by Linda Ryan
We don’t get many letters anymore, except maybe overdue notices from bill collectors and charities, or perhaps some invitations to test drive new cars or establish a new bank account. The art of letter writing has really gone by the wayside, for the most part, replaced by electronic transfer of information via email, Facebook, or Twitter, or the like. We don’t write many letters anymore, and the ones that we do are usually thank-you notes, letters of introduction, cover letters for resumes or letters of resignation from a job or position. The Bible, however, has a number of letters in the New Testament; Paul wrote a bunch of them, but we are really not totally sure who wrote the rest.
Case in point, the letter in 3 John, to a man named Gaius and ascribed to someone who may or may not have been named John., In fact, however, the only identification the writer gives is the title of the Elder.
The Elder’s letter is basically to commend Gaius is for good work among his people, their good work in the community, and especially their hospitality to missionaries and evangelists sent to them from outside. The Elder calls them coworkers in the truth. Not everyone, though, came in for acclaim and appreciation. Some of the people were doing just the opposite, to the detriment of the word and the message.
One of these people was named Diotrephes. Evidently he was a leader of a group but was the opposite of Gaius. Diotrephes was rather arrogant, and against the authority of those who sent out the missionaries and evangelists. Evidently the Elder believed that Gaius was Orthodox in his teaching and in the beliefs of the community, partly based on hospitality to the itinerant emissaries. Diotrephes refused to offer hospitality and demanded that others not assist in any way.
There is an unattributed statement that I found somewhere that goes something like “When the other fellow is set in his ways, he is obstinate. When I am, it’s just firmness.” These days it seems like that little saying is more true than ever, although Gaius and Diotrephes seem to have a touch of it as well.
We welcome those who think like we do or believe like we do, and tend to reject those who don’t. We find it in politics and in religion, both subjects which usually don’t get discussed at the dinner table. They are threats to our security, our peace of mind, and even our very being, or so we think.
Gaius was trying to teach his people to accept those who came preaching and who brought them new ideas and new teachings from the group in Jerusalem and other apostolic churches. The Elder warned against those who rejected the message on the belief that theirs was the only right way.
What we want to do is welcome people into our churches, and often we put something outside the door that says “Welcome” or “We welcome everyone!” There are people outside who want so much to believe this is true, but they have been wounded by churches who initially welcomed them but then turned against them for one reason or another. It’s unfortunate, and more than unfortunate, it is tragic.
It is like hundreds of people being hungry and the food kitchen can only feed ten of them. We’ve got to find a way to stretch the table, and reach more people who are hungry, not necessarily for ham sandwiches or stew, but for a place where they can be who they are, without shame and without further trauma. That is what Jesus wants us to do, to welcome God’s children into God’s house.
In the letter, the Elder reminds people that another man, Demetrius, has been sent to them as a teacher and a witness to the truth. The people are asked to welcome him. They are also to imitate the good that they see and to reject the evil. That something we should all be looking for. The Elder and the latter by saying he has a lot more to say that he can’t do it for would rather not do it in a letter.
Since the letter of 3 John is the shortest of the Johannine letters (something like 242 words), it would be interesting to see what else Elder had to say to Gaius and his community. Unfortunately, like a lot of the letters that we read in the New Testament, will never know the other half of the conversation, nor will we know that the outcome is. That’s one thing about Bible stories: they don’t always have neat and tidy endings, leaving no questions and no real sense of what happened next. I have a feeling that in a way that is a good thing, because it creates for us an opportunity to read the story, put ourselves into it, and then make our own ending by the way we think, believe, and act. That’s the value of such an inclusion in our sacred texts.
What I take away from 3 John is to listen for authenticity, and scrutinize those who wish me to pay attention to them. I must listen for truth and not just for the stories or neat packages of plots. There’s a world out there that needs many things, authenticity and truth among them. Will I follow Gaius’ truth? How I act will make that determination, both for me and for those with whom I come in contact. It may be a tough row to hoe, but no one ever said life was going to be easy.