Chapter 11: The Mission

Two weeks later, Paul still wasn’t ready to attend synagogue.

Prisca wasn’t up to it, for one thing. She was trying to work things out, doing the soul-searching that would make courage possible.

And, for another, Paul’s beard was refusing to cooperate. The more impatient he became, the slower his facial hairs seemed to grow.

“Perhaps a little manure overnight,” Aquila needled him, stroking his own luxurious growth.

“I hear that rabbit dung is best,” Prisca joined in. “Speeds the growth and leaves the beard silky soft. Of course, there is a slight, lingering odor.”

Aquila nodded gravely. “Better a whiff in your whiskers than only fuzz on your face,” he pronounced sagely.

Oh, they enjoyed themselves.

Paul bore the abuse stoically. He did suggest, on occasion, that an apostle deserved to be treated with greater respect. His protests, however, went unheeded.

When Sabbath came again, Aquila and Prisca went to the synagogue without him.

After they left, Paul pulled a shawl from his pack, draped it around his shoulders, and knelt on the floor.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits,” he intoned, speaking the words of the synagogue service from memory, blocking the sounds of the busy city outside with the comforting ritual of the the Benedictions.

He swayed back and forth in gentle rhythm, letting the words wash over him, cleanse him. The liturgy was, for him, a bridge between the God of his fathers and the God of the Damascus Road.

When Aquila and Prisca returned, the three of them sat together at the table and shared the simple meal Prisca had laid out the night before—some olives and bread, a little fruit, cold beans, and some Sabbath wine. They didn’t speak much. Somehow, the eating and the silent companionship formed a fitting close to their Sabbath devotions, as much an act of worship as the prayers.

But the syngagogue had set Prisca thinking once more. She ate without a word. Hers was not a Sabbath quiet, in deference to the day. It was that brooding, intense silence that Aquila had come to know so well. He could see it in the distracted way she picked at her food. He could see it in the vertical lines furrowed between her brows.

He reached for her hand and asked, “Are you all right?”

She pulled her hand away and stared down at her plate. Then she looked up at Paul.

“I was wondering today, as Crispus led the readings, how it will be when you speak about Jesus. What will happen? I was remembering Rome and all the fighting, the hard words, the threats. It was awful.”

Aquila took her hand again, and this time Prisca squeezed a response.

“What I was thinking about … what I was wondering is … does it have to be that way? Will it be like that here?” She searched Paul’s face. “All the stories you told that first night, all the stories you’ve told since—they all have the same ending. You stand up in a synagogue and tell about Jesus. The synagogue explodes. You get thrown out—or worse. And anyone who stands with you …” She didn’t finished the sentence.

“Don’t you have one story with a different ending? Where faith and peace break out instead of a brawl?”

Paul looked at her for a long moment, then slowly shook his head “no.”

“Is that what’s going to happen here, once it begins? Another Rome?”

“We can hope for better,” he smiled weakly.

“But you don’t, do you? Hope?”

“I hope, Prisca.” He tried the smile again. “But I know the odds.”

She stood to fetch a loaf of bread, to put some space in the conversation. The two men stared at each other.

“So how will things go?” she asked, returning to the table. “You have more experience at this than we do.”

Paul looked down at his unfinished plate and then sat back. “The first week, I’ll stand up and tell them about Jesus. Sometimes that’s all I get; they don’t let me speak again. But most of the time, I have a few more Sabbaths—to tell the whole story and to work through the prophets. There will be objections, some polite, others … not.” He glanced again at Aquila. “Eventually, things will get bad enough that they’ll ask me to leave. That’s when it gets really hard.”

“What do you mean?” Aquila asked quietly. None of them were eating now.

“Well, by then, the gospel has done its damage.” He rubbed his eyes. “Faith is a funny thing. When it gets into someone …” He paused and shook his head. “I won’t leave alone. Couples, whole families will come. But there’ll be a wife who walks out while her husband stays. There’ll be sons and daughters who leave parents behind. One friend will choose Jesus, another will hold to Moses. That’s the way it always works. It will happen that way here.” He looked at Prisca. “And it’s always heart-breaking.”

Prisca nodded. “Yes, we’ve seen that. That’s how it happened in Rome.” She shared a look with Aquila. “I don’t mean to be callous, Paul, but it’s not the leaving that bothers me. We haven’t been here long enough to get that close to anyone. It’s the other part that worries me.”

