Chapter 33: The Mission

Early the next morning—the Lord’s Day—Paul, Aquila, and Prisca set out from the shop to walk to Crispus’s house. Everyone had agreed, the night before, to meet there for worship.

What a difference a good night’s sleep can make, Paul was thinking, enjoying the morning cool and the sight of tousle-headed children standing in doorways.

He remembered words from his father. Never make an important decision after the sun falls, boy. The world will look different in the morning. Wise words. Words that had served the son well.

The world does look different. I look different. He put a careful hand to his clean-shaven jaw, wondering if he’d left any skin behind after taking off the beard. His cheeks and throat were raw and nicked.

Still, the morning air felt good on his face. And Paul walked with a lighter step—as if the beard had burdened him with far more than the weight of whiskers alone.

Bearded Aquila and robed Prisca had come down the stairs that morning to find Paul in second adolescence—beardless and cheeks ravaged by what appeared at first as some virulent outbreak of acne. They stared uneasily at his face, recognizing at once that shaving signaled a radical change in Paul’s mission to Corinth. He’d warned them this time would come. Warning or not, his cheeks made them nervous. They sent worried glances at each other as they left the shop but made no comment.

Paul walked between Aquila and Prisca, savoring the morning and the immense relief he felt.

Now that the synagogue had made its decision, Paul was free to move on with his real ministry in Corinth.  And he itched to get at the crowds and all those messy, difficult, hurting people God was pursuing in the city. He felt years younger.  The energy and enthusiasm that drained from him during the debates in the synagogue had returned in the night.

“It’s time to think about your own dress and grooming,” he told his companions quietly. “Now that we’re taking the gospel to the Gentiles.”

Aquila’s hand moved protectively to his beard.

“Yes, that’s right,” Paul smiled, his humor returning with his strength. “Your beard. And those robes, Prisca. And the company you keep. And that’s just a start.” He was laughing now. “Wait until you taste pork loin!”

Husband and wife shared a nervous look.

“Everything changes now,” Paul continued. “As long as we were in the synagogue, I was willing to play by their rules. Beard. Robe. Customs. Language. But we’ve done what we could with the Hebrews. They don’t want us or our message. So … it’s their turn!” He pointed to the pedestrians and vendors and soldiers in the street. “They are our audience now. They set the rules.”

Prisca wasn’t listening. She was stuck on pork loin. She tried to imagine eating the food her faith had so long forbidden her. She thought of taking that first bite. It made the bile rise in her throat. She coughed a retching noise and covered her mouth with a hand.

Paul looked over at her and grinned. He remembered his first bite. But it was important she understand. “To reach the Corinthians, we have to be Corinthian,” he told them. “We dress like them. We eat like them. We speak their language. We quote their poets. We open our homes to them and make no scruples about entering theirs.” Paul placed his hand on Prisca’s shoulder as they walked, an attempt at small comfort. “We don’t quibble about our customs. We don’t treat them like they’re infectious. We don’t throw anything in the way of the Gospel.”

He stopped for a moment so he could look them both in the eye. “If God could become one of us—dress like us, talk like us, eat like us—in order to save the world, we can become one of them to save a few people in this city. Don’t you think?”

Aquila did not answer immediately. He started walking again. “You agreed to give us time, Paul. To get ready for the synagogue. To get ready for the Gentiles.” He looked at his wife. “We only left the synagogue yesterday. Give us a little more time to think about what comes next.”

Prisca nodded her fervent agreement.

Paul linked his arms through theirs. “Time. Yes … well … I can do that. Take all the time you want. I probably won’t need your decision until, say, tomorrow. Take as long as that, if you like.” He grinned to himself, though he knew they were not amused.

As they knocked at Crispus’s door, Aquila was thinking, It’s time to worship. But he realized that Paul and the rest would have to do the praising. Aquila didn’t feel much praise at the moment. He wondered if confusion and frustration and questions and fear could ever qualify as the stuff of worship.

He hoped so. It was all he had to offer God this morning.


Their worship was awkward.

