Letters to the early church

Letters to the early church

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles immediately follows the four gospels in the New Testament. Acts, as it is called for short, is the only book of the New Testament that fits the definition of a history. It follows a narrative path recounting the stories of those of Jesus’ earliest followers who undertook the task of spreading the Good News he had proclaimed. Those people whom the Apostles, or rather the Holy Spirit acting through them, persuaded to follow Jesus, soon established small communities of fellow believers.  These communities they called ecclesia, the Greek word for a solemn assembly or gathering of people, which eventually became the English term “church.”

Acts is traditionally said to have been written by the same author as the gospel of Luke. Judging by the style of writing and the level of mastery of Greek this is a plausible supposition. The first half of the Book of Acts recounts the activities of Peter and other Apostles in and around Jerusalem. The story opens with the Ascension of Jesus, who had been with the disciples for a short time following his resurrection. He ascends to heaven to be with God, we are told in the first ten verses of the book. After that it is all about the apostles.

That term, “apostle”, by the way, refers in this context to the twelve disciples of Jesus, Judas having been replaced. Apostle means one who carries a message and the change in term from disciple to apostle signifies that while they were followers of Jesus during his life, after his death their role shifted to focus on spreading the good news.

We are not given a great deal of information about the nature of the early church communities, how they functioned and how they were structured. But it is clear that to belong to a church was a commitment to live in community with your fellows. In several places we are told about the way in which all things were shared among the members and there is even a story of one couple who tried to hold back some of their property rather than give it to the church. For this they were struck dead, so the story goes.

On reviewing the Book of Acts what strikes me is that there is very little in it that tells us that the Apostles spoke about the teachings of Jesus or his ministry of healing. Certainly we hear no new stories of Jesus’ activities, nor do we hear retellings of the stories contained in the gospels.  The focus is on Jesus’ death and resurrection and its meaning for our relationship with God. What does it mean for us that Jesus was the Christ of God?

This is true of the first half of the book, which focuses on Peter and the rest of the twelve, and also for the second half, which recounts the ministry of Paul. Paul, you may recall was an enemy of the early church until his encounter with the Holy Spirit on the road to Damascus. He then became the prime emissary of the Christian message to the Gentile world outside of Judea.

The book of Acts tells us about the conflicts within the early church over the practices that Christians were required to embrace. As Paul established more and more gentile churches there was debate with the Apostles in Jerusalem about whether being Christian meant one had to adopt Jewish dietary practices and whether men had to be circumcised. While those are not debates we have in our day, it is somehow reassuring to know that even within its first generation the church found itself engaged in discussion about what it means to be a member and what is required of Christians.

The Book of Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome, apparently at the request of Jewish religious leaders from Jerusalem. There is no biblical record of whether he was executed in Rome, but legend has it that he was. Immediately following Acts we have the letter to the Romans, from which we heard today.  This letter was written before Paul came to Rome, so its placement here brings to our awareness that the New Testament books are not placed in chronological order, making it a bit of a challenge to keep track of the situation of the writer and of the churches to which he was writing.

The letters, or epistles, are in fact ordered in the New Testament according to length, so Romans, which is the latest of Paul’s letters, comes first because it is also the longest. There are 21 letters in the New Testament, seven of which are, most scholars agree, written by Paul. Another seven were traditionally attributed to him, but modern scholars have good reason to believe they were written by followers of Paul who used his name to give added authority to what they wrote. This, as I’ve mentioned before, was a common practice of the time and not taken as a deception or fraudulent abuse.

The final seven letters were written by unknown apostles, some to churches and some to individuals, to provide guidance, support and encouragement as well as clarification about the import of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for our understanding of how God relates to humankind.

In the ancient Roman world there was no post office, no courier services and no e-mail. So sending a letter was a very different and much riskier thing that it is now. If a writer wanted to get a message from Jerusalem to Ephesus or Thessalonica they had to find someone who was going there and trust they would deliver a letter for them. Travel, of course, was on foot through the countryside and by sea on fragile cargo vessels. Disease and disaster interrupted many a trip. It is a wonder that these 21 letters arrived at all, let alone that they survived destruction by time and the enemies of the early church.

