Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Ephesians 3

Ephesians 3:1-13: Whether or not this is a genuine letter from Paul, the writer assumes the guise of Paul. If it is from Paul, the imprisonment mentioned is an imprisonment in Rome, Paul’s final imprisonment. He was executed in Rome.

Paul’s imprisonment on this occasion, and on other occasions are related to his commission as apostle to the Gentiles. He has done his work for them. He has taught a mystery which has long been hidden from humankind. It is a mystery that the Spirit has given the apostles and Christian prophets. The great mystery of the gospel which Paul has been given, and which has been given to the Christian community is that God brings together Jews and Gentiles into a single community. At the heart of the Christian understanding of the work of God is that God breaks down barriers between people. God seeks to bring people who have been separate together. The church should be a place of connection and reconciliation. That it has often been a place of segregation and separation runs counter to the great mystery of how God is at work in the world through Jesus Christ and the Spirit.

Paul’s mission is seen as a gift of grace. He saw his mission as bringing “the riches of Christ” to the Gentiles. How and to whom are we bringing the riches of Christ? God created all things, and in Christ God seeks to bring all together again. The church has the task of sharing “the wisdom of God in its rich variety.” The church shares such wisdom in such a way that even the cosmic powers see it. This is a powerful description of ministry for a community that may have been relatively small and sometimes beleaguered. In Christ, all have access to God, a bold connection with the God who created all things. The Ephesians are encouraged not to lose heart in the face of Paul’s suffering, or perhaps in the face of their own.

If this letter is not from the hand of Paul, it is, in part, a wonderful tribute to his ministry.

Ephesians 3:14-21: Ephesians is often prayerful and poetic, even in its theology. The writer returns here to prayer. “Father” and “family” are a word play in Greek – pater and patria. The point is not to engender God but to remind the reader of the inclusive vision of God, who includes in God’s family all persons. The writer prays for these persons who know God’s love and care and are a part of building God’s inclusive family that they may be strengthened in their inner being with power through God’s Spirit. He prays that Christ may dwell in their hearts, which is to be rooted and grounded in love. He prays that they might know God’s wisdom in breadth and length and height and depth and God’s love in Christ. All this is what it means to be filled with the fullness of God.

How will all this happen? Because God is able, by the power at work in us, “to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” The Message: God can do anything, you know – far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us. While I wish Peterson was a little more attentive to inclusive language here, I appreciate his rendering of this passage.

God is at work, in our lives and in our world. God gives wisdom to be shared, love to be shared, and breaks down long-standing dividing walls between people. And we are invited to be a part of God’s work in the world.

Ephesians 4

Ephesians 4:1-16: As is typical of Pauline letters, the emphasis shifts from more theoretical theology to practical theology. What does living life in the power of the Christ and the power of the Spirit look like? How can we demonstrate in our lives that God breaks down dividing walls? If God’s power is working in us, what are the evidences of that and how can we help that along? Some of the answers we will struggle with, but will need to try and understand them in their cultural setting. We might even disagree with the implications for living drawn from the theology sketched in the letter.

In general, we are “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” We are to do this “with all 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.” Humility was considered a weakness in first century Hellenistic thought. Here it is seen as an essential quality of life in the Spirit, and I think we need to understand that it has nothing to do with self-denigration. Humility is the realistic appraisal of one’s strengths and weaknesses – neither overestimating nor underestimating them. To be humble is not to have a low opinion of oneself, it is to have an accurate opinion of oneself. It is the ability to keep one’s talents and accomplishments in perspective, to have a sense of self-acceptance, an understanding of one’s imperfections, and to be free from arrogance and low self-esteem. (Robert Emmons, The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns, 171) Deep spiritual humility defies the connotations of self-debasement, of ineffective meekness, that our culture assigns to the word “humility” and that I too imagined until I dug into sacred text, and lived with my children, and embarked on this odyssey of conversation…. The humility of a child, moving through the world discovering everything anew, is closely linked with delight. This original spiritual humility is not about debasing oneself; it is about approaching everything new and other with a sense of curiosity and wonder. (Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith, 236, 237)

We are to strive for unity and peace because, the writer reminds us, we are one. At the same time, within our unity, there is a grace-filled diversity. Each person has been given gifts and graces (the word for “grace” also means “gift”). These gifts come from the Christ who has been on earth and in the heavenly realm. The list of gifts here, while similar to lists in Romans and I Corinthians has a more universal tone. In those writings, the context of the gifts given is the local Christian community. Here the context seems to be the church worldwide. The gifts – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers – are to be used to equip all for the work of ministry and for building up the body of Christ. Notice the inner and outer focus of these phrases. God’s people together do the work of ministry, participate in God’s work in the world. They also work together to build up the Christian community. A strong Christian community is a necessary support structure for doing God’s work in the world, and it embodies God’s work in the world as it is a community of peace.

Christians continue in ministry and in building up the body of Christ until we all mature in Christ, until all become Christ-like. The opposite of being mature in Christ is to be immature, childlike in a negative sense, easily distracted by every new religious fascination. Instead we are to speak the truth in love (both parts of that are vitally important). “The truth of the faith can be claimed in an unloving way that violates the very claim to Christian truth; love can be affirmed in a shallow manner indifferent to truth” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Speaking the truth in love to each other, the community grows into who it is, Christ.

Ephesians 4:17-24: The writer has been describing the new way of life in Christ. He now looks at another way of life which needs to be left behind. There are elements of the Roman culture that don’t fit with the Christian way – confused thinking, hardness of heart rather than sensitivity. This is not the way of life they have learned, and what they have learned ultimately comes from Jesus. The Ephesian Christians are invited “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

Ephesians 4:25-32: Part of this new life is “speaking the truth to our neighbors.” The universal human assumption is that people say what is to their own advantage, that projecting a desirable self-image is primary in what people say. Christians are freed from this concern with the self. (People’s New Testament Commentary) Anger may occasionally be an appropriate response to certain circumstances in the world, though it should be used sparingly. However, to nurse a grudge, to hold tight to one’s anger, is not appropriate for Christians. Christians are to work to support themselves and to have something to give others in need. Words should give grace to those who hear them. In general, do not grieve God’s Spirit, not break God’s heart. Put away bitterness, wrath, anger (anger is not encouraged), wrangling, slander, malice. Be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving. I think it is interesting to note the primary images of the Christian life here – kindness and peaceableness, watching our words so that they give grace. Even as we struggle for a better world, work hard for justice, we should never forget this important side of being Christian, and our faith communities should be marked by such behavior. The churches can be mean-spirited places is so foreign to the vision of the Christian way of life described in this text. It must break God’s heart.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ephesians 2

Ephesians 2:1-10: The section beginning here and continuing through chapter three is theological reflection, expanding upon the themes introduced the opening blessing and prayer. Worship in Israel and Judaism often included recitation of God’s mighty acts of salvation (e.g. Psalm 105, 106). This function is fulfilled in Ephesians by affirmations of what God has done in Christ that brought salvation to lost individuals and unity to divided humanity and the fragmented cosmos (People’s New Testament Commentary). In Greek, verses 1-7 are one long sentence with the core of the sentence being the statement that God has made us alive.

This theological meditation begins with words many find difficult – “you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.” “Sin” for many of us has become a dead word, too fraught with baggage to be of much help to us as we look at our lives. I would argue that the idea behind the word is vitally important. Referring back to ideas I developed in the Romans commentary, I would argue that sin is anything we do that mars the image of God within our lives and that gets in the way of God’s dream for the world. When we react to a situation out of something less than our best self, rather than respond to it with all the appropriate inner resource required, we mar the image of God. When we buy into warped models of the good life, such as “the one who dies with the most toys wins,” we mar the image of God. When we hate instead of love, when we resort too quickly to force instead of pursuing gentler course of action, we mar the image of God and get in the way of God’s purposes in the world. Biblical faith indicates that this has happened to all of us, and if we are honest with ourselves, I think we would agree. There are similar theological dynamics in most other religious traditions – the spiritual life is both a movement away from something and toward something. In Buddhism, for instance, human beings are caught in needless suffering because they relate to life out of an illusory view of the nature of the self and the world. Buddhists move toward enlightenment along the eightfold path, which begins with “right understanding” or “right view.” For Christianity, we have lost our way, we have marred the image of God within, we have distorted our relationships with God, others, self, and the world. We need forgiveness (which gives us a fresh start) and freedom to know life as it was meant to be. These verses celebrate that God has provided for forgiveness, freedom and new life.

Notice the very next part of the equation – “following the course of this world.” Recall the discussion of the Powers when we were reading Galatians. The author of Ephesians believes that we get swept up in forces that lead toward death rather than life, that move us to mar the image of God, that carry us along a part that contradicts God’s dream for the world. Think of how difficult it would be for a white person to stand up for racial reconciliation in apartheid South Africa, or the American South in the first half of the twentieth century. “The flesh” is another way to designate how these forces get intertwined in our own lives.