Thoughts of the conversation on the road kept intruding for Aquila and Prisca. Neither of them found much comfort in the readings and the stories. Their prayers were distracted. The songs Timothy led were unfamiliar. Even the time at table—and the ritual bread and wine following the meal—reminded them less of their Lord than of the words Paul had spoken about Gentiles and pork.

For Crispus and Hester, everything was strange. They listened as others prayed in the name of Jesus and tried to imitate those prayers themselves. But the words seemed foreign on their lips and, in the end, they reverted to more familiar prayers. The bread as flesh, the wine as blood—not an easy idea to grasp … or choke down. Most of all, sitting in their own atrium among people they barely knew, they could not help missing the worship of the synagogue—the beauty of the building, their many friends, the cadences of the liturgy, the familiar rhythms and rituals.

Every few minutes, their eyes met. Crispus saw mourning in Hester’s eyes. Hester saw doubt in his.

Only the readings brought them any comfort. Only the Scriptures were familiar.

Even Paul, so ready to worship this morning, found it difficult to give himself fully. His attentions kept wandering to the others. He saw the eyes of Crispus and Hester. He saw the struggle in the leather worker and his wife. Even Gaius, a man for whom the new and unfamiliar held a certain excitement, was a distraction to Paul’s devotions. Does he understand what the bread and wine mean? Paul wondered. Will he learn that real worship comes only from a changed life?

But Paul knew that, sometimes, the truest worship springs from such worries. So he lifted his eyes to God and held up his companions, one by one. He prayed conviction and courage for them. He prayed for healing and faith. He begged God to fill each one with his Spirit.

It was the kind of worship he experienced whenever he unpacked the faces he kept in his heart. Not praise, perhaps. Not a sense of rapture. But utter dependence. A recognition that God could give to others what he himself could not.

It was a child’s worship, a reaching for God in weakness and trust.

Paul was at peace when they finished.


He’d intended to make straight for the agora when their worship was done. Pick a fight with some unsuspecting philosopher.

But he knew now he needed to stay with the two couples.

Gaius excused himself to attend to business matters. Timothy and Silas, when Paul told them to take the afternoon off, rushed away to climb AcroCorinth.

That left the five of them to settle in for a much needed talk.

“I met a man called James once,” Paul told them. “In Jerusalem, years ago. He was one of the Twelve. And he told me a story I think you need to hear.”

Prisca caught Aquila’s eye and raised her brows. Always a story.

“In a former life, he’d been a fisherman, operating boats with his father and brother on the Sea of Tiberius, in Galilee. He was making a good living. Owned his own house. Had a wife and daughter.

“One day, Jesus walked by his boat. James recognized him, having heard him teach on other occasions. He was about to call out when Jesus stopped, turned, and came back to the boat. He stood at the water’s edge for the longest time, looking at James and at the nets and fish and oars. He didn’t say a word.

“Then, something strange happened. James told me that, for one moment, Jesus gave him his eyes. Suddenly, he saw himself as Jesus saw him and the vision overwhelmed him. He never felt so valued. He never knew he was so ripe with possibilities. He thought he could see something divine in himself and the glimpse of it was the most humbling, ennobling thing he’d ever experienced.

“That was when Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ James remembers looking down at his nets and thinking, ‘That’s ridiculous. I have a business and family. I have responsibilities.’ But the more he looked at the nets, the more he realized that he was wasting himself on fish and sails. He knew in his heart that there were greater things within him.

“And so, he left everything. His father. The boats. The nets. He just walked away and fell into step with Jesus. His younger brother came as well—John. But James would have followed Jesus with or without his brother.

“Three days later, he woke up in the night in a cold sweat. He was sleeping on the ground, not in his bed. He was surrounded by men he didn’t know instead of his wife and child. He had no coin in his purse and no means of making any. He didn’t have a clue what would happen tomorrow or the day after. He’d walked away from his safe, stable, comfortable life and, for all the dark hours until dawn broke, he was convinced he’d made a horrible mistake.”

The two couples were listening intently. They had felt that cold sweat themselves. They were asking themselves similar questions.

“That morning, James told me, as Jesus and his disciples were walking through the hills of Galilee, Jesus stepped over to walk beside him for a while. ‘What were you thinking in the night?’ he wanted to know. James couldn’t answer him. He was too ashamed, too confused.

