Chapter 46: The Mission

I thought I would teach you many things,” Paul said softly, looking around at the faces focused so intently on him. “But the Lord told me there is only one thing you need to learn.”

Paul sat on a cushion, his back propped against an expensive mural. The others sat around him, squirming on the hard floor or perched on benches.

It was very late now. Demeas’s boys were asleep, heads in their mother’s lap, and Paul could see weariness in the others. He felt the weariness himself—because of the hour … because meeting with God required so much of them all. But no one wanted to leave. They would fight off sleep a little longer to enjoy more of this extraordinary night.

“The cross of Jesus is a scandal to my Hebrew brothers.” Paul smiled sadly at Crispus. “No doubt, it seems senseless, foolish, to many of the people in Corinth. There are some who would rather have Jesus without the cross.” He shook his head and looked at each of them in turn.

“But it’s the cross you must learn above all else,” he told them with a certainty that moved him deeply, remembering the voice in the night. “God did not save the world with a miracle. He did it with a cross. God won’t change the world through wonders and signs. He’ll do it with the cross. God won’t win your love with bribes and blessings. You’ll love him because of the cross.”

He paused and smiled down at his folded hands, thinking how odd this must sound to Tullius and Hester’s friend, Abi, and the others. So unexpected. Like water from a rock. Like a king from a shepherd boy. Like a coin from the mouth of a fish.

Abi listened as best she could, between the waves of fear that washed over her and dragged her beneath the calm surface of Paul’s words. She floated up long enough to hear him say ‘scandal’ and felt the fear reach from the depths and pull her down once more.

She’d come tonight with her heart in her throat, able to slip away for the evening because her husband was traveling on business. If Obed ever discovers where I am, she realized, there will be a scandal, that’s for sure. She sat now, catching snatches of Paul’s message, wondering why she’d ever taken such a risk. It’s because he is so persuasive, she told herself. That was part of it, she knew. There was enough to what he said—in the synagogue and here tonight—to make her ask questions she could never share with her husband, with her other companions.

But then her eyes turned to Hester. Her friend was completely focused on Paul, drinking in every phrase, every idea. She’d sacrificed so much for the privilege—her place, her people. And there was something about that sacrifice that spoke to Abi more powerfully than anything Paul could say. Why would she leave us? Abi wondered. There must be something to his message if Hester is willing to walk away from everything she loves.

Hester was Abi’s friend. And the thought of losing her, the thought of letting go the friendship she cared about most, was too much for Abi. Yet Hester believed. For Abi, that counted a great deal. That made Paul’s message worth hearing again. It made the risk worth taking.

“Everything about this new faith goes back to the cross. It is the altar of sacrifice, where your sins were forgiven. It’s the price God paid for our ransom. It’s the symbol of his love, the measure of how far he will go to win us back. It’s the hammer God uses to break down every wall that divides us from him and from each other. It’s his proof that the world’s ways are not his ways, that something as weak and shameful as a cross can become powerful and glorious in his hands. It’s the rock on which our pride is broken. It’s the model of how our lives should be lived. It’s the foundation on which we must build this new community.”

Paul paused again, knowing that many of them did not understand, that none of them understood fully. That was all right. It was enough that they heard. It was enough that he could plant a seed.

Gaius was listening—with part of himself. But mostly, he was thinking about the time of worship earlier, the experience of being caught up in something he’d never felt before. He could still hear his heart pounding in his ears. What just happened to me? I spoke, and I did not mean to speak. I used words that no one else could understand. But I understood them. He looked at Aquila. Prophecy! He looked at Stauria’s radiant face. Healing!

He knew he’d stepped through a doorway into a place he’d never gone before. He knew that, whatever this place was, there was something divine to it, something powerful. He wanted more of it. That he also knew.

Then he looked at Tullius. His friend’s eyes were fixed on Paul … his friend who had so little time for religion … who’d shown so little interest in the gods. Yet, Gaius realized, Tullius was fascinated, caught. It can’t be what Paul is saying, Gaius mused. Crosses and weakness and humility? Who wants to hear that? But his friend’s interest was unmistakable. He’s as excited as I am. He knows there’s something going on here.

Which set Gaius to thinking. A chance to touch the divine. A chance to experience real power. An ancient wisdom. A message of resurrection. Tullius likes it. I bet others will too. People like us. Men of influence. Men who are shaping the future of our city.

And if I can introduce them to it … if I can be seen as the patron of this group …

He looked around at the strange collection of people at Paul’s feet—the agora riffraff, the assortment of slaves and soldiers. That will a problem, he realized. He listened more carefully to Paul’s words about the cross. They won’t care much for that either, he decided after a while.

But those are minor things, he told himself as, from a long distance away, he heard Paul say something about ‘new community.’ Yes, a new community, he thought, a plan beginning to form.

Paul looked suddenly at Cratulus. “What year is it, Cratulus?”

“It’s the eight hundred and fourth year, of course.”

“Since what?”

“Since the founding of Rome.” Cratulus looked confused. Paul knows this. Why is he asking the obvious?

“And who counts the years that way?” Paul smiled, drawing him out.

“Why, everybody does. Throughout the Empire.”

“Not everybody.” Paul smiled again and then turned to Crispus. “What year is it, Crispus?”

The ex-synagogue leader was as confused as the soldier, knowing his answer differed from Cratulus’s but uncertain where Paul was leading. “It is the year 3810.”

“Since what?”

“Since the creation of the world.” Paul knows that, he thought. Why is he asking?

“And who counts the years that way?”

Crispus looked at him strangely and then shrugged. “The Hebrews.”

