Strangers on Holy Ground: Reflection & Assignment for November 6
Context & Reflection:
Paul wrote to specific issues and contexts. As we read Romans chapters 12 and 13 and 2 Corinthians chapters 8 and 9 this week, what do issues do you find these two communities are facing? What is the story these communities are telling and living? How does that story relate to the ones we’ve been exploring, stories of being strangers and of welcoming strangers, stories of resistance and stories of risking and change?
When Paul was writing, what would become known as the Christian movement or the church was still part of the larger Jewish community, complete with converts from the larger Roman empire. The developing community might be attracting attention for its sectarian beliefs, evident in Paul’s writing by his understanding of how Jesus, as Messiah, brings the whole of humanity back to the One, but it was still part of this larger Jewish world. Under the Roman occupation, many different Jewish sects arise, including those who withdraw, like the Jewish community at Qum’ran. The Qum’ranic texts (often called the Dead Sea Scrolls) have become a window back into that time of intensifying exploitation, resistance, rebellion that result in the Roman army destroying the temple in Jerusalem.
The seven letters we know as the reliable letters come from this period of tumult and change under harsher Roman rule. These reliable letters are written a generation (20-30 years) before the Gospels and the book of Acts are set down. The other letters attributed to Paul date to a later era, when Christian identity is emerging separating from Judaism, and there are more issues of differing teaching and arguments among different Christian communities. The seven reliable letters are: 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, 2 Corinthians, and Romans. The later letters are: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, and Hebrews. When we recognize the difference in authorship and context, how we interpret the letters changes. Paul is writing as a Jew, even though the history of Christian interpretation prefers to name him the first Christian. That tradition, however, arises after Paul. Readers meeting conflict between Acts and Paul’s letters have historically chosen Acts. We can choose differently. We have choices to make, choices now influenced by a long history of Jewish and Christian relations, a history Paul did not imagine, but whose legacy we must answer.
Turning to Romans 12-13, the community in Rome is evidently struggling about authority and what faith asks. This is a live question for any of the Jewish communities under Roman rule, one we see being addressed in the Gospels, too, and also part of the larger body of Jewish literature of this time. Indeed, we see that issue in the prophets from the time of the Babylonian exile through the Book of Daniel. That there is trouble around authority and faith makes a lot of sense when we realize that there is no separation of faith and state in the Roman Empire. In the Empire, public religion is the public order. Where possible, part of the strategy of conquest is to absorb indigenous religions – syncretism. But Judaism is resistant to the Roman model of syncretism, and thus, the issue of which authority is in charge becomes critical. How do you relate to this struggle about authority and living what you believe?
Turning to 2 Corinthians 8-9, the community in Corinth is evidently going through some struggles of its own around enoughness. It often read as literal financial insufficiency, but it could also include some spiritual elements. Being generous when we’re feeling fearful and pinched is a challenging practice, and Paul adds to that challenge by dispatching two leaders, Titus and a brother famous for preaching, two more folks to be supported by and part of the community. By sending strangers, Paul is interrupting the community as it has grown used to being. Paul encourages the community then to be faithful, less attached to particular outcomes and more attached to the practices of generosity and love. How do you relate to the struggle in community around generosity in difficult times?
If welcoming strangers is a core piece of how we are as a religious people, then when our larger societies are suspicious of or persecute the stranger, we will be in conflict with the governing authorities. If welcoming strangers is part of practicing the generosity of abiding love, then when we find ourselves in less abundant times, we will meet conflict with how to live generously. Generosity is most expressed and most tested in time of want, whether we’re living in times of hunger, thirst, homelessness, hatred, persecution, or isolation. The stories we choose to live into demonstrate where we place authority, and how we accept persecution, hatred, isolation, hunger, thirst, and lots of other trials and troubles living in the authority of Abiding Love.