Food for Thought-Paper Towns, New Testament Style (A Sermon on Ephesians 4:25-29)


Paul didn’t know anything for sure. That’s what Peter and the others said. For Paul, Jesus was a paper town. He was someone who only existed on paper; in the words and ideas of others. If you claimed you knew him, you be proven to be a liar because you couldn’t have known him. Paul wasn’t there. For Saul (or Paul as they called him now), Jesus never really existed. Or did he?

What am I talking about?  It reminds me of a story John Green relates in his novel, “Paper Towns”. In the 1930’s the General Drafting Company was making a map of the state of New York. It was their cartographic practice to draw a fictional town on their maps. In this way, if subsequent mapmakers or publishers copied their maps their plagiarism would be easily discovered. Sometimes called a copyright trap, these towns, only existing on paper became known as paper towns. One such town was Agloe, New York. Using the first letters of the names of the two draftsmen who created the map, Agloe was placed in rural Delaware County, New York north of Rockland. In the intervening years, general store sprang up at the Agloe intersection. The Agloe cross road, along with its store and gas station began to be identified on gas station maps as a town. It was then in the late 1970’s, when Rand McNally, inheritor of the original copyright, tried to sue the gas station and their maps. They thought they might win some huge legal victory. The gas station (printer of the new maps) countered, “There is a town, there is a place, and something’s been there all along.”

Jesus was the Agloe, the original paper town. For the disciples, the ones who had drawn up the first maps (our ideas about theology, God, worship, etc.), they believed they knew where to draw the substance of their faith.  Other places, distant crossroads in distant lands, did not warrant the physical presence of Christ or the church.  They believed they held the copyright on who said or did anything with Jesus’ teachings. Paul knew different. In the intervening years, he started putting paper churches all over the eastern Mediterranean. According to those who knew best in Jerusalem, paper towns like Ephesus, Philippi, or Corinth didn’t need to be on the Christian maps.

Where the disciples had claimed, like Rand McNally, there was nothing, Paul shot back, “there is something.” What some disciples claimed was a fantasy became a living reality to Paul. If it could become real to him, could it not become real for those living in the paper towns of Asia Minor?

How do you go somewhere and have it become more than a place on a map? You create a new world right where you’re standing. You reinvent reality. Take a spoke out of the wheel of conventional wisdom and start again. As in Agloe, build your general store and gas pumps. Paul does this by telling the paper town of Ephesus to start their town from the bottom up, “Therefore, after you have gotten rid of lying. Each of you must tell the truth to you neighbor because we are parts of each other in the same body. Be angry without sinning. Don’t let the sun set on your anger. Don’t let foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.”

That’s a new town, by any reasonable standard. Imagine asking someone in this day or the first century, to find a place, a town, a city, a village, anywhere on a map where people aren’t lying and deal constructively with their anger. Good sir, please locate for me the town where people speak for each other’s edification and build each other up and don’t tear each other down. Where is that place, might you show me? “Such a place doesn’t exist on any map,” they will say. It must be one of those paper towns, meant to fool cartographers and catch mapmakers in violating copyright laws. It might be right there, forming under your nose and despite your best intentions to the contrary.