saying goodbye – with grace in Christ

How do you sign off your emails? How do you say good-bye in the age of electronic communication?

It’s a surprisingly complicated question.

Traditionally, of course, when you write a letter by hand to someone, you might sign off by saying “sincerely,” or perhaps by saying “with love.” Ending a letter with those words was almost like ending a prayer with the word “Amen” – it was intended to show that we are invested in the words we have written or spoken.

But in the world of email – in the world of back-and-forth electronic communication – it’s complicated. Ending an email by saying “sincerely” feels too heavy and formal – saying “with love” would often be way too substantial.

Some people will sign off an email with the light sounding “cheers.” And in a way that word works because it’s quick and light – it matches the not-too-significant nature of most of our emails. But on the other hand, if you’re not the kind of person who would say “cheers” in everyday conversation, it may feel odd to sign off an email that way.

So another alternative is not to sign off at all – just end the email with your name or initials – or without even that. The other person knows where the email has come from – they can see your name and address – and this is probably an ongoing conversation – so it’s kind of redundant to add in your name or any kind of sign-off. So never mind trying to figure it out: “Sincerely”… “Best regards” … “Cheers”… “Take Care” …

Of course we’ve been fed the line, over and over again, that technology makes things easier. And in some respects that is true. But in another sense technology has added a whole layer of social awkwardness and uncertainty as we navigate relationships with each other in the era of immediate communication.

The question of how we sign off a letter has never actually been completely straightforward. Even when you wrote a letter by hand, you wouldn’t sign off in the same way when writing to friend or a colleague or a family member or your spouse. So even in a handwritten letter you have to negotiate the particulars of the relationships. And in fact it was no different for Paul as he came to the end of his letter to the Corinthian church centuries ago. He had to think about how he would end his letter. He had to think about it in these terms: “I’ve said so much, and I’ve said some pretty strong things, so how do I want to end this letter – what is the last thing they should hear from me?”

This morning we conclude our brief walk through Paul’s first letter to Corinthians – and do so by looking at the closing verses of the letter –where Paul says his “take care, now,” or his “sincerely, Paul.”

In fact the very last words of his letter are brief and significant. Paul signs off by saying: “My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus.” Wouldn’t that be a way to sign off your emails – “my love be with you in Christ Jesus.” Or wouldn’t that at least be the spirit in which we want to write and send our emails, even if we don’t explicitly sign off with those words – even if they are the shortest pieces of correspondence. “My love be with you in Christ Jesus.” What more faithful sentiment could shape our relationships with others, day be day, week in and week out, whether texting or messaging or emailing.

Without analyzing the passage – without digging into the original Greek words– without studying these words in any depth – we know intuitively and immediately the richness and depth of meaning of Paul’s: “My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus.”

And what’s even more striking about these words is that Paul himself has taken up the pen to write them. Almost certainly Paul did not physically write the words of his letter onto the piece of papyrus that would finally be delivered to the church in Corinth – rather he dictated his words to a scribe who wrote them down on parchment in a careful, tight script. The scribe for this first letter to the Corinthians may have been man named Sosthenes, who is mentioned in the opening verse of this letter.

But here at the end of the letter, we read these words: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand.” As his letter comes to a close, Paul takes the writing instrument from the scribe, and in his own hand he writes the final words. By taking the pen in his own hand, he reminds the Corinthians of his own investment in the letter – his own personal connection to its words – his own investment in them as sisters and brothers in faith. “With my own hand I write this greeting. My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus.”

As we back up a bit from those warm and personal word with which Paul closes his letter, I want to focus on two key elements in these concluding verses. And the first of these elements flows from these words in verses 15 and 16: “Now brothers and sisters, you know that members of the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints; I urge you to put yourself at the service of such people…”

Reading these words quickly doesn’t do them justice, and the words of our English translation don’t actually help us a lot. But essentially Paul says to the Corinthians: “You remember the members of the household of Stephanas don’t you – and you’ll remember that they were among the very first to become Jesus-followers in your province. And even more you’ll remember that from the very beginning, they dedicated themselves to helping other Christians. They had a heart, they had compassion, for the needy – they were concerned for the wellbeing of sisters and brothers who had so little. Yes, they were concerned about the wide life and mission of God’s people, but they were especially concerned about the most vulnerable in that community.

Paul describes this household of Stephanas, he reminds his sisters and brothers about their life and witness, and then he says to the Corinthian Christians: “Submit yourselves to just these kinds of people. Search for those in the Body of Christ who live in this way of compassion and service; seek out those who care about the most vulnerable, and get behind them. Follow them; work with them; learn to live as they live. Submit yourself to them.”