We were dead, caught in forces that were overwhelming us, even as we contributed to their power in our lives. Into that situation, God intervened. God’s love did not abandon humankind, but reached out to offer life. God did this in rich mercy, great love, and grace. In Christ, God has made us alive. Like Christ, we have been raised to life. The author does not describe how this happens, just that it happens. And God’s grace continues in showing kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith.” This phrase is a good summary of Pauline theology, even if Paul did not write this letter. In Christianity, it is God who reaches out toward humanity in love. While we can realistically speak of person searching for God, in Christian faith we find that the God we have been looking for is already looking for us, reaching out to us in love. We have often been simply too busy or blind to notice. This saving, healing, making well and whole, this work is primarily God’s doing. We open ourselves to God’s Spirit in faith and trust. The writer is not saying that we are not involved at all in God’s work in our lives and the world. That would leave us nothing to do. The author is saying that God is the primary actor in the healing of our lives. The Message reads, “We don’t play the major role.” It goes on to say, “If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing!” The problem these words seek to address is the problem of spiritual pride, spiritual one-upsmanship. If we are the sole masters of our spiritual progress, then it becomes a temptation to rank and order people according to how well they are doing, and that can be detrimental to the faith community. That is not to say we don’t notice when some people seem further along the way than others, but we all begin with a fundamental acknowledgement that God initiates salvation, healing, well-being, wholeness. Our first job is to respond to the love that reaches out to us. As we do this we understand that God’s hope for our lives in Christ is that we will be about God’s purposes. We are created in Christ for good works. This is to be our way of life. The phrase “we are what he has made us” could be translated, “we are God’s poem.” The Christian life is about working with God’s Spirit to write the most beautiful poem possible in our lives, and to touch the world with that beauty.

Ephesians 2:11-22: The author now takes another look at the former life of members of the community, here focusing on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles who are now together Christian. The communities addressed in this letter would be primarily Gentile, the situation here is different from the situation of the Galatian Jesus communities.

The author views the Gentiles, before becoming a part of the Christian faith community, as persons alienated from God and God purposes and promises – “having no hope and without God in the world.” This is not intended to be a general commentary on the ability of God to work outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, rather it is addressed to persons who found their previous way of life a living death in one way or another. They had experienced themselves as without hope and without God. They had been far off, but now God, through the “blood of Christ,” has brought them near. Again, just how the death of Jesus facilitated overcoming this separation is not spelled out. For many, that particular language does not speak as it may have to the Ephesians, though the message that in Jesus as the Christ, including his death, God was at work to show God’s love is something Christians affirm.

It is interesting to compare the first section of this chapter with this one. There the problem was a life that was really death. God acted in Christ, in the resurrection, to bring life. Here the problem is distance, separation. God acted in Christ, in his death, to draw people near. The basic affirmation is that God did something powerful in Jesus as the Christ which made possible new life for persons. Different images bring this point home in different ways. As Christians we deprive ourselves of the richness of our tradition and faith-language when we make any one image the “only” way to speak about God’s love in Jesus as the Christ – whether that be the language of being “born again” or the language of Jesus “paying the penalty” for human sin.

In the first part of the chapter, we are brought to new life – “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (v. 10). Here, alienation is overcome, distance is bridged, people have new hope in God. Human relationships are also healed. Alienation between persons is overcome. In Christ we have peace. Dividing walls are broken down. Hostility is overcome. The work of God for new life is a work that intends peace between persons who had previously been separated and alienated. It is a work of creating “one new humanity.” Many scholars think that verses 14-15 are a reworking of an ancient Christian hymn celebrating Christ the maker of peace and destroyer of walls that divide. Peace is proclaimed to those near to God because of the covenant promises of the Hebrew Scriptures, and peace is proclaimed to those who were never a part of those promises until now. It is in Christ that both Jew and Gentile can come together in the Spirit to know God.

The chapter ends by referring back to the Gentiles. They are no longer aliens and strangers, but part of the household of God. Making an association from the concept of a house, the author imagines the Christian community as a structure, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone. This is a shift from Paul’s image in I Corinthians 3:9-11, where Jesus is the foundation. The writer of Ephesians sees Christ as the cornerstone, with the apostles and early Christian prophets making up the rest of the foundation. This may indicate, again, that Paul did not write this letter, and it may indicate a later stage in the development of the Christian tradition. The author then combines the organic image of the one body and the image of the structure to picture the church as a growing holy temple. People are built together spiritually, and God is in their midst.

Just as the first part of this chapter ends with an encouragement to a way of life characterized by good works, so this section ends with an encouragement to live together in community as Christians, as the people of God. So often we hear descriptions of the Christian faith that focus only on a personal relationship with God. Less often, we hear people discuss the Christian faith as if it is only about doing good in the wider community. Christian faith has to do with one’s inner spirituality and relationship with God. Christian faith has to do with changing the world, including breaking down dividing walls in society. Christian faith also has to do with building a community of people with whom we live out our faith. Part of the way God works in the world is to bring people together in community, all kinds of people. When we are able to be a community together, our message about a God who reconciles is more real and convincing. When we demonstrate peace together, our words about peace make more sense.
Ephesians 1

Ephesians 1:1-2: We have already discussed the issues with the authorship and destination of this letter. The letter begins with an identification of author and audience and a wish for grace and peace from God and “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Ephesians 1:3-14: In Greek, these verses are one long sentence. This “style” does not fit with Paul’s style elsewhere. In any event, this one long sentence is a statement of blessing which in the language of worship and poetry expresses the basic theology of the letter. Given the distinctly poetic language of these verses, and of much of the letter (and of a great deal of the Bible itself), it would be helpful to say a few words about the poetic nature of theological language.

In his book, Hopeful Realism, theologian Douglas Ottati shares his guiding convictions about theology. Two of them are particularly relevant and helpful to us at this point. The first conviction is that a Christian theologian works with the church’s poetry (the many symbols, images, and patterns that emerge in the church’s scriptures, traditions and contemporary life) in order to portray the world, our possibilities, and our limits in relation to God. Theology traffics in images, symbols, and themes that clarify life in its true depth and circumstance. Thus the great doctrines of Christian theology help us orient our lives as they point toward and put us in touch with that which remains beyond our comprehension. They do not offer detached descriptions of things completely known so much as evocative images, patterns, models, and paradigms that interpret and explore but never entirely capture the reality in which we live and move and have our being. In this sense, the language of theology operates at a different level and with a different purpose than the quantitative discourse that has come to dominate so many aspects of our culture…. My second conviction is that Christian theology has a practical aim. Like a pastor, it tries to help persons and communities interact with current situations and realities in a manner that is faithfully responsive to God. (1-2)

Andrew Shanks, theologian and priest in the Church of England also offers an assessment of faith, theology and poetry in his book What is Truth? Faith is a community-building or community-transformative appropriation of the very deepest poetic truth…. The truth that belongs to the poetry of faith is not exactly a matter of correctness. Far rather, it is the truth of a true challenge: to imagine more, to feel more, to think more – in short, to love more. And so to be inwardly changed. Changed in the sense of saved. (5)

To see the language of Ephesians 1:3-14 as theological poetry helps us understand it more adequately and makes it more relevant to our lives. For instantce, we can worry less about how we were chosen, “before the foundation of the world” and ask what the author is trying to convey by such a phrase.

This long sentence begins as a word of blessing to God – the God Christians come to know when they affirm Jesus Christ as Lord. We bless God because we have been blessed by God in Christ. “In the heavenly places” is a phrase peculiar to Ephesians. It is a majestic phrase, indicating that Christian faith, this small struggling faith, has a cosmic scope. We have been blessed and chosen, chosen before the foundation of the world. Does this mean God knew all along that in the year 2008 I would be sitting at a computer pondering the very meaning of being chosen? I don’t think so. In a world where the empire was considered cosmic and destined from the very beginning of time to rule, this writer is making a counter claim for Christian faith. The claim has a practical import – we are to be holy and blameless in love. Using yet another image of the way we have been blessed by God, we are told that we were destined to become adopted children of God through Christ. All this is a gift of God’s grace, freely and lavishly given. In grace we have been blessed, chosen, destined for adoption, and forgiven. Though the focus has been cosmic, the author here introduces a very earthy event – the death of Jesus. That death is a significant part of God’s grace given the world. The precise significance of that death is not spelled out in detail. We have also been “clued in” to God’s work in the world, given wisdom and insight into the mystery of God’s purposes. Finally, it is God’s purpose to “gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” “God’s plan for history is to unite and reconcile the fragmented, alienated, and hostile universe” (People’s New Testament Commentary). In Christ we are given meaning and purpose. We are to live in accord with the mystery of God and God’s purpose to bring everything together in love. Those who have responded to the good news of God’s loving purpose for the world in Jesus Christ have been given the Holy Spirit, and this Spirit will continue to work in us. All of this will glorify God.

The language here is dense and poetic. It is audacious when you consider how small a movement the Christian church must have been at this time. To claim that you were part of the mysterious purposes of God in the world, when you had a powerful empire claiming that it was the will of God, that claim must have seemed startling. But that is what is being claimed. It must have served as tremendous encouragement. We are invited to the same encouragement. God has worked in our lives, and God continues to work in our lives and in the world to overcome alienation, fragmentation and hostility.

