The great Christian revolutions come not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when somebody takes radically something that was always there’ (H. Richard Neibuhr)
I was reading Titus this morning and was kind of struck at the introduction of the book. I just recently learned this (yeah, yeah I know I’m a late bloomer. This is what I get for skipping out on Bible College), but all of the epistles in the New Testament are introduced in the same fashion, typical of correspondence in 1st century Palestine. The author identifies himself. If it’s Paul, you can be sure that his introduction usually includes an incredibly long run-on sentence in the original Greek and likely translated into English. It includes the name of the person to whom the letter is addressed, which in this case is Titus. And usually it includes the traditional blessing of some form of: “Grace and peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.
A couple of things recently occurred to me. First, this is bizarre in American culture because when we typically write letters (which, if you still are fortunate enough to have people in your life who actually still write handwritten letters then good on you, mate!), we say “to whom” first and then there’s the body and text of the letter and then we conclude with “from” or “sincerely” or “much love” or “cheers”, etc. It’s flipped. We do it backwards. So finally realizing something as insignificant as the structure of New Testament letters made me realize how personal and intentional and fraught with purpose all of these letters are. I know whenever I write a letter it’s usually because I am particularly moved and inspired or frustrated or angry and want to communicate clearly my thoughts and perspective on any particular matter to a specific person. This is why I love literature like Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis or Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail. There is a personal intent and honesty and urgency in letters that is different from blogs or books or memoirs. There is a beautiful, naked eloquence about personal correspondence.
The second thing I observed is actually that this 1st century style of writing letters closely mirrors the way emails are set up. In fact I can only imagine the Book of Titus being prefaced by this way:
From: Paul, a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness, in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago, but at the proper time manifested, even His word, in the proclamation with which I was entrusted according to the commandment of God our Savior.
To: Titus, my true child in a common faith
CC: The rest of the world
Subject: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior
Okay so maybe the CC thing is a bit ridiculous. So before you shake your head at the initial cheesiness of this, this whole idea of how correspondence is set up in the first-century culture has really has made me contemplate who I am and how I interact with people. With a clear “From” and description of himself, Paul not only has an incredibly strong sense of identity, but an eternal perspective and a story which affects his decisions, his life purpose. He boldly and clearly identifies himself as an apostle and He affirms the faithfulness of God, both personal and corporate. He lives through the certainty of his identity. Over and over we read about how Paul has all the necessary qualifications: He was a Pharisee, a teacher of the law, one endowed with leadership ability and incredible spiritual authority. He is naturally charismatic. And yet, all of these things he considers to be “rubbish, that I may be found in Christ.”
He doesn’t find his identity in external strengths that society esteems or even internal strengths that could give him a sense of superiority. He finds his identity in the eternal love. And all his energy and ambition and pursuits are focused and channeled to one end: God’s glory and his kingdom.
Not only that, I recently discovered that that greeting of “grace and peace” prefaces nearly ever single letter that Paul, Peter or John ever wrote. It appears 13 times and always at the beginning of the letter. At first, I always dismissed this to be some kind of standard greeting, something nearly devoid of meaning. Like how people politely say “God bless you” when somebody sneezes. It always kind of seemed peripheral, like the phrase was just thrown in there to sound religious and proper.
But I realize what kind of transforming power that greeting can have if the intent behind it is genuine. I can’t say that I approach all of my relationships and interactions with people with this underlying theme of “grace and peace” informing my every action.
How would actually living through the reality of grace and peace, allowing an understanding and experience of grace and peace to reform and reshape my identity and my relationships with other people? In this case, I would not merely be following a list of religious rules or being guilted into acting a certain way out of obligation or fear or compulsion. But rather, I would be living through the new creation that I am, the identity that God has given me, a Spirit-created heart that is fundamentally different from the habits and intuition of this world. Allowing God’s grace and peace to overflow out of my life into the lives of other people has radical ramifications.
I think far too often, we as believers neglect the gospel of grace. We become far more concerned about asserting our own opinions, standing on our soapboxes of theology and philosophy, finding our strength by excluding rather than including, clinging to our perceptions and preferences at the expense of unity that we forget the fundamental truth of the gospel: grace.
And I of course am the first to admit that I am guilty of this.
One thing that I’ve become increasingly aware of within myself is to be increasingly self-critical, almost to the point where I tend to assume responsibility for things that I shouldn’t. I apologize unnecessarily. I assume all of the blame when blame should be shared. This has become increasingly obvious in the way I fail or disappoint the people in my life.
In effect, I don’t have grace for myself.
Or sometimes the extreme opposite becomes true. I endlessly excuse myself and other people’s faults, avoiding God’s gentle but firm reminder that He is here not to make me feel better about myself but to slowly recreate me as a new person.
Both tendencies, I’ve realized, is massive evidence of pride. What looks like selflessness can actually be a passive way to hold God and other people at arms’ length. What looks like tolerance can actually be an avoidance of conflict, born out of fear and insecurity. These are things that I am working through and I pray for continued grace.
I’m still wrestling through the ramifications of this, but I do believe that at least God is calling me to begin with prayer. It’s clearly not my purpose to fix other people or impose my view on them or to convince people of this or that. Rather, it’s simply to serve in love, allowing grace (a sober acknowledgement of brokenness and an unconditional acceptance of it, which I can only do because I myself have been the undeserving recipient of such grace from God) and peace (active reconciliation and restoration) to reform my perspective, my actions, my motives.
So if anything, like Paul I want to find complete security of my identity in God. To find my disordered loves and idols and misplaced securities to be swallowed up in His deep and utter love that He has lavished on me in Jesus. I want to allow His perspective and love for me redefine who I am, rather than be subject solely to the whims of culture, experience, my childhood and relationships. Like Paul, I want to have that eternal perspective of grace and peace affecting me, transforming me, redefining me.
So please have patience with me when I fail as I undoubtedly will. This pattern is doomed to repeat itself from the Garden all the way to the City.
But thank God for Jesus. Seriously.
Grace and peace to you all.
“The kingdom is eternal, the gospel of Jesus becomes internal, and that becomes visible externally in the world.” -Pastor Joel Abell