Thursday, February 28, 2008

I Thessalonians 2

I Thessalonians 2:1-16: Paul has given thanks that the Thessalonians received their preaching and God’s Spirit and are now living lives of faith, hope and love. Here he recounts something about his ministry there. It required courage, for Paul had encountered difficulty and opposition in his ministry. The courage Paul displayed he uses as an indication of his integrity. His work did not come from deceit, trickery, or impure motives. Paul and his companions worked to please God. Whereas in some of Paul’s letters, such assertions of his integrity are to be seen as a response to criticism, here there is no indication that he has encountered such opposition. Other Hellenistic writings from the time include defense of one’s work as a usual part of the rhetoric of a teacher. Here Paul may simply be using that form to assert the genuineness of his work and ministry.

The manner of life consistent with pleasing God was a gentle one. Paul worked among them “like a nurse caring for her own children.” This is a surprisingly tender image, maternal and nurturing. It certainly goes against many of the caricatures of Paul. Paul shared not only a teaching, as many traveling teachers of the time may have, but he gave his very being to the Thessalonians “because you have become very dear to us.” Such care and affection should be an important part of Christian community in any time and place.

As teachers and apostles, Paul and his companions may “have made demands,” that is, they could have asked for financial support. They chose not to so as not to burden the church. Paul assets that their conduct was “pure, upright and blameless.” It was like a father with a child – another warm and caring image. Paul encouraged them to “lead a life worthy of God.” This is a phrase we have encountered a few times. “Be who you are as God’s people.” These are encouraging words for us as well. Like the Thessalonians, we are people of God’s kingdom, invited to live by “kingdom values.”

Paul now adds another word of thanks. He is grateful for the Thessalonians faith, hope and love, for the way they are leading lives worthy of God as a response to Paul’s own example and his tender care for them. Now Paul gives thanks that when they heard his preaching they received it as more than human words, but could hear to word of God in the preaching of Paul. They received that word, and it was continuing to work in their lives. I once heard a pastor say, after reading a Scripture, “May these words be for you the word of God.” I have always been fond of that. Scripture is read, and our hope is that the words there become word of God for us, words that make a difference in our lives, that draw us closer to God. When we hear a sermon or are a part of Christian conversation, we hope that in the words shared, we will also hear God’s word for our lives.

The response of the Thessalonians to the gospel has not led them into an easier life. Instead, like the first Christians in Judea, they have suffered persecution for their faith. The illustration used is problematic, and some doubt that verses 15-16 are from Paul’s own hand. Here Paul issues a criticism issued by other first-century Jews, that some of his own were responsible for killing the prophets. Now Paul includes Jesus among the righteous who have been killed by their own people. Nowhere else does Paul, however, accuse the Jews of killing Jesus, so the language seems un-Pauline. The idea that God’s wrath has overtaken the Jews may reflect a theological interpretation of the fall of the Temple in 70 CE, and if that is that case, then this is certainly a post-Pauline addition. However, Paul could simply be expressing frustration with some of the ways his ministry may have been opposed by some synagogue Jews, and using dramatic language in doing that. Given the tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism, these are deeply unfortunate words.

I Thessalonians 2:17-20: This chapter ends with more tender words from Paul. He calls his separation from the Thessalonians an experience akin to being orphaned, though not in heart. He longed to return but was prevented from doing so. Whatever prevented that return visit, Paul interpreted it as the work of Satan, that is, as something that was opposed to the work Paul was doing. Paul calls the Thessalonian Christians the source of his joy and his reason for boasting – not a personal boast but a shared rejoicing in the work of God in their lives.

Just as at the end of the first chapter, Paul alludes to the coming of Jesus at the end of this chapter. In chapter one Paul talked about how the Thessalonians were waiting for God’s Son from heaven. Here he uses the phrase, “the Lord Jesus at his coming.” The Greek word for coming is parousia which is a Greek term meaning “presence,” used as a technical term to describe the visit of an official, including an emperor, to a city (New Interpreters Study Bible). “Paul looked forward to presenting his churches to the returning Lord Jesus in the near future” (People’s New Testament Commentary). As the letter will deal with this subject in much greater detail later, I will reserve further comments until then. Suffice it to note here, that at this point in his ministry, Paul seemed to expect an imminent return of Jesus as Lord in some way or another. In other words, he expected God to complete the reconciling and transforming work that he had already begun in Jesus. Years later, that work is not yet complete and the Christian church is filled with persons who spend a great deal of time and effort in discussing timetables for a “second coming” of Jesus (which is a term that Paul never uses).

I Thessalonians 3

I Thessalonians 3:1-5: Paul had longed to see the Thessalonians, but could not go. Yet he could not bear the thought of not knowing how they were doing or of their being without some encouragement in their new faith. So Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica to find out how they were doing, and to encourage them in the midst of their persecution. Paul reminds them that they were aware that the road may not be easy. Paul had never promised them a rose garden! Nor are we promised that all will go well with our faith.

I Thessalonians 3:6-13: Timothy returned to Paul with good news about their “faith and love.” Paul has taken encouragement from that. His work has not been in vain. He is grateful to God for their continued faith. He deeply desires to see them again. Then his words become rather odd, given the context – “to restore whatever is lacking in your faith.” He celebrates their faith, but also implies that there may be points at which it is lacking. Perhaps that is not so strange after all. In our own lives, we can celebrate our faith, yet know we can grow more into it. Paul ends this lengthy section of thanksgiving with a hope that he might, by God’s grace return to Thessalonica. He asks Christ to help their love abound and to strengthen their hearts in holiness. Again, Paul’s words for these early Christians might be words for our lives – that we may abound in love and have our hearts strengthened in holiness. Holiness is a God-like quality of life. It implies wholeness and well-being. Paul hopes that love and holiness will abound until “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” Again, we have that theme, and the word “coming.”

I Thessalonians 4

I Thessalonians 4:1-12: Again, Paul invites them to continue to follow the Jesus way of life as they were taught. God desires their sanctification. This is another way to speak of holiness, whole life in relationship to God. The theologian Paul Tillich once wrote about sanctification as increasing awareness, increasing freedom, increasing relatedness and increasing transcendence. While this language may not appeal to everyone, I find it helpful in describing the kind of life God calls us to live. The other definition of sanctification I really appreciate is John Wesley’s idea of Christian perfection. “By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbor, ruling our habits, attitudes, words and actions.” Paul goes on to write that holiness of life involves having control over ones body and desires. Paul’s language makes one wonder what sorts of sexual expression he encountered in Thessalonica and other places in the Roman empire. Paul here follows the stereotypical image Jews tended to have of Gentiles, regarding them as dominated by lust and sexual immorality and perversions. There were of course immortal Gentiles, just as there were immoral Jews, but there were also many Gentiles who had a high standard of sexual morality (People’s New Testament Commentary). However, there was often a divide between religion and morality in the Greco-Roman world. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, religious commitment, relationship to God, is reflected in one’s treatment of others and in one’s self-discipline. God has called them to holiness, and to think otherwise is to misunderstand God, and the Spirit of God at work in the lives of Christians.

Love remains central, and the Thessalonians did not need anyone to teach them more about this. They had been taught by God about loving! Though they know it and live it, there is always more room to grow in love. In love, they are too live quietly – that need not preclude working for change in the world, but should be a quality of work for such change. For the Thessalonians, though, their focus would not have been on social change, except as that happened in Christian community. They had virtually no power base within the empire from which to effect change. In addition, most expected a dramatic change in the near future, an overturning of the existing social order with the coming of Jesus Christ as Lord. Some had taken this expectation to extremes, shunning necessary work. Paul admonishes them to work.

I Thessalonians 4:13-18: Apparently a question had arisen about those who had died. The expectation of the coming of Jesus as Lord was so high, that many believed no Christian would die before it occurred. But some have died, perhaps even as part of persecution of some kind. As this passage has been used in some interesting ways by certain groups within the Christian church, it would be good to look more closely at them.

