The intimacy of letters

"My love to all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen" 1 Corinthians 16.24

So Paul concludes his first letter to the church at Corinth. Traditionally the letters of the New Testament are referred to as "epistles". But this is to give them a formality they don't deserve and that they don't seek. In smart 1st century society, great store was set by formality: if you wanted intellectual discussion you went to an ornate garden, if you wanted to be seen with the rich and famous it was the theatre and, for strutting your stuff, it was the gymnasium or public baths. Letter writing was an opportunity to display your eloquence.

But Christians were different. They eschewed lavish gestures in favour of meeting privately in each others homes, where the formality and segregation of public life was left at the door. Slaves met on first name terms with their owners' believing colleagues, women and children were welcome. These gatherings were the more remarkable for their relaxed informality, where there truly was neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3.28) for all were one in Christ. And quietly but surely, through such gatherings and more overt expressions of faith, they turned the world upside down (Acts 17.6)

Another genre where Christians did things differently was in the art of letter writing. Paul especially was well capable of keeping up with the contemporary fondness for lavish turns of phrase but he and his fellow correspondents weren't writing to impress. Their intention was to further the mutual intimacy and devotion to Christ that began in their house fellowships and shared journeys. That is why it is so important that we approach these letters appropriately, taking time to learn about their context and purpose, not raping them for proof texts and contorting them to suit our arguments.

These letters arose out of the immediate aftermath of Jesus life, death and resurrection - as a first response to his instruction to "Go and make disciples of all nations... teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you..." (Matthew 28.19-20). So, as we approach what are like portals into those crucially formative years for our church, let us tread carefully - for we are on holy ground!

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