I’ve been reading John’s epistles lately, and was struck by a detail at the beginning of 2 John that I’ve somehow never considered worthy of note prior to now:
To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth—
I did some research, and scholars have a heyday with the identity of “the lady” in this verse. Some identify “the lady” as a specific woman, likely the respected leader of a house church. Guesses for her identity have been Mary, mother of Jesus (questionable, considering as far as Scripture tells us she is a member of John’s household after the death and resurrection of Jesus), Martha (my favorite hypothesis, if I have to pick one), or even Philip’s daughters. And still other scholars are convinced that the “lady” is not an individual at all, but rather a metaphoric name for an entire church body.
Regardless, that opening greeting is paired with a farewell at the end, ripe for the same interpretations and questions:
The children of your sister, who is chosen by God, send their greetings.
I am not here to debate about the identity of the lady and her sister, whether individual or metaphorical or both. I’m writing because the structure of the letter reminded me that – well, these are letters. Believers are often taught to read the epistles of the apostles (that’s a band name) as books, as part of the larger Bible, but in doing so I think it’s easy to forget the epistolary nature of them. For the New Testament church, communication across boundaries was key.
Here, John is writing to someone – and enclosing a greeting along the way from another someone. In Titus, “everyone with [Paul]” sends greetings to Titus, and Paul instructs him to “greet those who love us in the faith.” The epistles of the Bible are full of these seemingly incidental tidbits: hellos and goodbyes and good wishes exchanged. Encouragement. Exchanged stories. Advice.
It is a reminder of something which, to my mind, is all too uncommon these days: cross-communication, seasoned with goodwill and encouragement, between churches and people often very far apart geographically and culturally. The people in these churches in the burgeoning days of the Gospel were really pulling for each other: willing to admonish where admonishment was needed, certainly, but otherwise full of hope and joy and the sense that they were all working toward one united goal.
I don’t think it’s purposeful, but the modern church has to a large degree internalized its own goodwill and encouragement. We all work mostly within our own church bodies, primarily because some of them are so big they are miniature cities all on their own. We gravitate mostly to people who are just like us. Sure, we get together with other churches – usually in our own denomination, usually at conventions and conferences – but the breaking-down of denominational difference simply to celebrate a shared Christian mission, or to work together, is I think much rarer than it used to be.
I suspect that part of this is because Christianity is no longer as urgent for us today as it was in the days of the New Testament. Americans live in a culture where Christianity is a large and established presence. Bibles are widely available. Churches are scattered across the map. The presence of Christianity in this country predates our births and lives, and it has saturated popular consciousness. So we are all aware, I think, that even if we confine ourselves to our own denominations and our own churches, Christianity as we know it is not going to suddenly poof out of existence, beyond access, imagination, or thought.
But the New Testament church was very aware of the tenuous nature of their position. There was no pre-established Gospel: they were the first generations to share the good news of Christ with those around them. They were it. They couldn’t afford to look inward. And so the prevailing philosophy and goodwill among them seems to have stemmed from the common realization that they needed to link arms and make it work so that the church could grow and the Gospel could become established. The differences between them born of culture and geography were minimal compare to their shared goal: to share the love of Christ and to serve in it.
Reading that greeting at the beginning of 2 John was a good reminder to me that I’m not alone. Nor is my church or my denomination in this alone. I am part of a generation of believers from all sorts of places, with all sorts of cultures, that spans all sorts of denominations and disagreements. And that generation shares the love of Christ, the desire to serve in His name, and the desire to be light and salt in a dying world.
It is easy to divide ourselves, but we are together, always together, and it’s a shame to neglect that connection. To those in the truth, all of you chosen by God, those of you I don’t know from faraway countries and different denominations and cultures quite different from mine: hi. I send you my greetings, my prayers, and my well wishes. It is a blessing to serve God alongside you.