A Letter to Paul (a response to 1 Corinthians, ch. 9)

From the servants of Christ in this time and place,

to Paul, our brother in the Lord;

Grace and Peace to you through our Lord Jesus Christ.

It has been too long since your last letter, and we are eager for news of your plans to return to us. As you recognize in you letter, there has been tension in your absence.

Your frustration with the community is understandable. While you were with us, your example was clear – your teaching, engaging; your enthusiasm was hard to miss. But you need to imagine how hard this is for us. This Good news of yours has challenged everything we thought we knew about the world. This Jesus – risen and glorious – seems too good to be true; a man who challenged authority with provocative parables and who welcomed the nobodies and called them friends – what a wonderful world it might be if we could all have his courage. We are trying, but it is difficult to love those whom we have never before noticed – harder still to love those who hate and oppose us. God knows we are trying.

Your recent instructions about marriage are going to take some time to sort out – you speak well, brother, but your writing is less than clear. And it is for clarity that I was asked to write.

I appreciate that the religious habits of our town may have been strange to you. Temples and idols everywhere, and each with their attendants and devotees. Those old habits are hard to break, and we know the truth of your teaching concerning the God of Abraham. No food brings us closer to God – and no temple or idol can contain this magnificent Creator. How might we honour God, and you, his servant, if we can no longer make sacrifice of meat? You were clear about this – and you seemed grateful for our hospitality – but surely this gift you have given us has a price. Don’t you know that we would be glad to pay for the freedom that you have shown us? And we are willing to pay the messenger for the message – yet you refuse! Your recent letter seems to confirm our desire; ‘do not muzzle the ox while it is treading grain’ says the ancient law – you quote it yourself! – Yet you would refuse our offering – you give away good news and call it duty. You are a braver man that we have ever met.

You say that your rights as an apostle might become an obstacle – how can this be? You have seen Jesus; we have not. You have much wisdom and understanding – your education has given you insight and knowledge, and we don’t resent this; rather, we welcome it. Help us to understand how we may support you in this task. You speak of the Lord’s command that ‘those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel’, and then you refuse to ask anything of us. Your convictions will be the death of you!

We recognize that not everyone can respond equally to this offer of freedom that you have so generously shown us in Jesus Christ. For our part, we would follow your example and make ourselves poor for Jesus’ sake – but what of those already poor? Our master Jesus was always among them, and measured their generosity differently than others. The story of the widow whose penny was praised as the greatest gift – what was that but an example that all have a part to play; and Jesus accepted her gift with gratitude and praise! Perhaps you go too far, enslaving yourself so that everyone might be free?

True, there are many whose faith is not as strong – and there are those whose minds are easily distracted – but you have given us the gift of Jesus’ story; his life of service; his call to seek God; his steadfast devotion to justice and things that are right. The kingdom will be like this – and may it come soon – but until then, can we not share both the task and the rewards of this proclamation?

Let us be generous – though our generosity may be flawed. Let us seek the joy of this work to which you have given so much – and let us share with you the fruits of our joy. Together, let us claim for the Kingdom of God first our community, then the whole countryside. Your sacrifices and your insistence on suffering seem like extreme measures to those who have found freedom in the message of God’s love that you shared. This race we run, though there is only one prize for those in Christ – eternal rest in God’s glorious presence – is it not a prize offered to all who run with faith, with integrity, and with the Spirit of Christ? You have eased our suffering; held us accountable in our weakness; and guided us in the way we should go. Let us share our joy with you – our generosity is nothing when compared to the grace of God, but we offer what we have in a spirit of love and that same grace.

Come to us soon. Time grows short for some of us, and we would hear more from you of the mercies of God, though Christ Jesus, our Lord. May the one true God guard and guide you always.

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