Paul shook his head. “Which part is that?”

“You know, Paul,” her worries made her sarcastic. “The beating and stoning and rioting part. The part about prison and exile.”

“Oh! That part!” He smiled, but she didn’t, so he gave it up. “I don’t think that will happen here. The end, when it comes, will be painful. But it doesn’t usually get violent … or, if it does, they prefer beating up on me rather than their old friends.” He tried another smile. Still no takers.

“Rome was an exception, Prisca. A much larger Hebrew population. A city with a fondness for riots and unrest.” He reached over to touch her arm. “That won’t happen here. I promise.”

She moved away from his touch, not yet ready to be comforted.

“How can you know that?”

“I just do. I’ve prayed about it.”

“And that makes me feel better?”

Paul smiled now in spite of her mood. “It should.”

He looked down at his food and was suddenly hungry. He picked up his spoon and took a large bite of beans. “Anyway,” he said, swallowing, “after the initial pain, the fun starts!”

“How so?” Aquila spooned some beans into his own mouth. Prisca still stared doubtfully at her plate.

“Come on, Prisca,” Paul teased, tearing bread from the loaf. “What happens next?”

She hesitated, reluctant to come out and play. But, then she shrugged and set aside her worries. “Well, I suppose we start a new gathering. Meet on the Lord’s Day. Worship Jesus. Share the Supper. That’s what happened in Rome, anyway.”

Paul drank some wine. “Good. And then?”

Prisca thought. “I guess we start teaching our little group how to be followers of Jesus. All the stories they need to know. The life Jesus calls us to live. The way of the cross.”

“Yes indeed. And then?” Another spoonful of beans.

Prisca shrugged, confused. “We act like a church. We love each other. We raise our children and bury our dead. We offer encouragement and help where we can.” She shrugged her shoulders and looked to Aquila, needing some help of her own.

Paul wiped his mouth on his sleeve and sat back, a smile pulling at the corners of his lips. “Who do we talk to about Jesus?”

Prisca bit at her thumbnail. “Once some time passes, a few of our former friends might be willing to listen again.” She looked over to see if that was Paul’s meaning.

He shook his head “no”.

“Newcomers? People like Aquila and me? Brothers passing through?”

Paul shook his head again.

Aquila put his spoon down. “Go on, Prisca. You know what he’s fishing for.” He turned to Paul. “It’s the Gentiles, isn’t it? You’re talking about the Gentiles.”

Paul’s nodded, watching them closely.

Aquila and Prisca stared at each other for a long moment, before the tailor turned his dark eyes to Paul. “In Rome, there were two kinds of house-churches: the ones who followed Jesus and kept the Law … and the ones who followed Jesus and welcomed Gentiles.”

“That’s happened in other cities,” Paul assured them.

“When the break finally came with the synagogue, some of Gentiles who’d been worshipping in the synagogue—the God-fearers—wanted to go with us. They’d heard the news about Jesus. They wanted to follow him too.”

“It’s been like that everywhere.”

“A few of our countrymen decided to take them in. Others of us were afraid. It was all too new. Everything was uncertain. The Gentiles … they …,” he glanced again at his wife, “well … they complicated things. Some of us just weren’t ready to deal with that.”

“So two kinds of house-churches—one for Jews only and another for both Jews and Gentiles.”

“That’s right.”

“And which kind did the two of you belong to?” He looked from one to the other.

Aquila spread his hands, an appeal. “We’re good Hebrews, Paul. We’ve vowed to follow Jesus while keeping the Law. But the Gentiles …” He looked to his wife for help.

She took up the narrative. “Once we were banned from the synagogue, we had to start meeting in homes. That’s what really decided it for us.” She put her hand on Aquila’s arm. “It’s one thing to let Gentiles into the Synagogue. But to invite them into our homes? To enter their’s?” Prisca shuddered. “We couldn’t bring ourselves to do that.”

Aquila answered Paul’s question. “We went with a house-church of Hebrews.”

“Easier that way, I guess.” Paul was trying to be reasonable.

“We thought so. And when we heard what was happening in the other house-churches, we knew we’d made the right decision.”

“What was happening?”

“Just what we feared. They were meeting in each other’s homes, Jews and Gentiles! They were eating together! Gentiles were even leading in the worship!”