Some members of the new congregation in Thessalonica had died. The church had apparently understood that Jesus would return while all believers were still alive. Paul expected to be alive at the Parousia (verse 15), and his new converts were shocked that some of their members had died before the return of Jesus. Did this mean they were not true believers, or that they would miss out on the salvation bestowed by Christ’s triumphal return? (People’s New Testament Commentary)

Paul was concerned because some of the Thessalonians were grieving over the death of some of their fellow Christians, perhaps resulting from mistreatment on the part of non-Christians. For believers who were expecting an imminent return of the Lord Jesus, this was difficult to accept. To alleviate their grief, Paul cites a Christian creed: Jesus died and rose again. He then affirms that what God has done for Jesus, God will also do for those who die in Christ. They will live with Jesus. Paul cites the authority of tradition to support his message and uses the imagery of the entry (Greek –“ parousia”) of a victorious king into a city, together with Jewish apocalyptic motifs, to present an imaginative “idea” of how the future resurrection will take place. (New Interpreters Study Bible)

Paul’s intention is pastoral, to assure the Thessalonians that the death of members of the community did not in any way mitigate against the hope that was an integral part of their Christian faith. He wanted to encourage them, and wanted them to encourage each other (verse 18). He may also have been subtly reinforcing the anti-imperial side of Christian faith, Christian faith as a counter culture to the imperial culture.

Any important visitor coming along the major road to an ancient city would first meet the dead before they greeted the living…. The “parousia” metaphor means that Christians do not ascend to stay with Christ in heaven, but to return with him to this transformed world…. The metaphor of “parousia” as state visit would presume that those going out to greet the approaching ruler would return with him for festive rejoicing within their city. So also with Christ…. The “parousia” of the Lord was not about destruction of earth and relocation to heaven, but about a world in which violence and injustice are transformed into purity and holiness. (John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed, In Search of Paul, 170)

Paul – like Jesus before him – believed that God’s great Cosmic Cleanup had already begun. He also believed – quite incorrectly – that it would be consummated within his own generation. But just as a visiting emperor is greeted first by the dead and only then by the living as his entourage approaches an imperial city, and just as the citizens go out to meet him and escort him “back into” their city for festivity and celebration, so also will it be with Christ on his return. First the dead Christians and then the living Christians will be taken up to meet Christ not “in heaven” but “in the clouds” or “in the air.” And they will meet Christ to return to an earth totally transformed, utterly transfigured, and fully completed in nonviolence and holiness, justice, and peace. That is Paul’s vision…. What the Left Behind series has actually left behind is Jesus’ faith in the Kingdom of God, Paul’s hope for the Lordship of Christ, and God’s love for the future of the earth. (Crossan, God and Empire, 208)

Too many have taken this pastoral and metaphoric passage and tried to turn it into a full “rapture” scenario. Often such rapture theology mirrors imperial order. Christ comes, takes Christians away and seven years later war ensues. Paul is assuring Christians to keep on in faith, telling them that the Jesus way will triumph in the end, will overcome the ways of empire.

I Thessalonians 5

I Thessalonians 5:1-11: While Paul probably thought a final consummation of God’s purposes would happen in his lifetime, he is also concerned about persons setting dates and timetables. That can be a distraction. Instead, focus on being who you are, Paul writes, “children of light and children of the day.” “Although the final Day had not yet come, Christians have already oriented their lives to the fulfillment of God’s kingdom at the end of history” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Such people live lives that are awake and sober. They live lives of faith and love and hope (again!) Such lives are to be lived together so that we can encourage one another. Paul’s words, written to a Christian community so many years ago can be translated pretty directly into our lives. We do well to avoid getting caught up in end day speculation and focus on living in faith, hope and love, encouraging each other along the way.

I Thessalonians 5:12-28: Paul brings this letter to a close with a series of short exhortations to the Jesus community at Thessalonica. He encourages the community to respect their leaders in love. He tells them to be at peace with each other. Some may have taken the idea of Jesus immanent return to mean that they could coast until then. The community is to encourage those who are idlers. They are to encourage the faint hearted and help the weak, all with patience. Echoing the words of Jesus, Paul tells them to avoid paying evil for evil, but instead do good. Rejoice, pray, be thankful. Be open to the Spirit and be discerning. Avoid evil do good. Paul prays that the God of peace will sanctify their lives, and trusts that God will do this. Again, Paul’s words need little embellishment to become a part of our own way of living the Christian faith, the Jesus way.

Here are verses 12b-19 from The Message: Get along among yourselves, each of you doing your part. Our counsel is that you warn the freeloaders to get a move on. Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs. And be careful that when you get on each other’s nerves you don’t snap at each other. Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out. Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live. Don’t suppress the Spirit.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Paul’s First Letter to the Christian Community at Thessalonica

Written in about 50 CE, some 20 years after the death of resurrection of Jesus and 20 years before the Gospel of Mark, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is the oldest extant piece of Christian literature. This letter is the first proclamation of the gospel, the good news, in written form (New Interpreters Study Bible). There is strong scholarly consensus that this is a genuine letter of Paul’s. There is less consensus about Second Thessalonians. Thessalonica was the capitol of the Roman province of Macedonia, and is today known as the Greek city of Thessaloniki. It was named for the sister of Alexander the Great. Macedonia became a Roman province in 146 BCE, with Thessalonica as its capital. It was a prosperous and diverse community with a population of about 40,000 at the time of Paul’s ministry there. The diversity included religious diversity. There was a temple for the Egyptian god Osiris. There was a synagogue. The imperial dynasty was worshipped here as well.

While Paul’s stay in Thessalonica was brief, he developed a deep affection for this Jesus community, as will be seen by some of the language he uses in his letter. The community was comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, though predominantly the latter. Paul wanted to return to visit, but had been unable to do so. He sent Timothy instead to support and encourage this developing faith community. Timothy has returned to Paul with a report about the community. It was generally a positive report, but Timothy also seemed to find some things of concern. So Paul wrote this letter. The letter follows the general form of Hellenistic letters with opening and closing salutations and expressions of thanks for the recipients.

As with most of the letters Paul writes, there are some issues to be dealt with in this Jesus community. There was also some trouble for the community itself. Paul’s stay had been brief because he had been seen as an agitator. Luke attributes this to opposition from some of the synagogue Jews. Others argue that Paul had run afoul of Roman authorities (Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul). The Christian community Paul leaves behind also experiences opposition. Beyond the troubles they were experiencing, the community also had some questions and issues. Some of the people in the community had died, and this caused concern. Wasn’t Jesus supposed to return soon? How is it that some have died? Some of the community leaders may have been setting themselves apart, and that may have been creating troubles. Some in the community may have wanted to withdraw from the life of the world, and the life of work, and that, too, presented a problem. While addressing issues, Paul also asserts positive community values and tries to describe important features of the Jesus way of life.

I Thessalonians 1

I Thessalonians 1:1: This is adopted from a typical Hellenistic salutation, with Christian content. While the words used seem commonplace to us, in the context of Thessalonica, they are rather remarkable. Paul’s letter comes from Paul, Silvanus and Timothy to the “church of the Thessalonians.” The Greek word translated “church” is ekklesia. The word, while usually translated “church,” originally meant the citizens of a free Greek city officially gathered to make self-governing decisions. Is Paul hinting that the church is an alternative community with an alternative citizenship? Paul pushes the point further by calling Jesus “lord.” “Kyrios was also the Greek term used to refer to the deified Roman emperor. By using this term to refer to Jesus, Paul was making a revolutionary political and religious statement.” (New Interpreters Study Bible). In referring to the church also as in “God the Father” could be seen as counter-imperial. Deity was associated in the Roman theology with the emperor and the emperor’s family. Perhaps the trouble the Thessalonian church was experiencing had something to do with some of these counter-cultural, counter-imperial emphases.

I Thessalonians 1:2-10: As is typical of Roman letters and of Paul’s letters, the initial salutation is followed by a thanksgiving. Paul has transformed the traditional form by expanding it considerably. Here the thanksgiving section really doesn’t end until 3:13. In verse 2, Paul already links faith, hope and love, a link he will make again and again, most famously in I Corinthians 13. Paul tells them that they are loved by God and that he knows they have been chosen by God because they received the message that Paul brought. Because of their openness to God’s grace, the word had power, and because of their openness, God’s Spirit touched their lives. The initiative is God’s, but the response was theirs. Paul is thankful to God for God’s initiative and for their response.