Ephesians 1:15-23: Following this incredible theological and poetic meditation on God and God’s work in the world a prayer for the readers is offered. It, too, is filled with some incredible poetry.

Verse 15 seems to indicate that the writer is not familiar with the readers, which would have been odd if Paul is the author of this letter and it was intended for the Ephesian Christian community.

Having heard of the faith and love of the community, the author offers prayers of thanks for them. He also prays that these persons and this Jesus community may be given a spirit of wisdom and revelation as they deepen their knowledge of God. He prays that this increasing wisdom will enlighten the eyes of their heart – a beautiful image. Christian wisdom is wisdom of the head and heart! The author wants the Ephesian Christains to know the hope which is part of Christian faith, know all that God has in store for Christians as partners in God’s work, and know the incredible power of God’s love as it works in our lives. The Message renders this part of the prayer as a prayer to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for Christians, oh the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him – endless energy, boundless strength! We can use these words and images in our own prayer for our lives and our church.

The power at work in our lives is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, a life-giving power. The author also adds another dimension to the resurrection – Christ seated at the right hand of God. The reference is to Psalm 110:1. Notice the language of Christ seated at the heavenly places – “above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” This language runs counter to the imperial language of the time. It is Christ that rules ultimately, not the emperor or the imperial power in Rome. Christ is the ultimate ruler, and the church is “the body” of Christ, the presence of the one who fills all in all. In a city that was an important imperial center, the author of this letter is asserting that the Christian way of life will ultimately triumph over the imperial way of life. Once again we are challenged to ask, "Where there are “imperial” values in our world that we need to struggle with and against?" We do so trusting that the way of Christ is a way in tune with the grain of the universe.
The Letter to the Ephesian Christian Community

The city of Ephesus was the Roman capital of Asia Minor and is mentioned frequently in the New Testament (twenty times). It was a center of commerce and religious pilgrimage. The Christian community in Ephesus was not established by Paul, though he was apparently there from around 54 to 57 CE and it is often argued that Paul wrote a number of his letters during this time. The church is mentioned in Revelation, and the city was associated with Johannine literature and was the site of a major church council in 431 CE. While the letter as we have it is addressed “to the saints who are in Ephesus,” a number of ancient manuscripts don’t mention Ephesus but rather say that the letter is “to the saints who are also faithful.” This letter, then, was most likely not address to a particular Christian community but was a circular letter written to the churches in a larger region.

If destination is one question, with this letter we also arrive for the first time at the question of Paul’s authorship. Traditionally this letter has been attributed to Paul, and if it was written by him it would have come later in his career, most likely written in Rome 59-early 60s. Biblical scholars disagree about the validity of this traditional understanding. Why? They raise a number of points. The vocabulary and style of this letter are apparently quite different from the undisputed letters of Paul. The ideas and theology in the letter represent distinctly different emphases from the uncontested Pauline letters. In the genuine Pauline letters, Paul holds in significant tension the present reality of Christians in Christ and a future complete salvation, the emphasis in Ephesians is on the present experience of Christian faith. Marriage in Ephesians is seen as representing the relationship between Christ and the church, a significant shift from Paul’s writing in I Corinthians. In the uncontested Pauline letters, Paul always writes to the church in a particular place, whereas in Ephesians references to “the church” are to the universal church.

This evidence does not prove, however, that Ephesians is not authentically Pauline. Some reputable scholars maintain that Paul wrote the letter, arguing that Ephesians was written at the end of Paul’s life and that the thought represents the “mature” Paul…. Still others who do not think that Paul wrote Ephesians do think it is genuinely Pauline. They explain that in Ephesians, students and followers of Paul preserved and applied the apostle’s teaching. For them, Ephesians is a pseudonymous work in the Pauline tradition. Ephesians might have been written intentionally as a summary of Paul’s thought. Pseudonymous authorship, which is writing under a false name or under the name of someone else, was common in the biblical world and not considered plagiarism. To honor a teacher, preserve his ideas, and employ his authority, disciples wrote works in their teacher’s name. In the case of Ephesians, at about 85 to 90 CE a disciple of Paul may have written this letter in Paul’s name to reflect his thought and to apply it to new situations. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible).

Does any of this matter? Of the twenty-two New Testament letters, counting Revelation as a letter, only eight indicate an authorship that is virtually uncontested (seven of Paul’s letters and Revelation). So does it matter that we have so many books attributed to persons who did not write them? On the one hand, not really. The fact that the books are in the canon indicates that the early church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, heard in these documents the word of God, the authentic witness to the apostolic faith, as it tried to find its own way forward after the death of the apostles but before any authoritative tradition, canon, or organizational structure had been accepted. (People’s New Testament Commentary) These writings are in our Bible, are Christian Scripture and we need to grapple with them as such. On the other hand, it matters. It matters to those who try and write about Paul’s theology. If we want to figure out what Paul wrote and taught, we need to focus on his genuine writings. More importantly, however, the very notion that within the New Testament itself we find a development of thought for new situations encourages us to make this faith real and relevant for our time. That persons “developed” Paul’s thinking in some fresh directions, emphasized parts of it while leaving other parts relatively silent, encourages us to creatively engage the Scriptures. We are reminded that there are a variety of ways to discuss what God did in and through Jesus and how that makes a difference in our lives. No single set of images is adequate. We are enriched when we can use a variety of images, see things from multiple angles. While the Christian faith is not infinitely elastic, as was already said, it is much more elastic than many of us have been taught to believe.

Ephesians follows the same outline as Colossians, and some argue that it appears to be an expansion of Colossians (another possible argument against Pauline authorship). In both letters, a typical Pauline pattern is followed. The first part of the letter is theological and provides a grounding for the second part which is practical and ethical – giving instructions for Christian life and Christian community. Much of the theological material has a distinct liturgical and poetic flavor to it. It is less analysis than doxology. One noticeable element in the letter is that the author and recipients don’t seem to know one another which would be unlikely if Paul spent three years here (1:15, 3:2). The letter does not include some of the personal elements found in undisputed Pauline letters.

The main theme of Ephesians is God’s plan to reconcile Jews and Gentiles, which was accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The author’s vision is cosmic. He understands that God’s final purpose is not only human reconciliation, but also unity and harmony in the universe. The church, with Christ as its head, is the means of accomplishing that purpose. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible).

Eugene Peterson in his introduction to Ephesians in The Message assumes Paul’s authorship of the book. Peterson is less concerned with this critical, scholarly debate than with helping this text have an impact on our lives. His comments on the relevance of the book are worth quoting at length. What we know about God and what we do for God have a way of getting broken apart in our lives. The moment the connection between what we believe and what we do is damaged in any way, we find ourselves living lives that are far less than what God had originally intended. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians joins together what has been torn apart in our sin-wrecked world. He begins with a dynamic study of what Christians believe about God, and then, like a surgeon skillfully setting broken bones, “sets” this belief in God into our behavior before God so that the bones – belief and behavior – knit together and heal. Once you start looking, you notice broken bones in every relationship of our lives…. There isn’t a single relationship that has escaped injury, that isn’t out of joint or limping in pain…. Not only is Jesus the “mender of relationships”; we, because of our relationship with him – are menders as well, and what we and Jesus are doing by trying to bring relationships together is urgently needed. Now that we know that the healing of relationships is the dynamo at the heart of the universe, we support God’s plan with every ounce of energy and endurance we can come up with.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Galatians 5

Galatians 5:1-12: In these verses, Paul summarizes his basic point in arguing against the Jewish Christian agitators, and he uses some angry and colorful language along the way. Christ has set the Galatian Christians free to live in freedom. To submit to the Law would be to enter into slavery. Paul sees things in very either/or back-and-white terms here. If you see the need to become circumcised to find favor with God, be prepared to try and fulfill the entire Law. With perhaps a bit of ironic humor, Paul tells the Galatians that those who would be circumcised have “cut” themselves off from Christ. His basic point is that in Christ circumcision really doesn’t matter. Life lived in the Spirit, faith working through love, are what matters. In faith we live and in faith we hope for a time when God’s dream for the world, God’s righteousness, will become fully real.

Paul now turns his attention to the troublemakers. The Galatians had been doing so well, what had happened? They have been unduly influenced by some teachers whose gospel is significantly different from Paul’s. Some might have tried to make Paul an ally by saying that he, too, preached circumcision, but Paul denies that. Paul contrasts the preaching of circumcision with the preaching of the cross. He preaches and teaches the latter. Then Paul uses a very striking, angry and violent image. Deeply frustrated with those he feels are leading the Galatian Christians astray, he writes, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves.” Though filled with anger and frustration, this is also a shrewd use of an image, even if we find it distasteful. The troublesome teachers had been encouraging circumcision – Paul tells them to keep cutting! Those who had been castrated were required to be removed from the community under the terms of the Law. Paul wishes these teachers would go away. Some devotees of pagan goddesses castrated themselves as an act of devotion. Paul may be alluding to his argument that for the Galatian Christians to undergo circumcision would be to enslave them in patterns familiar in their lives before Christ. Might Paul ever have regretted using such harsh language? Here he is not a very good model for the contemporary church as it tries to navigate its differences. As much as we might “feel good” doing it, the conversation would not be much enhanced by telling someone you disagree with, “Go castrate yourself.”