“Jesus just smiled. And then he told him a parable. You know the one, Aquila. About the pearl merchant who found a precious pearl.”

“Yes,” Aquila remembered. “He sold everything he had to buy one, single, flawless pearl.”

Paul nodded. “That’s the one. Jesus told him the story and then they walked in silence for the longest time, letting the story sink in. James knew he was that merchant—he’d given up everything. And he knew the Kingdom of God was that pearl. But what did the story have to do with his doubts in the night?

“Jesus just kept walking. Said not a word. Until James began to believe there was nothing more to say. That’s when Jesus spoke again. ‘The darkest hour for any of us, James, is the hour between the sacrifice and the prize. The merchant sold everything. All that he cherished. Everything of value. And do you know what he felt on his way to buy the pearl?’ James remembers Jesus having the strangest smile. ‘Terror. What if the pearl was not as valuable as he thought? What if the pearl was not what it seemed to be? Was any pearl worth everything?’

“Jesus stopped then and leaned into James, so close he could feel the Master’s breath on his face. ‘James, my friend. You don’t need faith if you won’t make sacrifices. You don’t need faith once the pearl is yours and you can see with your own eyes how precious it is. What takes faith, James, is the sacrifice itself and the long journey to claim the prize. That’s when the doubts come. That’s when you torture yourself with the thought that you’ve made a horrible mistake.’

“He took James by the arm and they started walking again. After a while, Jesus asked him, ‘Do you have that kind of faith, James? The kind that keeps you walking when the terror is on you?’”

Paul sat back and watched his listeners closely.

“Every disciple is called to leave something in order to follow Jesus. For James, it was his fishing boat and his family. For me … well … you know my story.

“For you, Aquila and Prisca, in Rome,” he turned to Crispus and Hester, “and for you here yesterday, it was the synagogue you were called to leave. Your stable, safe, comfortable lives with people you loved and a heritage that meant everything to you. You sold it all to buy the pearl.

“And now you find yourself between the sacrifice and the prize. You’ve given up so much, but you don’t yet have your hands on the pearl. So now the questions have started. The doubts are eating away at you. Everything is uncertain and uncomfortable. Nothing’s familiar and safe. And you’re thinking that, perhaps, you’ve made a horrible mistake.”

He turned to Crispus. “This morning, during worship, you were questioning whether you’ve found the true pearl, the one of greatest price.” Crispus lowered his gaze.

“Hester, you were thinking that perhaps you’ve sacrificed too much, that a few new rituals and songs are hardly worth the cost of a lifetime’s work.” Paul saw a flash of confirmation in her eyes.

“Prisca. Aquila. All morning, you’ve been chewing on what I said about the Gentiles. And you’re asking yourselves whether everything must be sold. Can’t you have the pearl and still keep some of your customs?” They looked at each other rather than Paul.

“Well … would you hear a word from an old pearl merchant who’s been at this a long time?” They smiled at that and Paul knew, at some level, he was reaching them. He spoke softly.

“Crispus. I promise you. The pearl really is that precious. Hester. I promise you. It is worth any sacrifice. Aquila and Prisca, there is so much about your heritage that Jesus will give back to you. But not until you’re willing to give up everything for his sake.”

Paul looked back and forth, from face to face. He knew the story had made its mark. Crispus looked better already. Prisca seemed a little more at peace.

“You’ve all found the courage to make the sacrifice. And now you must find the faith to make the journey. The pearl is yours if you keep walking. Soon enough, you’ll hold it in your hands. And when you do, you’ll understand just how precious it really is.”

They sat in silence for a long while, the sound of bees and rustling leaves the only intrusion on their thoughts.

At last, Hester asked, “What happened to James? Did the parable make a difference for him?”

Paul ducked his head suddenly, overcome by such a sense of wonder that his chest hurt. When he looked up, there were tears in his eyes and his voice shook. “James kept following. All through the lonely times and the hard, final days in Jerusalem. All through the early years of the church. In the end, his following cost him everything. He was killed years ago, by Herod in Jerusalem, for preaching about Jesus.”

The tears spilled over. “One last sacrifice. For the sake of the prize.”

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

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