The Thessalonians had not only been open to Paul’s message, but also to Paul and those who worked with him. They observed the behavior of Paul and Paul’s co-workers, and imitated it. In imitating Paul, the Thessalonians were also imitating Christ. It was typical of the time that teachers of wisdom offered their lives as examples of what it meant to follow their teaching. We are often uncomfortable with making our lives part of our message. We know our own fallibilities and failures. Yet we need to strive for some compatibility between our teaching and our lives. If we proclaim good news of hope, joy, and love, but live angry, bitter lives, our words will not ring true. If we proclaim good news of justice and a different world, but do nothing to try and make a difference, our words will seem hollow. The Thessalonians received Paul’s preaching with joy (inspired by the Holy Spirit). They lived in a way they learned from Paul and Paul’s associates, and they, in turn, became examples of the Jesus way of life to others. In living the Jesus way of life, they had turned from idols “so serve a true and living God.” This is an indication that the primary audience for Paul’s letter were Gentile Christians. To be Christian is to be transformed. In our day, we don’t often move from “idol worship” to the worship of another God, but from lives centered on something less than God (the very definition of an idol), less than a sense of comprehensive good, to lives centered in God as the comprehensive good.

In serving God, the Thessalonians are also waiting for a more comprehensive fulfillment of God’s dream for the world. The language used to talk about the fulfillment of God’s dream is language about the coming of God’s Son from heaven. This figure is Jesus who was crucified and whom God raised from the dead. In following this Jesus the Thessalonians are saved from living lives that in the end would come to little, that would not have contributed significantly to God’s dream for the world. The sense that in the end, God would set the world right was a powerfully attractive feature of early Christian proclamation, especially for those for whom the peace of Rome offered little hope for their lives. When God sets things right, there would be a judgment of what had been truly good and evil in history. Does such judgment necessarily entail some kind of punishment? Some Christians would say that it does, and the traditional answer to this question is that the punishment is eternity in hell. Others argue that judgment need not entail such a punishment. Perhaps the punishment is the realization that one wasted the precious gift of life on things that did not contribute to the good. In Jesus our lives can turn toward the good, and in Jesus we understand that we can be forgiven for those times when we have failed the good.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Colossians 3

Colossians 3:1-17: As is typical of Paul’s letters, we move from theological argument to ethical reflection – how should we live? It is not as if the theological is abandoned, but the focus shifts toward the more practical. “So if you have been raised with Christ” – that is who we are as Christian according to the author, and this implies living in certain ways and not in others. In general, we are to seek the things that are above. This should be taken metaphorically. It reminds one of Jesus words about the location of the treasure of our lives. “The spatial categories are often used in the New Testament to indicate contrasting realms of value and meaning” (People’s New Testament Commentary). As those whose lives are found in Christ, we should seek values consistent with God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world.

The Jesus way of life rejects certain values. The list in Colossians 3:5-9 is rather traditional. It is not exhaustive, but illustrative of the kinds of behaviors and attitudes that the writer feels are incompatible with Christian faith. In verse 5, the focus is on inappropriate sexual behavior and on greed. Here is the list as rendered in The Message: “sexual promiscuity, impurity, lust, doing whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it, and grabbing whatever attracts your fancy.” It is not sexuality itself that is the problem, but giving it undue place in one’s life. Lust is not the fleeting sexual thought, but dwelling on that thought. It is not desire itself that is the problem, but dwelling too long on desire and giving into it without thinking about the web of relationships in which one lives. Such behavior comes under the judgment of God. One need not interpret this in a punitive fashion. It is simply a way of saying that these values will be judged negatively in God’s dream for the world.

The Colossians are to move beyond these values, and then the writer adds to the list – anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language. These kind of values are also destructive of community, of the web of relationships in which we live. So is lying, which is also seen as a part of the old life, the “earthly life.” The writer introduces another metaphor that may be linked to baptism. To become a person of Christian faith is to take off the clothing of an old life and put on new garments. The writer has already linked baptism, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and new life in Christ. Now he perhaps makes use of the tradition of changing garments at baptism as a symbolic gesture. The point of all this is to encourage a certain way of life, in contrast to ways of living that may have characterized some of the Colossian Christians before they became disciples.

The new self that is “put on” is a self that is continually renewed in “the image of its creator.” That renewal is not just an inner reality, but it breaks down dividing walls that previously separated people. New life is life in a new community.

The values that are to characterize this new life, in contrast to those that are rejected, buried, taken off, are often values that enhance community. There is a very strong streak running through the New Testament indicating that how we live life together in Christian community is an important indicator of how we are doing in our relationship with God. The transforming power of God’s love in Christ changes how we live together as human persons.

Keeping with the clothing metaphor, the writer encourages the Colossian Christians to clothe themselves with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.” This is reminiscent of Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians and of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. They are to support and forgive each other. “Above all, clothe yourselves with love.” Here is Colossians 3:12-14 from The Message: So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s you basic all-purpose garment. Never be without it.

This new life is to be a new life of peace in Christ, a life in which the word about Christ fills us abundantly. It is a life of thankfulness, gratitude, song – a life in which we do everything in the name of Christ.

Colossians 3:18-4:1: Now the writer takes these more general principles and applies them to three sets of relationships: husband and wife, parents and children, slaves and masters. Remember that this is an attempt to apply more general principles, and it is the principles that are primary, not the application. Many of us would find the words used here inconsistent with the values and principles just articulated. We have encountered a similar passage already in Ephesians, and will again in other places. The writer has drawn from Jewish and Greek moral teachings to draw out the implications of what he has written for these specific relationships. The author assumes much of the social situation of the time and does not radically challenge it, much to our chagrin. At the same time, within the social structures of the day, the writer hints, ever so softly, at more mutual relationships. Husbands are to love their wives and not treat them harshly. Fathers are to take care so that their children do not lose heart. Masters are to treat their slaves justly and fairly. If you push each of these, it leads to an undermining of the submissive language of the first part. A loving husband does not want a “submissive” wife but a loving partner. A father who cares about his children not losing heart will be less concerned about obedience than about the children growing and developing as human persons. For a master to treat a slave justly and fairly would lead to the end of the master-slave relationship. We would not want this language to stand simply as is as advice for persons living the Christian way today.

Paul is not at his creative best here. If he ever questioned the power structure of male/female relationship or even those of master and slave, he shows little sign of it, leaving many of his modern readers disappointed and unsatisfied. The trajectory described by Paul’s theological thought still soars, while that of his ideas on slavery and other power relationships has long since fallen to earth. Fortunately, there are places in his writings where his theological insight is bright, challenging, and inclusive enough to force us to weigh his ethical statements in light of these passages, where he speaks of Christian freedom and the equality of all believers. (New Interpreters Study Bible).

Colossians 4

Colossians 4:2-6: Instructions on the Jesus way of life continue, more in continuity with 3:17 than with the verses in between. The Jesus way of life is a way of prayer, and Paul invites them to pray for his ministry. The Jesus way is not simply concerned with building a certain kind of community, it also affects all ones relationships. “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders.” Part of conducting themselves wisely is to take care in speech. “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt.” In our day when speech is ubiquitous and often quite ungracious, these are powerful words. Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out. (The Message)

Colossians 4:7-18: This section contains words about many people and offers greetings from others. This is unlike Ephesians, which shares so many similarities with Colossians. It adds a touch of genuineness to the letter, and may be part of the argument for its authenticity as a letter of Paul. He ends with a simple good wish. Grace be with you.
Colossians 2

Colossians 2:1-5: Paul (or the author in Paul’s name) has written that he continues to struggle on their behalf, even though he has never met them. His purpose in sharing this is to encourage them. He would like their hearts to be encouraged and united in love – what a delightful phrase. This is something we could pray for our own church communities. In addition, the author desires not only that their hearts be encouraged but that their minds be enlightened. I want you woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know of God (The Message). Also, not bad words to pray for the church. The deep things of God, God’s mysteries, are to be found in Christ. The author is arguing that in Christ one can find all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. He does this to prevent them from falling prey to teachers who argue that Christ is incomplete in some way. Such teachers can offer “plausible arguments,” but they are misguided.

