Chapter 20: The Mission

“The second reading is from the prophet Isaiah.”

Crispus stood before the assembly with an opened scroll.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He rolled up the scroll and handed it to the attendant. “May the Lord bless the reading of this Scripture to the benefit of his people.”

The people responded, “Amen!”

He motioned for Paul to stand at his side before the congregation.

“Today, I’ve asked a newcomer to bring us a word of encouragement. This is Saul, a rabbi from Tarsus. He is a learned man who knows the Torah. And he brings news from Jerusalem.”

A murmur rose from the congregation. News from home was always welcome.

Crispus smiled. “Corinth is a long way from Jerusalem, Brother Saul. Yet even here, we’ve heard rumblings about strange things back home. About a prophet baptizing in the wilderness. About trouble with the Romans. It’s all very confusing. So if you’ve witnessed these events, if you can shed some light for us, we’d be grateful.”

He sat down, leaving Paul to stand alone before the assembly, his small, bent frame engulfed once again in the borrowed robe. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him and, for a brief moment, Paul felt a nervous tremble.

Please God. Give me words. Open their ears and their hearts.

He cleared his throat. “People of Israel. And all you Gentiles who gather here to seek the one true God. Thank you for letting me speak today. I beg you—listen carefully to the message I bring.

“Our God, the Holy and Righteous One, has always taken a special interest in our ancestors, working through them to do his will. He chose our father Abraham, and from his offspring created our nation. He chose the prophet Moses to rescue our people from slavery and deliver the words of the Law. He chose David, a man after his own heart, to lead his people and secure their place in the Land.”

It was the standard opening for a synagogue sermon, recounting the highlights of Israel’s history, each memory made more precious by repetition. It had been months since Paul addressed an audience of his countrymen. But he knew what these upturned faces expected of him and fell easily into the rhetorical habits of his past.

It was the least he could do—give them the familiar before sowing the storm.

“It’s a hard thing to be the chosen people, for our God is a jealous God. Our fathers were always stubborn and sinful. And we are their true children. We’ve disobeyed his Law and run after other gods. Time and time again, we’ve forgotten the One who made us and called us by name.

“But our God has never forgotten us. In his mercy, he pleaded with our forefathers and forgave them and wooed them back to his ways. He sent the prophets to remind us that we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. He has always been faithful to us, in spite of our disobedience.”

A whisper passed through the congregation, people talking more to themselves than to each other. That’s true. God has been patient.

Paul took in their solemn nods, their open faces, and felt a great sorrow. I don’t want to offend you. But he knew he would. He clenched a fist and felt the fingernails biting into his palms, a reminder that when hard meets soft, some pain is inevitable.

The story I must tell you is hard, almost too hard to hear. And it will cut you where you are most tender—in your hopes.

He took a breath and plunged on. “Now, in these last days, God has shown mercy to his people again. More than twenty years ago, a prophet named John began to preach.” Paul nodded to Crispus. “He is the one they called the Baptizer. People came from all over to hear him, though what he told them was not easy to hear. ‘Repent! Change your evil ways! Be born again!’ He washed away their sins in the Jordan River.

“But John was a prophet, not just a preacher. He came with a mission and a special purpose. ‘God sent me,’ he said, ‘to point to someone greater than myself. Get ready! The time is here. The Promised One is coming.’

“One day, a man named Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee, came to hear John preach. He was just a carpenter. He looked like any other man. But, when John saw him, he pointed and cried out, ‘This is the man I’ve been waiting for. This is God’s Anointed.’”

God’s Anointed?

Paul saw heads lifting all around the synagogue, eyes focused on him now with real interest. Some news this little man brings! Not every Sabbath you hear something like this! They elbowed their neighbors. Are you listening?

The Messiah.

The strong, wise, and just ruler. The one who would be ‘mighty in works and strong in the fear of God.’ The Lion of Judah. The champion of God’s holy army. The great King who would destroy the pride of Rome and establish God’s kingdom at last.

Oh, they knew all about God’s Messiah.

For decades, they’d read of the Messiah and prayed for his coming and listened with straining ear for any promising news from home. It was the topic always bubbling beneath the surface of every Jewish gathering: When will the Messiah appear? When will God set up his kingdom and reign over the earth?

