Letters of Love

Galatians 1: 1-3 and 5: 13-36 and 2 Corinthians 8:1-15

Unexpected surprises await us in old attics. Sometimes we discover treasures of old 45” records in mint condition. Sometimes we discover delicate clothing worn by generations long gone. If we are extremely lucky, we might discover an old trunk, rich with the patina of old wood, aged leather straps and likely bound with brass latches. We would lift the lid slowly, with reverence, and then perhaps find the most precious treasures of all – old photographs, military medals, and letters in spidery cursive tied with a ribbon. We would look through it all, saving the letters for last. Perhaps carrying them downstairs to read carefully before a fire as we imagined the writer and recipient sharing stories of love and life from a previous age.

The letters of the New Testament are a similar treasure – from much farther back in time– almost two thousand years. We need to do a bit of research to understand what they are talking about, but there are treasures to discover in these letters too, despite their origins in antiquity (about 50-65AD).

These letters from St. Paul to the early churches could well be called “Letters of Love.” They are messages to churches all over that part of the world from the one who first told them about Jesus that arrive out of his great concern for them. Paul was very, very afraid that the young churches were wandering from the narrow path of following Jesus. They were even weighing in on the wrong side of a COSMIC conflict between the power of God and the rebellious, fallen creation, and trying to earn their own salvation instead of trusting in God for it. Their souls, and the future of the churches were at stake. So love letters from Paul included a great deal of correction. Love doesn’t let someone go in the wrong direction without addressing the problem! He wanted them to understand the “POWER to become CHILDREN OF GOD!”

The Letter to the churches of Galatia, a region that was in what is now Turkey, shows Paul’s anxiety about their tendency to misunderstand the idea of in Christ and freedom in the Spirit. They interpreted freedom from the LAW to mean that they could choose to do whatever they wanted in their own lives, thinking God demanded nothing from them. The people of Galatia were in danger of wandering away from the Gospel of Love in Jesus to follow their own desires. These included licentiousness, envy, back-biting, competitiveness and criticizing others. Paul saw these are serious sins, capable of doing great injury to the church! Additionally there were divisions in the church because of wandering teachers who encouraged everyone to follow old Jewish laws, which Paul had told them it was unnecessary. The churches of Galatia were in a tangle over it. Cosmic warfare in local churches – not a good thing. PLATO talked about moral conflict as like two horses pulling a chariot in two different directions: intense, destructive – perhaps fatal. Infighting in the churches – meant that they did not point others to God, which is THE POINT of being the church.

The bad teaching by those travelling Judaizers encouraged the churches to maintain a strict code according to Jewish laws in order to earn their salvation as the people of God. And their theological understanding was deficient in four important ways.

1 -- deficient in Christology -- the understanding of Christ and his role in offering salvation to Gentiles (non-Jews).

2.-- deficient in Pneumatology -- the Holy Spirit and its role in the lives of J’s followers.

3 -- deficient in Ecclesiology --the nature of the church

4 – deficient in eschatology --but worst of all: they acted like Christ’s death and resurrection hadn’t changed EVERYTHING! Paul taught – everywhere he went – that God had acted in Jesus Christ in ways that changed the world, overturned the powers of the world, and set the Spirit free in the world!

FREEDOM for Paul means life in the spirit – which is the freedom to serve each other in love. Freedom to “be led, formed and shaped by the Holy Spirit.”[i] They did indeed have, by the Spirit, the Power to become the Children of God! This kind of freedom means that we are NOT BOUND to satisfy our selfish or what he calls fleshly desires.

FLESHLY DESIRES (selfish, self-serving desires) were anyplace that human desire opposes itself to God will and the wholeness of the community of faith.

URGENCY. Paul had a sense of urgency about this – because those who practice the works of the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God. The very identity of the church was at stake! Would they be God’s children – or children of the world? Those wrong-thinking teachers said that circumcision would lead to God’s kingdom. Paul identified trying to figure out the “requirements” to get in the kingdom was actually exhibiting the flesh-focused, community-dividing behaviors that would exclude people from God’s kingdom.

INSTEAD NURTURE – DWELL ON -- FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. To live by the Spirit means, then and now, to live with God’s desires as our own desires – and God’s priorities as our own. Paul wanted early Christians to be careful to expose our minds to the scriptures, to Christian conversation and encouragement – NOT to let bad influences pull us off course. Like a letter of encouragement from a grandparent to young adults trying to find their way in the world, Paul writes long letters of advice from a distance to remind his beloved young Christians how to live lives “holy and pleasing to God.” Put away the works of the flesh, Paul said – nurture instead the fruits of the Spirit. Living in Christ, belonging to Christ is enough -- FOR this will give you the power to become the children of God!

“Remember who you are” is a message Paul shares over and over again in many different ways. In this passage from 2 Corinthians, Paul is upset because the church at Corinth is wandering away from the commitments they had made in the past. “Remember who you are,” he says. “You are the people to whom God has been exceedingly generous. You have received God’s grace freely given. Remember who you are. You are God’s people committed to moral actions to redistribute the wealth. You are those who will live simply so others may simply live – Remember who you are.”

