Connected

I’m “connected” — sort of.  There are literally thousands of people to whom I’m linked electronically through email, Facebook, LinkedIn, and more than one blog.  But I’m not as avid a user of social media as many of the people I know.  And though I’ve repeatedly been invited to join Twitter, I haven’t done it yet — partially because I only have a “dumb phone” and have never sent a text message in my life.  (Yes, I can hear you gasping out there.)

I’m glad to have all these technologies at my disposal.  But I don’t want to forget the importance of face-to-face relationship.  Indeed, in this day of nearly instantaneous communication and sometimes anonymous audiences, it’s hard to imagine a world in which people can only keep up long-distance relationships by letters that have to be arduously hand-carried across the miles.  Every day, I throw away scores of pieces of junk mail received electronically or physically.  What would it be like to live in a time and place in which the hand-delivery of a letter was itself a momentous occasion?

When I read Paul’s letters, there’s always a temptation to brush quickly over the beginning and the end, as if they were nothing more than mere conventions, like “Dear Church,” and “Love, Paul.”  But as I read the ending of 1 Corinthians, I am reminded of the rich and complicated web of relationships this absentee pastor has with his troubled congregation, and the personal connections he draws upon as he brings the letter to a close.

All the names he mentions are familiar to the Corinthians, even if not to us.  There is Stephanas, the first convert to the faith in Achaia (what we would recognize as the hand-shaped peninsula at the southwestern end of Greece).  He is a householder and probably a leader in the church; he and his companions, Fortunatus and Achaicus, may well have been the delegation sent from Corinth to Ephesus to bear their letter to Paul.  Paul holds up Stephanas and his entire household as models of Christian service, and urges the church to hold such people in high esteem.  It’s possible that Fortunatus and Achaicus, whose names mean “Lucky” and “(man) from Achaia,” were servants in Stephanas’ household; at any rate, Paul includes them in his commendation as deserving of recognition (1 Cor 16:15-18).

There is Apollos, the articulate Jewish teacher from Alexandria who has earned the admiration of many in the congregation, to the detriment of their comparative esteem for Paul.  Apparently, in their letter to Paul, the Corinthians asked when Apollos would visit them again.  Paul has already taken pains in the letter to insist that his relationship to Apollos is one of collegiality in the gospel, not of professional rivalry (e.g., 1 Cor 3:5).  Here, he insists that he has urged Apollos to visit them — but the latter has refused.  I like to think that he did so because he understood the situation in Corinth (perhaps from Stephanas’ personal account), and didn’t want to fan the flames of division.

Paul also sends greetings from Aquila and Priscilla (“Prisca” in the Greek), a Jewish couple whom Paul first met in Corinth, later working in their tentmaking business (Acts 18:2-3).  The three of them eventually left Corinth, parting ways in Ephesus.  It was there in Ephesus that Aquila and Priscilla met Apollos, schooling him in the story of Jesus (Acts 18:24-26).  The couple started a house church in Ephesus (1 Cor 16:19), and it’s no stretch to imagine that Paul fellowshipped there.

But beyond these six familiar names, Paul also sends warm greetings from Aquila and Priscilla’s whole church, and indeed, from all the churches in the area surrounding Ephesus (1 Cor 16:19) — as well as from “all the brothers and sisters” (vs. 20), which may include anyone he has neglected to mention.

All of this invites us to ponder on our connectedness and the nature of the church.  The Corinthians are a divisive and self-focused lot; in contrast, Paul invites them, through the people they already know, into a warm and welcoming web of relationships extending across vast distances.

Christians in every time and place can be consumed with their own local and parochial concerns.  But there is benefit in turning our imaginations outward; instead of thinking of me and my church, I can think of the Church and the miracle of common purpose and fellowship that it represents.