This is an important passage to ponder in our time of religious pluralism. The author’s clear intent is to help the Jesus faith communities he is writing to. He wants them to deepen their Christian faith. He is concerned about some teachers who claim that the faith as they have been taught it is not enough, that there are other powers to worship, other forms of wisdom which are needed to complete one’s faith quest. So the author argues that one need look no further than Christ to find the wisdom and way of God. Do his words also suggest that it is only in Christ that we find wisdom and knowledge, only in Christ that the mysteries of God are revealed? While some may interpret these words in this way, I think it pushes the purpose of the author too far to say this. He is trying to make Christians stronger, not denigrate others. He is not saying there is no wisdom to be found in other traditions, only that you aren’t required to look elsewhere for the kind of wisdom that will bring you into a transforming relationship with God. This perspective frees us for some important conversations with others. We can learn from other traditions without giving up our own. The Dali Lama was once asked by a Christian seeker whether or not she should become a Buddhist. The Dali Lama replied (paraphrasing): “No, become more deeply Christian; live more deeply into your own tradition.” (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 223). I have heard that the Dali Lama’s response went on to say that if persons could not find what they needed for their spiritual life within their Christian tradition, don’t be surprised if they indeed become Buddhist (I haven’t been able to recall that reference – no doubt, some day, when I least expect it, it will come back). He was encouraging Christians to be better at exploring the deep heart wisdom of our own tradition. The author of Colossians wants the Christians there to do that, too.

The Catholic nun, Joan Chittister’s most recent book is Welcome to the Wisdom of the World. In it she writes: Every major spiritual tradition – Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam – brings a special gift to the art of living the spiritual life. Her book seeks to look at these traditions for the wisdom they offer. But she looks at these traditions as a deeply committed Christian. When our own faith is deep enough, we can deepen it even further in conversation with other wisdom and faith traditions. There are those whose spiritual lives consist of jumping from one tradition to another (I am not speaking here of persons who have deep experiences of converting from one faith to another), or of pulling off the shelf this bit of wisdom and that bit of wisdom. We do better to be who we are, to deeply immerse ourselves in our own Christian tradition. We have what we need within it, as Christians. When we know that, we can often find some hidden riches in our own faith as we converse with other faiths. Some of my own recent conversations with Buddhism confirm this.

A word should, then, be said here about outreach. What do we make of the encouragement to share our faith with others and of the conversion of persons from one faith to another? The possibility that one finally finds ones original faith tradition lacking is always a live, existential possibility. There may be any number of reasons why one is unable to be spiritually fed from the well one grew up with. Sometimes the institutions that carry the faith message forward don’t do an adequate job of helping persons plumb the depths of the faith. Sometimes one has a deeply negative experience with a faith, an experience so negative that its symbols can no longer convey the grace of God. In order to connect with God, another path may need to be found. As Christians we witness to what we have found in our faith, inviting others to join us as they choose, encouraging those of other traditions to become more profoundly a part of their tradition. Who knows what might happen as persons of deep faith from differing traditions open themselves to one another in love and care and profound listening.

Colossians 2:6-23: Here the author deals directly with the threats of these other teachers. He encourages the Colossian Christians to live their lives in Jesus Christ as Lord, rooted, established and built up in Christ. He warns them not to be led away from this fundamental task by persons who offer what the writer sees as empty words. That we don’t know very much about the troublesome teachers makes these verses difficult to interpret. Some read in them a justification for a Biblicist theology, that is, don’t take anything you can’t find in the Bible very seriously. Again, I think that pushes the author’s words in directions he does not intend. Throughout history, Christian theologians have made good use of works of science and philosophy to help plumb the depths of Christian faith. Augustine used Plato. Aquinas used Aristotle. Harnack made use of Kant. Process theologians use the thinking of Whitehead and Hartshorne. Liberation theologians have been aided by the thinking of Marxist social analysts. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of certain uses of philosophy, but Christians can find helpful dialogue partners in many fields. The author’s concern is whether or not people are being deepened in their lives as Christians or distracted in other directions. Sometimes we can become so enamored with our wonderful thoughts that we fail to grow in faith, hope and love.

The author reiterates the fullness of Christ. The fullness of God is found in Christ, you need not look anywhere else. You need not think your faith incomplete. Apparently some form of this bothersome teaching involved encouraging circumcision, and so Paul/the author argues that the Colossian Christians have experienced a spiritual circumcision already. In a unique move, Paul compares circumcision to baptism, and links baptism to the death of Jesus. What once held us captive has been buried. The flesh, the disordered life, has been cut off in baptism. We have been made alive as Christ was in the resurrection. Any powers that could hold us back from being the people God would have us be have been disarmed.

This wonderful poetic riff is followed by more concrete advice. Don’t let people bother you about food and drink and solar festivals. Whatever teaching the Colossian Christians were troubled by, it seems to have combined elements of Judaism with astrological beliefs – human traditions about elemental spirits. These teachers argued that Christ was not enough, that the Jesus way they had been taught was deficient, so they needed to be circumcised, keep kosher (probably an anachronistic term here!) and celebrate the solstice. It was not as odd as I have made it sound. It had “an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, a severe treatment of the body.” Notice what the author says, however. “They are no value in checking self-indulgence.” In other words, even good spiritual values can be corrupted. That is something we all need to be aware, and beware, of!

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Letter to the Jesus Community at Colossae

Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis were ancient cities located close together on the Lycus River, some hundred miles upstream from Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). This letter, addressed to Christians in Colossae, was intended to be read by the Laodicean church as well. There are also links with the letter to Philemon and connections in content, word order, and wording with Ephesus. These matters are involved in the unsettled question of authorship. Many scholars believe that Colossians was written in Paul’s name after his death. If that is the case, the address to the Colossians would be only a literary device, since an earthquake devastated the area in 60 CE, about the time of Paul’s death, and there was probably little left of the city. (New Interpreters Study Bible).

Thus, we have here another New Testament letter ascribed to Paul which may or may not have been written by him. Whether or not it was written by Paul, it is a part of our Scripture and we need to grapple with it. Authorship would help determine date and circumstance for the letter, at least Paul’s circumstance. If written by Paul, it would probably have been written from prison, about the same time as Philippians, Philemon and Ephesians (if that was written by Paul). Even if the letter was not from Paul, it is certainly in the Pauline stream of Christian faith, taking primary cues from Paul’s understandings of that faith. While there are concepts found here that are missing in the undisputed letters of Paul (a focus on the cosmic Christ, the church as a universal community, more than a local community, a focus on the language of principalities and powers), those who argue for his authorship find continuities between Paul’s work and this letter. Many of the themes found here are also found in Ephesians. It should be noted that Paul never visited Colossae, and that might be an argument against his authorship.

While the authorship and date of this letter are matters of debate there is agreement that the letter was written to address “a serious theological and ethical problem that has gained a foothold” in the community. A different spirituality was making headway in Colossae, one offering “perfection and spiritual fulfillment through a mixture of visions, worship of angelic beings, festivals, and rituals based on the calendar, dietary restrictions, and asceticism” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Another characterization of the problematic teachings are that they were “more astrological than theological, involving a belief in the control over human destiny by the stars…. This belief was probably grafted onto a calendar of Jewish holy days: popular religion in the Mediterranean world was nothing if not eclectic.” (New Interpreters Study Bible).

Once again, we encounter a developing Christian faith trying to draw some boundaries around itself. Christian faith is not infinitely elastic, though it has some elasticity. We are often uncomfortable with the idea of drawing such boundaries today. We have seen the difficult history of Christian triumphalism, where those defined as non-Christian were persecuted, forced to convert, sometimes killed. We have no wish to perpetuate such ugly chapters of Christian history. We need not argue that those outside the Christian faith are also outside the grace of God. Nevertheless, it is helpful to understand where the boundaries of Christian faith exist, not to look down on others, but to develop our own faith more deeply. What are some current “spiritualities” not easily incorporated into Christian faith? I wonder if the idea that we attract all the things that come into our lives really fits Christian faith. Does the victim of a rape “attract” such behavior? Has the homeless person put herself in that situation, by the law of attraction? While our attitudes and openness affect our lives, shape our lives, they are not the sole causal factors, and we are not forever bound by our mistakes. Christian faith trusts in a God who can make things genuinely new. An iron clad law of attraction would deny this.

What are the struggles of the Christian community in Colossae, and what can we learn from them and the response to them offered in this letter?

