Late in the evening on the first day of the week, the believers gathered at Gaius’s house for worship. The group was growing, Paul noted happily.

They met at night because Corinth recognized no regular day of worship. Her holy days were scattered across the calendar, dictated by the rituals of various temples and the rhythms of the city and the Empire. The weekly Sabbath of the Hebrews was a religious oddity. “A whole day for worship? Every week?” Corinthians knew that Jewish shops and businesses would be closed on the seventh day and adjusted their schedules accordingly. But they scoffed at the custom among themselves, viewing it as immoderate, a kind of overindulgence—even in a city addicted to overindulgence—that they did not appreciate or understand. Meanwhile, life in Corinth—the busy press and bustle of the agora and the markets and the harbors and the tax houses—flowed on each Sabbath, heedless of the strange sounds coming from the synagogue.

The Christian Sabbath was, of course, the same. The first day of the week was just another day to Corinth. Her citizens rushed on while Paul and his companions prepared to remember the Risen Lord—which posed a problem for many members of this new community. Most of them were slaves or wives or hired laborers or soldiers, required to keep a schedule set by others who cared nothing for a dead Jew and his arcane rites of worship. Believers had to gather after other responsibilities had been met … often after the rest of Corinth slept. So they came in the night, braving the dark streets and dangerous shadows to meet at Gaius’s house and enjoy a few hours of fellowship and devotion.


II

Paul recognized most of the people in the room. Some he’d come to know well. Others he’d seen before, in the synagogue or the agora, and could at least call by name. But a few of those present were complete strangers to him.

Gaius brought a friend, carefully barbered and sumptuously dressed. “Paul, this is Tullius Rufus,” he said when introducing his guest. “A friend and business associate. I’ve told him all about you.”

“A pleasure, Paul.” Tullius extended his hand. “I’ve followed Gaius’s religious wanderings for some time now. And I must confess what he’s said about you raises my curiosity.”

“Welcome Tullius. I hope you see something tonight that encourages some religious wanderings of your own.”

Stauria also brought an acquaintance, a woman she’d known from her prior life. “Paul, this here is Pulchea.” She laid a hand on Paul’s arm, turning to her companion. “And this here is the man I was tellin’ you ’bout.”

At a glance, he took in the woman’s worn tunic, the fingernails bitten to nubs. The paint around her eyes, he noticed, did little to hide her fatigue. She was a bit younger than Stauria, not as far gone. But far enough, he imagined. He smiled at her and spoke a welcome. But Pulchea did not smile or speak. She stared at him with a look he could not quite decipher. Suspicion? Hope? Defiance? Maybe all those things at once. It was a look that warned she’d dealt with men all her life. It was a look that said she found Stauria’s story too good to be true. But behind it was something else, an ache that had dragged her here in spite of doubts. Paul took Pulchea’s reluctant hand and led her to a seat at the front of Gaius’s hall.

Stephanas, of course, had brought his entire household. Achaicus sat beside him. And the boy was there too, Fortunatus, the one with the smoldering eyes. There was no mistress in Stephanas’s household, no children. Paul wondered about that. It was a part of Stephanas’s story that he did not yet know. In due time, he thought. When he’s ready.

Crispus and Hester also brought friends, people Paul remembered from the synagogue. Archippus and his family. A woman named Abi, who seemed very nervous. And Jesse, a young scholar who’d come to visit him at the shop, back when the synagogue debates still raged.

They were all gathered now. It was time.


III

“Welcome. All of you. Welcome to our assembly. We gather this evening to worship the Lord Jesus. Some of you have worshiped with us before. Others of you are new.” He looked around at the newcomers who sat staring up at him with uncertain, self-conscious eyes. He wondered briefly how they would respond to the assembly. It struck different people in different ways. He’d seen some throw up their hands and walk out. He’d seen others fall down and confess sin. How about you? he pondered, looking around at the upturned faces. And you?

“I pray that you will all be touched by God tonight.” He paused. “Crispus? Why don’t you start us off with a reading.”

Crispus rose and turned to face the gathering, a scroll unrolled in his hands. “I’ve selected a reading from the Psalms.” He cleared his throat.


“Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being …”

He faltered, suddenly remembering his audience. “I’m sorry,” he said with an embarrassed glance at Paul. “I’m used to … well, that is … I usually read to people who are familiar …” He fell silent then and started over.

“I am reading from a collection of songs my people, the Hebrews, consider sacred. It is a book our Lord Jesus loved and often quoted. Many people wrote for this collection, but most of the songs were written by a man named David. One of Israel’s kings. A man very close to God.” He glanced once more at Paul for reassurance and then plunged on. “This particular Psalm is a call to worship. It seemed an appropriate way to begin our time together tonight.”