“Exactly!” Paul sat back and marshaled his thoughts. “Every culture and people honors some event as the hinge of history. They find something that, for them, changed everything and they count the years from it.” He studied the faces before him. “In the heavenly realms, for the Father and his angels, the cross is that event. All of human history falls into what happened before it and what happens after it. The cross marks the end of one age and the beginning of another.”

He held out his left hand, palm up. “Before the cross, the world was broken, spoiled. Before, the world was a slave to death and shame. Before, sin kept God at a distance … invisible … unapproachable except through priests and sacrifices and prayers.”

He held out his right hand. “But after the cross, everything changed. The cross marks the beginning of a new age, you see.” He saw Crispus nod. “Now, we don’t live as slaves. Sin no longer masters us. God and his Spirit have free reign in the hearts of those who believe. And we,” he smiled broadly, “we have new life, with new hope and new power. You felt some of that power tonight—in confession and prophecy and healing.”

A new life? Pulchea wondered. She could not stop looking at Stauria. Her hands kept drifting up to her own face, comparing the evidence of her fingers with the evidence of her eyes. She’d wanted many things through the years. Coin. Drink. Men to pleasure her. Men to leave her alone. But she’d never wanted anything as badly as this. A fresh start. A fresh face. What would I give in exchange for that?

She tore her eyes away from Stauria to stare with new interest at Paul. Could you do that for me? she wondered. Touch me, like that woman touched Stauria? I would touch you back, old man, if you could give me that.

The more Paul talked of the cross, the more passionate he became. And, as often happened, his hands started a strange dance—moving nervously from his lap to his bald pate to some twitching gesture that had no discernable relation to the rhythm of his words.

Prisca and Aquila had noticed this quirk before. There were times when they found it so distracting, so fraught with humor, it was hard to listen. But not tonight. Tonight, they were lost in his words and hardly noticed the hands.

“But the real power of this new age,” Paul’s voice took on a note of urgency, “is experienced not in our worship but in our living. And, once again, it comes back to the cross. God’s Spirit gives us the power to live cross-shaped lives. Do you understand?”

Probably not. But, again, it didn’t matter. “We are the people of the cross. And we have the power to put away pride, to die to ourselves, to control our desires and appetites. And we have the power to build something like Corinth has never seen.” He turned his shining eyes towards Portensus. “A cross-shaped community. A place where we love each other, serve each other, honor each other. A place where we give up our rights for the good of others, where we forgive and cooperate.” He turned to Gaius. “A place where slave and free, high and low, join together in common faith, with a common goal, for the common good.”

Paul’s hands landed on the top of his head, pressing down, trying to contain the immensity of his vision and the excitement it provoked.

He looked around the group, expecting them to be as excited, as enthused, as he was himself. But he’d gotten carried away, he realized at once. He’d given them more than they could carry. Cratulus sat with the look of a man who’d eaten his fill and needed a nap. Portensus was rubbing his temples. Stauria had an anguished expression on her face—as though she’d heard something she wanted desperately to remember but would not.

Paul settled back against the wall and stilled himself. He needed to calm down if he intended to find sleep tonight. “It’s all right,” he told the group. “I’ll speak of this again. Often.”

He leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes. He was suddenly very tired. Maybe he wouldn’t find sleep difficult after all.

Prisca sat at the side of the room, watching them all, her eyes moving from face to face. Some seemed to be lost in thought, turned inward, seeing visions that were not necessarily Paul’s. But, for the most part, they stared at the Apostle, transfixed by his message, sharing, however briefly, a view of the world that was and the world that could be.

They’re an unlikely audience for such a vision, she told herself. Tailors and tanners and prostitutes. Soldiers and defrocked synagogue leaders. Slaves and common laborers. A few of them might be considered worthy by the standards of Corinth—Gaius and his friend Tullius … Stephanas. But not many.

Yet here they are, Prisca realized, called by God to do something new in Corinth. Here they are, unlikely or not, invited to become people of the new age. With this motley band, God intends to change this city.

She turned back to look at Paul, and saw that his breathing had deepened. His chest rose and fell rhythmically. His left cheek twitched. Prisca smiled. He’s asleep!

The others sat quietly, reluctant to leave, though it was long past time to go home. They kept waiting for Paul to dismiss them, but his eyes remained closed. They might have sat there until morning had Prisca not stood and, putting a cautioning finger to her lips, shooed them from the hall and into the night.

She thought of helping Paul to the second floor bedroom. She and Aquila could manage that, if Paul would cooperate a little. But she could tell by his breathing he was pretty far gone. So, instead, she walked up the stairs and stripped a blanket from his bed, taking a spare tunic from his table. She returned to the hall and rolled the tunic into a pillow. Easing Paul down to the floor, she put the tunic under his head and spread the blanket over his frail body. She unlaced his boots and removed them, pulling the blanket over his feet.

Aquila watched as she fussed over Paul and then doused the torches that lit the room. All but one. It burned in a far corner, throwing shadows over the prone figure and just enough light for the two of them to find their way. They sat down beside the Apostle for a few more moments, both of them thinking about the evening and enjoying the quietness that ends long days.

Prisca listened to the breathing of the little man who lay beside her. She fussed over his blanket—pulling it, tucking it—until it submitted to her will and lay as she wanted. She patted his arm on occasion and hummed into the quiet—a lullaby. She smiled at his soft snoring. She looked at his covered form, dark and still in the fitful torchlight.

Aquila cleared his throat and nodded his head towards the door.

She pointed to the remaining torch.

She leaned over and kissed Paul on his wrinkled forehead. “Good night, my Apostle,” she said. “Rest well.”

And she whispered a heartfelt prayer in the dark, in the manner of mothers everywhere.

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

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