Galatians 5:13-26: Paul again reminds the Galatian Christians that they have been called to freedom. They have been set free for freedom, and should not submit to the requirements of the Law. But that doesn’t mean that they are “free” to do anything at all. “Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom” (The Message). Here Paul uses a startling image – “through love become slaves to one another.” Hasn’t Paul been encouraging the Galatians to remain free, to avoid becoming slaves? Now he tells them to be slaves to each other in love. Paul seems to assume that people will give themselves to something or someone. We become what we commit our lives to. True freedom is found in giving our lives in love to each other. Paul then makes another dramatic assertion – “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” If you want to really fulfill the Law, Paul asserts, forget circumcision. Love.

Live by the Spirit. This is another way to encourage the Galatian Christians to use their freedom to love. Here Paul “draws a contrast between the Spirit of God, which produces its fruit within the justified, and the works of the flesh, which destroy the fabric of community life” (New Interpreters Study Bible). When referring to “Spirit” and “flesh,” Paul is not talking about two components of the human self, but about the Christian life lived in the conflicting force field between two powers (People’s New Testament Commentary).

The use of the term “flesh” has often been confusing. Walter Wink is helpful. Sarx [flesh] can refer to the physical substance we are made of or to the physical body; it can be used for the self or one’s being, or for human beings or humanity in general. Less frequently it denotes physical genetic descent or ethnicity, or earthly existence, or, rarely, sexual desire. But its most striking and theologically weighty use, found especially in Paul, is in reference to the self in its alienated mode. Life lived “according to the flesh” denotes the self externalized and subjugated to the opinions of others. It is the self socialized into a world of inauthentic values, values that lead it away from its centeredness in God. It is the beachhead the Domination System establishes in our being…. It is pursuit of the values of the Domination System. [It] refers to a life that has abandoned the transcendent and become fixated on personal satisfactions…. Everything an alienated person does is infected by alienation, even the quest for God. Therefore God has taken the initiative and come searching for us. (Engaging the Powers, 61-62).

Paul opposes the life of the flesh to the life of the Spirit. The values of the flesh (alienated, inauthentic existence; separation from others, from higher purposes and from God) can be seen in the kinds of qualities and actions produced in those who live according to the flesh. “Paul lists 15 works of the flesh, all of which are destructive of community life” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible): fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. Paul’s list is not meant to be exhaustive. It is illustrative and a fairly common list of “vices.” Such actions and values are antithetical to God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world. The Message (Eugene Peterson) translates the list this way: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied-wants; a brutal temper; and impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on. I do appreciate Eugene Paterson’s gift for language. The life of the Spirit is a distinct contrast, characterized by these qualities and actions: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Here is how The Message renders this list: affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. Again, Paul’s list is not meant to be exhaustive. Nevertheless, I find in these verses about the fruit of the Spirit one of the central images for the Christian life. This is who I want to be. This is how I want to live. This is how I want God’s Spirit in Christ to transform my life. I often use these fruit of the Spirit as a prayer for my life.

Paul, with gentle humor, notes that the law does not speak against such things as these fruit. He offers encouraging words. We who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh, the inauthentic self. We are people of the Spirit and should live as such. This Spirit life is meant to be lived in community, and so Paul reminds them that the Spirit community should not be marked by conceit, competition, or envy. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original. (The Message)

Galatians 6

Galatians 6:1-10: “Live creatively friends” (The Message). The life of the Spirit is meant to be lived in community, and here Paul describes what that community life should be like in even more detail. If one falls away, efforts should be made to restore that person in “a spirit of gentleness.” “Such efforts at restoration are a risky business, involving the possibility of further misunderstanding and conflict, self-righteousness, and offending the straying member even further. As his own letter shows, for Paul the business of being a caring congregation is risky, and it accepts the risks.” (People’s New Testament Commentary) Life in community means bearing one another’s burdens. If there is a law in Christ, it is a law of love and mutual care. While we are to be engaged in mutual care, we balance that with paying attention to how we live our own lives. Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life. (The Message) In this community, Paul encourages the congregation to support their teachers.

Paul again contrasts flesh and Spirit, and uses the metaphor of planting to describe how one should make choices in the Christian life. Sow seeds of the Spirit and you reap a new kind of life. That’s what Paul encourages, and so he goes on to say that they should not “grow weary in doing what is right.” Instead, whenever they can, they should “work for the good of all.” Straightforward words for our own lives.

Galatians 6:11-18: Paul has been on such a positive roll, but he is not yet finished with the conflict the precipitated this letter. Paul notes that he writes some of this in his own hand. Apparently his practice was to dictate his letters to scribes. Usually when he takes the pen it is to offer a warm personal note, but here he summarizes his argument against the Jewish Christian agitators who have sown seeds of discord among the Galatians. He accuses these troublemakers of looking out only for their own reputation and safety. Perhaps Paul writes this because Jews had been given some protection by Rome. They were allowed to practice their religion. The first Christians were Jews, and saw their allegiance to Jesus as the Christ as an extension of that faith. Arguments were often made that as a part of Judaism, Christians should also receive Roman recognition. The troublemakers could have been concerned about this, hence Paul sees them as not being willing to be persecuted for the cross of Christ. He also accuses them of not keeping the law in its entirety. In contrast, Paul boasts only of the cross of Christ and of the way the crucified Christ has changed his life – it has made him dead to the warped values of “the world” (“the flesh”). “New creation is everything.” Paul wishes peace and mercy upon all those who walk in this way of new creation. They are the “Israel” of God. Paul ends by stating his desire to move away from the troubles he has dealt with in this letter. He has had enough, after all, he has already been marked in life by the suffering of Jesus in his own life and ministry.

Paul finally ends on a positive note, wishing them all the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Galatians 4

Galatians 4:1-7: Moving back from the argument that the Galatian Christians are all a part of Christ and thus heirs of Abraham through baptism, he returns to the image of a will. This time he adds a twist – what status does a minor heir have? The status of a slave, at least until the appropriate time arrives. The image isn’t perfect, for a son knows he will inherit one day whereas a slave has no such hope. Paul then offers an even more strained analogy – “we,” meaning all humankind, we minors are as such enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.” “Here Paul refers to those transcendent cosmic powers that oppress humanity, the enslaving conditions of human existence as such” (People’s New Testament Commentary). For Paul, human existence is often driven by “powers” or “forces.” That may not be as strange as it seems. Sociologists argue that there are many things in our lives that are shaped by our social experiences and social location. Psychologists argue that there are often unconscious drives that move and motivate us. Both will make the case that seeing our lives more fully, completely and clearly allows us to make more choices about how we will incorporate the social and psychological forces and drives that are a part of our lives into our actions. As we are more aware we are freer to shape our lives.

Theologian and Biblical scholar Walter Wink has written extensively on the language of the powers in the New Testament (The Powers That Be is a summary of this work). For Wink, “the spiritual Powers… [are] the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power” (Naming the Powers, 104). “The Powers are simultaneously the outer and inner aspects of one and the same indivisible concretion of power” (Naming the Powers, 107). Biblically and theologically Wink believes that we need to simultaneously affirm three things about the Powers: “The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers must be redeemed.” (The Powers That Be, 51) An illustration is in order. Governments are powers, and they have a good function, necessary for human community. We need to figure out how to live together and work together and share resources together. Governments allow us to do that. They are a power for good, at least theoretically. In reality, those who govern often lose sight of the common good. Governing power becomes an end in itself. Power structures become corrupt and the persons who seek nothing more than to stay in power become warped, to some extent. The Powers are not functioning as intended. They are fallen. But it is the intention of God to redeem the Powers – to make systems more just, to liberate persons from the captivity to a lesser self. Wink’s work is rich and suggestive and I have only scratched the surface of it here. I hope it illustrates how seemingly arcane language can become alive again, relevant and pertinent.

Paul’s basic point in all of this is that lives were subject to elemental spirits until, in the fullness of time, Christ came. When Christ came our status could be changed. It is like an heir coming into an inheritance. Paul then shifts images – it is also like being adopted into a family, this time the family of God. The inheritance we receive as a part of this family is God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit at work in our hearts moves us to know God as “Abba,” “Father.” This is not intended to be a gender-specific identification of God. Rather it suggests an intimacy with God that is ours as a part of God’s people. The Galatian Christians are part of the family of God already and do not need to submit to the dictates prescribed by the Jewish-Christian agitators.

For our own lives, we are invited to see that God is always at work to bring us into a more intimate relationship with God. When the Spirit of God is at work in us, we sense that closeness of God, at least sometimes.

Galatians 4:8-11: Paul now addresses the situation of Gentile Galatian Christians directly, using again the image of slavery. Formerly, the Galatian Christians followed gods that really weren’t God. Paul uses a wonderful turn of phrase in verse 9. “Now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” - - - our relationship to God is always a knowing and being known. The Galatian Christians have come to this place of freedom, why would they want to return to a form of slavery. For Paul, Gentile submission to the requirements of the Law, when seen as necessary for being completely a part of the family of God, is akin to worshipping gods who were not God, and akin to a form of enslavement.