He gripped the scroll more tightly and began to read again.

“Praise the Lord, O my soul;

all my inmost being, praise his holy name.

Praise the Lord, O my soul,

            and forget not all his benefits—

who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit

            and crowns you with love and compassion,

who satisfies your desires with good things

            so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.[1]

“May the Lord bless this reading for his people.” Crispus rolled up the scroll and moved back to his seat.

Paul nodded at Aquila who stepped forward. “Good evening. My name is Aquila. I’m a leather-worker, not a musician. But I’d like to teach you a song … one of my favorites. I’ll sing a line and then you repeat it.”

He cleared his throat, closed his eyes, and began singing in a high, clear voice, pausing after each line to let the others echo the tune.


Christ is the image of God invisible …

He is the first-born Son, wonderful …

All was created by him …

All on earth and in heaven …

All that is seen and hidden …


Of his bride, the church, he is head …

He is first to be raised from the dead …

He is above all others …

All kings and powers and rulers …

And we are his brothers …

Hester raised one hand in worship, feeling the words of the song seep into her heart and soothe the wounded, broken thing it had become. Her other hand reached for Abi, so thankful that she’d come, so worried what her presence might cost.

God was pleased to live in his Son …

God worked through him to make us one …

On the cross he spilled blood …

A lamb for our good …

To lead us to God …[2]

The words were so powerful, so full. Those who knew the hymn sang along with Aquila. Portensus realized that the song must have been a favorite with the others as well, for they sang with a certain intensity—as though the hymn were a confession of faith or part of an initiation into mysteries.

Portensus did not sing, however. He leaned forward, listening to each line, a dozen questions piling up as the verses unwound. There was triumph in the words, power and confidence. Yet the melody was strangely melancholic. He thought the tune tempered the victory in the lyrics. He wondered if the song itself—the tension between words and music—was meant as a reminder that good news is best when offered to those who are in pain.

As the last of the hymn echoed in the corners of the hall, Aquila stood before the group, lost for a moment in the beauty of what they’d just expressed together. When finally he opened his eyes, they were shining.

“I love that song,” Paul said quietly. “It’s the core of the gospel captured in one hymn.” He looked at Portensus and the others who were new. “If you want to know what this is all about,” his hands indicated the assembly, “you’d do well to memorize that song, to ponder what it says. Aquila? A couple more?”

The tailor lead two more hymns drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures—one based on a Psalm of praise, the other from the Prophet Isaiah. The group followed along as best they could.

When the songs were finished, Paul rose to extend his hands over the group. He looked up. “Lord, we come before you tonight from different places and with different burdens. Some of us have walked with you for years. Some of us barely know you at all. Some are here full of joy. But others are filled with pain and shame. Some of us have felt your healing hand in times past and are grateful. Some of us need your healing touch now. But we come tonight with one mind and one heart, asking that you be present among us. Bring your Spirit upon us, Lord. Let him search our hearts and find our hidden places. Wash us with your Spirit, Lord, so we can worship you with clean hearts and clean lives.”

Silence descended on the room for the next few moments. Those who were familiar with these times of worship bowed their heads and began a careful search of themselves, turning their lives over in their minds, remembering the failures of the past week. This pause for examination, for confession, was a regular practice. They often began worship this way.

Paul knew, from long experience, this pause was not an easy thing. Oh, to be still and silent was easy enough—though some people found even that challenging. But to be still and silent and honest, to see oneself clearly and without pretense, was a gift only the Spirit could bestow. He always thought of these quiet moments as the first, tangible movement of the Spirit in their assemblies—a subtle touch, a quiet conviction, the gift of courage to confess. 

Initially, the newcomers shifted uncomfortably in the silence, not sure what was expected of them, not sure what would happen next. But even they grew still after a few moments and seemed to draw into themselves.

Paul started walking among the group, trusting the Spirit to point out those who were burdened. Not everyone would need to confess something aloud tonight. But some would. He paused behind Crispus and placed his hands on his friend’s shoulders.

“I’ve been fighting bitterness,” Crispus said at once, smiling though there was no humor in the expression. “Why are my countrymen so stubborn? Why do they treat us like they do?” He shared a look with Hester. “And I keep remembering what they said to you, Paul … how they treated you. I don’t know how to let it go.”

Immediately, there was a murmur in the room as people began to pray for Crispus. “Take away his bitterness, Lord,” Paul heard Prisca whisper. “His and mine.”

Praying himself, Paul moved on. He stopped in front of Cratulus.

“You’ve been struggling with something this week.”