In that culture of honour and shame, and in that culture of patronage, you were expected to line up behind those with power and wealth and honour. You lined up behind those who would be to your advantage – you lined up behind those who would be to your benefit in life and work. But Paul says to the Corinthian Christians – seek out those who are servants – seek out those who live in compassion – seek out those who care deeply about the church – and submit to them and their way of life.

This is a particularly powerful invitation when we remember what Paul has said earlier. In that church there were some who were lining up behind Peter; and some who were lining up behind Apollos; and some who were lining up behind Paul. They were lining up behind these three theologically and culturally and competitively. They were lining up behind those they perceived as prestigious and powerful. And here at the end of his letter Paul essentially comes back that same theme:

Never mind Apollos.

Never mind Cephas.

Never mind Paul.

Think about Stephanas and his household – remember their love and their compassion – remember their humble service to the risen Jesus – and line up behind them. Submit yourselves to them.

The experience of the Corinthian Christians is perhaps not so different from our own experience. The words of Paul may come as powerfully to us as they did to his sisters and brothers almost 2000 years go. We still want to line up behind those who have status in our community or our culture. We still want to line up behind those who may be able to procure some advantage for us, whether a social or financial or professional advantage. We are still tempted to sidle up alongside those who are successful or beautiful by the standard of our culture; to benefit from their glow.

Much more rarely do we take notice of those who quietly live in the way of compassion. Much more rarely do we seek out those who fly under the radar in the generosity and grace of Christ. Very often these women and men are not those who will be a source of any social or professional capital for us – not those who will elevate us in the minds of those whose esteem we naturally seek – but they are those know and live in the love of Christ. They are those who pray for the sick or the stricken among us, and seek their comfort. Those who pray for the poor, and support them in their need. Those who pray for the lonely, and visit them in their isolation. Paul invites us: Put yourself in the service of such people. Submit to them. Line up behind them.

The other element of Paul’s conclusion that we look at this morning finds expression in these words of Paul: “The churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, greet you warmly in the Lord. All the brothers and sisters send greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

So as we’ve seen, Paul wants the Corinthian Christians to remember a certain kind of person – to remember a certain kind of Jesus-follower – to seek out and follow and remember those who live in the generosity and compassion.

But Paul also wants his sisters and brothers in Corinth to know that they are remembered. Paul writes this letter to the Corinthian church while he is sitting in Ephesus – some 300 kilometers from Corinth, across the Aegean sea. And Paul says to his sisters and brothers: “The Christians in this part of the world remember you – they send their greetings to you. Aquilla and Prisca, those church leaders so well known in the length and breadth of the church – they send warm greetings to you. The church that meets with them remembers you and sends greetings. You are remembered. We all remember you. We love you, and we wish you the best in Christ.

It’s a powerful thing to be remembered, isn’t it? When we are the one who is sick, it is a precious thing to be remembered – to receive a phone call or a word of encouragement. If we are the ones who are struggling in life, it is a precious thing to be remembered – to hear that someone is praying for us. If we are the ones who are dying, it is a precious thing to be remembered – to know that someone sits by our bed to accompany us. If we are in the middle of a relationship that is breaking, it is a precious thing to be remembered – to know that we are supported and have those who will embrace us. If we struggle in our faith, it is a precious thing to be remembered by sisters and brothers.

Such a powerful and beautiful reminder is given to the Corinthian Church in these words of greeting passed on by Paul – that church in Corinth is not alone; they are remembered and supported and prayed for as they struggle to life faithfully.

In another sense, also, it is a blessing to know that we are remembered by sisters and brothers in the faith – because being remembered by them becomes a reminder that, like them, we belong to Christ.

For our own reasons – living as we do in the modern west – living as we do in our particular time and culture – it is sometimes difficult to live our or faith with confidence and conviction and with faithfulness. In some sense we have our identity first as those who modern, secular people – first as Canadians rather than first as members of the Body of Christ. But when greetings come from sisters and brothers in faith in Malawi; or when a visitor comes to us from the church in Scotland; or when someone joins our fellowship from the church in Korea; or when we hear news of suffering sisters and brothers in Nigeria, or when we hear greetings from the ancient church in Ephesus – we remember and rediscover our identity with them in Christ – we remember and rediscover that we belong to Christ.

Paul passes on greetings to the Corinthians that echo down to us, reminding us that in our own small congregation, and in our own small denomination, and in our relative isolation as Christians in the modern west, we are not alone – we have our identity with others. Paul’s greetings come to us as genuinely as they did to the first church in Corinth, reminding us of our unity in Christ, reminding us of the call to faithfulness to the Jesus and his way.

“The churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, greet you warmly in the Lord. All the brothers and sisters send greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

My love be with all of you, in Christ Jesus.

Sincerely, Paul.

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