Chapter 55: The Mission

Early on, Stephanas realized that no one was serving the servant.

Paul worked himself like a galley slave, pouring himself into others, robbing his own sleep and strength to give to people who needed him. When they cried, he listened. When they questioned, he taught. When they were lonely, he became their friend.

But who listened to Paul? Who noticed when he grew tired or discouraged and offered a word of encouragement? Who filled him up even as he was so busy pouring himself out?

Crispus could do that for Paul. But he was so focused on his own people, people who needed him too, there wasn’t much left for Paul. Aquila and Prisca tried to take care of the Apostle, but they had the demands of the shop and making a living.

So Stephanas made it a point to watch out for Paul, to gauge his mood and measure his strength. Mostly he tried to sense when Paul might need a listening ear. Often, when his schedule allowed him to slip away for an afternoon or take a long midday break, he’d make his way towards the agora or the house by the synagogue in search of Paul. When he found him, he’d motion with his head—Let’s get out of here.

Paul always accepted the invitation. It was an indulgence he could not resist.

He’d bring conversations to a quick close. He’d roll up his scrolls and put away his quill. He’d ask a group to postpone their teaching time until the following day. Whatever he was doing, he’d free himself for the pleasure of spending time with Stephanas.

He justified the luxury of the time—their long walks, the relaxed hours in the shade of a taverna’s awning—by telling himself he was investing in a future leader of the Corinthian church.

But the truth of the matter was more personal. Paul was inordinately fond of the man. He loved to be in his company.

The topics they discussed varied. Sometimes, Paul would spend the time sharpening Stephanas’s knowledge of the Scriptures and his grasp of the history of the Jews. Sometimes they would share stories of their childhood or their travels. They debated philosophy and history, poets and playwrights. On occasion, they even spoke of her.

But always, their conversations turned eventually to the church. And it was then, most of all, that Stephanas felt he was serving Paul best.


II

“He’s a mystery to me.” Stephanas shook his head as their feet led them out through the east gate and onto the road leading towards Cenchrea. They had the whole afternoon before them. Stephanas carried some bread and a flask of wine over his shoulder. “Just when you want to throttle him, he brings another purse for the grain supply or another of his friends to the assembly.”

Paul snorted. “The coin is just his way of keeping a hand in the game. And as for his friends,” his step quickened as his irritation rose, “what good are more of his friends when they think just like Gaius does? It’s like finding fleas in your loin cloth—more is not necessarily better.”

Stephanas threw back his head and guffawed.

He knew that, sometimes, Paul just needed to vent, to say unguarded things so the frustration didn’t break something inside. It was, he recognized, part of what made their time together so healing for Paul—the fact that he could speak freely, that he could talk without feeling a pressing need to temper his words for the sake of his listener. These were gifts Stephanas could give Paul—a listening ear and a tongue that would never repeat what the ear heard.

So, this afternoon, Stephanas listened, permitting Paul to talk about Gaius, about their differences, about the increasing tension in their relationship. He listened and learned—as he so often did—while he followed the thread of Paul’s thought.

The two of them lost themselves in the rhythm of the road for the next hour, legs and arms sawing, feet raising small clouds of dust. The winter sun glowed meekly overhead, veiled by a skim of clouds. Still, the afternoon was mild and both men could feel the sheen of sweat on their foreheads when the gulf winds gusted cold across the Isthmus.

When Paul finally finished pouring himself out, when he seemed to find a measure of relief from doing so, Stephanas spotted an olive grove away from the road. He pointed to the trees and then gestured to the bag he carried around his shoulder. “Why don’t we stop and eat?” he asked.


III

He kept thinking about their conversation as he chewed on a crust of bread, knowing it touched on something he needed to discuss with Paul. It was a subject he’d thought about frequently during his months with the church. It was not something he could talk about with anyone else.

“Gaius belongs to a different world,” he said finally, reaching for the wineskin. “It has different rules. You know what the philosophers say: Do good to yourself. Quid pro quo. Look for advantage. The powerful can do as they please. That’s Gaius’s world. He can imagine no other.” Stephanas, a man of privilege himself, grinned sideways at Paul. “I know that world well. I know its assumptions and rules.”

Paul took the wineskin from him. “The message of the Messiah turns all that on its head. Now it’s: ’Do good to others.’ ‘Give without expecting a return.’ ‘The master must become the slave.’ Gaius has to face that difference.”

“True,” Stephanas agreed. “But it’s more than that, I think. This message you preach isn’t just different … it’s subversive, Paul. It doesn’t just change the rules, it threatens a whole way of life. You know it. And so does Gaius.”

Paul looked at his friend for a moment. He did know it. But the two of them had never spoken about this. Not openly. “The way of the cross is different, yes. Unusual, certainly. But subversive? Why do you say that?”

Stephanas stared back at him. “And why do you ask me questions you already know the answers to?”

“Humor me.”

