Not many of us write letters anymore – at least not by choice. Emails, texts, posts, tweets, blogs – but a letter? Only for formal replies to institutions: and even then, usually typed on a computer and printed out.
To receive a handwritten letter nowadays is a rare and beautiful thing. However, whilst it is tempting to imagine that this is only a modern phenomenon, you may be surprised to learn that letter writing was equally rare 2,000 years ago – paper was expensive and difficult to make or acquire. A handwritten letter was just as precious then as it is now.
Today we begin a detailed look at one such precious letter written 2,000 years ago – by St Paul to a fairly new Christian community living in the city of Colossae, now in modern-day Turkey. Paul had not started this church, although his protégé Epaphras had likely started it following Paul’s fruitful time in Ephesus. However, he did want to encourage them in their faith, so he sent another friend Tychicus to them with this letter, and encouraged them also to read the one he sent to the church down the road in Laodicea at the same time.
Although the letter is only four chapters – this is typically the amount of text that could be squeezed onto one sheet of papyrus, which is why most of Paul’s letters are roughly this length – there’s so much in it which is just as relevant to us today. The Colossians (i.e. people who live in Colossae, hence the English name of the letter) lived life in the spiritual supermarket, just as we do. They had a vibrant faith but faced pressure to add unnecessary things to their faith, just as we do. They needed to keep grasping just what a glorious message we have, and who we really are in Christ – just as we do.
And it starts with a simple greeting: ‘grace and peace’. It was Paul’s adaptation of a typical Roman greeting… but so much more. In three simple words he defines the beating heart of our faith, of what it means for us to be followers of Christ. First, grace: God’s undeserved mercy to us, his heart of love for humanity, shown in Christ. I was brought up to understand grace by this simple acronym: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense – and it’s hard to get a better definition, even now. Philip Yancey describes grace as the ‘last, best word of the English language,’ defining it as: ‘nothing you can do can make God love you more, nothing you can do can make God love you less.’ I like that.
And the outcome of grace is that second word: peace. More than just the absence of conflict, it derives from the Hebrew word shalom, which means complete wellbeing in every dimension. Whilst we may feel a long way short of that, to know the grace of Christ slowly brings order and peace to all our relationships: with God, with others, with the wider community, even with ourselves.
Grace and peace. What better way to greet someone – even someone you meet today? And what better thing to pray as we begin our series: may God fill us all with a deeper understanding of his grace, that we too might overflow with peace. Amen.