our own lives by his words. For example, Paul writes
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)
For those of us whose experience in this life is marked by physical pain and tribulation, Paul’s words might be a source of comfort and encouragement. For those of us whose experience in this life is marked by physical health and relative stability, we might receive a kind of spiritual challenge never to take our ‘clay jars’ for granted.
These connections and contrasts between our lives and the witnesses of scripture call our attention to the third way in which the bible is like a mailbox: when we walk beyond the mailbox at the end of our driveway, just like when we begin reading the bible, we are entering a world which is not our private property. We are entering a realm not of our design or control, in which we must depend on a power greater than ourselves. The bible testifies to this realm as the kingdom of God. To attend carefully to how our lives are similar to, or different from, the persons of scripture (Jesus, Mary, Pilate, Paul, the Corinthians) is to say that when we venture ‘beyond the mailbox’ and open our bibles, we are opening ourselves to judgment.
Take the passage I quoted above. As a Christian in America during a time of intense cultural and political divide, it is tempting to think of myself as persecuted for my beliefs. Intellectual and artistic elites frown upon religious conviction as though it were mere superstition. Abortion, divorce, gay marriage, bathroom debates, religious pluralism, Wall Street, immigration—all of these spicy news topics may trend counter to my understanding of the Christian faith. Given their prominence and frequent acceptance in society, I may experience myself as living in a hostile environment—and so when I read Paul’s words in the passage above, I may feel a certain kinship. “Yes, I too am persecuted, but by God not forsaken!”
But this is nonsense. If I am attentive and recognize at the outset that neither the bible nor the reality of God to which it testifies are the works of my fingers, then I will receive and realize a much needed judgment: that my discomfort at 21st century American culture simply isn’t the persecution to which Paul was subject (even, it must be said, when that discomfort is justified on orthodox theological grounds). Whereas I may experience a certain ideological pressure, Paul was imprisoned, given over to wild animals, whipped by the lash, beaten with rods, and stoned (Phil. 1:3-11; 1 Cor. 15:32; 2 Cor.11:24-25). To uncritically identify his situation as my own is to claim for myself the moral superiority of a victim unjustly persecuted for doing the work of God. To return to the ‘realm beyond the mailbox’ metaphor, this is like my imagining that the public street is an extension of my own driveway. I’m annexing God’s Kingdom, not entering it. Hopefully, Paul’s witness will lead me to the judgment of a wiser, more faithful perspective on my own life: perhaps my own convictions cost me very little, perhaps I rarely act on them in any life-giving way, and perhaps they are largely untested by interactions with people I actually know.
That’s a lot to get in the (e)mail. Next week, I’ll attend more specifically to what sending and receiving a letter would have been like for Paul and the people to whom he was writing.
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | May 31, 2018
Hi friends, as many of you know, Lucy and I live in the seminary apartment building at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, TX. Our little apartment is cheap, easy to clean, and small, measuring a positively palatial floor plan of 400 square feet. If I’m honest, I like it quite a lot.
There are two doors: the main door from the breezeway, and then a sliding glass door that leads out onto a balcony. If there were no refrigerator or furniture, you could open both doors and throw a Frisbee from the breezeway in through the front door and then right out the balcony door into the courtyard behind. When the weather is nice, we prop the front door open and let the wind move in and out as it pleases. Lucy and I go about our business reading or washing the dishes, while Zooby schemes against the squirrels travelling their powerline highways.
Now that it’s already in the nineties most of the day, early in the morning is about the only time we open the doors. One of my favorite ways to pray is just to sit silently on our couch with the doors open, not doing anything but delighting in the presence of the breeze. Sometimes I try to imagine that I’m a mountain with deep roots and that all my cares and preoccupations are just clouds drifting by, light and free. I sit with coffee, silence, the occasional sound of a garbage truck as the city wakes up. That is, of course, unless the Varsity Pizza Bar across the street has forgotten to turn off its outdoor radio.
