There is a kind of dog, commonly used in army camps for guard duty, that will bite a man and not let go. Paul had heard the stories. Rough, rangy beasts, they’d clamp onto arm or leg or throat and hang on until all movement, all resistance ceased.
Berekiah, Paul suspected, was of that breed.
There were not many qualities Paul could admire in the man. But he did possess, in abundance, a characteristic Paul shared—dogged determination, a stubborn persistence. Now that he had Paul’s scent, it was only a matter of time before he bit. And once Berekiah had his teeth in him, Paul knew he’d never let go.
Sosthenes, in their wide-ranging discussions during his recovery, only confirmed what Paul’s instincts told him was true.
As his strength returned, Sosthenes began to walk the city again, doing the delicate work of making tentative connections with a few old friends and catching up on news of the synagogue. He quickly discovered three things, none of which gave Paul any comfort—Berekiah had, indeed, been appointed the new synagogue ruler; he was publicly denouncing Saul, refuting his teachings, and expelling anyone who had contact with the rebel group; and his stated mission was, above all, to make life in Corinth as difficult as possible, and as short as possible, for Saul of Tarsus and everyone connected to him.
The news of that weighed on Paul. He did not fear what Berekiah could do to him—he really had been tormented by better men. But he worried about his flock; about Crispus and Hester, Aquila and Prisca in particular. How far would Berekiah go? What would he do to those closest to Paul for the chance to wound Paul himself?
But it wasn’t just Berekiah that burdened Paul. It wasn’t just his fears for those in the church who might be caught and crushed in Berekiah’s jaws. He was also conscious of other burdens … had been for some time.
Paul was tired. He was tired in a bone-deep, spirit-sapping way. He’d kept up a brutal pace for a long time. Between work and the agora and Gaius’s house—the crises that demanded his attentions and the investments he needed to make in the future leaders of Corinth’s ekklesia—Paul was wearing out. He’d known he could not keep it up much longer. He’d known there would come a day of reckoning, when his body would sit down in the road like Balaam’s donkey and refuse to go on.
Increasingly, he found himself longing for the relief of getting away, for the rest he always found on sea voyages when he had no responsibilities except to stare at the water and watch coastlines slide by. He daydreamed about walking long roads alone, spending quiet nights with only a campfire for companionship.
But most of all, Paul felt the burden of God’s hand upon him, tugging at him, pulling him away from Corinth towards distant shores. As the weeks passed, as August grew hotter and hotter, his thoughts were drawn towards the horizon, to other churches, to other places and people. Near the end, he could think of little else.
A year and a half was a long tenure for the Apostle. That was part of it. He’d never spent that much time in one place before—not since the Damascus Road. But he’d been that long in Corinth. A year and a half without word from Jerusalem or Antioch or the churches of Asia Province. A year and a half in Corinth when so many great cities, so many people, went without the gospel.
But it was more than that. It was the burden of his calling. He was God’s Apostle, a man “sent out,” a man with a mission. God had not called Paul to stay. He’d called him to go. And the echo of that call haunted Paul’s days and disturbed his nights. It pressed on him with a constancy he could not ignore. It made his back itch.
Others saw these things in him—the worry, the fatigue, the preoccupation. Hester read the signs and suspected Paul’s time in Corinth was running short. Stephanas saw the symptoms and feared that only a change of scenery could cure Paul’s ills.
It worried them all. They talked about it constantly behind his back.
By the time he stood to speak, it was late. As usual, there had been singing and Scripture, confession and prophecy, a word of wisdom couched in a tongue. It was a pattern they’d fallen into and one, he knew, that would serve them well when he left.
The Spirit, as so often before, was strong in their assembly. Everyone was aware of his presence. Had the Spirit been water, they would all be dripping.
That’s good, Paul thought. It’s what they need.
He looked around the group, at each person in the room. He’d given this sermon a great deal of thought, spending more time than usual in prayer about it. The cross had been his theme for so long. But tonight, he needed to speak of something else. He wanted to give them something, a way forward, that might guide them in his absence. He felt the need to throw a rope to people who would soon be adrift.
“One of the great privileges of living in these last days is the reality of the Spirit of God. The Spirit with us, for us, and in us. Tonight, we’ve experienced the Spirit’s gifts. We’ve tasted his presence.” Every eye was on him, more than usual, as if they all anticipated a special significance to his words this evening.
“It’s thrilling, isn’t it?” He saw heads nodding and smiles of agreement. “I’m glad for the Spirit tonight, brothers and sisters. I hope you drink deeply of him all the days of your life.” He paused. “But I want more for you than the Spirit’s gifts. I want you to become spiritual people.”
He could tell by their faces they did not understand the distinction.
“You can have a spiritual gift and not be a spiritual person—just as you can wear fine clothing and not be a prince or laugh but not feel joy. You might speak in tongues. But that doesn’t mean you’re spiritual. You might heal the sick or work wonders. But that—in itself—doesn’t prove anything about who you are.” He paused for a moment and studied his listeners. They were struggling with it, he could see.
“The Spirit works through us, with the gifts. But the Spirit also works in us. And it is the work inside that really determines whether we’re becoming spiritual people. If you’re not careful,” he looked at Gaius, “you’ll focus on outward things and miss the inner work. You’ll think that spiritual power is in the miracles when, in fact, it’s in the transformation.