Galatians 4:12-20: In this letter where Paul is trying to call the Galatian Christians back to the message he shared with them, to loyalty to that message and to Paul himself, he uses everything in his rhetorical medical bag. He now appeals to their shared experience. Paul has become as them, that is, free from law-works. Apparently Paul first preached to these churches because of some physical suffering he was undergoing. This may have been an unplanned stop on his journeys. In spite of his troubles, Paul was welcomed, and he asks them to welcome him again. Their hospitality was deep and radical, and he asks them to restore it. Paul argues that the agitators are trying to flatter the Galatians, but to no good end. Paul is not saying that positive encouragement is unimportant. “It is good to be made much of for a good purpose at all times.” Paul offers such positive words about these communities for the good of bringing them around. He then offers a startling image of his leadership. “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” - - - Paul feels like a mother toward these communities. The image is of tender strength, and it is an image that would have been very unlikely in that day and time. Paul is like their mother, but right now, a perplexed mother. What might we who lead in the church today learn about Christian spiritual leadership from Paul’s imagery?

Galatians 4:21-31: Paul shifts again, moving from a deeply personal note to an argument from Scripture. "O.k., so you want to follow the Law? Have you even read what is there?" Paul tells them. Remember that Abraham had two children, one born of a slave and one born from his wife Sarah. Paul is clear that he is making this an allegory. This allegory is meant to address the situation in Galatia in the first century and is not meant to be Paul’s final word about Judaism or the Law. Again, Paul’s specific argument strikes us as an unusual use of the Scriptures, but it can be instructive to see just how they were used by Paul. Over the centuries, a variety of interpretive methods have been used for Scripture. This is an uncomfortable truth for those who think that Scripture should be interpreted literally and we should stick with its “plain meaning.” The texts are intended to be read together in community and the value of an exegetical strategy is in important ways to be determined by the effect of that interpretive strategy in the lives of the people. Anyway, Paul proposes and allegory of two covenants, and argues that the Galatian Gentile Christians belong to the covenant of freedom, they are children of promise. Paul encourages them to drive out the trouble makers. “Paul had considerable tolerance for a broad range of understandings of the Christian faith, but also recognized a line at which it was not only a different perspective, but a different gospel that was being proclaimed” (People’s New Testament Commentary).

Friday, January 18, 2008

Galatians 3

Galatians 3:1-5: The previous section, 1:6-2:21, argues that Paul’s own history validates his gospel. This section shifts from narrative to theological arguments from Scripture. (People’s New Testament Commentary). Such arguments from Scripture, experience and theology will take us into chapter 5. In these verses, Paul argues from the experiences of the Galatian Christians themselves. He begins with some attention-grabbing language – who has bewitched you, you fools? Paul had shared with them the story of Jesus and his crucifixion and resurrection. They believed and God’s Spirit was present among them – present in some powerful ways. If God’s Spirit was present among them because of their response to the story of Jesus, why would they now think they are required to take on law-works? The presence of God’s Spirit in their midst was a definite sign that they were people of God without circumcision, without law-works. When Wesleyan Christians argue that our theology is shaped, in part, by our experience, we have an example here in the work of Paul.

Galatians 3:6-14: In their believing, in their faith/trust in God, the Galatian Christians are already children of Abraham. Here Paul begins an involved argument from Scripture. Some of the texts introduced and Paul’s interpretations may seem strained to us, but he is using the methods of interpretation common in his day. He presumes a knowledge of the texts among his recent Gentile converts, probably indicating that he is giving his own counter-interpretations of texts already used by his opponents in Galatia and familiar to his readers. (People’s New Testament Commentary). The Galatian Christians were children of Abraham without circumcision and the like because they were like him in trusting God, in faith. “Those who believe are blessed with Abraham.” Faith has always been the way of salvation, beginning with Abraham.

If faith has always been the way God touches persons lives most profoundly, if it has always been the way of salvation, well-being and wholeness, then why be troubled, if you have faith, by the fact that you don’t follow every detail of the law? I don’t think Paul wants to rule out the possibility that practices that are a part of the law might also be faith-works. What Paul is arguing is that faith-works are what matter, and if you have this faith and a life consistent with faith, you don’t need the works and practices of the law to repair your relationship with God. Again, though, Paul is working in a polemical context and he draws a sharp distinction between faith-works and law-works. The law does not rest on faith, Paul argues. “Law… operates on another basis that grace and trust; it is a matter of doing, not trusting” (People’s New Testament Commentary). From the perspective of the words of the Law, Christ himself does not measure up because he was crucified. But instead of being cursed, God raised Jesus from the dead, freeing him and us through him. The Galatians, as Gentiles, had already received God’s Spirit.

Galatians 3:15-18: Paul now combines the story of Abraham with a legal argument to continue to make his case against the Galatian Jewish-Christian agitators. Take a will – once it is written out, no one else is free to add to it or take from it. Paul argues that God made a covenant with Abraham, something that is like a will, and that this was done well before the Law existed. It is to the promise God made Abraham before the law was even around that the Galatian Christians should look. Paul also argues that Christ is the rightful heir to the promise made to Abraham, and Christians are all joined to Christ, and thus are also inheritors of the promise.

Galatians 3:19-29: The question that naturally arises is, “If salvation comes from faith, from the promise made to Abraham, why does the law exist? What did it accomplish?” In this work, Paul has drawn a sharp contrast between law and faith, law and covenant. The usefulness of the law, which came after the promise, was temporary. It did not even come directly from God, but through angels or a mediator. Furthermore, no law has yet been devised that “could make alive.” So what did it accomplish? The purpose of the law was to keep a sinful people in the way of salvation until Christ (the descendant) came…. Its purpose was to make obvious to everyone that we are, in ourselves, out of right relationship with God…. Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic Law. (The Message). Peterson’s translation includes some of his own interpretation of Paul’s message, and he may be missing some of Paul’s point, but at least you see how one modern reader tries to understand what Paul is saying. Paul’s language about being imprisoned and guarded by the law until faith would be revealed, seems more negative than Peterson’s rendering suggests, though Paul's language of a “disciplinarian is slightly more positive. The basic point for Paul is that the law had a legitimate function, but it is not necessary after Christ. That is not to say that it is not useful or beneficial, only that it is not required in order for God to be at work in our lives.

In Christ the Galatians are all children of God “through faith.” There is no need for circumcision or becoming more “Jewish.” The Galatian Christians are God’s children. They have “clothed” themselves with Christ. In doing so, dividing walls have been broken down – Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. The Galatian agitators wanted to maintain such social distinctions. For Paul, these have been broken down and broken through in Christ. He does not want to see them erected again.

As I read these words, a few thoughts come to mind. We must be careful especially in light of the sorry history of Christian anti-Semitism, not to take Paul’s word about the law as a final and objective assessment of Judaism. Romans provides a more positive and balanced view of the law. It would not be appropriate to take the words of Galatians and argue that Christianity has superseded Judaism. Paul is arguing against a particular group of people who were themselves Christian, but who wanted to make parts of their Jewish heritage essential for Christian faith. Paul is arguing that the Gentiles can be Christians as Gentiles, and need not become Jews. Faith is what is important, even in Judaism, and if the Gentile Galatian Christians already have faith, their adding of the law as a requirement would not be a faith-work.

I am also struck by how foreign this debate is, on the one hand, and how relevant it may be on the other. We don’t have people making arguments about circumcision in our churches today. For most of us, Paul use of the Hebrew Scriptures is not terribly illuminating or edifying. But we do have people making arguments about what is imperative for Christians to think or do, and sometimes their use of the Bible seems arcane and strained. Not long ago, I heard a radio preacher argue that unless one believes in the literal truth of a six-day creation, the whole edifice of Christian faith crumbles. Was he right? No. I think he was trying to make something inessential essential. When confronted by debates within our Christian faith tradition we need to ask questions inspired by Paul’s writing here. What really contributes to our deeper understanding of our faith? What draws us closer to the love of God we know in Jesus Christ? What actions and beliefs really tear down walls that separate people, and what beliefs and actions seem to erect those walls again? Even as we listen in on debates settled long ago we can learn something.
Galatians 1

Galatians 1:1-5: Paul begins his letter innocently enough, or does he? His self-identification is already making a point against his opponents. Paul is an apostle, and one sent by God and Jesus Christ, not by human persons. Paul wishes the Galatian Christians grace and peace from God and Christ, who “set us free from the present evil age.” Freedom will be a key theme in this letter. Paul’s use of the phrase “the present evil age” does not mean he thinks of the present as evil only, but sees it as less than the world God desires. Christ sets us free from all that hinders God’s purposes in our lives and world. This is not an escapist theology, but one that will emphasize our freedom from detrimental forces in our lives and our world so that we can change our lives and the world.

Paul’s consistent use of “Father” for God is not meant to make a statement about the masculinity of God, or to argue that this is the only appropriate designation for God. Paul’s use of Father God is helping him make a point. The agitators in Galatia wanted the new Gentile Christians to become children of Abraham. Over against “Father Abraham” Paul puts “God our Father” as the only One who gives life” (People’s New Testament Commentary).