Our apartment, small and well kempt as it is, is two blocks north of UT’s football stadium. In addition to the live oaks and skyline, our neighborhood is home to a few bars, and, closest to us, the Varsity. The Varsity has a good-sized patio area, and they play music out there for patrons. They don’t always turn it off at closing, however, so every now and then, I have a morning like I did today: my coffee is poured, Zooby is dozing, the doors are open for the breeze, and just as I’m settling into the peaceful presence of God, I hear Johnny Cash lamenting that his daddy left when he was three and didn’t leave anything to ma and me, just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.
I like Johnny Cash. I like “Boy Named Sue.” But when my mind is soft with sleep and I’m trying to center myself for the day, I’d rather not hear how Some gal would giggle and I’d get red, and some guy’d laugh and I’d bust his head.
When I sit down for quiet like that, I try to let thoughts and distractions just drift by. But this morning, when I tried to imagine that I was a mountain, the voice of Jonny Cash came stomping across the top of my head like a giant in big black boots. I started to fight the song, to push it out of my mind. I’ve fought tougher men, but I really can’t remember when. He kicked like a mule and he bit like a crocodile.
Even after the song ended and something else was playing, I could still hear the deep voice of the man in black in my head. For whatever reason, Johnny Cash had all my attention. I was no longer a mountain; I was a Texas dance hall. My subconscious mind started mixing in lyrics and guitar licks from “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Man in Black.” Before long I was imagining Joaquin Phoenix’s face from that movie about Johnny and June Carter, Walk the Line. I remembered how Johnny Cash struggled with addiction, was in and out of rehab, divorced, constantly on the road working, and careful to keep up his outlaw musician image.
Addiction, divorce, over work, the constant anxiety of keeping up appearances. Sounds an awful lot like the struggles of real people leading real lives.
When I sat down to pray this morning, I had something I wanted from God: peace, rest, comfort. What I got instead was the Holy Spirit: a country music song from the cigarette-strewn bar patio across the street, a reminder that the world is filled with people who hurt and who are hurting. Folks for whom struggle is guaranteed while affection is not, those are the people we’re called to serve, neighbor and dark-eyed stranger alike.
And there was I, just wanting to be still. Prayer is funny like that. Maybe the bar patio radio across the street wasn’t a distraction after all; maybe it was God’s way of changing what I was praying about today.
Like Johnny Cash, Episcopal priests usually wear black. We’re up front during worship, and we usually have a microphone. Ordained priests wear black as a symbol of the work we do and of the particular community we represent, but make no mistake: the whole community is called to the work of Jesus. All baptized people serve as the priesthood of all believers. So, you wear the black, too, only it doesn’t stand out as much in grocery stores.
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.
I don’t know what Johnny Cash believed about God, but these verses from “Man in Black” have their own rough holiness. It’s worth asking: for whom do you wear the black?
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | May 24, 2018
I want to tell you about an experience I had a couple weeks ago. Part of our custom at St. Liz is that when guests at St. Elizabeth fill out one of our connection cards, I take them a newcomer bag, a collection of small gifts (including a coffee cup!) assembled by one of our members. I usually drop by folks’ homes right after church or on Monday afternoon the next day. I don’t stay long, just give them our gift and say how glad we were to have them with us at worship.
A couple weeks ago, I drove to San Marcos to drop off a newcomer bag. Their home was in a neighborhood I didn’t know, and I drove right past their house without realizing it at first. I turned onto a side street a block or so away, and pulled into someone’s drive way to turn around. I looked up, and in the carport right in front of me was a young couple sitting in lawn chairs, waving excitedly. I hadn’t seen them beforehand and was surprised, but I smiled and waved back. Then they shook their heads and smiled and started motioning for me to come closer and join them.
Something I should mention: when you wear a black clerical shirt everywhere, strangers excitedly motioning for you to join them doesn’t happen very often. When folks react to the whole priest outfit, they usually do one of two things: make it a point to offer a very polite hello, or stare a bit and move away a little awkwardly. Excitement isn’t a usual reaction.
They kept motioning for me to join them and then pointed into their front yard. There was a big grey garbage can with the unmistakable tap of a keg sticking out. Beside it was a hand-painted sign that said, “Free Beer.”