Every Hebrew schoolboy knew that life would change radically when the Messiah came. All of Abraham’s scattered children would be gathered home to live with the Anointed One on Mount Zion. A new era of righteousness and plenty would begin. The Law and the People of the Law would be honored as they deserved. And Rome, hated Rome, would get what was coming to it.

All when God’s Messiah came.

The congregation heard Paul’s announcement of the Messiah with excitement. They were ready to believe. They wanted to glow and gloat and glory in good news.

But they’d been disappointed before. There had been other reports from home; rumors that promised much but, in the end, amounted to nothing. They were open to this crooked man’s news. They were hungry for the hope such news would bring. But they needed more than hearsay and rumors.

Paul searched their faces. They seemed to him like people who had been marooned in disappointment for many years. And now, at his news, they sat holding their breaths, scanning the horizon for the promise of rescue. He saw the heads of Aquila and Prisca, bent in earnest prayer. He noticed Crispus watching him carefully, weighing every word.

Oh, Crispus! How will you handle what comes next?

He stretched an aching shoulder, remembering other synagogues, knowing the rest of the story could add fresh aches to old ones.

“The Scripture we just heard is the very text Messiah Jesus took to explain his work. ‘I’ve come to preach good news,’ he said. Good news for the poor, for the weak, for the weary and blind, for slaves and prisoners, for people who have lost hope. For three years, he wandered among us, speaking good news. He healed the sick and cast out demons and raised the dead—all signs that this good news was from God, that it could be trusted. For three years, Jesus preached good news, lived good news.” Paul paused for a heartbeat. “And then he died good news.”

Wandering eyes snapped back to Paul’s face. Every sound stilled.

What did he just say?

“That’s right.” He repeated it as a challenge. “The Messiah died good news. Our leaders in Jerusalem did what our people have always done. They hardened their hearts. They closed their eyes. They thought the Messiah would throw off the Roman yoke and establish a mighty kingdom. They thought he would make them powerful and prosperous.

“But the good news of Jesus wasn’t about any of that. He didn’t talk about the Romans, he talked about God. He said that God is compassionate and forgiving and pure and full of self-giving love. He told his followers that loving God, living like God, were the only riches worth having. He said that acts of kindness and grace were more powerful than armies, that mercy was stronger than the sword. He taught that the kingdom of God wasn’t a matter of borders or fortresses but of changed hearts.”

The words came in a rush now, Paul trying to fill the void of their confusion with every cross-shaped idea he could muster. Messiah as servant. Messiah as sufferer. He felt the old frustration rising.

How do you strip away centuries of assumption in a single sermon? How do you replace someone’s most cherished hope with a truth this hard?

“The good news Jesus preached is that by serving, we conquer; by forgiving, we triumph; by laying down our wants and our rights and our very lives, we make it possible for God to exalt us and give us every good thing. When we’re cursed, we return blessing. When we’re wounded, we respond with kindness. When our enemies hate us, we show them love.”

“How can that be good news?” someone grumbled. “It doesn’t even make sense!”

Paul smiled. “That’s exactly what our leaders said. They didn’t like what he said about humility and repentance. They didn’t want to give up their status and place.  He told them to learn mercy and become children and die to themselves. And they hated him for it.”

“No wonder!” called a voice from the back. “I’ve never even met the man and I don’t like him already.” The crowd laughed nervously. They were off-balance, uncomfortable, and didn’t know why.

Paul pressed on. “So when they’d taken all they could stand, the authorities in Jerusalem arrested Jesus. They handed him over to the Romans. And the Romans crucified him.”

It was the word ‘crucified’ that stunned them.

Not the news of arrest. Not the involvement of the Romans. It was the ugly picture of a cross that slapped them in the face. ‘The slave’s death’—shameful and deeply humiliating, strung up naked before a crowd, proclaimed to all the world as a worthless nobody.

The Messiah on a cross? The Hope of Israel gasping for breath and pushing against the nails?

Paul could have spoken an obscenity and not shocked them more.

