Saturday, March 27, 2010

Epaphras: Paul's Educator at Colossae

By Michael Trainor, 121 pages, Liturgical Press, $12.95.

Trainor gives a fascinating look at the earliest Christian communities in a part of Asia Minor called Phrygia during the life and just after the death of St. Paul. The saint had preached to these people and helped them form into Christian communities.

At this time, this society as a whole knew nothing of individualism, as people were deeply attached economically, socially, and in kinship to their household and extended family units. In order for Paul and his apparent successor Ephrasas to spread the gospel, they had to somehow fit into this social arrangement. A person's conversion to Jesus would have deep repercussions on the community, as Paul and Epaphras would have known.

Paul's letters do not indicate that he or Epaphras ever tried to change society itself. They never tried to end slavery, and didn't seem to criticize its existence. What Paul's writings show, however, is a deep concern to refashion basic social structures to reflect Christian love.

Paul and Epaphras did, therefore, have revolutionary things to say about these social structures. In Paul's Letter to Philemon, he writes on behalf of the runaway slave Onesimus, a Christian like Philemon. Paul urges Philemon to accept Onesimus back into the household not in the normally brutal way, but with Christian love.

Paul accepted the hierarchical nature of his society, including the master-client system, by which a more powerful person aided a lower-ranked person in exchange for loyalty and some form of return. Epaphras: Paul's Educator at Colossae gives us insights into the basic husband-wife and other basic relationships that existed at the time. He worked to transform them by Christian love. Paul and Epaphras were not themselves going to reshape society. Christ was.

Trainor notes: “Without urging explicit social reform concerning slavery, Paul realized that a new way of being and acting has come about through Christ.” This meant that the Christian community itself, as envisioned by Paul and his followers, would reflect the revolutionary change:

“[I]n Jesus-group gatherings there is to be a kind of equality that transcends all social distinctions, though it does not remove or destroy them.”

Paul and Epaphras actually envision a new slavery, but this one to Jesus. This new relationship will affect all the other ones, such as Philemon's reaction to Onesimus' return. Paul and Epaphras also use penal and militaristic language in their preaching to show that Christians do have an underlying revolutionary spirit. This is the spiritual revolution that Jesus himself pointed to when he said that his kingdom was not of this world. Paul and Epaphras oppose not the masters and the powerful, but those with a conflicting spiritual vision:

“They are involved in a conflict with those who would thwart their divinely appointed mission to fellow Israelites ... who reject the Gospel of God. What directs this conflict can be seen in the battle of cosmic and apocalyptic proportions waged by the forces opposed to Christ's cosmic rule as Lord.”

Paul and his successors use the current social structure to bring about their spiritual mission, because the spiritual is more important than the material. Everything that is done is done through Jesus Christ. This is the true revolution of Paul and Epaphras.

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