There are good places to teach, and bad places to teach, just as there are good places to learn, and bad places to learn.
I just starting working as a Teaching Assistant in the Theology Department at Durham. This has been a very exciting and challenging undertaking, mostly due to the fact that I have so much more to do on top of an already busy schedule. But it’s well worth it; who could complain about studying the Bible all day long (and nights, too)?
Tomorrow morning at 9am, a baker’s dozen worth of first-year undergrads are going to hear about the letter of Philemon. We get to have our class in this old historic building right next to the giant cathedral:
I’m leading a seminar session on the topic of early letter writing. In order to stimulate their thinking, I’ve borrowed from the opening pages of Tom Wright’s new 2-volume work on Paul. There, he compares a letter of Pliny with that of Paul to Philemon. See if you can spot the key difference between the two (hint: it has to do with the word ‘receive’):
You told me you had been angry with a freedman of yours, and now he’s come to see me! He threw himself at my feet and clung on to me as though I were you. He wept a lot, he asked for a lot, though he kept quiet about a lot too. To sum it up, he made me believe that he was genuinely sorry. I think he is a changed character, because he really does feel that he did wrong.
Yes, I know you are angry; and I know, too, that you have a right to be angry. But mercy earns most praise when anger is fully justified. Once you loved this fellow, and I hope you will love him again; for the moment, it’s enough if you let yourself be placated. You can always be angry again if he deserves it, and you’ll have all the more reason if you’ve been placated now. He’s young, he’s in tears, and you have a kind heart – make all that count. Don’t torture him, and don’t torture yourself either; anger is always torture for a soft heart like yours.
I am afraid it will look as though I’m putting pressure on you, not simply making a request, if I join my prayers to his. But I’m going to do it anyway, and all the more fully and thoroughly because I’ve given him a sharp and severe talking-to, and I’ve warned him clearly that I won’t make such a request again. (This was because he needed a good fright, and I said it to him rather than to you, because it’s just possible that I shall make another request, and receive it too – always supposing it’s an appropriate thing for me to ask and for you to grant.)
I have considerable boldness in the Messiah to command you to do the right thing, but I prefer to appeal on the basis of love, seeing as I am Paul, an elder and now also a prisoner of the Messiah, Jesus. I appeal to you about my child, whose father I have become in my imprisonment: Onesimus! Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful to you and to me. I’m sending him to you – sending the one who is my very heart. Actually, I would have liked to keep him here beside me, so that he could work for me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the royal announcement, but I didn’t want to do anything without your approval, so that your good deed wouldn’t be done, as it were, under compulsion, but willingly.
Perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a while, so that you could have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me, but how much more to you, but in human terms and in the lord.
So: if you count me as your partner, receive him as you would me. If he has wronged you or owes you anything, put it down on my account. I, Paul, will repay: I’m writing this with my own hand! (Not to mention the fact that you owe me your own very self . . .) Yes, brother, let me have some benefit from you in the lord! Refresh my heart in the Messiah.
I’m writing this fully confident of your obedience, and knowing that you will do more than I say. At the same time, get a guest room ready for me. I’m hoping, you see, that through your prayers I will be given to you as a gift . . .