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Weakness Made Strong

A Lost Anatolian Letter
(a fictional account)

Finding ancient documents is a pick, shovel, and conservation effort by archeologists; it’s also part luck. The famous Nag Hammadi texts were unearthed by Ali Saman and his brother while searching for fertilizer in the desert around present day Hamrah Dawm, Egypt in 1945. By sheer chance they stumbled upon archaic Gnostic-Christian parchments inserted in earthenware containers. The brothers didn’t initially have the wisdom to recognize their fortune.

They carelessly placed many of these scrolls next to their mother’s cooking oven. Mom used many of these irreplaceable and precious rolls in order to fire up the kindling for their evening meals. When the brothers showed some of these texts to archeologists they ignited one of the most intensive and meticulous scholarly projects in modern times.

Our short but well-preserved letter from Thyatira isn’t a find of the Nag’s notability but it does contribute to understanding what some members of the community in Thyatira felt about John’s jolting letter of admonition. This recently discovered response to Elder John was found by Ian Hodder, a lucky and meticulous Anotolian archeologist, next to the now cold forge in the ruins of the Thyatiran Bronzeworker’s Association in 2006. Along with the copy was Decius Gallio Gallipor’s request to be excused from the upcoming Minerva’s Guild Festival on March 15 for religious reasons. Decius suggested guild officials refer to his correspondence to Elder John to see what was behind this odd petition.

While the gift of prophesy was taken seriously in the Thyatiran community, some like Decius were reluctant to accept John’s strident message without first understanding and testing it. Decius respected John the Elder but he wanted to know why he was forbidden to maintain association to the guild and to be a dutiful citizen of the burgeoning community of Thyatira. He also wanted to know what exactly John had against his mentor and friend Shepsit.

Decius Gallio Gallipor

Dear Elder John,

I, Decius Gallio Gallipor, and the church that meets in the home of Timotheos greet you in the Name of the One who enables and preserves us in times of great persecution. The community was brimming with the deepest joy at the news that your sentencing was placed in the hands of the provincial proconsul instead of having to appear in Rome. Surely had that been the case you would have been subjected to an even harsher penalty than exile. At least now we can plead earnestly for your release and hope constantly to that end. You are not alone on Patmos; the Lord is present and our spirits accompany you through our prayers in Him.

Your letter finds us glad in God, ready to witness to the revelation of Jesus in our lives and in our world. As your letter indicates the work goes on mightily here in Thyatira, in ours the least of the churches that you addressed in your profound encyclical. Only recently several abandoned infant girls were delivered into the receiving hearts of the gracious Eudocia and her husband Heron. Your wisdom and the promises in your letter have touched us to the depths and enriched us tremendously. Indeed the "Morning Star" has shone upon us.

Our love and respect for you demands however that we ask that you interpret some of the language in your letter so we can better apply it in our situation. Our community consists of those from all parts of the world and your precise meaning gets somewhat mixed in our native conceptions.

I am a Roman born in Arpinium but when my father fell into debt he became a slave to his patron Gallio. Gallio was an assistant to the proconsul of Asia Minor and worked in Pergamum until his death last year. I was happy to say that Gallio rests in the care of our Lord after hearing and responding to the revelation of God. In addition to the superb training in the Greek and Latin classics Gallio granted upon his death the red cap of freedom to me. Consequently, I moved to Thyatira and took up the Bronze-workers trade, the trade of my father.

Trouble at the Forge

Those of us, especially those in the guild associations, are struggling with the fiery language you used in the letter concerning food offered to idols, idolatry and immorality. Upon first reading, I was taken aback by the suggestion that your children in Thyatira were guilty of such disgusting behaviour. The fact is our pagan neighbours have repeatedly praised the good reputation and philanthropy of our group.

