Chapter 56: The Mission

It was cold in Gaius’s hall.

The expelled breaths of the assembled Christians hung in the air in a frosty mist, glowing in amber and yellow haloes around the torches that lined the walls. The torches lent their own smoky pall to the room, thickening the haze even as their feeble flames attempted to burn through it. They did little to impart light to those gathered and nothing to impart warmth. Even the braziers, set up in each corner, contributed more smoke than heat.

The stone walls and floor of the hall radiated the outside cold directly into the room. Leaning against the walls would chill a man to the bone in a short time. But nobody leaned against the walls. The walls sweated and dripped, condensing the mist hanging in the room into rivulets that ran down to gather on the floor—like cold tears flowing down stone cheeks to gather on a tunic made of marble.

And yet, cold as it was in the room, there was a tangible warmth as well—something that burned in the gathered people, fueled by shared purpose and common hope. It was a warmth that radiated from men and women who were eager for worship. It was a warmth as substantial as body heat, but somehow different … not physical. The Corinthians felt it not in hands and feet so much as in deeper places. Wherever the believers touched—in meeting eyes or shared smiles or clasped hands—the heat flared higher and warmed all those around.

They felt it especially at table.

It had become their custom to preface worship with a meal—a custom prized more than ever as the winter wore on and the famine ate away reserves of energy on already gaunt frames. Feed the body and then feed the soul. First, break bread together, then bow down together in worship.

So a line of tables stretched down the center of the hall this Lord’s Day evening, edged with benches and laden with food—bread and soup, dried figs and fish—brought by those who could spare it for those who would not survive without it. They crowded around the tables now, reaching for olives and slices of lamb, laughing and talking like old friends, like family … glad for the food … glad for the company.

The better-fed among them focused more on the fellowship than the fare. They talked and joked and nodded at others across the room, enjoying being together once more and anticipating the worship to come.

For many, however, the food was what they anticipated first. This weekly supper was their most nourishing meal. They couldn’t look past it to something else; they were too hungry. And so they ate with a special intensity. Oh, they were as glad as the others. They laughed as loudly as any. But their laughter contained something that seemed more like relief than good humor. Only as their stomachs filled could they afford to look up and smile at someone across the table or speak to the brother beside them.

As busy, as noisy as their time at table was, there was something holy about it as well. They felt no press to rush through the eating in order to begin the singing and prayers. Rather, a sense of worship invaded the eating itself, transforming the meal into something more. It became a prayer of gratitude—a substantive reminder of a God who gives daily bread. It became a celebration—the shared bread a symbol of a deeper, more profound communion. The meal became a doorway—marking a threshold between the old of their lives and the new.

Paul looked around the gathering and smiled to himself. This meal was, he thought, the moment he looked forward to most on any given week. So many different people, so many different stories. Yet one table, one loaf. The rich sitting down with the poor, the noble passing dishes to the slave, the Jew sharing wine with the Gentile. This common table always reminded Paul of Isaiah’s vision—the wolf with the lamb, the leopard with the goat. What he witnessed during these weekly meals was as miraculous as Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom. To Paul, it was one more sign that the ‘Day of the Lord’ had arrived.

He stood and waited as eyes turned towards him and conversations slowly died. “The peace of Christ be with you,” he intoned when he had their full attention.

“And with you,” came the response.

Paul reached to the table and lifted a loaf of bread for all to see. “Jesus the Anointed, on the night he was betrayed, enjoyed a meal like this with his disciples. He took a loaf, like this one, and shared it among them. ‘Eat it,’ he told them, ‘and make a covenant with me. I am for you. You must be for me and for each other. Remember this whenever you eat the bread.’” Paul looked around at their upraised faces and then broke the loaf into two halves. “Tonight, we share bread together. As we eat, we remember what Jesus did for us. As we eat, we taste that he is present with us. And as we eat, we become one with him and with each other.”

Paul raised the bread even higher, this time intending the two halves of the loaf not for the eyes of those gathered at table but for the eyes of one looking down on them all. “Father, we eat this bread. And we remember … we celebrate … we unite. Amen.”