Just as the means of delivery were different than in our time, so the content and intention of letters was different. You may have heard the term ‘epistle’ applied to Paul’s letters. While scholars debate whether these documents fit the formal definition of epistle the term points to the fact that most of these documents were addressed not to an individual but to a community. They were intended to be read in public and contained directions about how the church was to conduct itself. In many of the letters Paul addresses specific questions that have come from the communities – question of theology as well as questions of church practice.

In Romans 14 for instance he admonishes the church for being too judgmental about whether or not members are strictly observing dietary laws. As well, he often reminds the gentile churches to financially support the church in Jerusalem. In his letter to the Galatians he admonishes the congregation for turning away from the Christian message that he left with them.

In the passage we heard read today Paul offers some theological reflection on the meaning of the suffering and persecution that the church was experiencing.  His concluding remarks, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” have given comfort to the church and to individual Christians for centuries.

Paul explicitly mentions in several of his letters that he was dictating them. If you have ever done any dictating yourself, you know that your thoughts are expressed differently than if you are writing them down as you go. Paul’s letters often convey this sense of being composed as he speaks, rather than being a product of prior thought and reflection. Sometimes, indeed, it sounds like he’s painting himself into a theological corner and doesn’t quite know how to get out.

The second half of this morning’s passage sounds like Paul is coming back to something he has already written and restating it in a way that he hopes is clearer or more forceful. From verse 18 to 30 Paul speaks of the way in which the Spirit helps us in our weakness by interceding with God. The Spirit prays for us. My suspicion is that at verse 30 he took a break in his dictation and came back to his writing after a period of time with a desire to shift his focus from the Spirit to the Son. Verse 31 reads, “What then are we to say about these things?” This sounds like a rhetorical statement that signals to the reader that Paul realizes that he needs to think some more about what it is he wants to say.

A little aside – I’ve referred to the verse numbers in my little piece of analysis here, and that brings to mind one of the often overlooked realities of the Bible – it was not written with the divisions into chapters and verses that we find in virtually every modern edition. Greek, the language of the New Testament, was at the time written without punctuation and entirely in capital letters. Dividing up this dense text in order to extract its meaning was not easy although context and grammatical conventions provide a lot of help. And there is always some editorial decision making involved in deciding where to end a paragraph, where to insert quotation marks, and who to attribute speech to. While the editors have been very helpful by their addition of grammatical and textual markings, we need to remember that they are additions, not in the original.

I said last week that the four gospels were documents written to persuade. They recount the stories of Jesus, but they structure and situate them in a way that makes the point that this is the story of God’s son come among us. Paul is not recounting the stories of Jesus. He never knew Jesus while he was alive.

What Paul is interested in is forming and sustaining church communities and helping them to grow. He also wants to give his readers his interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul is the first theologian. Theology, which comes from the Greek words meaning God and words– speech about God, in other words – has been defined as ‘faith seeking understanding.’ Understanding the faith is what Paul endeavours to provide.

The death of Jesus, understood as the gift of God to us of God’s own son, Paul interprets as a sign of God’s love and faithfulness.  How this affects our understanding of God, our understanding of Jesus, our understanding of messiahship and our understanding of these things for our own lives are issues he wrestles with.  Over the centuries Paul’s letters have been the starting point for much of the theological reflection that has followed. As such he deserves thanks for the profundity of his insights, but he is also responsible for many doctrinal turns that have been less than helpful.

Theology is a necessary, but risky, activity for the church. In seeking to understand the origin and meaning of our faith and its influence on our daily lives, we are engaged in an unceasing task. Central to our faith is the belief that the Word of God is discerned through engagement with these texts, but that discernment is never straightforward. It is, however, engaging and even exciting and so we continue to wrestle and to dance with these ancient documents.

Text: Romans 8: 18-39

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