Galatians 1:6-10: Paul pulls no punches. Just after greeting the recipients of his letter, he expresses astonishment that they have wandered away from the gospel to pursue “a different gospel.” Paul is quick to note that there really is no other “gospel,” just a perversion of the gospel. Just as with the phrase from II Corinthians about a “different Jesus,” care needs to be taken with this phrase. Christians have been quite adept at hurling such accusations against each other for centuries. I hope we can agree that there is some elasticity to the gospel, to how we authentically express what God has done in our lives and in the world through Jesus as the Christ. The essence of the gospel seems to be the affirmation that God acted powerfully in Jesus for the good of the world, and that God continues to act through Jesus for the good of the world, for its redemption, for bringing it closer to God’s dream for the world (the kingdom of God). There can be a great deal of elasticity in describing that, and in talking about how human persons respond appropriately to this good news. But if there is significant elasticity, Paul seems to indicate that the gospel is not infinitely elastic. At some point, authentic Christianity gets lost. Certain affirmations might be incompatible with being Christian. Certain patterns of behavior cannot be considered genuine responses to the action of God in Jesus. I would argue, for instance, that a thorough-going racist understanding of Christianity stretches “Christianity” beyond its breaking point. That is, any affirmation that those of European descent are fully human, while others are somehow less, cannot be Christian, nor can behaviors that embody such an ideology. For most of us, this is a no-brainer. There are significantly more heated debates about just how elastic Christian faith can be. The other dimension to this debate is what we think about those outside the Christian faith. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, who make no attempt to be Christian, who would not want to try and stretch the elasticity of Christianity to encompass their faith systems (though they may find compatibilities and mutual encouragement) – might Christians affirm that God may be at work in these traditions? That, too, is a subject of intense debate within Christian faith.

In any event, Paul, argues that the Galatian agitators have stretched the gospel beyond its legitimate elasticity. They have perverted the gospel and thereby sown confusion in the Galatian Christian communities. Paul curses these people, these people who affirm that God’s people can now include the Gentiles, but only if they take on the traditions of the “people of God,” that is the Jews. This would include dietary laws, circumcision, and the observance of holy days and festivals. These troublemakers probably argued that their message was closer to the message being preached in the Jerusalem church. No doubt these people sincerely believed they were preaching and teaching the truth, the whole gospel, but Paul argues strongly against them. They had probably argued that Paul had watered down his message to please his audiences, including the Galatians, but Paul objects to this charge. If pleasing people was what most motivated Paul, he would never have become a Christian missionary, a servant of Christ.

Galatians 1:11-24: This section, carrying over into chapter two, contains the most extensive biographical reflections in all of Paul’s writings. His interest, however, is not autobiographical, but in making an argument. He wants to argue that he had very little contact with the Jerusalem apostles, and yet what he preaches is in basic harmony with their teachings.

Just as Paul has asserted that his commission as an apostle is not from humans, so he argues that his gospel is not of “human origin.” This isn’t to say Paul did not learn from others. It is to say that the fundamental impetus for the gospel he preaches was a direct encounter with the risen Christ. From this basic assertion, Paul shares his story. Paul was a devout and zealous Jew, deeply immersed in that tradition. Paul persecuted Jewish Christians, not because they were Christians, but because he thought them unfaithful Jews. But the God who was working in his life even then, made it clear to him that the Spirit was at work in Jesus. In grace God revealed that God was at work in Jesus. Following that movement of grace in his life, or even as a part of that movement of grace, Paul felt compelled to preach this gospel to the Gentiles. Paul tells the Galatians that after this experience he did not confer with any humans. This differs from the story as told by Luke in Acts. Not only did Paul not confer with others, he emphasizes that he did not confer with the church in Jerusalem. Paul is arguing that he was an apostle in his own right and did not need the approval of other apostles. Paul’s mission took him first to Damascus and Arabia. Three years later, Paul went to Jerusalem to visit Peter (Cephas), and stayed there fifteen days. The only other apostle he saw was James, the Lord’s brother. In all this, Paul asserts his own authority to be an apostle. While Paul’s opponents may have used this same information against him, arguing that they were closer to the Jerusalem Jesus community, Paul is arguing that his authorization comes from God and that his meeting with others in Jerusalem, when it happened, was a meeting among equals.

Galatians 2

Galatians 2:1-10: After his first Jerusalem visit, Paul continued his outreach work, in Syria, including Antioch, and Cilicia – his native land, a Roman province in Asia Minor. Fourteen years later, he returns to Jerusalem with Barnabas, a respected missionary in both Jerusalem and Antioch, and Titus, a Gentile convert who is never mentioned in Acts. This episode is related in Acts 15, though reading the two side-by-side one sees differences in the two accounts. Paul asserts that he went to Jerusalem on a prompting by God, not by the request or orders of others. Paul met privately with the leaders, sharing with them the message he was preaching and teaching. While he has asserted his independent call to apostleship, he remains concerned that the church be working together in all its parts. He wanted to make sure they were on the same page. He indicates that they were by telling the story of Titus. Titus, though a Greek, was not compelled to be circumcised. Others, who Paul calls “false believers,” and who he considers interlopers and spies, come into the meeting to argue another point. Paul writes that their goal was to take those who now experience freedom in Christ and “enslave” them. While we were in conference we were infiltrated by spies pretending to be Christians, who slipped in to find out just how free true Christians are. Their ulterior motive was to reduce us to their brand of servitude. We didn’t give them the time of day. We were determined to preserve the truth of the Message for you. (The Message). Paul’s tone is certainly polemical here. Those to whom the church looked to for leadership, though Paul is ambivalent about this for he believes that God does not privilege persons (God shows no partiality), did not add to Paul’s basic message. Not only did they not seek to change his basic message, but Peter, James and John saw that God’s grace was at work in Paul and welcomed him as a fellow believer and blessed his work among the Gentiles. All they asked was that Paul remember the poor, and he was more than happy to do this.

Galatians 2:11-14: It seems as if all is well, but then Peter comes to Antioch. At one point in his stay, he feels free to eat with Gentiles, but when others come from James and from Jerusalem, Peter refuses to eat with the Gentile Christians. It is not that observant Jews could not eat with Gentiles, but they could not share some of the same foods, which made sharing a common meal quite difficult. Even Barnabas pulls back from this common fellowship under pressure from the Jewish Christians who have come from Jerusalem. Paul calls this hypocrisy. Hadn’t they come to an agreement in Jerusalem? Aren’t Peter and Barnabas condemning themselves? Paul apparently called Peter on the carpet publicly. He saw Peter’s actions as a betrayal of the gospel. To his Galatian readers, Paul is trying to say that Gentiles ought not to be compelled to live like Jews, which was the precise issue being raised by the Galatian troublemakers.

Paul’s telling of these episodes gives us a great deal of insight into the early history of the church, and it is to the church’s credit that these stories have been preserved within our Scriptures. They have not been sanitized or air-brushed out. From the earliest days, that has been a debate about the elasticity of Christian faith, and about the kinds of behaviors that are permitted and required by Christian faith. That debate continues today. Are certain beliefs required of Christians, beliefs such as belief in the virgin birth, the literal creation of the world in six days, belief in the inerrancy and verbal inspiration of the Bible? Are certain practices prohibited, for instance, the practice of faithful same-sex partnerships? As the church continues to debate such issues, we should be reminded that such debates have been with us a long time and will probably continue until such time as God’s dream for the world is wholly realized. While some agreements will be worked out, other issues will emerge. Perhaps the best we can hope for are more civilized and compassionate conversations with each other when we disagree. I would argue that such conversation is almost required by people who take Christian faith seriously.

Galatians 2:15-21: Paul thinks it important at this point to re-assert his Jewish identity. Even as a Jew, Paul argues that one’s relationship with God is fostered by faith in Jesus as the Christ, and not by following the dictates of the law. Two words or phrases need clarification. “Justified” has to do with making right one’s relationship, in this case, with God. The phrase could be translated, “reckoned as righteous,” though that is not a lot of help. Eugene Peterson translates “justified” as “set right with God.” John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed talk about justification as “becoming just, righteous, and holy in union with a just, righteous, and holy God.” The emphasis here is on being transformed God-ward.

Justification has been a crucial image in the history of Christian thought in trying to understand how a relationship with God that has been damaged can be healed and restored. It has been a significant term and image for trying to understand the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As theologian David Ford notes, the image of justification is an image taken from a law court (Theology: a very short introduction, 122). The image of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ as “justification” was deeply appealing to the Reformer Martin Luther. Martin Luther had a strongly cross-centered theology, God being utterly identified with the crucified Jesus who takes the place of those who deserve condemnation before God. Faith in this God is both a receiving of forgiveness and a healing that makes the believer righteous, able to stand confidently before God without being condemned. It is a doctrine of freedom through faith and it liberated immense energies. (Ford, Theology, 122) But in another work, Ford notes that theology needs to speak to us. Theology needs to “widely accessible… and related to imaginative, intellectual, emotional and practical concerns” (Self and Salvation, 3). Does the word “justification” speak to us today? Do we envision God as a judge ready to pronounce a condemnation upon our lives, and our deepest need being someone willing to pay the penalty for our transgressions? Sometimes our lives may feel like that, but my guess is that this language needs further “translation,” deeper exploration. Volumes have been written on justification, but in the hopes of moving us deeper without exhausting us, let me offer quotes from two significant theologians who attempt to provide more contemporary meaning to the notion of justification. To keep faith with the biblical tradition, the idea of justification, as Eugene Peterson notes, has to do with repairing or healing our relationship with God. I will add some of my own comments after the quotes.

Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, volume II (Tillich wrote prior to our current sensitivity to inclusive language, but rather than try and “repair” what he wrote, I will simply quote it and note its limitations in expression): Justification literally means “making just,” namely making man that which he essentially is and from which he is estranged…. It is an act of God which is in no way dependent on man, an act in which he accepts him who is unacceptable…. It is actually the only way to overcome the anxiety of guilt; it enables man to look away from himself and his state of estrangement and self-destruction to the justifying act of God. He who looks at himself and tries to measure his relation to God by his achievements increases his estrangement and the anxiety of guilt and despair…. There is nothing in man which enables God to accept him. But man must accept that he is accepted; he must accept acceptance. (178, 179) Some of this language, too, might be difficult to welcome into one’s life and experience, but it may be a bit helpful. Justification has to do with God’s ever-present love reaching out to us, even when we have been unloving. Even when we have gone a different way from the way God would have us go, God continues to reach out to us. That’s just who God is, and this outreaching nature of God is not dependent upon us. Sometimes we are caught in the anxiety of not feeling good enough, smart enough, loving enough, but God reaches out to us anyway. Sometimes we know we have been cruel, hateful, greedy, unkind and we feel the guilt of that. God reaches out to us anyway. That is grace, and we are justified by grace through faith. For Tillich, the essence of faith is the acceptance of our acceptance. When we come to such acceptance, we can become more of who we were meant to be.

Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ (though Moltmann writes in a more contemporary time, he does not use inclusive language consistently): Paul understood the righteousness of God as God’s creative acts in and for those who are threatened by absolute death because they have come under “the power of sin,” which is contrary to God. We understand by “sin” the condition in which a person closes himself off from the source of life, for God. A closing of the self like this comes about when the purposes for which human beings are by nature destined are not discovered or fulfilled, because of hubris, or depression, or “the God complex,” or because of a refusal to accept what human existence is about. This leads to the self-destruction of the energies of life, and thus to death. The self-deification of human beings is the beginning of their self-destruction, and the destruction of the world in which they live…. The gospel of Christ brings the saving power of God into the world. It saves because it justifies. It is the power of rebirth from the life-giving Spirit and the beginning of new creation…. Through justification of sinners, the gospel brings men and women who are closed in upon themselves into the open love of God…. The justification of sinners initiates a process of exuberant intensification: justification – sanctification – glorification. Justifying faith is not yet the goal and end of Christ’s history. For every individual believer it is no more than the beginning of a way that leads to the new creation of the world…. Those who are justified by faith are the people who “hunger and thirst” for righteousness and justice…. It is they who weep over this world…. The person whom God has justified protests against the injustice in this world. The person in whose heart God has put peace can no longer come to terms with the discord in the world, but will resist it and hope for “peace on earth.” Injustice and suffering acquire a meaning only to the degree in which we refuse to accept them. Faith and hope for the righteousness and justice of God are the spur to keep us from surrendering to them, and to make us fight injustice and suffering wherever and however we can. (184, 185, 186-187) Again, we have the sense that humankind can lose its way, can mar the image of God within, can choose violence over peace, hatred over love, injustice over justice. We need a fresh start. We need to be reconnected with the source of love and justice, of life and peace. That’s justification, and once that process has begun, it is intended to continue its transformative work in our lives. The theological term for that on-going work of God and God’s Spirit in our lives is sanctification, and Paul will address that later in this letter.

The second phrase in verse 16 that needs some further explanation is “through faith in Jesus Christ.” While no one argues that a personal faith is essential for Paul as a response to the grace of God, here the phrase could be translated either as it has been or as “through the faith of Jesus Christ.” That might mean that Paul is calling attention to the deep faith of Jesus who followed God even into death. When we grasp the depth of that faith, our relationship with God is opened up in new ways (justification).

Paul draws a sharp distinction between being justified by faith, and being justified by the law. This passage sets up an absolute disjunction between two modes of justification, that is, two ways of becoming just, righteous, and holy in union with a just, righteous and holy God. That bifurcation may or may not have applied to his Galatian converts, but Paul surely knew it did not apply to James, Peter, or Barnabas, or any other Christian at Antioch. It is rhetorical and polemical overkill…. But notice one point for future reference. The Greek phrase is literally “works of law” or, better, in English, “law-works.” It is not a clash between faith and works, but between faith-works and law-works. (Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 220-221) What Crossan and Reed are arguing is that Paul is not really arguing that anyone who follows the law has left justification behind. Others have demonstrated the ability as Christians to combine a robust faith and a practice of the Mosaic law. The question is, “Should others be compelled to follow the law, especially with an understanding that unless they do, they are unacceptable to God?” For Paul the answer to that question is clearly “no.”

Paul also responds to an objection that he is licensing “sin” by being too lax with Gentile Christians. He argues that even if some among his converts sin, it cannot be blamed on the Christ who has set them free. However, Paul is unwilling to call “sin” what some of the agitators are calling sin. Faith is what allows people to experience a restored relationship with God, not law-works. Paul shifts images, then, to further describe what this new life of faith is like. It is like dying with Christ and being raised with Christ into a whole new life – a life lived by faith in God and in Christ, whose self-giving love provides a motive and model for new life. This new life is a gift of grace from God. But if we don’t accept this new life as a gift, if we now go back to some notion of having to earn it, doesn’t that make this grace seem unnecessary? If Paul could get to where he is now following the way of law-works, then what was the use of Christ? In Romans, Paul takes some of the edge off this polemical bifurcation between faith and law. In this context, he does not feel he can give any ground to those who would mandate some of the law-works as necessary. Perhaps they are unwilling to give any ground to Paul.

Much of this debate is far-removed from our experience, or so it seems at first blush. However, there are some profound lessons for our lives. The idea that there are certain things we need to do before God will love us, forgive us, or be a part of our lives, creeps in again and again into Christian faith. Living our faith is important. Spiritual practices matter. Faith-works will have an important place in the Christian life. However, there are important distinctions to be made between earning God’s love and living in God’s love, between doing good out of a heart that is being transformed in love and doing good because one feels one needs to do it or be left out of the community of God’s people. If we do good primarily because we are concerned with our own well being, do we really see the person we are doing good for? Isn’t doing good primarily for our own “spiritual well-being” an insidious form of self-centeredness? Wouldn’t we think that we have a healthier relationship with another person if we are certain of that person’s love and care and we like to do things that might please that person or make them proud of us, than if the love of the other was constantly dependent upon our performance? Judaism at its best does not see God in the role of the judge constantly needing to be pleased. But for Paul and for early Christians who were Jews, there was something in their Jewish experience before Jesus that was missing, something that their experience with Jesus supplied. That does not mean that Judaism was deficient, only that some form of it was not meeting the deep spiritual needs of some people. These people, including Paul, found something important in Jesus as the Christ. They felt that their experience with Jesus completed their faith. Paul shared the message about God’s love in Jesus, and it was a love available not just to Jews but to others. It reached them as they were, and to claim that they had to become Jewish seemed to Paul a denial of this radical love that was unconcerned for the difference between Jews and Gentiles.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Paul’s Letter to the Jesus Communities in Galatia

To orient us to the material in Galatians, it will be helpful to briefly explore the who, when, where, why and what of this letter. Of course, most of the “what” will be explored as we read the letter itself.

Who? Paul. There is virtually no debate about the authenticity of this letter as belonging to Paul. Some of the other letters attributed to Paul have been questioned. Of course, that matters most for those trying to reconstruct Paul’s thought. It matters a bit less to those of us trying to read the New Testament as Christian Scripture. In that case, whether or not Paul wrote a letter, we need to deal with it. When Paul wrote this letter is wrapped up in the question of where he may have been sending it.

Where and to Whom? There are two prominent theories about where this letter was being sent and to whom. The letter was written to the churches of Galatia, but Galatia can either refer to the Roman province of Galatia, which would have included cities Paul and Barnabas visited on Paul’s first missionary journey, or to the territory of Galatia in the North of Asia Minor populated by ethnic Galatians – related to the Gauls of France. Paul passed through this region later in his ministry. Because the letter seems better understood as addressing issues for Gentile Christians only, not Jewish Christians, and the churches in southern Galatia would have included Jewish Christians, it seems the majority opinion among scholars that the letter was written for churches in the territory of Galatia, in the northern part of the Roman province of Galatia. This theory then dates the letter later in Paul’s life and ministry, around 55 CE. This would be about the time he was writing Romans and some of his Corinthian correspondence.

Why and What? Here I would like to offer the words of some different writers that give us a flavor of this letter’s purpose and content.

