Chapter 53: The Mission

“Why are you so upset?” Gaius raised his hands, trying to deflect Paul’s anger with a show of bewilderment.

Paul glanced at Crispus whose eyes warned him to stay calm, to treat this matter with care. He looked back at Gaius. “I’m upset because this is the very thing I warned you about before. Followers of Christ don’t boast about their benevolence. We don’t give money with one hand and find ways to enhance our reputation with the other. And we certainly don’t use generosity as a lever for more power and influence. Not in the community of faith, Gaius. Not under the sign of the cross!”

Gaius bristled. “I’ve done nothing wrong!”

“According to the reports I’m hearing, you’re using this famine to position yourself as the church’s patron.”

Gaius shot him a cold look. “If somebody’s been spreading slanders about me, bring them forward. Let them accuse me to my face. But don’t condemn me on the basis of rumor and hearsay.”

Paul closed his eyes and tried hard to get on top of his anger. He felt tired suddenly, weary beyond schedules and stresses and worries. When he spoke again, it was in quiet tones, hoping the proverb would prove true in this instance—that a soft word would turn away wrath, his own in particular. “Have you been boasting about your role in the distribution of the grain?”

“Where am I rumored to have done that?” Gaius asked.

“At the barber. With the friends you meet most mornings.”

“Oh, that!” Gaius smiled and waved his hand dismissively. “Yes, I told them the good we’re doing as a community of believers. These men know how to be discrete, Paul. But I wasn’t boasting. Except about the church, of course. I thought they might find our efforts commendable. I thought it might interest them in what we believe.” He leveled a smile at Paul. “You might even call it an evangelistic effort—my own version of what you do in the agora. Besides, Paul, they’re all men of means. I was hoping that, even if they had no interest in the gospel, they might contribute to the fund.”

“I heard you were taking credit for the distribution—for the contacts and the contributions.” Paul watched him carefully.

“Well, apparently, you’ve been misinformed. In fact,” and Gaius shifted his attention to Crispus, “several of my friends were quite impressed with our efforts. They see it as a significant contribution to the order and stability of our city in these trying times. Some have already agreed to contribute to the cause. Isn’t that wonderful?”

“So we are even more in your debt?” Paul could not let it go.

Gaius looked at him for a moment and then spread his hands innocently. “You can choose to look at it that way, if you want, Paul. But those are your words, not mine.”

Paul glanced at Crispus again.

“And what about your conversations with the brothers? What about your hinting that their full stomachs are mostly the result of your own generosity?”

“Oh, Paul,” Gaius smiled sadly. “We do have a problem, don’t we—you and I? That last, unfortunate conversation, here in my home, has poisoned the water between us. I regret that. I really do. I wish I could take back some of the things I said that night. I wish I could convince you not to think so ill of me.” He looked as though the rift between them was a source of great personal pain.

Paul simply stared at him, waiting for him to answer the question.

Gaius sighed. “I thought a kind word, a word of my support and willingness to help, would be an encouragement to our brothers. Poverty places people in such a vulnerable position. I was simply trying to assure them that, as long as I had resources, they would be cared for.” And again, he opened his hands as if to demonstrate the purity of his motives. “If they respond with gratitude, if they feel a sense of obligation to me personally … well … I can’t control that, Paul. But I certainly did not ask that as a condition for my help.”

“Not in so many words.”

Gaius shook his head in exasperation and spoke in a wounded tone. “What can I do to show you I have the best interests of our church at heart?”

“That’s what worries me, Gaius,” Paul said, rising to leave. “I think you are working for the interests of the church here in Corinth—as you see them. But we have two different churches in mind, Gaius.

“I want to build a church that questions this culture and the way it works. But you want a church that conforms to this culture, that uses Corinthian values to shape our community. You want a merger of Christ and Corinth. And I want a victory of Christ over Corinth. There can be no compromise between our two visions. Only one of them can prevail.”

Gaius turned to Crispus. “Can’t you see? He’s making this a contest between the two of us. ‘You want this. I want that.’ ‘Two visions.’ ‘No compromise.’” He stopped, frustrated, and looked back to Paul, determined to try one more time. “I just don’t see it that way. I want what you want, Paul. I want new life and resurrection power and the spiritual gifts. I want to see a stronger church, a more stable church, a church with people who can protect it in difficult times, a church with resources to buy grain and do other good works. But we won’t build that kind of church with rabble. We need people of influence and wealth. We need people the Corinthians will respect and listen to. I wish you could see that.”

Paul listened until he was done and then motioned to Crispus. They left together—Paul without another word and Crispus with a hurried “Goodbye.”

Gaius watched them leave. He reviewed the conversation carefully. All in all, he thought it went quite well.


II

“Do you think that was wise?” Crispus called, struggling to catch up with the Apostle.

“What? Gaius?” Paul hurried on.