I rolled down my window. “Are y’all really giving out free beer?” They laughed and said, “Yes! We got married this weekend, and it’s left over from our reception. It’s still cold!”
Something else I should mention: there are good and faithful clergy who think it a little inappropriate to have an alcoholic beverage in public while in uniform. I am not one of them. I delivered the newcomer bag, had a short but pleasant visit, and then returned to the free beer carport.
The couple’s names were Lisa and Andrew. They’re perhaps thirty years old, dated for a couple years before getting married, and each has lived in the area for a while. We talked about how Buda and San Marcos and Kyle are all growing, about marriage and weddings and receptions, about how it’s more and more common for couples to delay a honeymoon for a few months like they’re doing, and about how good advice for husbands is “do more household chores than you want to or think you ought to.”
They smiled the whole time. They were relaxed, enjoying a couple days off together at home, and having fun waving down neighbors and passersby and wandering clergy to come have a free cup of beer. Lisa was already a member of a church, and as I poured out the last swig of my cup of cold but slightly flat Dos Equis she said, “May the Lord continue to bless you and Ms. Lucy.”
“Thanks. May He do the same for y’all. Congratulations again.”
The whole visit lasted maybe thirty minutes, but it was a great time. They were so happy and generous, like they couldn’t wait to host people at their home for the first time as husband and wife. The free beer let them extend their wedding party and show off their being-married-ness a bit, welcoming neighbor and stranger alike into the celebration.
Driving back to Buda, I couldn’t help but think of the Wedding at Cana. Jesus attends a wedding in the village, and when the wine runs out, Jesus’ mother approaches him. After a rather rude initial response to his mom, Jesus performs his first sign: turning over a hundred gallons of water into the best wine yet tasted at the party (John 2:1-11).
Like Lisa and Andrew’s carport, the celebration overflowed—there wasn’t just enough, there was an abundance, and that abundance was poured out for a whole community. This was something special, a celebration.
My next thoughts were less comfortable. For a lot of us, this isn’t what our relationship to alcohol is like. For a lot of us, beer and wine aren’t markers of celebration in community, but instead are necessary ingredients in our sense of normalcy. A glass of wine to take the edge off, a beer to calm our anxieties about this or that. If we miss our drink after work, we get irritable. If we have one beer, we always seem to have two or three more.
I’m no Puritan. Many of us in the Episcopal Church have deliberately fled Christian traditions where alcohol is considered intrinsically sinful. (Hopefully we left for better reasons that just that one!) I think that view is hard to square with the Wedding of Cana. However, that view takes seriously the fact that alcohol can quite subtly slide from being a treat to mark celebration and community to a socially acceptable anodyne for whatever anxiety, grief, or boredom we’d prefer to keep below the surface.
I’m no expert, and I’m not trying to parse the line between what is healthy and what is self-medicating or is symptomatic of dependence. I’m simply reminding us that the line exists, and that alcohol can’t bear the weight of the responsibility we sometimes unknowingly place on it.
Let’s free beer and wine and the rest from the burden of doing work it can’t do. It goes better with a lawn chair and some new friends in the carport.
by The Rev. Zac Koons | May 17, 2018
You’ve got to be kidding me, Mark.
Seriously? That’s it?! IT’S OVER?!! DON’T DO THIS TO ME, MARK!
It’s like the movie that when the black screen hits and the credits roll your jaw drops, your eyes stop blinking, and you have to catch your breath because, well, there’s no way it’s over, right? There’s so much unresolved tension. So many unanswered questions. Am I going to have to wait years now to see the sequel to Infinity War??
The other gospels end with scenes of resurrection bliss: with a theological frolicking in fields, with segue tours on rainbow roads lined with puppies. All is well. All is tidy. All is sparkling in resurrection splendor.
But in Mark we get none of that. Here we get terror and amazement. We get panic. We get running away. We get questions instead of answers and fear instead of promise. Why?
Why? Because St. Mark is a freaking genius.
Let me explain.