Specifically, Paul is talking with the church at Corinth, which is in Greece, about an offering commitment that they had enthusiastically made the year before – to provide for the church in Jerusalem. He reminds them that they received the gospel of Jesus Christ from the Jews – and so should return from their abundance with gratitude to the Jerusalem church. But while they were enthusiastic about their commitment at first, their excitement has dropped off a bit and they don’t seem inclined to give the rest of what was committed – kind of like the end of a Capital Campaign. We make a commitment and give the first year, we give a bit the second year – but the third year is definitely not as exciting to give. After all, the big projects are done and the third year is just paying off the debt. So Paul reminds them that they are those who have received much – and they should give generously out of their abundance.

And after all, the churches of Macedonia, who have little, are being extremely generous – read sacrificial. They who have little are giving with great enthusiasm. Evangelist Eddie Fox told a story about visiting United Methodist churches in Estonia shortly after the attacks of 9/11. The areas where the churches were located were so poor that the people only had meat on occasions like Easter and Christmas. Each person had two complete outfits, and infants were wrapped in strips made of clothes too old to be worn. To say the people gathered in these churches were poor is to be so understated as to defy explanation. And these poor people were so concerned about the people of the United States that they had been saving their offerings to send to the US for relief. They had been collecting for over a month – and confessed that they didn’t know how to send it, so they hoped that Dr. Fox would take it to the United States and share it with the people there – from the Methodists of Estonia with love. They handed him a small bundle of coins wrapped in a handkerchief. With tears in his eyes he accepted this loving and generous offering. Out of their poverty, they gave all that they had. It was worth 67 cents, he said – but priceless beyond belief. A truly generous amount. So Paul told the Corinthians – those who have little are giving generously out of their great love. Will you do the same?

These moments of generosity are a witness. Every encounter is an opportunity to be a channel of God’s grace. This is what God intends – a growing, widening, spreading river of grace. And to give is a joy.

Paul’s understanding of God is that God begins a cycle of blessing – charis. God gives to us, which inspires good works in our lives, and they we return thanks to God with grateful hearts. It is a CYCLE of blessing that repeats itself turn after turn.

God has given to us, therefore we give.

God has showered us with grace, therefore we give graciously.

God has showed us great love, therefore we love.

As those who have received much, Paul says, we should share with others. God’s intention is for those with abundance to balance things by sharing with those in need. The church is to be a part of the redistribution of wealth.

Ex: 1. GIVE 10% of all serendipitous (unexpected) funds to mission. So if you find a dollar, give 10 cents to mission, if an old debt is repaid, give 10% to missions – to celebrate abundance by giving.

Ex. 2. Tip equal the check to waitress as old as our parents who is still working.

Ex. 3. JW who no matter his income, lived on the same amount and gave away the rest.

MANNA equality -- BALANCE - so everyone has what they need, and if we have extra we share it.

And there’s still more. This offering, Paul reminded them, would be a symbol of solidarity between the different racial groups – Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Their abundance could provide the necessities for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who barely had enough to survive and were under persecution. Those who have more, Paul said, have an obligation to share with those who have less. The church, after all, doesn’t exist in just one place – among just one people – or within just one nation. Paul says that this faith in Jesus Christ is meant to spread all over the world. It was his dream that Isaiah’s prophecy would be fulfilled where people would come from East and West, from North and South to feast at table together in the kindom of God.

Today as we gather around our table, we are mindful that all over the world churches with gorgeous stained glass windows, and churches with dirt floors and thatched roofs, are all gathered around a table that stretches around the world and to the heavens to share in a common feast.

And the Table will be Wide by Jan Richardson
And the table will be wide. And the welcome will be wide. And the arms will open wide to gather us in. And our hearts will open wide to receive. And we will come as children who trust there is enough. And we will come unhindered and free. And our aching will be met with bread. And our sorrow will be met with wine. And we will open our hands to the feast without shame. And we will turn toward each other without fear.
And we will give up our appetite for despair. And we will taste and know of delight. And we will become bread for a hungering world. And we will become drink for those who thirst. And the blessed will become the blessing. And everywhere will be the feast.

Remember who you are – you are those received in love – blessed with gifts. Who are called to continue the circle of blessing until all have enough. It is a privilege.

CONCLUSION: So here were are – heirs to the knowledge that we are invited and empowered to become the children of God! Heirs to the promise that we do not have to live as a chariot pulled in two directions – but can claim the FRUIT of the Spirit and nurture them growing inside us.

Remember who you are – who WE are -- for we are those who live in abundance while our brothers and sisters have very little. We are those invited to share – for giving is a privilege. And grace spreads through us to others, becoming blessing, sharing blessing. And the table will offer enough for all.

[i] Adam Hamilton, “Making Sense of the Bible,” chapter 9, “Reading Someone Else’s Letters.”

Photo by Mario Badilla on Unsplash