The others murmured the ‘Amen’ in response. Paul handed one half of the loaf to his right, tore off a piece of the remaining half, and passed the rest on to his left. The loaves made their way down each side of the table, people tearing off segments of the crusty bread and handing the loaf on to their neighbors. Some passed the bread in silence. Others whispered a blessing as they handed it on—The body of the Lord, given for you … By his stripes we are healed.

When everyone held a piece of bread, they stood up together.  

“The body of the Lord,” Paul said and placed the bread in his mouth.

“The body of the Lord,” the others replied and ate the bread themselves.

There followed a few moments of quiet meditation. Some closed their eyes in prayer. Others quoted memorized Scriptures to themselves. A few hummed a hymn under their breaths. Each of them remembered the sacrifice of their Lord in the way that seemed most natural, most vivid to them.

After a short while, Paul turned to Portensus, seated beside him, and said quietly, “I’m glad to share this bread with you, my friend. Jesus died for us both. Because of it, we are not just friends, we are brothers.”

His whispered comments signaled the rest of the group. All around the table, people turned to those beside them and spoke similar words. One loaf, one body, they reminded each other. A shared bond. A living Lord.

“And I am thankful to share this bread with you, Paul,” Portensus replied in turn. “May God work through this bread to make us one.”

Paul nodded fervently. He put a hand on Portensus’s shoulder and waited for the whispers around the table to still.

When they did, Paul took up his cup. Seeing this, each of them reached down to the table and picked up cups of their own. “Our Lord also took a cup, like this one. ‘Drink,’ he told his disciples, ‘and honor the sacrifice I am about to make for you. I lay down my life for my friends.” Paul raised his cup. “We also are his friends. He died for us. Tonight, we honor Christ’s sacrifice. Not just with our memories, but with our lives. As Jesus loved us, we will love each other.” He paused for a moment and caught the eye of several in the assembly.

“The blood of the Lord,” he announced finally and drank deeply.

Everyone else followed his example. Again, there were a few silent moments of remembering. And then Paul turned once more to Portensus. The rest, taking their cue from him, bent their heads to whisper to those beside them.

“My life for you, Portensus. My blood, my sweat, my thoughts, my deeds—for you. In this way, I honor Christ’s sacrifice.”

“And mine for you, Brother Paul. God use me to serve you. God teach me to think of you before myself.”

It was a holy moment. Paul accepted the words of his friend, thankful for them. He drank in the whispers around him. He looked at the people bent together in twos and threes, pledging themselves to each other and to their Lord. He felt the sights and sounds wash over him, a baptism of sorts that affirmed his work and conveyed God’s blessing.

It was one thing, Paul knew, for him to teach the principles of sacrifice and service, selflessness and solidarity, and even to practice them as an example for the rest. It was another, however, for these people to eat and drink and recognize these principles for themselves … for them to speak these commitments with their own lips. The bread and wine forced them to do that every week. He loved the ritual for that reason alone—the remembrance of the cross … the commitment to take it up daily as Jesus did.

Paul raised his hands above the group a final time. Only, this time, his hands were empty. He raised them to offer a blessing before the ceremony ended and the moment passed.

Soon they would clear away the food and move the tables back against the walls. Soon they would create a space to sit together and begin the confession and singing, the teaching and prayer that marked their times of worship. There was more eating to do first, of course. More laughter and conversation. But at this moment, crowded close to the cross of Christ and their remembrance of it, they were treading on holy ground. Paul could not let the moment go without comment.

But when the whole group fell silent again, Paul was so filled with emotion he could not speak. He stood with raised hands, meeting the eyes of these precious people gathered around the table, and said the only thing that would come to mind. A blessing taught by God to Moses. A blessing spoken over Israel by generations of priests, but appropriate also for these unexpected sons and daughters of Abraham.

May the Lord bless you and protect you.

May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you.

May the Lord show you his favor and give you his peace.[1]

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

[1]   Numbers 6:24-26 (nlt)

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