As I’ve been reading and thinking about the upcoming conference, I have this funny feeling that some of the answers we seek come from our experience of and with Paul. That books and seminars are helpful as ever, but that we need to understand Paul with our gut, too.
A few years ago, I was set to share some content in a Sunday morning worship service, until an important medical appointment came up for that same morning. What to do? I was planning to lead a discussion, but knew that wouldn’t be possible. Other folks could fill in of course, but it was a topic I’d picked (and that no one else was grooving on). What to do? I felt stuck until someone had an interesting and ancient idea: send a letter! So I reworked my ideas into an epistle, emailed it to a friend who had offered to read it, and went to my appointment with no worries.
But that didn’t last long. As Sunday afternoon turned to evening, and Monday came and went, my anxiety increased: how did it go? What did people say? How were my ideas received? How did people react? I kept checking my email inbox, and hoping that someone would call. Eventually, sometime between Monday and Tuesday, the thought occurred to me that this must be how Paul felt two thousand years before. He would send carefully worded letters to beloved churches via a messenger to be read to the whole group, and then wait for a response. Except that, in his case, it would take days and weeks before any further information could even be delivered. In which case the information would of course be susceptible to interpretive error, and just plain dated and overtaken by events. And I’m sure there were plenty of times when no one bothered to tell him anything at all.
Which acts as a reminder that these epistolary exchanges and long-distance relationships between Paul and these churches were part of a messy, imprecise, and emotional interaction– from both sides. Trying to find anything ‘systematic’ in this collection of letters seems fraught with difficulty from the start.