It always interests me why so much of the New Testament is made up of letters. Rather a sketchy basis for a serious new religion, isn’t it?
Of course, some like “Hebrews” or “1 John” don’t read quite like letters; they’re more like monographs or sermons, perhaps. But most of them are letters pure and simple. It underlines the simple point that these were real people writing to other real people about things on their mind.
Many get focused on the great faith and life statements like “All things work together for good” or “If I have faith enough to move a mountain and have not love, I am nothing” – I mean to say, these are wonderful, inspirational, life-changing concepts, aren’t they? But the bits that really impact me are the little moments out of the corner of your eye. “Bring the cloak I left in Troas” “And the books.” Why is that in my Bible?
My answer is, of course, that, in the first place, it’s there because it really happened. It reminds me that the Bible is real and historical. Paul was a real person who could grumble and worry about his misplaced books and his favourite sweater, just like me.
Second, it reminds me that Christianity is personal. Perhaps you knew? Well, I know it’s personal, but I sometimes forget how personal it is. I watch Louis Giglio clips, get astonished at the size of the universe, and need to be reminded that God is the Lord of the tiny things too –which is where most of us live. For example, I love the moment when Jesus is about to die on the cross and in short staccato statements (that match those of a man gasping for breath), he notices and cares about what will happen to his mother next and entrusts the situation to his close friend John: “Son, behold your mother; mother, behold your son.” Such a tiny, warm moment.
The letters remind me that the destiny of God’s saving plan for the entire human race is bound up in the nitty gritty of the lives of a few guys who have to make travel arrangements and mistakes, have arguments, get confused…. People like us.
Third, the letters remind me that Christianity is provisional. I hope you understand what I mean. Now, there’s plenty of material, as I noted above, that supplies inspiration and life-changing truth. But, on the other hand, you can’t read the letters as if they are rules and regulations, set in stone. They are letters, after all, and not rule-books. That means that they are occasional: they derive from a specific circumstance or occasion.
It’s curious to see what the different denominations have made, for example, of the instructions for Church Governance. Each and every different one has looked deeply into the Greek words and seen a mirror image of their own system. Incredible! It’s like the old story of the farmer looking into his deep well and being amazed to see an identical farmer looking back. And so, through the long ages of Christian organisation, popes and priests, deacons, ministers, pastors, bishops and apostles have found themselves in the Scriptures. How is that possible? Titles that were originally fluid and functional have become static and institutionalised. It’s like the difference between a river and a canal. Church structures and governments, giftings, hierarchies, practices and rituals have developed in much the same way.
Part of the answer to this quandary is that we simply must get a grip of what letters do, as a genre of literature. For myself, I find this answer very stimulating, very exciting and very insightful into the question of how we operate as “church” today.
Letters are written to network between people in different places. They convey information and enable association between writers and recipients. The letters in the New Testament remind us that Christianity is a mobile faith. Letters come from people on the move.
It is very hard to sidestep the simple command of the Master, to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” and yet somehow we manage it. We take issue with the word “gospel” and with the word “preach” and finally with the word “go” and somehow we feel justified in staying in one place and telling nobody.
The letters remind us that the church developed differently in different places, as the Gospel crossed boundaries and barriers and planted itself in new cultures. There is a massive difference between gift and wrapping paper. We are not children who play with the wrapping paper, surely, but adults who have come to appreciate the gift itself. The letters deal with pieces of wrapping paper, quite often, such as race issues (“neither Jew nor Greek”), gender issues (“neither male nor female”) or status issues (“Neither slave nor free”). The wrapping paper is important, sure, but very very secondary.
The gift is Christ.
- The Communion of Tradition (glory2godforallthings.com)
- It’s a wide wide journey, open your eyes (jessedooley.wordpress.com)