I took my concern to the community and some there of God’s Chosen, the remnant of Israel, assured me that your words had a cryptic significance and were not to be treated entirely at face value. They declared that yours was a revelatory language used by Jewish seers who looked expectantly for the Kingdom of God. Behind the form of your words, we concluded that you may be addressing the hidden conflict between life on earth and heaven. Our domestic situation in Thyatira is full of temptations and distractions; there are gods around every corner. Immorality is so prevalent that in every tavern or spectacle it lies in wait; all the while we are so often numb to it. But I assure you that we in the company of the Beloved do not indulge in such. As for idolatry, it is rampant in every nook and cranny of the city; opportunities for votive offering to all manner of gods are available. Available but hardly thinkable as worship objects to those of us who consider them demons, vacuous speculations, or mere nothings.

That said, the inner witness of the Spirit convinced me as I continued to ponder your letter. I was gazing into the fire of the forge when an inspiration came. We entered the guild earlier that day to make some decisions when our shop patron asked each of us to throw the traditional pinch of salt into the forge fire before we began our meeting. In that very moment my heart was enflamed; I was stricken. The salt was an offering to the god Vulcan the cripple craftsman deity. I had all but forgotten the significance of this repetitive, innocuous act. When I was admitted as a master craftsman I had been told that Minerva and Vulcan cared deeply for those near the creative fire. If we of the guild honored them they would protect us and make our products pure and unflawed. Minerva guarded the mind of the worker while Vulcan made steady the blows of the hammer.

Only the One you spoke of, the one with the fiery gaze who observes our every action and intention, can truly purify and straighten what is crooked; only he can watch and guard his children. Here I was - one of those loved ones, unthinkingly performing a ritual to those who rivaled him for his place. And I did that in society with my fellow Bronze-workers. I asked myself who is my patron and who are my brothers? Vulcan and the Bronze-workers or Jesus Christ and my brothers and sisters in him? Your words were used of God to restore my identity and direct my loyalty.

No sooner had I prayed, devoting myself to Christ when a smoke besmirched colleague asked about my sad countenance. Knowing he claimed to be a fellow believer I told him my thoughts. His response was that we belong to two worlds both of which place duties on us. To chose one set of obligations above another would lead to undue sorrow and even neglect. "Throw the salt in the embers my friend! And remember that Paul the Apostle said there are ’no other gods’ and we are people of liberty. After all, think of your fellow workers with whom you have associated for all these years. Have they not pledged to make Thyatira a proud little town that is only now beginning to stand on its own. Do we not supply the legions with sturdy weapons, brass standards through which they maintain the Pax Romana of the Empire? To turn your back on the ritual is to leave yourself open to the charge of hating mankind, being arrogant and unpatriotic." He told me that if I didn’t believe him I was to ask Shepsit, a well respected prophetess in our believing community; she would have words of wisdom.

Shepsit's Solution

Visiting Shepsit, whose name in Egyptian means honorable one, was an amenable experience. While she was a reputable prophetess, both in her pagan past and in her believing present, she was nonetheless humble and soft-spoken, eager to share not only her sagacious words but her wonderful cooking and comfortable villa with all who desired her wisdom. I had known Shepsit since she arrived in Thyatira from Alexandria and became a convert to Christ. I witnessed her grow in the knowledge of her new faith. The source of her knowledge was gleaned from Lydia a business woman who sold dye in our town and wanted to expand into the Alexandrian region. Shepsit was to become Lydia’s representative in Alexandria. Her business life ended however when her new life in Christ began. She never returned to Alexandria. Lydia was so joyful at Shepsit’s passionate love for Christ and his people that she never once complained of the lost business in Africa. She would laugh and repeat that she’d rather lose the dye market of Africa in order to gain a sister called Shepsit. Shepsit had been an avid student at the famous library of Alexandria and was familiar with the most brilliant minds of the Roman, Greek and Egyptian worlds. Our community had come to recognize she represented the best of both worlds, pagan and Christian.

On the morning of my interview with her, Shepsit was dressed as a Roman matron in plain white with subtle red dyed fringes on her pallia (woman’s toga); this was such a contrast to her early exotic decorum. Shepsit informed me that others had come questioning her about the Elder’s letter. She said that we must examine this letter with utmost diligence since it was crafted by a meticulous spirit-inspired hand and mind. Elder John’s words, she said, dug down into the depths of our faith and the roots of our life in Thyatira. She noted the Elder’s repeated mention of fire, bronze and spiritual insight.

