Saturday, August 8, 2009

Boring Letters?

Via Media is a formation series in the Episcopal Church. Via Media, or the middle way, suggests that the Anglican/Episcopal way (starting with a blend of Catholicism and Reformation) has always been a blending of traditions that make for a rather messy, but very real and engaging church. At its heart, I believe this is still true. The Via Media series features a group of Episcopalians sitting around a table discussing various things from Jesus, the Spirit, and sin. I’ve taught this class and watched these videos dozens of times now, and so certain memorable lines stick out: for better and worse. A woman was referring to the many different books and offerings found in the Bible. She reflected on how some books share the foundational story (like Genesis), how the four Gospels work to give a varied yet complete picture of Jesus, how the Psalms express both hope and fear, how the prophets speak of both present issues and timeless challenges, and finally, getting to the New Testament letters, she says:

“And the Epistles tend to read like a letter from a boring bishop.”

A memorable line for sure, worth exploring on a number of lines of thought.

First off, it reminds me that while the lectionary...the planned 3-year cycle of readings for each Sunday of the very helpful for exploring the vast breath of the Scriptures, it is often not kind to the Hebrew Scriptures in its tendency to match an excerpt with how it speaks to the Gospel at hand. The Epistles tend to fair only slightly better, for the excerpts we read often leads to more confusion about them than illumination. We end up with strange subject matter like circumcision, or with a section of thought that is missing its context. With the Gospels far more inviting and demanding for immediate commentary, the Epistles tend to be ignored, save for single memorable lines that get used in ways that are often not in the context of the compete letter.

To make matters worse, “letters from a boring bishop” is not as far off as you might think. The boring question aside, the Epistles are just that: open letters to a community that is engaged in an ongoing, previously begun correspondence. We do not know what prompted the letter: a reflection on the relevant news, a specific issue in the community, an observed place of struggle, or a full-blown crisis. We know not if a line like (I’ll choose a mostly ignored one) “women should cover their heads in church,” was a specific answer to someone’s posed question, an attempt to diffuse an out of control situation that had consumed the community, a point of contention over a specific power struggle, or perhaps even the author’s personal pet issue. We hear something like this, and perhaps think, “how in the world could this be important enough to be addressed by the Bible,” without considering the difference in culture or the context of the comment.

If we are to gain anything from our experience of reading the Epistles, other than arming ourselves with specific verses that reinforce our particular understandings and point-of-view, we must attempt to discern the “so what” of the letters. What is the point, why might this matter, and what does it mean to the communal relationship?

The passage from Ephesians this morning (Ephesians 4:1-16) seems to point towards a need for this community of Christ to reconcile. Who knows if it was specifically fractured by a particular event, or perhaps upset by a slowly building controversy, or maybe even tense over a bunch of little things that had been blown out of proportion? Ephesians starts, however, not with the call to reconcile but a review of life in Christ.

Richard Ward writes:

“God is at work in Christ throughout the first three chapters, revealing, choosing, adopting, sacrificing, and blessing in order to bring differing communities together into a new, unified body in the face of pronounced and pervasive evil. The claim is bold and remarkable, that through the death and resurrection of Christ, warring religious cultures (i.e.: Jew and Gentile), passionately divided by heritage, traditions, moral codes, and behaviors, have collided and now converged into a newly created order, a community that knows no barriers of race, class, or gender.” (Feasting on the Word, Vol. 3, Ed. by David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, p305

So the letter writer has established the vision that God has in Christ, and for the church. The next chapters of the letter explore pastorally how this all actually gets played out.

Our opening verse this morning starts with a call “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” (Eph. 4:1)

Paul Marshall claims that the call here is that Christ’s followers are to be bound by the highest standards of individual and corporate morality. Christ’s mission is the ongoing reconciliation of all humanity to God: something that both happened with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and something that still needs to happen in the infinite opportunities for humility, gentleness, and patient forbearance that we have with others. (Feasting on the Word, Vol. 3, p304)

The gifts given in this section of Ephesians circles around individual gifts that people have to serve the church community, all to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Eph. 4:12)

Porter Taylor writes (using Markus Barth’s knowledge of Greek) that “...the equipping is not about accumulating skills of knowledge. Rather the word “equip” comes from the Greek noun katartismos meaning “the setting of a bone.” It derives from a verb meaning “to reconcile,” “to set bones,” “to restore,” “to create,” “to prepare.” To grow in one’s ministry, therefore, is to align oneself with God’s intentions, both individually and corporately, and to avoid being “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine.” (Feasting on the Word, Vol. 3, p304)

It must be noted that the verse (Eph. 4:14) that’s so often pulled out and used to defend the status quo, in context, becomes a call for growth and healing towards God in both individuals and communities.

Ronald Wilson of Luther Seminary, in St. Paul, Minnesota, writes:

In such communal living, diversity is not an obstacle but a vehicle for unity and maturity. The variety in the church does not hinder, but rather promotes the desired growth. Seminary professor Gerhard Frost used to say to students, “We need each other’s differences.” This was no mere nod to some fuzzy tolerance, but a tough-minded appraisal of the necessity for diversity, no matter how difficult that might be for us in the church. We may need God’s help to be mature enough to welcome differences among us with humility, gentleness, and patience, and to put up with one another in love as we are encouraged to do.

In such an economy, the many are unified by a common charge to build up, to stabilize, to enable growth. This structured unity in diversity is powerful witness to the rest of the world concerning God’s purposes for all creation. What is being set forth (in the dogmatic constitution of the first section of Ephesians) and called for (in the pastoral second portion we have) in this letter is not an impossibly unattainable ideal, but the conviction of faith that the church has been given resources to demonstrate unity, proclaim truth in love, and become whole in Christ.” ("Thinking and Practicing Reconciliation": The Ephesians Texts for Pentecost 8-14, Ronald Olson, Word & World Texts in Context, Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary, 1997.)

“A boring letter from a bishop?” Perhaps it is, but it’s also clearly a timely one for the church and the world today.

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