Colossians 1

Colossians 1:1-2: Here we have a characteristic greeting.

Colossians 1:3-14: Also typical of Pauline letters, we have a section of thanksgiving. As with other letters, themes to be developed elsewhere in the letter are introduced. Here, the author will write expansively of the comprehensiveness of Christian faith. Remember, Paul is writing to a church community he has never visited, but writes with some knowledge of them. He has heard about them, about their faith and love and hope. It is important that these be kept together – hope and faith are to be lived in love for others. The gospel, the good news, is seen as a word of truth and hope – a hope that the whole world will eventually be set right - that justice, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, beauty, all of God’s dream for the world will prevail. When people have that hope, they live in a way consistent with that dream for the world. The deepest truth about the world is that God’s dream for it is alive and active and will eventually prevail.

Hearing of the faith, hope and love in this community, Paul assures them of his prayers. He prays that they might continue to grow in faith, hope and love. He prays that they might be filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that they might lead lives “worthy of the Lord,” lives that “bear fruit in every good work.” Notice the continued emphasis on the development of the inner life (growth in wisdom, understanding, knowledge) and on good works. The Christian life involves both inner development and good works. Paul prays that they might be strengthened by God’s own power. God’s saving work is written of in terms of being rescued “from the power of darkness.” Again, it is important to see the variety of New Testament images used to try and describe what it is that God does in our lives in Jesus. Here we are transferred from one kingdom to another. This must have seemed subversive language in an imperial society. Forgiveness is an important part of what God does in Christ.

Colossians 1:15-23: The author now shifts from a focus on how God is working in the lives of the Colossae Jesus community, to a focus on the cosmic work of God in Jesus as the Christ. Verses 15-20 are often considered an early Christian hymn about Jesus as the Christ. Paul used such material in his writings, as did other early Christian writers.

A central conviction of Christian faith is that in Jesus the Christ, we know God, we see what God is like, God’s image is refracted in a decisive way in this life. There was a developing sense that if Christ was the image of God, that image had some existence from the very beginning. The idea that some reality reflective of God existed since creation can also be found in the Word-Wisdom tradition of Judaism, most clearly seen in some of the Apocrypha. In The Wisdom of Solomon 7 we read about wisdom: She is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty. In Sirach 24 we find these words spoken by wisdom: I came forth from the mouth of the Most High and covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in the highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. The early Christians used the traditions at hand to try and understand how God’s Spirit was at work in Jesus as the Christ, and how the Spirit of God in Christ was at work in their lives. Shouldn’t we use some of the thought-forms and languages of our day to describe how it is Christ’s Spirit continues to work in our lives?

Not only was Christ the image of God, but being such, there are no other powers that can overcome him. The author is laying groundwork for contradicting those he considers false teachers. All things make sense only when seen from the perspective of God’s love in Jesus Christ. In Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” and through him, God “was pleased to reconcile… all things… making peace.” Eugene Peterson puts it nicely in The Message. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies.

In the sermon I preached on February 10, I said this: The strange, cosmic language used in Colossians is the language of the day meant to tell us that there is no place where God does not bring God’s healing work in Christ. Nothing created, whether visible or invisible, is beyond the scope, beyond the reach of God’s healing power in Jesus Christ. There is no reality too large and distant (thrones, dominions, rulers, powers) or too near and intimate (our own inner lives and minds) where healing is not possible. That is what God is up to in Jesus Christ. God desires the healing of the world. God desires healing in our hearts and minds and lives. And God desires our participation in that healing work. This is the good news being celebrated.
One phrase has not yet received comment, that God has effected reconciliation through “the blood of his cross.” Such imagery is difficult for us. We often think of it only in terms of Jesus death as a sacrifice for sin, understood in light of Old Testament sacrificial theology. That is not the only way the death of Jesus was understood in the early church, as we have noted countless times already in reading through the New Testament. In this context, the phrase about Jesus death is most significant in that it keeps us grounded. The Jesus who is the cosmic Christ was the Jesus put to death by the Romans. What might have been seen as a defeat, has been turned by God into something that fosters peace and reconciliation. That is remarkable.

The writer continues on with the theme of reconciliation. Once the Colossians were estranged and of hostile mind, caught up in evil deeds. We know what it can be like to feel alienated from ourselves, our world, our life and feel caught in patterns of living that are frustrating and border on meaninglessness. Reconciliation has taken place, and the Colossian Christians are invited to continue on in their good work, continue to grow in faith, hope and love. They are encouraged to keep on, and so are we.

Colossians 1:24-28: Paul understands himself to be a messenger of the good news he has just written about in such glowing language, and now we receive a report about his condition, along with theological reflection on his life and ministry. Paul is suffering, and understands that suffering to be of a piece with the suffering of Jesus. This is tricky ground for Christians. We should not welcome suffering lightly, and should be dedicated to alleviating suffering when we can in the world. But sometimes working to alleviate the suffering of others creates suffering in our own lives, and we accept that suffering for the sake of the good work we are doing. In such cases, we might see ourselves suffering as Christ suffered.

Paul’s work has been to make the hidden mystery of God “fully known.” The mystery is that God’s work is an inclusive work. God is not willing to simply work in the lives of one group of people, but wants all to be a part of God’s own work in the world. God wants to make Christs of all. Paul desires that all continue to grow in Christ. For this he will “toil and struggle with all the energy [Christ] powerfully inspires within me.” I remember reading the verse about working with all the energy God powerfully inspires within while I was attending training to be a district superintendent. I took those words to heart and saw my ministry as a district superintendent to work with the churches in my district with all the energy God powerfully inspired within me. When I came to be pastor at First United Methodist Church, I renewed that vow, to be in ministry here with all the energy God powerfully inspires within me – and I am grateful for that inspiring energy.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Philippians 4

Philippians 4:1: This verse completes the end of the previous chapter. Before commenting on it, let me cite a supporting statement for a comment from chapter 3. There I said that both Christianity and Buddhism claim that desire run rampant is a new form of bondage. Like a hunted hare you run, the pursuer of desire pursued, harried from life to life (The Dhammapada). Because we are on a transformational journey, Paul encourages the Philippian Christians, for whom he declares deep affection, to stand firm in the Jesus way.

Philippians 4:2-3: Paul addresses a conflict between two women leaders of this congregation – Euodia and Syntyche. He asks them to be on the same mind, that is, be headed in the same direction in their leadership of this community.

Philippians 4:4-9: Paul is wrapping up his letter, and does so by offering some wonderfully phrased words of encouragement and direction. He invites them to be people of joy. An Orthodox Archbishop once said, “God will forgive us everything except our lack of joy.” Religious philosopher, Houston Smith, argues that one of the attractive characteristics of the early church was the joy they experienced and shared. “Paul urges the church not to be victimized by its problems within and without” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Joy is an important characteristic of the Christian spiritual life and the Christian community. Gentleness is also important, and Paul encourages them to let that be widely known. Gentleness connotes hospitality, forgiveness, seeking to avoid harm. Add to joy and gentleness an encouragement to set anxiety aside. Instead of anxious worry, Paul encourages prayer. Prayer is not a magic elixir that will eliminate all anxiety, but it often slows us down enough not to be overwhelmed by our anxiety. Putting our worries in a larger perspective, the perspective of our relationship to God, can also lessen our anxiety. More than simply minimizing anxiety, Paul trusts that prayer contributes to peace, a peace that comes from God and surrounds our hearts and minds. Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray…. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. (The Message).

Paul not only encourages prayer, but a kind of meditation – focusing on the good and true and beautiful (see his list, which he borrowed, in part from Greek moralists). Furthermore he encourages a prayerful life, following his own example. Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. (The Message). How might our lives be different if we practiced some of the things suggested in these verses – joy, gentleness, prayer more than giving in to anxiety, meditating on the true, good, and beautiful?

Philippians 4:10-20: Paul is grateful for a gift received from the Philippians. However, he also wants to assure them that his faith has helped him to be content in a wide variety of circumstances. This is the opposite of desire run amok. The power for such contentment comes from the Spirit who strengthens. Again, this might be a powerful antidote for a rampant consumerism which sometimes threatens to consume us. Paul continues to express gratitude for the gifts received, noting that giving also benefits those who give.