She recalled John’s language about Christ’s promise that this inconsequential little community that we are part of would someday in the spirit of otherworldly warriors crush the imperium of Rome, replacing it with the rule of the Morning Star. She asked if I knew what that meant. I responded that it must be Christ our Morning Star. She nodded and added that the Elder was without a doubt referring to the Risen One but that he may have had an even more specific aspect in mind. Rome, (roma reversed is amor she reminded me), had prided herself in closeness to the deity Venus the Goddess of Love that is exemplified by the Morning Star. John, she said, has replaced Venus by Christ, and the power of Rome through love.

Shepsit signaled that our talk was complete and that unless I had a further query we would adjourn for lunch. I internally reviewed the letter realizing no mention was made of idolatry or adultery. I informed her that it was the seemingly harsh side of the letter that had me mystified. At this she lowered her head saying she had wished I would not ask about these matters but she would share what she thought might be insinuated. As for idolatry she said that she was familiar with the grossest idolatry from the worship of animals in Egypt to the emperor cult in Rome but that John’s letter implied a more subtle adulation. Any form or association with rival claims over our loyalty to Christ was spiritual idolatry.

I told her of the salt offering we Bronzers offered at our meetings. She reminded me that salt represented durability, preservation, and purity. This action invoked Vulcan and Minerva to grant these attributes to the workmen. By participating in the ritual, according to Elder John, I was exalting the power of the pagan divinities rather than trusting Christ to accompany me in the workplace. I now realized the degree of my compromise and pledged to myself to refrain from offering salt in the guild ever again. Shepsit frowned and then smiled and said that I needn’t go to such an extent since we both know Vulcan and Minerva didn’t exist and salt was just salt. I objected to this reasoning since my fellow workers believed in the power of these patrons and I would be giving the wrong impression as to my loyalty. Yes, she said, but you also have a civic duty and if I reneged on my guild oath, I would be lumped together with the most strident believers as haters of humankind and considered unpatriotically arrogant. I told her I would genuinely consider her interpretation after searching out the Scriptures and my conscience.

My final inquiry concerning the mention of Jezebel and adultery appeared to sting Shepsit. Shepsit leaned forward on her couch and said, "I think the dear old seer has someone like me in mind when he spoke thus. I do not exclude myself from the world and rigidly pit Christ against the Empire and civic duty. I have had meaningful discussions with the so-called Nicolatians who hold to a less strident view than John would have us believe." With bitterness she continued, "Because I am open and respect worldly learning I am considered a spiritual adulterer. You know very well Decius that I am not unchaste physically, that I have renounced my past behaviour, but my habit of accommodation seems to have perked John’s ire." She said with finality that each one of us had to decide exactly where they stood on this question.

As if offering me communion Shepsit passed a plate of marinated tuna brine with some pork. As much as I respected her I just couldn’t indulge in the food until I had thoroughly discerned the Elder’s warning. I politely said our conversation was more than enough, and thanking her I left her home.

Lost Letter for Today

The Lost Antolian Letter abruptly cut off at this juncture. The rest of Decius’ reportage to John is nothing but a petrified blackened crust. From the accompanying request to Decius’ guild master to be excused from further salt offerings, we can conjecture that Decius had understood and acted upon the Elder’s admonition. I think it is safe to say his spiritual senses were likely aware enough to spot the subtle idolatry associated with civic practices. We would dearly like to know what became of Decius’ friend Shepsit and whether her accommodations to culture had the disastrous effects predicted by John the elder. Did she lead others astray? Did those of this milder sort of faith eventually contract a spiritual or physical disease and perish? Lastly and most important, do John’s warnings stand as written encouragement to hold on to what we have and treat it as a cherished gift not to be misused or diminished? Will we carry the Morning Star of Christ into the battle against power and compromise?

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