“Yes, Gaius.” Crispus matched strides beside him. “The church meets in one of his houses. He’s been the key to securing our grain supplies … and very generous on top of that. Maybe he’s right, Paul. Maybe you’re letting that other conversation color your view of his motives.”

Paul stopped in the street and turned to look at Crispus. “Do you believe that?” he asked, but not defensively, not in anger. He valued Crispus and trusted him. He needed his confirmation … or criticism.

Crispus looked at him for a long moment and then smiled. “Not a bit.” He began walking again, but setting an easier pace, something that would let him talk and breathe at the same time. “I see the same things in Gaius that worry you. You’re right. He has too much Corinth in him. And too little cross. That makes him a dangerous man, don’t you think?”

“Yes I do,” Paul muttered. “But it doesn’t disqualify him from the faith … at least not yet. There are many of us who have too much of something and too little of Christ, I’m afraid. Too much Moses. Too much Rome. Too much greed. Too much pride. Too much self.” He sighed at the thought of it. “It’s the nature of discipleship. We can’t kick people out of the church when they don’t rise from baptism fully formed. That’s part of our mission … to help people grow into the fullness of Christ … to give them the time and grace they need to kill the old man and let the new one grow.”

“But, in the meantime, they can be dangerous.”

“Yes they can.” He stopped in the road again and pondered for a moment. “Gaius is really no different from our Jewish brothers in Jerusalem who want a little law and a little Jesus. Or even a few philosophers in Athens, who wouldn’t mind some Jesus to go with their Plato. They’re trying to mix the old and the new. They’re drawn to Christ, but they see him through old eyes, old assumptions and habits.” He started walking again. “They haven’t realized that Christ makes all things new … that Christ demands the death of the old.”

They matched strides in silence for a few moments, their breaths billowing behind them in the cold, steam rising from their shoulders.

Paul squinted at Crispus and gestured to the city around them. “Corinthians know only three kinds of people: patrons, clients, and nobodies … the powerful, the dependent, and the worthless.”

Crispus shrugged. “That’s the way it is everywhere. That’s the way it’s always been.”

Paul grunted. “So everyone keeps telling me. But that’s old thinking, Crispus, and it has to die.” He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. “Gaius wants Corinth built like a Gyptos pyramid—a few powerful people at the top, a larger number of middle-men beneath them, and a huge mass of expendable, exploitable people at the bottom. All honor and wealth, privilege and influence flows up. All labor and sacrifice, hardship and obligation flows down.

“But more to the point, Gaius wants the church built like that. Stauria and Aquila and Portensus and Demeas are at the bottom—expendable. You and Archippus and Stephanas are the clients, the middle tier. And guess who sits at the top, receiving all the honor and privilege and power?”

Crispus lifted his eyebrows and nodded his head in the same direction as Paul’s thumb.

“Yes,” Paul agreed. “Gaius wants to be the patron of this church. He doesn’t mind being generous. He doesn’t mind investing time in others or helping them when he can. But there’s always a price. He expects a debt of gratitude. He expects people to remember and feel an obligation. And when the time comes for calling in favors, he’ll expect everyone to line up and pay up.”

He paused. “I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised. He’s just acting like a good Corinthian.”

Crispus frowned. “But somebody has to sit at the top, Paul. Let’s just make sure it’s not Gaius!”

Paul grinned and shook his head. “Now you’re thinking like a Corinthian. No, Crispus. It’s not a question of who sits at the top. It’s the pyramid that’s flawed. Turn it over. Turn it upside down. That’s how the church should work! The ‘haves’ with all their advantages supporting the ‘have-nots’ with all their needs. The leaders showing honor to the nobodies. The strong deferring to the weak. The few working for the benefit of the many.”

“I see,” Crispus murmured, though he struggled to get the picture straight in his head.

“That’s what Gaius doesn’t understand,” Paul said, frowning himself. “Christ changes our view of power. Legitimate power can only be exercised from a cross. Real leadership is pouring yourself out for others. That’s the only kind of leadership the church can afford.”

He looked hard at his companion. “It’s a lesson I’m counting on you to learn and put into practice, my friend. I need you to be a leader in this church. And I need you to be that kind of leader.”

“Me?” Crispus looked back in amusement. “I just an old Jew with a little coin in his pocket. It’s Hester you need to talk to!”

They laughed and then walked on in silence.

“Will Gaius ever change?” Crispus asked finally.

Paul blew through his lips, a sound of exasperation and impotence. “I don’t think so. Not without a great deal of time and a great deal of pain. But until he becomes an immediate threat to the church, we can’t give up on him.”

He smiled sideways at Crispus. “I keep telling myself that the Spirit has cracked harder hearts than his. Mine included. Only there’s a problem.”

“What’s that?” Crispus asked.

“I don’t always believe my own preaching.”

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]


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