Philippians 4:21-23: The letter ends with some typical good wishes, and words of encouragement, ending with a desire for grace in their lives.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Philippians 3

Philippians 3:1a: This part of verse one continues the thought of the previous section. Paul is encouraging joy. With the next section, we seem to have a radical shift in tone, leading some to argue that perhaps this letter is a compilation of more than one correspondence.

Philippians 3:1b-16: Paul writes to remind the Philippians of things he has said before. One wonders if, because he has said some of these things before, his tone is harsher this time around.

As in the churches in Galatia, the Christian community in Philippi is being troubled by teachers who seem to be promoting the idea that Gentile Christians who really want to find themselves in God’s grace must essentially become Jewish, circumcision and all. Paul uses word play and insulting terms to characterize these teachers as “dogs” (a deeply insulting term), and as “evil workers” (a play on the Greek word for missionary). The phrase “mutilate the flesh” is a play on the term for circumcision, leading us to believe that the troublesome teaches are zealous Jewish Christians whose understanding of the Christian faith Paul finds false. It may be the case that they are evangelizing Jews rather than Jewish Christians, but evangelizing Jews who probably had a distorted picture of Judaism with an excessive emphasis on circumcision. Today we find it hard to believe this would be very compelling, but in the first century, apparently it was. Circumcision does not seem like a great recruitment strategy.

Paul asserts that circumcision does not matter and that God’s Spirit has already touched the lives of the Philippian Christians. They should have no confidence in the flesh. Here Paul is referring in particular to circumcision, but also to human effort more broadly conceived. Outward credentials are not what matters most, but rather in working of the Spirit in people’s lives. Perhaps some of the troublesome teachers brought with them their learning credentials. Paul puts his own Jewish credentials up against anyone else’s. The church can be rather status conscious today – people who have theological degrees, or who have completed certain spiritual growth programs, or who have gone on certain kinds of mission experiences, may choose to tout these kinds of accomplishments in inappropriate ways. What matters is the on-going work of God’s Spirit in human life. What matters is knowing Christ and becoming Christ-like, developing a Christ-mind and Christ-heart. It is not that these other things have no worth or value, only that their value needs to be kept in perspective. What matters most is “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.” This is not Christian masochism. When we open our hearts to the world, we will know its suffering. We also know the healing power of God’s love to make a difference in a suffering and hurting world. Of course, sometimes bringing healing to a hurting world can get us into trouble, and there is that suffering to account for as well. Paul ended up in prison.

Paul does not want to proclaim that he has achieved this Christ-mind, this Christ-heart, but he is on the path, on the road, on the journey. He is giving it all he has, all his energy, and he invites the Philippians to do the same.

Philippians 3:17-21: Paul not only invites them to give all their energy, he more specifically invites them to imitate his life. He has shared his story so that they might gain lessons for living in Christ from it.

Here he again takes on some who have warped the Christian faith as Paul understands it. There is not much agreement about who these persons are. The language used suggests that they are not the Jewish Christians from the first part of the chapter. This group may be people who have gone the very opposite direction. The Jewish Christians wanted to impose laws and rules to secure one’s relationship with God. This group seems to be saying that because we are so certain of our relationship with God, anything goes. Instead of struggling, and pressing on toward the goal, they seem to think that Christian freedom is a license to do almost anything. They are persons who “represent indulgence of the body as an expression of the new life in Christ” (People’s New Testament Commentary). They don’t seem to realize that desire run rampant is a new form of bondage, an insight shared between Christian faith and Buddhism. Paul does not denigrate the body, however. He wants to put the body and human desire at the service of a different way of life – the way of God’s kingdom, the way of Jesus Christ. Paul’s language is contra-imperial – citizenship is not with Rome, but in God’s realm, Jesus and not Caesar is Lord and Savior. In the Jesus way, our bodies and desires are to be used in the work of transformation.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Philippians 2

Philippians 2:1-11: Paul had been writing about living life in a manner worthy of the gospel, and a part of that was to stand firm in one spirit, to work together with one mind. The phrase “be of one mind” literally means, in Greek, “set one’s mind on the same thing.” This connotes something different than uniformity of thought. It may suggest being concerned for each other, and grappling with the same issues and concerns, even if we sometimes disagree on the meaning of some important ideas.

The use of “if” in the first verse is not really meant to be a question. It could be translated “since.” Since there is encouragement, consolation from love, sharing in the Spirit, compassion and sympathy, then follow Paul’s advice and make his joy complete. Eugene Peterson takes a little different tack. If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care – then do me a favor (The Message). This is rhetorical, of course. In either case, Paul does not question that a life worthy of the gospel includes encouragement, consolation, love, compassion, sympathy, heart, caring, Spirit-life. Because it does, Paul encourages the Philippians to be of the same mind and share the same love. “Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends” (The Message). I have again and again been impressed with how important the quality of life in Christian community is to Paul and the early Jesus movement. Should it be any less so today? Don’t our failures as Christian community weaken our ability to share good news with those outside the community? When we fail to love within the church, how convincing is our talk about the transforming power of God’s love?

Having said that, we must acknowledge that this has been a struggle since the beginning. Note how many of Paul’s letters address conflicted situations. His encouragement to be of one mind was probably in response to conflict in the Philippian church. Even his happiest letter may be, in part, a response to conflict. We do not know what lay at the root of the discord in the Philippian church. There may have been polarization around the two women who had worked faithfully with Paul in the past but were at odds with each other (4:2-3). The dissension could have been generated by the preaching of those who sought to bring elements of Judaism into the faith and practice of the church, against whom Paul lashes out in 3:1b-6. Or it could have been the case that the disunity in Philippi was related to Paul himself. If Paul’s unusually strong insistence that he loves and prays for all of them (1:4-8) implies that some members felt they were not in the circle of Paul’s favor and affection, then that could be the condition further addressed in 2:1-11. (People’s New Testament Commentary).

Paul’s encouragement to maintain a common attitude and orientation and love is pushed even further. Don’t be unduly ambitious or conceited, but in humility “regard others as better than yourselves.” Look out for the interests of others and not just your own. Such attitudes could certainly be abused, yet they should not easily be dismissed. If humility entails an inner strength that allows one to look honestly at one’s own gifts, then out of inner security we can look out for others. We should not regard others as better than us by lowering our self-regard. Rather we should seek to lift others up. I recently read a report on something called “self-compassion.” Self-compassionate people are more likely to judge reality and themselves accurately; to be happy, optimistic, extroverted, and motivated; and to feel kindness toward others…. Self-compassionate people accept their flaws but don’t become defensive or otherwise feel badly about them. (Greater Good, Winter 2007-2008) Paul may be encouraging something like compassion and self-compassion combined.

The kind of “same-mind” attitude Paul is encouraging is the mind of Christ. Paul elaborates on this theme in poetic form, either composing a poem/hymn or quoting an even older poem/hymn from the Christian community. It is vitally important to keep in mind that this is a poetic piece and not a newspaper story. The language is evocative, symbolic, metaphoric, not literal. The poem imagines a pre-existent Christ Jesus who had at one time existed in the form of God, but did not grasp at maintaining that form. Instead, he “emptied himself” and “humbled himself” as a human being – even in the way that he died (death on a cross was a humiliating death). This humble One becomes God’s exalted One. Jesus Christ is Lord. The purpose of this poem was to encourage the Philippian Christians, to invite them to cultivate a Christ-mind in their lives. Paul seems to be saying, “This is our central story, the story that has healed and freed us, live up to it.”

This is an extremely rich passage, as can already be seen by the amount of space being devoted to these verses. Another dimension to the richness of this passage is discovered when we put these verses, especially the poem/hymn into the context of the Roman Empire. John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed, in their book In Search of Paul, do an excellent job of this. The hymn subverts and even lampoons how millions within the Roman Empire took it for granted that somebody with the “form of God” should act. It probably does the same, actually, for most Christians today. That former challenge could hardly be missed by anyone aware of how the “form of God” was celebrated from Augustus to Nero and especially by anyone aware that it came from a prisoner under investigation and held chained within a proconsular praetorium. (289) Christian faith seems to be suggesting a way of life different from the way of empire, where being in the form of God is all about power and control and being able to get people to do what you want them to do. Christian faith suggests that what is most powerful is being able to empty oneself for others in love. The Greek word for emptying is “kenosis.” Crossan and Reed argue, further, that in this hymn, Paul is saying something very important about the God of Christian faith. But for Christians, is not Christ the revelation of God and, then, is that kenotic Christ not the supreme revelation of a kenotic God? But what, on earth- or in heaven - is a kenotic God? Maybe this? A God whose gracious presence as free gift is the beating hear of the universe and does not need to threaten, to intervene, to punish, or to control. A God whose presence is justice and life, but whose absence is injustice and death? (291)

There is abundance and richness in this text. The bottom line seems to be – this is what Jesus is like, this is what God is like, now be like that!