“I have,” the soldier nodded weakly. He spoke with reluctance. For Cratulus, introspection and confession were not finely honed skills. “I’m a violent man. I have a violent job.” He stopped and swallowed hard. “A few days ago, my squad caught a thief stealing in the market. We should have marched him straight to the magistrates. But we decided to make an example of him first and worked him over pretty good.” The old soldier shrugged. “He deserved it.” Then he frowned. “I’ve been thinking maybe I should have treated him better than he deserved. It’s how I want to be treated.” He shrugged again. “I’ve felt bad about it ever since.”

Paul hid a smile with his hand as, again, the murmur of prayer rose. That’s how it begins, Cratulus. He patted the soldier on his massive shoulder and moved on. He stopped in front of Gaius and considered him for a moment. But when he spoke, it was to the man seated beside him. “Tullius, you have something on your mind.”

Tullius looked at him, startled, and then surprised himself by saying, “Yes, I do. For some reason, I was sitting here thinking I love money too much.” He laughed uncomfortably. “I dream about it waking and sleeping. I neglect my family running after it. I use people for the profit I can wring from them. It consumes me.” He blinked at Paul in astonishment. “I’ve never had such a thought in my life. But saying it, just now, I know it’s true.”

Paul nodded his understanding. “Welcome to the assembly, Tullius.”

Tullius and Gaius shared a quick glance. Gaius winked as if to say, See?

It went on this way for some time, different people speaking of different struggles. Paul moved among them—touching one; nodding at another; prompting soft confessions. It was an intimate moment, the group of strangers finding in this sharing a kind of communion.

Pulchea watched it all with wide eyes, saying nothing but hearing everything. Paul smiled at her. He knew this sort of openness was something beyond her experience. And he was glad, in a way, that she was not ready to participate. He imagined her confessions might prompt seizures in some of the Jewish matrons. He smiled at her again and moved on.

They were ready now for something more. First the emptying, then the filling up. First a time to dredge up the things that distanced each of them from God, then the time to draw near and hear God’s voice.

Gaius rose suddenly. His movement was involuntary. He did not mean to rise. But there was an urgency that bubbled up in him. He had to speak. “The Lord says, ‘You have confessed and now I will heal. You have repented and I will forgive. Blessings upon you, my sons and daughters. Receive the gift of my Spirit.’ This is what the Lord says.”

He finished and then looked around, uncertain. He saw Prisca watching him with rapt attention. Others, though—the slave and the prostitutes in particular—stared at him with frank alarm, as if he’d lost his senses. Gaius felt a panic rise. Had he said something wrong?

Paul saw the alarm in his face and moved towards him. He spoke in a calming voice. “Gaius, tell me what just happened.”

“I’m not sure.” He felt his heart pounding. “Those words filled me up. I had to speak them.”

“Words?” Pulchea whispered loudly, rolling her eyes. “Is he soft in the head?”

Gaius shot her a hard look.

“That happens sometimes, Gaius. Words from God. A gift. But the words don’t always come in good Greek.” Paul smiled at him. “You were speaking in a tongue.”

“Tongue?” Gaius was starting to get upset. “I spoke clearly enough, even if this strumpet …”

Paul put a cautioning hand on his arm. He pointed Gaius to his friend, Tullius, who smiled and shook his head.

“You made no sense to me, Gaius.”

Gaius looked at the others who stared back at him blankly.

“You need to interpret what you just said,” Paul said calmly. “So that all of us can understand.”

“Interpret? What are you talking about?” Gaius felt the anger rising. Always mindful of his dignitas, he didn’t like people looking at him as if he were insane. And he certainly didn’t appreciate being the butt of someone’s joke.

Paul caught his eyes. “You were speaking in a tongue, Gaius. In your mind, you were hearing a message from God. But your mouth was using words we couldn’t understand.”

A sudden moment of clarity. A dawning realization. He’d heard of ecstasy speech before. The babbling of possession. The language of the gods. But he’d never actually seen it. It had certainly never happened to him. His anger dissipated immediately and he sat back with a sudden thrill.

This is it! This is what I’ve been looking for.

“Perhaps I can help.” Prisca spoke up. “Gaius brought us a word of pardon from the Lord.” And, interpreting, she repeated the message in the koine that was their common language.

The whole incident struck people in different ways. For some of the newcomers—Pulchea, Demeas—it was strange and frightening. Stauria found it puzzling. Gaius was beside himself with delight.

But for most of those who had just confessed their struggles, the words were a comfort. Paul could see them visibly relax. They’d needed those words of forgiveness. And they’d needed the tongue—an embrace from heaven, a sign that God was present with them in spite of their confessed sins, perhaps because of their confession.

Aquila stood next—a word of prophesy. His face was pale and there was a slight tremor in his voice.

