Friday, August 1, 2014

Rome, Ephesus, & Corinth

Apostle Paul wrote to seven major urban centres, Rome, Ephesus, Corinth, Thesaloniki, Philippi, Colosse, and Galatia. The last, Galatia is not actually a city but a province, hence you find Paul directing his letter to the churches in Galatia whereas in other cities, he would normally use the singular "church" though no doubt in bigger cities like Rome and Ephesus there would be at least several house churches but yet considered as one church in the city. Colosse was not a prominent city as Corinth or even Thessaloniki as we see that John of Revelation did not address a letter to the church in Colosse but to the sister city, Laodicea. What types of teachings stood out in the three main cities of the Roman empire? Not that Athens was not one of the main Greco-Roman cities in Paul's time which it certainly was but that perhaps we have a hint in Acts 17 that Paul's preaching in Athens was not particularly successful though it was quite probable a church was started there sometime shortly after Paul's visit. So what makes Rome, Ephesus and Corinth different from the rest?
First, these are main commercial centres in the Roman empire. Corinth was a major trading route situated at the isthmus of Corinth, between the Peloponnesia and the mainland, Achaia (Greece). Ephesus was the provincial capital of Asia Minor another significant area of Roman rule (Western Turkey). Note that John wrote first to Ephesus before the other six cities in Asia Minor. Ephesus also had the honour of being centre of worship for Diana or Artemis where the main Temple stood (cf. Acts 19). The geographical locations of these three cities and with it their commercial, cultural and religious importance attracted many migrants from the surrounding areas. Many from the countryside would come to Corinth to trade or bring their goods to and from from Ionia to Peloponnesia and back. Ephesus was a magnet to many inland ciites and villages in Asia Minor and Ephesus was a port city where the merchants and travellers made their way to Greece and back to Asia Minor. There is no need for me to list the reasons for Rome being the centre of many migrants all over the Roman empire. If you make it in Rome you have reached the pinnacle of your career or business or the imperial service.

What then unite Paul's letters in these three major urban centres filled with all kinds of migrants made up of different ethnic or racial groups? It is the teaching of accepting and welcoming one another in Christ. Romans begins with Paul's dealing with Jewish and Gentile issues in Romans 1-3 and how both the Jews and Gentiles alienated by sin are reconciled to God who justifies sinners, both Jews and Gentiles through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 3,21-26). And I have written quite extensively how this unity is worked out in communion and worshipping and living together with the strong bearing with the weak and both the strong and the weak not insisting on their rights or scruples and compel others to live like them on things inessential. Drinking wine, sabbath keeping or kosher diet or meat eaters should not divide brothers and sisters in Christ.

Likewise we see in Ephesians where Paul argues that justification by faith in Christ does not only have a vertical dimension, God and men reconciled but also a horizontal dimension where in Christ, God was creating a new man or humanity out of two groups divided by ethnicity, Jews and Gentiles. Here Gentiles point to a multitude of nations, all those who are not Jews but are now brought near to God by the blood of Jesus's sacrifice and accepted as members of the new common wealth of Israel, a new nation out of Jews and Gentiles, a new humanity where all ethnic and national/geographical boundaries fade away in the light of the Christ event.

And also in Corinth, Gentiles divided over social-economic lines or intellectual attainment (wise and uneducated, Greeks and barbarians) are called to unity in Christ. Likewise Corinthian factions due to their attachment to certain figures of authority could likely be due to intellectual profiling and hint at class division in Corinth. The intellectual and educated elite of Corinth were drawn to the eloquent Alexandrian Jew, Apollos while the not so educated and perhaps the Jewish believers were drawn to Kephas (Simon Peter) and the some intellectual and urban Jews and Gentiles were probably drawn to Paul, the accomplished and polished writer of letters, the apostle to the Gentiles.

All three major cities exhibit problems that come with cities that are melting pots of diverse cultures and ethnicities with differing social-economic and intellectual attainments. The believers in Jesus are now called upon to discard past divisions, differences and fault lines in order that the oneness of the body of Christ in every city is exhibited by the church living in harmony together and loving one another regardless of whatever identity markers that might seek to divide them.

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