Living Resurrection: The Good Book Club in Eastertide
From Easter Day to Pentecost, we’ll read four letters from St. Paul to Christian communities he founded (although one letter may have been written by a later follower of Paul). These works – 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, and Colossians – let us overhear one side of Paul’s multifaceted conversations with people he gathered in Christ. Paul cajoles, berates, and inspires his congregations as he tries to guide them – and us – in the theology and daily practice of living in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. Each day, you’ll get a text or email with a brief summary of the daily reading, along with a link to that day’s verses. To sign up, just email Fr. John.
Here’s a complete list of the daily readings with links to the text.
So, what’s significant about these four letters? 1 1 Thessalonians is considered the oldest book of the New Testament and, therefore, the writing closest in time to Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Written about 51 CE (also expressed as AD), 1 Thessalonians prepares this community for Jesus’ return, which Paul believes is just around the corner. Paul seems to have had a warm relationship with this congregation, and he says he longs to return and see them soon. The theological content most likely reflects concerns the community itself raised with Paul: sexual ethics, mutual care, and Jesus’ return – both who will experience it and when.
Most likely written in the mid-50s, the letter to the Galatians reflects a very different sort of relationship with one of Paul’s communities. In an angry tone, calling the Galatians “foolish,” Paul confronts teaching they’ve received since he left that would “deceive” them into following Jewish law rather than developing their faith in Christ’s resurrection and lordship. Paul also critiques Peter and other leaders of the Jerusalem church for “hypocrisy” in their application of Jewish dietary restrictions, illustrating the futility of following old practices along the new way of Christ.
In the letter to the Philippians, Paul takes an affectionate tone, guiding them with calls to humility and rejoicing. The letter’s date is uncertain, perhaps from the mid-50s or as late as the early 60s. In any event, Paul is writing from prison, and the possibility of his death is real. Yet Paul calls the Philippians several times to “rejoice” regardless of their circumstances. The letter also includes the stunning Christ hymn of 2:6-11. Paul uses the model of Jesus’ self-emptying and exaltation as the paradigm for his followers, whom Paul says should “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (2:4).
The letter to the Colossians is the latest of these four, likely written close to or after Paul’s death around 65. Many scholars think Paul was not its author because the letter doesn’t deal with themes he usually addresses (such as righteousness and justification) and because of the letter’s more formal literary style. The letter explores how believers’ lives are transformed by Jesus’ death and resurrection, taking more of an “already” approach to eternal life, as opposed to the “not yet” perspective found in Paul’s other letters. The letter also reinforces social and sexual hierarchies (“wives, be subject to your husbands” [3:18]; “slaves, obey your earthly masters” [3:22]), whereas elsewhere Paul writes of Christ overturning such hierarchies (“there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” [Gal 3:28]). These contrasts argue for a comparatively later composition by someone following in Paul’s spiritual footsteps.
The four letters are written to different communities, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they focus on different issues. But they all offer direction for people trying to piece together what it means to live in the light of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. If Jesus died for our sins; if he rose in victory over the power of sin and death; and if he now reigns at the right hand of the Father – what does all that say about how he wants me to live today? These letters open four different doors onto that mystery of resurrected life.
1. This summary is based on introductory material to 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, and Colossians in the The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2018). The introductions begin on pages 2113, 2077, 2099, and 2105, respectively.