Negotiating the master-slave relationship in a church family: the letter to Philemon

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Philemon is the shortest of all Paul’s letters. (That hasn’t stopped someone writing a 600 page commentary on its 25 verses!) In the Roman Catholic lectionary selected verses are read on the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year C. The corresponding Proper 18 in the Revised Common Lectionary, as so often, lengthens the reading to almost the whole letter, leaving out only the closing greetings. 

While some of the precise details are obscure, the overall picture is generally agreed to be straightforward. Philemon seems to be a member of the church at Colossae, who found his Christian faith through Paul’s ministry. Onesimus is a runaway slave of Philemon who has ended up in Paul’s company, and been visiting him while Paul is under arrest. As a result of his contact with Paul, he has come to faith in Christ independently of the commitment made by his master. 

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House rules and cultural accommodation: the Pastoral letters

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Icon of St Timothy. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Sunday lectionary reads selections from 1 & 2 Timothy through in sequence towards the end of Year C,1 and uses a couple of short excerpts from Titus in the selections for Christmas Day. As I noted in my introduction to Paul’s letters, these three are sufficiently like each other to be grouped together, and sufficiently different from Paul’s other letters for many people to wonder if he wrote them. Although they are usually called, collectively, the Pastoral Letters, I think they might better be thought of as “organisational letters” written for those who have some responsibility for organising the church.

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It’s the end of the world as we know it: the Thessalonian letters

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

I take both the letters to the church at Thessalonica together. Between them they have no more lectionary readings than the individual letters we have already looked at, and they cover much the same territory. Their key theme is how to live when you are expecting the end of the world as you know it. While living in expectation of Christ’s appearing remains a significant theme in Paul’s letters, it is at its most intense here. It also seems to be an expectation that is not fully understood by his Gentile converts in Thessalonica, who lack the grounding in Old Testament texts to fully appreciate it. Unsurprisingly, given this emphasis, the majority of readings from these letters comes in the Advent season.

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King of the universe: Colossians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

A small number of passages from Colossians crop up several times over the course of the lectionary. Selections from the letter are read through in the earlier summer weeks of post-Easter Ordinary Time, in Year C. The hymnic passage extolling Christ as the centre of both creation and its restoration as new creation (Col 1:15-20) is also read on Christ the King (again Year C). And the opening of chapter 3 is also read on Easter Day (Year A).

The letter as a whole reads a little like a first rehearsal for some of the themes we have seen developed in Ephesians. The story of human redemption is told on the same cosmic scale. In his description of Christ as “the image of the invisible God”, Paul seems to be echoing Wisdom chapter 7, especially verses 23-27. If Jewish thinkers increasingly saw Torah as the repository of divine wisdom, Paul leads the way for Christian thinkers in seeing Christ as wisdom’s true incarnation, a theme that is developed in John’s gospel.

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Colonies of heaven: Christianity as a Roman religion in Philippians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Christianity might have been born in a thoroughly Jewish home, but it quickly got sent to a Roman boarding school. In Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, we see something of that happening. Philippi, like Corinth was a Roman colony, and Paul draws rather more positively on that heritage to shape his language when he writes to the Philippians, than he does in his more troubled relationship with Corinth. Indeed, it may well have been the Philippian church Paul had in mind when he spoke of the generosity of the Macedonian churches (2 Corinthians 8:1-7), appealing to the competitive spirit at Corinth, and trying to get them to up their game in the generosity stakes.

Paul envisages in Philippians that his death might be a very real possible outcome of his imprisonment. The picture is the traditional site of Paul’s burial in Rome.
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A bold vision of a cosmic church: Ephesians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

When we turn from Galatians to Ephesians, the change of tone is startling. This is one of those letters where the tone is rather less argumentative as well as less specific than Paul normally is. For many scholars, that suggests a disciple of Paul summarising some key elements of his master’s teaching. For others, it represents simply a different scribe, and Paul in a more reflective and different mode of teaching. The letter certainly shares Paul’s love of long and convoluted sentences, with Eph 1:3-14 essentially being a single sentence in the original Greek (depending on your view of what a sentence is!).

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Paul’s angriest letter: Galatians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Galatians, selections of which are read in the early Sundays of Ordinary Time after Eastertide in Year C, reads like Paul’s hastiest and angriest letter. He addresses the recipients as “foolish Galatians!” (Gal 3.1) And the letter includes one of his rudest comments, carefully left out of the lectionary, “Those agitators [arguing for circumcision] had better go the whole way and make eunuchs of themselves!” (Gal 5:12 REB) Paul’s passion and anger revolve around the subjects of circumcision especially, but also sharing a common meal.

A statue of Paul with a sword (symbolising the word of God) seems particularly appropriate for this fiery letter. The statue is in St Paul’s Outside the Walls, Rome.
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Keeping up with the Corinthians: a second letter to Corinth

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Paul wrote more than two letters to the Corinthians: it’s the only way of making sense of the letters he mentions in his correspondence with them. It’s just that we don’t have any more than two collected in our scriptures, and don’t know what happened to the other(s). We have no way of knowing exactly how many there were. Some scholars, observing that the letter in the Bible called Second Corinthians seems a bit of a patchwork, suggest that it could have been stitched together from at least two, and perhaps three original letters.

There’s no real evidence to say so. The changes of mood and direction could just as well come down to getting interrupted mid-dictation by some event or news which caused a swerve in the argument. Since no-one has ever found a fragment of manuscript that shows a version of the letter with a different beginning, middle or ending, I think I prefer the simplicity of an interruption causing Paul to alter course. Either way, it’s a reminder that there are simply gaps in our knowledge, and not everything Paul wrote ended up as scripture.

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When the church doesn’t do “Christian”: pastoral care case by case in First Corinthians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

From looking at Paul’s most carefully and tightly argued letter, we turn to one that is almost a ragbag of collected problems, First Corinthians. These problems are either ones that the Corinthians have written to Paul about, or ones he has heard of from others. Here, even more than usual, we are aware as readers that we only have half a conversation.

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Tracing Paul’s argument in Romans: from Abraham to Jesus and beyond

This post is in the series Rite Reading. The second of two posts on Romans.

In my previous post, I offered a picture of the context at Rome which causes Paul to write this letter. It is written to a city in which divisions between Jews and Greeks focussed on claims about Jesus have previously boiled over, and may be heating up again. I noted that more than in most letters, with Romans you need a grasp of the overall argument to see the meaning of any individual reading. Today I offer that kind of outline of how I read this letter. There are others.

The Colosseum, built after Paul’s day, reminds us how much violence was a feature of life in the Roman Empire

Paul’s first three chapters, after an opening greeting, step straight into this. Paul initially takes up and repeats the common criticisms Jews made of the pagan world, and then he echoes some not atypical Roman anti-Semitic attacks on Jews. Both are shown to deserve the criticism the other dishes out, but Paul goes on to privilege the Jewish scriptural tradition, not because it was given to the Jews, but because it was given by God. God will be faithful even when God’s people are not. In point of fact, the scripture reinforces the mutual criticism Jew and Greek heap on each other, for it says “There is no-one righteous, no, not one.” (Rom 3:10)1

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