Imagine if Mark was the only Gospel you had. Imagine that you’ve been reading through the Gospel. You binge-read it. The very first verse—“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”—is like lighting the wick at the end of a firecracker. You were stunned by his miracles of healing and feeding. Compelled by his teaching in parables. Amazed by his radical commitment to befriending the poor. You were refreshed by the way he called out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. You were confused by his claims to be the Messiah but given everything else you began to wonder whether or not he really was. You began to wonder whether or not you were going to have to do something about it yourself. And just then everything falls apart. He’s killed. And just when you thought everything was going to be different everything turns out to be just the exact same.
But the grave is empty. And before you can even fully swallow that reality, the Gospel ends. It just ENDS in stubborn ambiguity. Maybe the body was stolen. Maybe it was misplaced. Maybe the tomb was laced with an hallucinogenic mist. Maybe, just maybe, he was raised from the dead.
But the key, the genius, is that Mark doesn’t decide for us. He introduces a crisis that must be acted on, and then leaves no one behind to act on it. Which means at the end of the story, it’s YOU AND ME who are left, jaw dropped, eyes wide, desperate to catch our breath, on the outside of this empty tomb. We must be the ones to act. The women run out into the night, seized by “terror and amazement”—again, ambiguous—and they leave us standing there, seized ourselves by Mark’s rhetorical mastery. It’s like we’ve been tricked, abandoned in the bistro just when the check has come. Whatever we do is a decision: paying, running, even doing nothing is still a reaction to this crisis. The resurrection of Christ may be the most important thing that’s ever happened in the history of the world, but if it is, precisely because it is, Mark refuses to make the decision for us. He’s led us up to the finish line, but we have to cross it ourselves. With the final stroke of Mark’s pen, we’re left as the only characters in the world’s most important story.
So what are you going to do now?
The Rev. Zac Koons currently serves as associate rector at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church in Round Rock, TX. However, Zac has recently been called as the next rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, TX. Zac’s first Sunday as rector of St. Mark’s will be Sunday, July 15th, 2018.
by The Rev. Alex Easley | May 10, 2018
I have an Australian Shepherd named Francis. Francis sort of resembles a Muppet; he is a little silly looking and irresistibly cute. He is an excellent companion, especially if you enjoy snuggling on the couch. Francis is always happy to lounge and laze. But if you want him to get up and get moving, you just have to say the magic word: “Vamos!”
Vamos in Spanish means, “Let’s go!” Growing up in South Texas, a few Spanish words naturally worked their way into my vocabulary. As kids, when my Mom wanted my sisters and me to hurry up and get out the door for school or church, she would shout, “Vamos!”
Now I say the same to my dog Francis. When I say, “Vamos, Francis,” he jumps into the air like he’s received an electric shock. Tail wagging, trembling with excitement, he runs to the door. He knows that “Vamos” means that he gets to go on an adventure, like go for a walk or for a ride in the car. And his whole furry little body seems to say in return, “Let’s do it! Let’s go!”
In the Easter season, we celebrate and contemplate the ways that the Risen Christ made himself known to his disciples after his resurrection and continues to make himself known to us today. All four Gospel accounts of the resurrection share a common theme: when Jesus’s disciples discover the mysteriously empty tomb, they are told to go. In Matthew, the angel tells Mary Magdalene, “Go quickly,” and when Jesus meets her on the road, he, too, says to her, “Go” (Mt 28:7,10). In John, the Risen Lord tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me, but go” (Jn 20:17). In Luke, Jesus first appears to disciples who are indeed already on the go; he walks and talks with two disciples who are going to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35). And finally, in Mark 16:7, the angel tells the women at the empty tomb, “But go…and there you will see him.”
What the Risen Christ said to his first disciples, he says to us: “Go! Vamos!” Go tell people about me. Go proclaim forgiveness. Go show grace. Go make friends. Go serve your neighbor and your enemy. Go on an adventure and find my Spirit at work in new places. Go!
The Resurrection is an urgent matter. When we witness that resurrection, when we get a glimpse of the risen Christ, it wakes us from our torpor and timidity. Resurrection animates us the same way that Francis is exhilarated by the prospect of a new adventure. If we listen, we can hear Christ saying to you and to me, “Vamos! Let’s go.”
Alex is the rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Seguin, TX.
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