The letter is Paul’s response to a crisis occasioned by people who came to Galatia after his departure. Although he never identifies them, they were probably Jewish Christians who deeply revered the Mosaic Law. They believed in Jesus as the Messiah and were prepared to welcome Gentiles into the commonwealth of Israel, provided they were circumcised and observed the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law. Although their reasoning seems strange to contemporary believers, it had a compelling logic…. Paul viewed the preaching of those who came to Galatia after him as a perversion of the gospel. (New Interpreters Study Bible)

This letter contains some of the most sublime statements of the meaning of Christian faith and life found in the New Testament, as well as some of the most angry and bitter denunciation…. Like all New Testament letters, it is not a timeless tract or essay, but a real letter addressed to a particular situation, to a church threatened by issues such as the role that circumcision and food laws play in making one acceptable to God…. After Paul left for other mission work, Jewish Christian missionaries arrived who taught the new converts that Paul’s version of the Christian faith was incomplete, that in order to be authentic members of the people of God they must be circumcised…. [These teachers] considered Paul and inadequate apostle, misleading his converts by relaxing the requirements for belonging to the people of God. Paul considers the message of the Jewish Christian evangelists in Galatia to be not merely a variation of the one gospel, which he would have celebrated and affirmed, but a substitute gospel, a false gospel, a perversion of the true gospel. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

There is not doubt about the troubles prompting Paul to write his most polemical letter. It is the conflict between the circumcised and uncircumcised Brothers, and it leads Paul to his most vitriolic comments, not only about the present conflict, but about Peter and James in his earlier clash with them at Antioch…. Paul later indicates that he came to regret the bitterness expressed here. He certainly did not follow his own counsel to others, that they correct each other with kindness…. Of course, we do not have the other side, which may have been just as intemperate. He could be trading taunt for taunt, fighting fire with fire…. He is wounded and he means to wound others. (Gary Wills, What Paul Meant)

John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed, in In Search of Paul, believe that Paul is engaged here in religious polemics, and think it important to understand this style of writing and rhetoric. The purpose of polemics is not to conduct a fair, accurate, and objective debate, but to demolish opponents by impugning their motives, ridiculing their arguments, and caricaturing their views…. The idea that one should be fair to one’s opponents was not widespread in antiquity…. Furthermore, Paul’s opponents do not get to answer back (probably with equal polemics) in his letters. We only hear Paul’s arguments and, unanswered, he always wins. Finally, we have therefore to imagine what opponents would have responded and whether the letter’s recipients would have been persuaded by Paul or by his adversaries. Above all else, we have to decide in any given case what exactly was at stake for each side and whether there might have been a better alternative to either position. (214)

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is at once apologetic and polemical with a tone both bitterly reproaching and emotionally pleading…As far as we can understand the situation from Paul’s response to it, opponents had told his Galatian converts that his gospel was all wrong, that their males must still be circumcised, that Paul was nothing but a subordinate missionary (not even an apostle), and that, moreover, he was living and teaching in disagreement with his superiors at Jerusalem and Antioch. (214)

From Eugene Peterson’s “Introduction” to Galatians in The Message: When men and women get their hands on religion, one of the first things they often do is find a way to use it to control others, either by putting or keeping them “in their place.” People have been using religion this way for centuries. No wonder people who have only known religion as something to be used against them suddenly experience freedom and release when they come face to face with a religion that is for them. That new freedom is exciting and life-producing. It is also, it turns out, very short-lived…. [Paul] founded a series of churches in the Roman province of Galatia. A few years later, Paul learned that religious leaders who saw religion as a way to control people had worked their way into those churches. Those religious leaders had called Paul’s views into question, challenging his authority and trying to herd all the freedom-loving Christians back into the corral of religious rules and regulations. Paul was, of course, furious. He was furious with these religious leaders who were so anxious to control and talk these new Christians into giving up their free life in Jesus. But he was also furious with the Christians for allowing themselves to be talked into it.

Some of this makes the letter sound like part of a first-century Crossfire. It lends some suspense as we prepare to read, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

II Corinthians 12

II Corinthians 12:1-10: While Paul has been boasting of his sufferings as providing extraordinary credentials for being an apostle, he will in the beginning of this chapter change the topic. He continues to argue for the integrity and legitimacy of his ministry, but this time comparing his spiritual experiences with those of others.

Paul asserts that nothing really is to be gained by boasting, but as long as some have boasted about their wonderfully deep and ecstatic spiritual experiences, Paul will offer testimony to his own. Paul now boasts (in the third person) of a mystical experience. He remembers quite precisely when it happened. Seeing the different levels of heaven, sensing being taken up, and hearing secret revelations are typical elements of Jewish mysticism that will be more developed in later centuries. (New Interpreters Study Bible). The rival apostles claimed to have visionary experiences in which the risen Lord spoke to them and revealed the secrets of the heavenly world…. Paul too had such experiences, but he did not parade them. His criterion asks what builds up the church, not what impresses, fascinates, and entertains people. (People’s New Testament Commentary). How do we share some of our own spiritual experiences with others in ways that are not off-putting? Paul shares because some have accused him of not being spiritual enough. It strikes me that in our day and time the danger is usually appearing “too spiritual,” and not grounded enough in reality. To be more credible today, do we need to talk about our spirituality in more “earthy” terms?

Paul could be as “spiritual” as any “super apostle,” but he does not want to claim more for himself than what his everyday words and actions would warrant. The Christian spiritual life is intended to be embodied in the ordinary, is meant to affect our daily words and actions. Yet Paul’s experiences were exceptional. He interprets some kind of personal hardship as something that kept him grounded even as he has these extraordinary spiritual experiences. Paul had not always welcomed this “grounding” experience, but had come to see it as something that helped remind him of the sufficiency of God’s grace. There has been a lot of speculation about this “thorn in the flesh.” While the Corinthians were aware of it, we are not. Some have speculated that it was a moral struggle, or the persecutions he suffered, or the worry he experienced in his ministry, or some kind of physical affliction (migraine headaches, leprosy, malaria, a speech impediment, a chronic disease, an obvious physical malady). The best guess is that it is some sort of obvious physical condition that could impede his ministry, but again, no one knows for sure. Whatever it is, Paul has wanted it gone, but its on-going presence in his life reminds him of God’s grace, and of the sufficiency and power of that grace. He returns to the theme of chapter 11, lifting up his hardships. It is his experience of hardship that Paul knows God’s grace most deeply, not in the ecstasy of mystical experience.

I admit I love verse 9, but in its context, I also need to admit that embracing the difficult side of life, its hardships, disappointments and sufferings as arenas in which God’s grace can also be experienced, is not easy. Not all suffering is a gift. Most needs to be alleviated, but some cannot be avoided. Hunger is a kind of suffering that should be alleviated, but until it is, we who seek to change the world need to be open to the suffering of the hungry. Can we find God’s grace and strength in the midst of suffering, a grace and strength that lead us to change the suffering that can be changed? All life ends in death, and we cannot avoid that. Can we find God’s grace and strength in the face of unavoidable suffering?

II Corinthians 12:11-21: Paul considers all this boasting foolish, but he has been forced into such foolishness by the challenge of other teachers and by the Corinthians themselves who have been influenced by these other teachers. Instead of standing up for him as they should have, they bought into the questioning of the super apostles. If they had paid close attention, they would have seen the signs of a true apostle in Paul’s ministry, and some of those signs were extraordinary. Paul downplayed them in order to deepen the faith of the Corinthian Christians. The only thing they did not get with Paul was the burden of supporting him financially, to which Paul says “Well… EXCUSE ME!”

Paul again asserts his deep love for the Corinthian Jesus community. Some have accused him of being crafty and deceptive. He may have been accused of socking away money from the offering he was collecting all the time making his own way financially while working at a skill. Paul protests his innocence. Didn’t he conduct his life with scrupulous honesty?

While Paul has been defending himself, and his ministry, he argues that he is really making a case to God. He also argues that all he has done and continues to do is for the benefit of the Corinthian community, for building them up. Are they being built up, or is the result of their listening to these other teachers “quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, disorder”? Have they been led astray into “impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness”? These lists are somewhat rhetorical, but the point Paul is making is that the Corinthians need to look at their lives and the results of the work of these other teachers.

II Corinthians 13

II Corinthians 13:1-10: Paul apparently has already visited twice and admonished some in the church for their behavior. Some accuse Paul of being too gentle, and here he assures them that when he visits again if things have not improved, he will not be lenient. Paul invites them to remember that Christ is powerful in their lives. Paul seems to be playing with words – Christ was raised by the power of God and he will be powerful in correcting Corinthian Christians when he arrives, as “powerful” as he needs to be to build them back up.

Paul calls the community back to faith. However they may have strayed, Christ remains in them, and all they need to do is pay attention to that. When they rediscover the Christ in their community, they will also know that Paul has not failed them in his ministry to them. If he has failed in any way, been weak in any way, it has only been for the benefit of the church. Paul prays that they may become perfect – “that it will all come together in your lives” (The Message).

Paul ends his letter with words of encouragement. “Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace.” For Paul the God of love and peace lives among them especially as they live in love and peace. The letter concludes with familiar words of blessing. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” The Message: “The amazing grace of the Master, Jesus Christ, the extravagant love of God, the intimate friendship of the Holy Spirit, be with all of you.” May it be so with you!