Philippians 2:12-18: That Paul’s theological hymn/poem is in the service of encouraging a form of life and a form of community seems clear by the next section. Paul quickly moves on to another word of encouragement – “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” “Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God” (The Message). But we are not simply cast adrift by ourselves to work all this out. “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.” “That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God willing and working at what will give God the most pleasure” (The Message). An important part of the good news of the gospel is that God is an energy and power for creative good and creative transformation, and that energy and power are at work within us. Good work should be done without murmuring, and when that good work is done within a loving and caring community Christians shine like “stars in the world.” (For 1970s music fans, cue up Earth, Wind and Fire, “Shining Star”). Paul links some of the value of his own work with the ability of the Philippians to keep the faith. Even if he is near death, Paul will rejoice in the faith of the Philippians. He wants to be able to look back on his work with a sense of accomplishment as he faces the prospect of death.

Philippians 2:19-30: Here we have some autobiographical notes, but notes that also serve Paul’s larger purpose of encouraging the Philippians to cultivate their Christ-mind and live lives worthy of the gospel of Christ. Paul will be sending Timothy, and his description of Timothy reinforces his encouragement to the Philippians to live the Christian faith. Epaphroditus is also being sent, and he, too, has lived in an honorable way.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Paul’s Letter to the Jesus Community at Philippi

Traveling north from the city of Ephesus to Macedonia in the first century CE and you find the city of Philippi. It was a leading city in the Roman province of Macedonia and located on a major east-west road linking Rome with Byzantium. The city of Philippi was founded by Philipp of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, in 356 BCE. As a Roman colony, its citizens were granted Roman citizenship. It was also a commercial center, not only because of its location, but because of nearby gold mines.

No serious scholar disputes that Paul was the author of this letter. He had established the Christian community, the Jesus community, at Philippi in about 50 CE. It was the first church he established in what is modern Europe. When the letter was written, from where it was written, and why it was written are all questions that are open for some discussion. There are a number of possibilities for the where and when of the letter. It is a letter written from prison. Many argue that Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote, and thus the letter would have been written between 60 and 62. If Paul was in prison in Ephesus, the letter would have been written in 54-55, though a lengthy imprisonment in Ephesus is not recorded, only hinted at (I Corinthians 15:32). If the imprisonment was in Caesarea, the letter would have been written in 57-59. For the most part, such questions are most important to those who trace the developments of Paul’s thought as one compares this letters with others written by Paul.

There are a number of reasons behind Paul’s correspondence here. Epaphroditus, a Philippian Christian, had delivered a gift to Paul and Paul was sending him back to Philippi with words of gratitude. He was also allaying concern for Epaphroditus’ health. In addition, he wanted to reassure the community of his own well-being, even as he is in prison. He hopes for a positive outcome in his situation and hopes to visit soon. Paul’s letter is warm and affectionate. There are also some concerns that seem to be behind this letter. Paul sends warnings about some troublemakers disturbing the life of the church, though the exact nature of these troublemakers is unclear. Others challenge the assumption that these warnings were directed against persons actually threatening the faith of the church. They suggest instead that Paul mentions these people as part of his rhetorical strategy – familiar in the moral exhortation of the time – of contrasting the behavior of friends (such as himself) and enemies for the church’s edification and motivation. The way the references to these people appear in the letter, and the absence of sustained arguments against them and their theology lend strong support to this interpretation. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). The church was also probably experiencing some persecution, and Paul wanted to be encouraging. In addition, given the emphasis on overcoming conflict and sharing one mind, suggests some internal disputes within the leadership of the congregation that may have also been a problem Paul wanted to address.

The emphasis throughout on virtues like affection, loyalty, sharing, harmony, and reciprocity suggests that the letter can best be understood as a letter of friendship, an established type of correspondence in the Greco-Roman world. In that world, friendship had a contractual quality well as a competitive one, and concern for friends included concern about – and reference to - one enemies. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible)

This is Paul’s happiest letter. And the happiness is infectious. Before we’ve read a dozen lines, we begin to feel the joy ourselves – the dance of words and the exclamations of delight have a way of getting inside us. (Eugene Peterson, The Message)

Philippians 1

Philippians 1:1-2: “In contrast to the modern letter form that has the addressee at the beginning and the writer’s signature at the end, letters in the first-century Graeco-Roman world began with a standard form ‘A to B,’ greeting” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Paul took this form and often elaborated it to offer perspectives on his ministry or to introduce themes for his letters. Here Paul does not recite his credentials as he has in some other letters, indicating that his ministry is not an issue of contention here. The theme of “servanthood” will pervade the letter so Paul identifies himself as a servant of Christ Jesus. The terms “bishop” and “deacon” don’t have the specific meaning given them in later church history. This is the only place in the undisputed letters of Paul where these terms are used. The terms used were rather common secular terms. Bishops were overseers or superintendents, and deacons were servants. Paul’s greeting is warm and inclusive, to all the saints who are in Christ Jesus and in Philippi – God’s people in Christ have a location in which to live out their Christian faith.

Philippians 1:3-11: Paul’s letters tend to open either with a prayer or a report of a prayer. Here Paul reports on his prayers for the Philippians - prayers of gratitude for the past, thanks for their care for him in the present, and for their future. Paul’s prayers for them are full of joy, and filled with confidence “that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.” Paul is grateful for the way this church has been a partner with him in the gospel since the beginning of his ministry there. They share in God’s grace with Paul, even as he is in prison. Paul prays that their love “may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.” Love and knowledge fit together. “So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately.” (The Message) Again, we might use Paul’s prayer as a model for our own prayer – we would do well to pray that we might love much and well.

Philippians 1:12-26: Paul is reporting on his own condition to a supportive community. They care about how he is doing and he doesn’t take much time before telling them. His focus, however, is not simply on his own condition, but on how his circumstances have allowed him to share the gospel in new ways to new people. Paul’s imprisonment has given him new opportunities for ministry and others, seeing his ministry, are encouraged in their own. While we ought not neglect caring for ourselves in adverse circumstances, we should not neglect to see how we might share love in such situations. Paul sees some using his imprisonment to share the gospel out of envy, to better Paul. Given what Paul has written elsewhere, you might expect him to chide such teachers and preachers. He does not, though he does not fully approve of them either. Apparently they are preaching the gospel well, even if for poor reasons, and as long as people receive the message and are touched by God’s Spirit in Christ, the motive of the preacher is less important. In our highly competitive church environment today, perhaps we might learn something from Paul’s attitude here.

Paul rejoices that the gospel is being shared in new ways with new people and he is filled with joy knowing that he is being prayed for. While he has some confidence that he will get out of prison, he is also feeling certain that no matter what the circumstance, he will experience God’s grace and will be able to demonstrate Christ’s love. Paul goes on to reflect on the very real possibility that he may die. He would rather live, but he trusts his death to Christ as well, feeling that in death he will be brought closer to Christ. This is not an abstract discussion about the relative merits of life and death, but a real reflection in the midst of an imprisonment that may lead to death. Life is to be preferred, for there is God’s work to be done. But when faced with the possibility of death, Paul is able to continue to see how he can love and serve God rather than fret unnecessarily over his fate.

Paul may seem too sanguine about his circumstances. Are we really to emulate his feeling that it does not matter all that much whether we live or die? I don’t think so. Life is precious and should be seen as such. It is a gift of God and is where we share God’s love in word and deed with others. The better lesson we might draw from Paul’s words is that when we have few other choices about life, we can choose our attitude. Paul has no control over his imprisonment or sentence. Well, he could probably turn from his faith, but that would be to lose his integrity. He will not do that. So he has no choice about his sentence. Yet he can choose how he will respond to his circumstances. Will he complain and feel sorry for himself, or will he seek to do what good he can? Paul chooses to do the latter. Trusting God leads him to adopt the attitude of making the best out of difficult circumstances - - - and beyond that seeking the good and finding what joy he can find.