“Listen to me,” he insisted, catching whatever eyes he could. “The Spirit’s best and greatest work happens in our hearts,” he put a hand on his chest, “and between our hearts,” he put his other hand on Hester’s shoulder. “Inside us, God’s Spirit is changing us into the image of Jesus. Between us, in our community,” he gestured to them all, “his Spirit is working to make us one, to bind us together, to create a family.
“Oh, my brothers and sisters. Don’t get stuck on the Spirit’s gifts and miss the greater things God is doing. If you do, you’ll never grow up. You’ll never become a mature, spiritual person.”
He took a breath and launched his boat into deep water. “What I want you to understand is that spirituality is a matter of character, not charismata. The character of each of us, individually. The character of all of us, collectively.”
He looked around again. “Once upon a time, some of you were prostitutes and adulterers. Some of you were violent and cruel. You were greedy and envious and thieving. You gossiped and slandered. You were drunks and liars.”
Stauria, who’d committed most of the sins Paul listed, looked down. Paul noticed and moved to her, placing his hand gently on her bowed head.
“But then came God’s Spirit!” Paul hurried on. “The Spirit washed you clean and set you right with God. The Spirit is working in you now to make you new and whole and holy.” Paul felt the energy surging through him. His hands moved from Stauria’s head and started their odd dance, moving from hip to pate to random wanderings in the air, tracing a thought as though he were painting rather than preaching.
“You’re changing!” he told them. “What you once were is dying away. What you will be is growing inside. And that is the Spirit of God, doing his greatest work within you.”
He looked pointedly at Stauria. What a change in her life. She smiled when his eyes turned towards her and nodded. She knew she was becoming a different person.
“The Spirit has more for us than gifts. He brings transforming power, so we can live like Jesus. That’s the first way you know you’re becoming spiritual people—by the changes happening within. But the second way is even more important.” He bored his eyes into them, willing them to understand. “Once upon a time, you were scattered, divided, disconnected, alienated. You were cut off from each other, selfish, and alone.
“But then came God’s Spirit! He brings us …” his voice caught and he had to pause for a moment, “He brings us together from different places and different paths. He binds us together in common cause, with a common confession. And then he teaches us how to love each other, how to be one family, one body.”
Paul’s eyes filled with tears, the emotion overwhelming him. “Gifts are the beginning—I want you to have the gifts. Holiness is next and necessary—I want you to live pure lives. But love is the Spirit’s greatest gift. Love is the purest expression of a spiritual life. Love is the ultimate proof that you’re growing deep in God. If you don’t love, you’re not a spiritual person, no matter what wonders you perform, no matter how good you are. Without love, we are nothing.”
He paused for a long time, seeming to struggle with himself. He opened his mouth to continue, but could not find his voice for a moment. He swallowed hard.
“I love you,” Paul told them then. “Every one of you. I love you with all the power of the Spirit within me. You are part of me, and I am part of you. We are bound together and nothing can separate us. Do you understand?”
He sought the eyes of each person there, men and women he’d found in the synagogue and the agora and the baths, in tavernas and back alleys. He looked into the faces of people he’d poured the Gospel into, people who’d let the Gospel trouble and catch and then change them. His heart welled up with the love of them. His heart spilled over with the love of them.
And then his heart broke with what he had to tell them next.
“It is time for me to go. I have to leave Corinth. Other people are calling me. Other places need my message.” He looked at each of them, devouring their faces. “But I’m not leaving you. I will never leave you. I will take you with me. And I hope you will keep me—in your affections and in your hearts. The Spirit has made us one, you and I. And nothing—not time, not distance, not troubles or pain—can separate us.”
They received the news in silence, in a stillness that felt like the tomb. His words were not a surprise. They’d seen it coming. But they did not understand it. Not really. They didn’t know why he had to leave. They couldn’t grasp how he could go away and still be with them.
As he imagined, Crispus and Hester blinked at him with unspoken questions. Stephanas smiled, wanting to understand but failing. Stauria could not meet his eyes. She was afraid. Cratulus and others swallowed hard at the news, and, though they would not say it, the sour tang in their mouths tasted like betrayal.
Only Gaius smiled up at him untroubled. Only Gaius seemed glad to let him go.
“Before I leave, I want you to understand that God’s Spirit is doing the important work here. It’s his power you need, not me. It’s his presence you require, not mine. I have to leave Corinth. I have to leave you. But God’s Spirit won’t leave with me. He will stay, to be present with you. He will come to you in your worship and in your struggles. He will bring his gifts to share with you. But most of all,” he looked down for a brief moment, composing himself, “he will continue the work I came here to do—creating in each of you a Christ-like character … building through all of you a cross-shaped church.”
“I am going away. But the Spirit is not. He remains to teach you how to live, to show you how to love. And, confident of that, I leave you to his good care, knowing that, what he has started in you, he will also finish.”
Silence fell. Paul walked to each person in the room, offering a touch and a smile. Hands reached up to him, clasping his hands, touching his arms.
They were travelers watching their guide point to the horizon and then leave for parts unknown. They were wounded soldiers stitched up by a harried surgeon who could only pause briefly and then move on. They were children watching their father walk away for the sake of other siblings in other places.
They were helpless to keep him from leaving. And no one could make them happy about it.