Stephanas tore off another crust of bread and waggled it at Paul. “You’re telling us to change the way we look at ourselves and everyone else. No great and small. No high and low. No better or worse. All are equal because all are equally failed. All are equal because all are equally loved. You don’t think that’s a subversive message?”

“Why should it be?” Paul was suppressing a smile.

“Because of who it attracts! And the notions it gives them!” Stephanas searched for an example. “Take Portensus. He’s a slave. But he’s still a man. He has his pride and his dreams, whatever his circumstances. And given a choice between seeing himself as a piece of property or as a son of God, which do you think he’ll choose? Given a choice between a household where he’s used and ordered about or a community where he’s loved and valued, which one will he give his heart to?”

Stephanas shook his head, thinking of the implications. “He’s a divided man, I tell you. His master has legal title to his body. But his Savior and his people have everything else—his hopes, ambitions, affections, gifts.” He cut another sideways glace towards Paul. “You’re teaching Portensus—and people like him—that they have value and purpose in the eyes of God. You don’t think that’s subversive?”

Paul just listened. He wanted to see how far Stephanas had worked it out.

“Jesus tells these people they’re not just slaves or soldiers or day laborers; they’re people with a mission to change the world. And that’s subversive. Jesus tells them they’re not nobodies; God cares about them … cares about them personally. That’s subversive, I tell you. Jesus says that all men are equal in God’s eyes, that the old distinctions don’t hold. And that’s subversive, Paul.”

“Well! When you put it like that!”

“And it’s not just what you’re saying. It’s what you’re building. This ekklesia. This community. It’s also subversive. No distinctions. Race, gender, status, wealth, education, occupation, blood, free or slave—none of it matters in God’s family.” Stephanas shook his head and leaned back on the brown grass.

“Where else in Corinth does a man like Cratulus rub elbows with a man like Gaius? Where else do tanners mix with Hebrews and merchants befriend beggars? There’s nothing like it in this city, Paul. And if the authorities knew what was happening here, they’d shut us down in a heart-beat.”

“Why would they do that?” Paul asked in mock alarm.

“Because this community threatens the very foundation of our city. Look at me!” He put a hand to his own chest. “I’m a member of this new community. But so is Achaicus—my steward … my slave. How does that work? Do I treat him like my property during the week and like my honored brother on the Lord’s Day? Does my slave have the right to rebuke me of sin now? Should I defer to Achaicus and serve him and honor him?”

“I think you do that with Achaicus already.”

“But that’s not the point, Paul, and you know it.” Stephanas spit an olive seed onto the ground. “I’m telling you, the rules have been turned upside down. And these new rules change how you think about everyone.”

Paul closed his eyes and whispered, I sincerely hope so.

“And it’s not just masters and slaves we’re talking about. It’s husbands and wives. Fathers and sons. Employers and their workmen. Wealthy and poor. Jews and Gentiles … the list goes on.” He stopped and squinted up at the pale sun. “’Love each other,’ you tell us. ‘Honor one another.’ ‘Put others first.’ ‘Defer to those who are weak and lowly.’ It gives me a headache just to think about how many Corinthian rules you’re asking us to break. I’m telling you, Paul, for people to take this gospel seriously, everything has to change. And if enough people take it seriously, everything will change.”

He picked up the last piece of bread and chewed on it to give himself a little time to think. “This isn’t a nice little worship society you’re forming here, Paul. It’s a revolution,” he said finally.

“And you have a problem with that?” Paul wanted to know.

Stephanas chuckled. “Not at all. I just wanted to hear you admit it.” He stared at Paul for a long time. “I didn’t know you were trying to overthrow the Empire when I met you in that taverna. If I had, I might not have stayed the afternoon.”

They packed up the remains of their lunch and started the long walk back to the city. They marched quietly side by side, comfortable with the silence, each of them thinking about this new community.

Paul spoke up finally. “You’re right, Stephanas. It is subversive. The message. The assembly. The life. All of it. It will undermine the rules of this city and all they protect. Eventually, it will undermine the Empire and all its notions about power. Not for centuries, perhaps. And not without a fight. But eventually.” He kicked at a rock in the road. “What we’re doing, Stephanas, is nothing less than changing the world. One life at a time. You. Achaicus. Portensus. Stauria. Hester. All of us.”

“That’s what Gaius if fighting,” Stephanas said. “He likes the old rules. He doesn’t want a new world. The old world has given him everything he loves—power and privilege, place and prestige.”

“Then why does he stay with us, if he likes his world so much?”

“Humph! A very good question.”

They walked further in silence, all the while a grin growing on Paul’s face. Finally, he couldn’t stand it. “Power, privilege, place and prestige. Have you noticed, Stephanas—ever since our first talk about your ex-wife—you haven’t been stuttering over your pees?”

Stephanas looked over at him, puzzled. “What are you talking about? I’ve never stuttered.”

Paul ducked his head quickly, embarrassed to have mentioned the verbal tic that grew so directly out of his companion’s pain.

Stephanas turned his head slightly and permitted himself a small smile.

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]


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