Philippians 1:27-30: Having reflected some on his own predicament, Paul offers words of encouragement and exhortation to the community at Philippi. “Live your life in a manner worth of the gospel of Christ.” Philippi was a place suspicious of any whose ultimate loyalty was not with Caesar, thus it could be very anti-Jewish as well as making it difficult for the followers of Jesus. “Paul knows this firsthand and uses the local term for living out one’s citizenship” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Just as Roman citizens were to live in a manner worthy of that status, Paul tells the community to live in a manner worthy of their status as part of God’s kingdom. This is a way of life distinct from the Roman imperial way. Paul is trying to do this in his challenging circumstances. The Philippians are encouraged to do that regardless of what happens to Paul. How do we live in a way worthy of the gospel today? How does this contrast with some of the ways our culture might encourage us to live? Part of the way the Philippians are to live this out is by working together side by side, especially in the face of opposition.
Ephesians 5

Ephesians 5:1-20: The previous chapter ends by encouraging the Ephesian Christians to forgive as God has forgiven. This chapter begins with the more general admonition – “Be imitators of God.” Another way of saying this is to say, “Live in love as Christ loved us.” Christ’s love was demonstrated in the way he gave himself for others, even in death. The language of Temple worship is invoked as one way to think about Christ’s death. It is love that is central, not sacrifice.

Love has many opposites – sexual immorality and greed among them. Don’t allow love to turn into lust, setting off a downhill slide into sexual promiscuity, filthy practices or bullying greed (The Message). Why has the church usually been more ready to talk about misuse of sexuality than about greed? Both work against love – sexuality that does not take seriously the other but only looks after its own satisfaction, greed that makes one’s focus only one’s self forgetting about others. Greed can be seen as a form of idolatry, putting things in the place of God. Even certain kinds of talk work against love, but that should come as no surprise. These that work against love are not a part of “the kingdom of Christ and of God.” This author equates these terms, the less frequent one being “the kingdom of Christ.”

The author again draws a distinction between the life lived before and the life lived now in the light of God’s love. These people are light and they should live as light. The Christian live can often be thought of as becoming who we really are. To live as people of light is to do all that is “good and right and true.” The writer continues to play with the image of light and darkness as before-and-after contrast – before being Christian and after being Christian. These are not abstract categories, defining all who are not Christian as living in darkness. The writer has Christians in mind, people who came from some place else in their lives, mostly the worship of Greek or Roman gods. That the worship of such gods is no longer practiced probably says something about the limitations of the spirituality inspired by these religions. In many cases it was a spirituality that perpetuated the injustices of the Roman empire. The Ephesians are encouraged to live in the light, to live as if all they do is done in the bright light of day. With daylight comes waking up, another metaphor for the Christian spiritual life. Part of verse 14 is considered a fragment from an early Christian hymn.

More general advice follows – live as wise people. Continue to seek out the purposes of God. Avoid drunkenness – instead of wine, be filled with the Spirit. Drunkenness was a part of certain religious rituals celebrating some of the Greek and Roman gods. Other kinds of unwise behavior often followed. Instead, Christian life is a Spirit-filled one and there is to be joy in that, gratitude and joy.

Ephesians 5:21-33: The writer of Ephesians has been trying to delineate how Christians should live: as people created in Christ for a way of life characterized by good works (2:10), as people of a new humanity (2:15), as Spirit-empowered people who have Christ dwelling in their hearts (3:16-17), as those being rooted and grounded in love (3:17). He is trying to describe what it means to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1), to “be imitators of God,” and to “live in love” (5:1). He has talked about being loving and supportive and forgiving. He has talked about avoiding misguided sexual expression and greed, and about using words wisely and lovingly. So far, so good. We would probably agree with what has been said. Now the author draws out what he sees as important for family life, and here we struggle with the language. The person’s essential insight is sound, that how we live in relationship with those in our most intimate relations is also to be an expression of living in love. We may disagree with some of the specifics of that. We might argue that, in our context, some of what he suggests would not represent living in love. It will help us read this passage more intelligently if we know more about its historical context.

In the New Testament, Colossians 3:18-4:1 records the first household code, which is a roster of duties for members of a Greco-Roman household. Aristotle’s Politics argues that the domination of males over females ensures a properly functioning household and ultimately an efficient state. The literary form, which lists subordinate members before dominant members and a command followed by a motive for obedience, occurs in Stoic sources. The household codes and the vice and virtue lists were borrowed by early Christian writers from these sources. The relative freedom afforded Christian women and slaves represented a threat to the larger culture and began to be limited by church leadership at the end of the first century CE. The household code in Ephesians has been misused…. The writer’s intent is not to universalize Greco-Roman household management. The passage teaches that all Christians are under Christ’s lordship and are to “submit” to one another for Christ’s sake. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible).

Verse 21 states the basic principle for living in love, for imitating God – be subject to one another in Christ. “In the Christian community there is a mutual serving of one another that takes precedence over all social structures” (People’s New Testament Commentary). The Message: Out of respect for Christ, be courteously reverent to one another. Again, this is the basic point and the writer looks for models around him to spell this out. We can criticize the specifics he offers on the basis of his own basic principle. He used models from the surrounding culture which don’t seem as relevant anymore. We might find better models for living in love and being courteously reverent toward each other. While the language of wives being subject to their husbands is not very helpful to us, we should notice that this is paired with the instruction for husbands to love their lives as Christ loved the church. That love was understood as a love leading to a death for the good of the other. The passage, as limiting as it is, also raises the status of marriage within the church. God’s relationship with humankind in Christ and marriage share in a similar kind of love.

Ephesians 6

Ephesians 6:1-9: The household code continues as the writer extends his meditation on what living in love may mean in the relationship between children and parents and between slaves and masters. Children are to obey their parents. On the other hand, fathers are to be careful in not provoking their children to anger. Instead they are charged with guiding them in the Christian way of life.

The next section about slavery is disturbing and it should be. The author does not question the institution of slavery, but asks slaves to work well for their masters. On the other hand, masters are to treat slave with respect, a radically novel idea for the time.

Again, as the writer tries to figure out what it means to be imitators of God and live in love, we can criticize some of the specifics while admiring the effort to bring all of life’s relationships into the orbit of living the faith.

Ephesians 6:10-20: The writer moves from his specific examples of how to live in love in one’s household relationship back to more general principles of Christian living. He encourages his readers to be strong in the power of God, noting that the struggles of life are against cosmic powers. “Individual sins and crimes and entrenched systemic social evils are the expressions of an even deeper evil” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Recall our discussion of the language of the Powers in Galatians 4 and 6. Evil seems to take on a life of its own, sometimes. For instance, we justify our mistreatment of a racial group by concocting an ideology of racial inferiority. That takes on a life of its own and becomes woven into an understanding of the world, an unhealthy filter that warps our perception of the world. Such perceptions can become “just the way things are.” A person might, without thinking, say, for example, that someone who gets the upper hand in a negotiation has “jewed” the other person, reinforcing a horrible stereotype without even thinking about it. We struggle against such forces in our battle for good.

In that struggle we are invited to “take up the whole armor of God.” While military imagery can be uncomfortable, it is not meant to support militarism. It reminds us that our spiritual struggles can be real struggles. Our “weapons” are distinctly nonviolent – truth, righteousness, peace, faith and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. (The Message) The “word of God” is portrayed as a sword. “The word of God is not identified as the Bible, but as in 1:13 and 6:15, the Christian gospel in and through which God speaks” (People’s New Testament Commentary)

In the midst of the struggles of faith, pray and keep alert. The writer asks for prayers for his ministry.

Ephesians 6:21-24: The ending fits with other letters of Paul except there are no personal greetings, which seems odd for the amount of time Paul spent in Ephesus. Tychicus was a coworker of Paul, and represents the next generation of Pauline Christianity. If this letter was not written by Paul, it was written within the school of Pauline Christianity. Peace, love and grace are offered in the faith.