“Really?” Paul bit into an apple to cover his smile.

Prisca nodded. “And then, the God-fearers started talking to their friends! It’s one thing when Gentiles know our Scriptures and appreciate our customs and follow our lead. But we heard there were Gentiles pouring into those churches who had no interest in the washings and a kosher table and the festivals. They wanted to follow Jesus, but they had no interest in Moses! Can you imagine!”

“It is a hard thing,” Paul agreed.

Aquila caught something in his tone. “But you want to talk to the Gentiles about Jesus, don’t you Paul?”

Paul looked directly in his eyes. “It’s what Jesus commissioned me to do, Aquila.”

“The God-fearers?”

“Yes, the God-fearers. And the others. Whoever will listen. Everyone who will listen.”

They sat in awkward silence for a while as Prisca and Aquila took that in.

“Well,” Prisca said finally, chasing a bean around her plate with a spoon. “You can talk to the Gentiles all you want, Paul, but I won’t. I don’t mind dealing with Gentiles in the shop and at the market, but trying to share faith with them … teaching them about Jesus … that would be too much, too intimate. I’d feel unclean.”

“Would you, Prisca? I wonder.”

Husband and wife looked at each other.

“If you came across a lost child, a Gentile girl, would you take her by the hand? Give her something to eat? Try to find her mother? Go knocking on Gentile doors?”

“Of course. That’s simple charity.”

“And would that make you unclean?”

“No.” Her chin came up. “It would make me a compassionate daughter of Israel.” He was touching her stubbornness.

“And if you came across a man beaten on the side of the road, like the Samaritan, would you wash his wounds and take care of him—even if he were a Gentile? Would you bring him into your home, if necessary, until he healed?”

The two of them looked at each other again. “I would hope so,” Aquila finally answered.

“And would that make you unclean?”

“Yes. Technically,” Prisca conceded. “To have a Gentile in our home…. But mercy has priority.”

“I agree. Who created the Gentiles, Prisca?”

The question irritated her. “The Creator, of course.”

“And do you believe that God loves only Jews? Or does he love all his children? Of every nation?”

“Paul, where are you going with this?”

He pointed towards the window and the city beyond. “There are a great many of God’s children out there, lost and far from home. Satan has attacked them, beaten them, and left them for dead. Would it offend God for you to take them by the hand, bind up their wounds, and lead them back to Him?”

They blinked at him, not knowing what to say.

“But there are limits, Paul. Surely.” Aquila stroked his beard. “We have our traditions and customs. Even as followers of Jesus, we can still be good Hebrews. And good Hebrews don’t eat with Gentiles or enter their homes or throw out the Law just to make it easier for Gentiles to follow Jesus.”

Paul couldn’t help chuckling. “Aquila, some time soon, you and Prisca are going to walk out of the synagogue with me. You’ll turn your back on Sabbath traditions and our customs for worship. You’ll remove yourself from the order and discipline of synagogue life. You won’t be able to celebrate the festivals—the synagogue won’t let you. How does that make you a good Hebrew?”

Aquila pushed his plate away, appetite gone. “I may not have the ceremonies, Paul. True enough. And I won’t have the synagogue. But I’ll still have the Scriptures. I’ll still know God’s Law. I can honor the habits of my people. So I’ll keep my robe and my beard and my kosher table, if you don’t mind—Gentile or no Gentile. Jesus hasn’t changed any of that.”

“But he will, Aquila. Believe me, he will.”

Paul stood, took his plate to the slop bucket, and scraped off the remains of his meal with a crust. He took Aquila’s plate and did the same. He looked at Prisca’s plate, untouched, and gestured for her to eat something. He filled their cups with the watered wine and sat down again.

“The day after they close the synagogue to me will be the Lord’s Day. I will worship with you and whomever else God gives us from the synagogue. And then I’ll go into the city. I’ll talk to anybody who will listen. Jew, Gentile, soldier, merchant, prostitute—it doesn’t matter. First, my own people get a chance to hear the good news. And then the rest of Corinth.”

“So there’ll be two kinds of churches in Corinth? Just like in Rome?” Prisca frowned, trying to resign herself to that unpleasant fact.

“Certainly not,” Paul assured her. “I wouldn’t think of it.”

“But then what will you do with all those Gentiles?”

“They’ll worship with us.”

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.