“Jesus has many people in this city. Those of us here tonight are just the beginning. But we must be bold if we are to reach them. Bold in our witness. Bold in our lives. Bold in our love for each other.” He looked at his wife as he spoke, and then closed his eyes for a moment, as if listening to some distant conversation.

“The Corinthians won’t kill us for boldness. They won’t beat us. They’ll laugh at us. I see ridicule and scorn ahead. I see friends walking away, shaking their heads. I can hear jeering and mockery.” Aquila’s voice changed. The tremor disappeared.

“Listen to what the Lord says. ‘I loved you enough to die boldly. Now you must love me enough to tell my story—boldly—to this city.’” He opened his mouth again, as if to see if anything else would come out, and then abruptly sat down.

A hush fell over the group. Even the newcomers realized that something holy was happening; that, somehow, God was breaking through to encourage this little band of worshippers gathered in the night to feel their way towards him.

It reminded Portensus of the reading from Scripture that had begun the evening. The old Jew (Crispus?) held the scroll. His lips mouthed the words. But the words themselves were from another source, a higher source. Crispus, Gaius, Aquila—all of them were vessels. But what poured out of them was not theirs. The words belonged to someone else. Portensus listened, fascinated, wondering what he’d stumbled upon in the baths, realizing he had not a shred of doubt that it —whatever it was—could be trusted.

As Aquila finished, Hester began to feel an urge to say something. She fought it at first, not accustomed to speaking during public worship. She thought God might move on and use someone else. But her legs began to tremble with the effort to keep from standing. Finally, she rose and moved to Stauria, lifting her to her feet and placing a hand on each scarred cheek.

Stauria stood rigid in her grasp, too startled to resist. Hester held her like that for a while, staring quietly into her face. When she spoke at last, her voice was soft and full of emotion.

“The Lord loves you, Stauria. He’s so happy that you’ve come home. He wants you to know there is feasting and dancing in the heavens because of your faith. There is no shame now. Your past is gone. You have a new life to live.” The tears began to stream from both women—Stauria wanting so desperately to believe what was said, Hester feeling for the first time the depth of Stauria’s pain.

She was about to remove her hands from Stauria’s face and return to her seat when she felt another urging too powerful to resist. “Stauria,” she said, looking deep into those weary eyes, “you have felt the touch of many in your short life. Feel now the touch of the Lord and know that he loves you beyond measure.”

Hester’s hands pressed against those scarred cheeks. Stauria’s eyes grew wide. She opened her mouth to gasp but could not draw air. A sensation she could not name moved from her face to her cold, frightened heart and down through her legs. She knew something was happening inside her, something she could not explain. But it felt so good, so safe and right. There was no fear in it, just a comfort beyond anything she’d ever known. It felt like her mother’s embrace … like the distant voice of her father wrapping her in tender words.

Hester took her hands away and stared, stunned, at what she saw.

Stauria’s hands went to her face self-consciously. She knew the pock-marks and scars were ugly. She knew what the blemishes said about the disease within her. She felt for them now, wanting to apologize to Hester, to assure her she wasn’t contagious to the touch. But her fingers could not find the familiar bumps and ridges on her face. Her cheeks were smooth. She looked again at Hester and saw in her eyes not revulsion but amazement. She turned to Pulchea and saw the same slack-jawed, wide-eyed stare.

She turned to Paul then, her chin trembling, her legs starting to fail. “What’s goin’ on with me?” she wailed.

He stepped forward to catch her before she collapsed. He supported her with one arm and touched her cheeks himself. He could feel her body strengthening even as he held her and, for a moment, experienced that sense of confusion, of disorientation, that came on him whenever his eyes saw something his mind could not explain. Time slowed. He looked at her face again and said to himself, This is not possible.

But he knew it was. He’d seen it often enough, God breaking in and doing what could not be done.

As always, the moment was deeply humbling. Paul felt small, diminished in the presence of such power. He was unworthy, an Isaiah suddenly aware of unclean lips. Yet, at the same time, he was elated to know this God, to be his chosen instrument. Thank you, was all his dazed soul could call out. Thank you, Lord. Thank you.

“The Lord has healed your disease, Stauria,” he whispered. “Just like David promised in the Psalm we read before. God has renewed your youth. He’s given back some of what was taken from you.” He started laughing as the rest of the group crowded around the two of them, reaching to touch Stauria’s cheeks for themselves.

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]



[1]   Psalm 103:1-5

[2]   An adaptation of Colossians 1:15-20. This section is considered by many scholars to reflect an early Christian hymn. I’ve rearranged it (hopefully without doing too much damage to the ideas) into a more modern hymnic shape.