You had me at “Hello” (part 1)

Have you ever pondered the right way to begin a letter or an email message?  It’s one thing to text a family member just to get a quick piece of information.  It’s another to strike the right tone when making first contact in a business or professional relationship.

And it’s still another to decide how to begin a difficult letter to someone you know well.  Those opening words can make all the difference; nobody wants to read “Dear John” when they’re expecting “My dearest darling.”

As mentioned in a recent post, it’s easy to skirt the beginnings and endings of Paul’s letters, as if he were merely saying “hello” and “goodbye,” or “Dear Church” and “Sincerely, Paul.”  We want to get to the meat, the substance of the letter.  But that would be to miss some of the richness of Paul’s letters as letters, written from the heart of Paul the pastor to congregations that give him both joy and deep heartache.

What we know as Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians begins with a relatively simple greeting:

From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, and Timothy our brother.  To God’s church that is in Corinth, along with all of God’s people throughout Achaia.  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.  (2 Cor 1:1-2, CEB)

But as we begin reading and studying the letter, we don’t want to miss the relational context that stands behind these opening words.  Much has happened since First Corinthians was sent and received; the story has to be pieced together from Paul’s comments in this letter.

First Corinthians was sent in answer to a letter the church had written him, brought to him personally by a delegation from Corinth.  In his response, Paul not only answered their questions, but addressed various troublesome issues in Corinth that had been reported to him by people in the know.  He promised to send Timothy to check up on them, made plans for a long stay with them after visiting the churches in Macedonia, and signed off on a note of love.

Apparently, the letter didn’t go over well.  And neither did Timothy’s visit.

Perhaps it was as Paul feared: that if they didn’t respect him, they wouldn’t respect the younger and less experienced Timothy.  Whatever the case, Paul’s letter seemed to fan the flames — so much so that when he heard Timothy’s report, he scuttled his original travel plans and set sail from Ephesus to Corinth.

Would Paul succeed where his earlier letter and Timothy had failed?  No.  We don’t know what happened, but Second Corinthians suggests that the visit was a disaster.

In personal and pastoral anguish, Paul quickly withdrew back to Ephesus.  This time, he wrote a much more severe letter, and sent it with Titus (Paul must have had great confidence in poor Titus!).  It would be quite some time before Paul and Titus would reconnect, but thankfully, the news was relatively good: many in Corinth had repented, and were once again supportive of Paul.

All of this is water under the bridge by the time we get to Second Corinthians (which many scholars believe may be a compilation of more than one letter).  All of those painful memories, coupled with a steadfast belief in providence, lie behind Paul’s simple greeting.

More about the greeting itself in the next post.