All the Saints (part 14)

October 22, 2011

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Though we commence to the conclusion of our study, we do not tiptoe past Paul’s use of peace here in verse fifteen of chapter three, casually applying our own (possibly inadequate) definition to this important term. This is much more than just a feeling of serenity enjoyed by an individual, as part of a reconciliation with God. Though that certainly can be a component of the peace, when approached from within the larger movement of the letter, and the heavy emphasis on inclusiveness and unity as the covenant of God extends outwards to all peoples, we are enabled to understand that this peace is part of the reconciliation between Jew and Gentile. This is rightly evidenced by Paul’s connecting it with the fact the church has been called to peace as part of their calling to be “one body.”

In the twenty-third verse of this chapter, following a digression that deals with the leveling out of the church body in mutual submission and self-sacrifice (remembering that Paul has made it clear that there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free—we can safely add “male or female” to that list, as that would not be a falsification of Paul’s way of thinking), Paul once again plucks language from the lexicon of Israel’s heritage, applying it equally to all, be it Jew or Gentile, when he writes “Whatever you are doing, work at it with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not for people, because you know that you will receive your inheritance from the Lord as the reward” (3:23-24a). Though we may have a tendency to think of this “inheritance” as “going to heaven” or eternal life, or some such limited and far too ethereal and ill-define notion, it is far more likely that this use of “inheritance,” as Paul always, always, always locates the story of Jesus and the church along the path of the story of Israel (for without doing so, the story of Jesus and of Paul’s Gospel lacks substance and meaning), is designed to call to mind the promises first given to Abraham, that had been passed along to Israel, and were now being dispersed abroad and made available to all nations through the spread of the kingdom of God.

In the close of his letter, Paul makes it a point to mention several individuals. The first is Tychius, known as “a dear brother, faithful minister, and fellow slave in the Lord” (4:7a). The second is Onesimus, regarded as “the faithful and dear brother” (4:9b). Third is Aristarchus, whom Paul introduces as “my fellow prisoner” (4:10a). Fourth, we hear of Mark, “the cousin of Barnabas” (4:10c). Fifth is Jesus (Justus). Having listed these men, Paul takes what may seem at first glance to be the unusual step of saying that “In terms of Jewish converts, these are the only fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me” (4:11b). This, of course, is only unusual if we are not blissfully aware of one of the main themes of the entire letter, which is that of the necessary union, within the church, between Jews and Gentiles (groups formerly held apart but now brought together by the common confession of Jesus as Lord). With this awareness in hand, the mention of Jewish converts and the kingdom should lead the hearer/reader to expect mention of Gentile converts in connection to the kingdom. In this we are not disappointed, though Paul does not specifically name them as Gentiles (naturally, this can go unsaid, as if they are not Jewish, then they are Gentile).

So as Paul rounds out his dissertation that is very much concerned with “all the saints” of the church and the elimination of barriers between peoples so that all may participate equally in the inheritance promised by God and portended by Jesus’ Resurrection, he tells of Epaphras, “a slave of Christ” (4:12b), not unlike Paul himself. We quickly reflect on the fact that he also said this of Tychius (a Jew), thus providing a point of contact and mutuality between a Jew and Gentile. Paul writes that Epaphras “is always struggling in prayer on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (4:12c). This predominantly Gentile church needed assurance that they were, in fact, though they did not bear the covenant markers of Judaism, within the will of God and fully participating in His kingdom as confessors of Jesus. Hearing this from Paul could only be a great encouragement.

Paul then writes of Luke and Demas, two more Gentiles that serve him and serve the church, presumably without discrimination. To that is added “Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters who are in Laodicea and to Nympha and the church that meets in her house” (4:15). Though it is not explicitly stated, we can surmise that Nympha is a Gentile woman and that she hosts kingdom witnessing gatherings in honor of Jesus (the Jewish Messiah). Along with that, Paul’s use of “brothers and sisters” is yet another gentle reminder that the church of God in Christ is one family, a new human family, unconcerned with those things that were formerly used to delineate or divide one people group from another.

Paul wants this obvious message of unity and inclusiveness and the extension of God’s election of all peoples noised abroad to all the churches, and therefore requests that “after you have read this letter, have it read to the church of Laodicea,” adding, “In turn, read the letter from Laodicea as well” (4:16). The kingdom principles expressed in the letter to one group will equally apply to the other, and so on to the whole of the church, as the promises and blessings of the Creator God of Israel are made available to all, and all peoples have the opportunity to bear the name of saint.