It isn’t very often that the Daily Office gives me a whole book to read on a given day but luckily, today is one of those days. And the “book” is actually a letter, which makes it even better. The Elder, who we call John, certainly believed in brevity and getting to the point. Compared to some of Paul’s letters, this one is a like a postcard in length but a very interesting postcard or maybe a very friendly business letter. Whichever it is, it is meant to convey approval for Gaius and not for Diotrephes, two church leaders apparently fairly close to each other in distance if not in practice.
Itinerant evangelists sent by the Elder to his various disciples and their communities helped to keep the small churches on track faith-wise. They brought encouragement, noted problems, reported those back to headquarters and tried to resolve such issues as they could while guiding the leaders and members in faithful worship and practice. They were very like the visiting merchants who brought goods not locally available but necessary, valuable or both. Gaius’ people welcomed them and listened to what the friends brought to them. On the other hand, when the friends visited Diotrephes’ group, they were apparently blocked. In short, it was a case of “Hi, thanks for coming, come back when you can stay longer, goodbye.” It wasn’t an expression of hospitality that such visitors might expect from fellow believers or one that was indicative of a willingness to receive new teaching or encouragement from the one who had sent the friends to them in the first place.
The missionary friends make me think of the circuit riders and ministers in a new world, a place where outlying communities were too far to travel to church in a larger town and needed to have the church brought to them. The Methodists were famous for their circuit riders later on, but before they came the few Anglican priests in the Virginia colony were required to go around to scattered communities to preach, teach and preside at the Eucharist. In the meantime the villages were more or less on their own, depending on the infrequent visits of the priest to challenge and correct any errors that might have crept in during their absence. It wasn’t a foolproof system, but it was the best system available at the time and under the circumstances. The tradition of sharing priests continues today in places as diverse as clusters of villages in England and the widely separated congregations of our Native American population. While they usually don’t have to wait weeks to see their priest, it isn’t quite like having a priest in every village.
Something else occurred to me while reading the Elder’s letter and that was that it could have been written to various groups today. Not long ago a group of dissenters were working toward restoration of trust and good relations with the group from whom they had separated themselves. Things were going well until a visiting scholar was invited by the original group to speak at a seminar. Orders came from their higher authority that the dissidents were to break off discussions because of the perceived taint of unorthodox teaching on the part of the scholar and willingness of the original group to hear it. I wonder what the Elder would have made of it?
Raymond E. Brown* noted that even though the Elder charged Diotrephes with egotism, inhospitality and rejection of authority, he does not refer to Diotrephes in way some of those today might refer to such people, namely as heretics, false prophets or deniers of Jesus. Instead of calling for Diotrephes’ removal as head of his congregation, the Elder encourages Gaius to continue to welcome the missionary visitors and send them on to other groups who would also welcome them and benefit from their teaching. Why there was no call for discipline for Diotrephes is a mystery, but the Elder seems to want to encourage the one more than condemn the other.
I ask myself into which camp I myself might fall . Where have I extended hospitality and where have I rejected such extension? Where has my ego stopped my ears and where has my heart been open to encouragement and instruction? I have a feeling that if I could picture something that would establish where I lay in relation to the two I would find myself probably very firmly planted in the middle of a see-saw, trying to balance between two opposing points.
Is that really such a bad place to be sometimes, I wonder?