With that one word, the mood of the synagogue turned. The room erupted. People jumped to their feet, shouting at Paul, demanding that he sit down or leave the building. “Blasphemy!” someone screamed. “False teacher!” another shouted. A voice quoted Scripture at full volume: “Anyone hung on a tree is accursed!”

Paul watched the eruption from behind squinted eyes, standing quietly, the calm center of a rising storm. Aquila shoved his way to the front to stand with Crispus between Paul and the angry crowd, afraid that a few hotheads might rush forward to do physical harm.

The synagogue ruler was shouting down the group—“Be quiet! Come to order! This is a house of prayer!”—until finally the noise subsided and people began to take their seats again.

“This man is our guest. He is my guest. And we will hear him out. We will hear the whole story.” He looked at individuals in the crowd, locking eyes until they looked away. “If what he says is true, all our shouting and objections will not change the fact. And if what he says is a lie … well … we will judge that best by listening to the entire story. Anger has no place in this.” He continued to stare at the group, daring anyone to contest him.

Another white-bearded man on the front row stood to speak. He nodded to Crispus, seeking permission, then turned to face the audience. “Brother Crispus is right. Let’s listen to what this stranger has to say. However,” and he turned to glare at Paul, “I warn you. Unless I hear something more convincing than you’ve said so far, there will come a time for anger. You’re not talking about some minor point of custom here. You’re talking about the Messiah, the Blessed One of God. And you’ve put him on a Roman cross.” He shook his finger. “Be careful, Sir. You’re handling holy things.” With a glare for Crispus, he sat down.

“Thank you, Sosthenes. Point well taken.” You old fraud! Never let a chance go by to flex your muscle. “Saul. You may continue. But tread carefully. As Sosthenes said, these are serious matters.”

He and Aquila returned to their seats.

“Brothers. I am well aware of the gravity of what I’ve said. And I am very familiar with the emotions it provokes. I haven’t come to make you angry,” he nodded at Sosthenes. “I’ve come to proclaim good news. For the good news is not just what Jesus taught or how he lived. It’s the way he died. And what happened after.”

He took a deep breath and plunged into the heart of the matter. “The cross of Jesus wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t a mistake. It wasn’t something he tried to avoid. Jesus came to die. That was his mission.”

It always amazed Paul that no matter where he told this part of the story—in a quiet shop or on a heaving ship or even standing before a hostile crowd—it never failed to touch him in that deep place where the instinct for truth resides.

“Jesus Messiah had something more important to do than save his own life. He came to save ours. We,” he gestured to take in the room, the city, the whole world, “we were dead in our sins. Jews, Gentiles, slaves, free, rich, poor. All of us guilty and deserving God’s wrath. Our sacrifices in Jerusalem couldn’t save us. The Law couldn’t save us.

“So the Messiah came. To save us with himself, because nothing else would work.” Paul was almost whispering now, the audience straining to catch his words. “The cross was his altar, you see. His body and blood were the perfect sacrifice. Our sins, all our sins, were placed on his head. And he gave up his life to say, ‘This is how much God loves you. This is how far God will go to win you back.’”

He paused, wanting them to think about that. When he spoke again, his voice was stronger. “That’s why the Prophet says:

He was pierced for our transgressions,

He was crushed for our iniquities;

The punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;

And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

“People of Israel. And all you Gentiles who gather today to seek God. Hear this: Jesus died on the cross for us … the righteous for the wicked … the innocent for the guilty. He died as he lived, full of mercy and truth. And God honored that life, God honored that death, by doing something incredible.

“Three days after he was buried, God raised Jesus from the dead, just as the prophets foretold.”

He paused again, expecting another outburst, prepared to deal with fresh waves of disbelief. The mention of resurrection tended to bring out that reaction in certain crowds.

But not in Corinth. These listeners were too overwhelmed to react. It was as though Paul had pushed them over some limit where they could still hear his words but no longer had a place to put them. They were stuck back at ‘Messiah’ and ‘crucified.’ They had nothing left for ‘resurrection.’

So they sat like stones, frozen in the posture of listening, trying to comprehend what Paul was telling them.  They stared at walls and ceilings. They studied the wood grain of the floor, their knuckles and palms. They looked through windows, hoping for illumination, perhaps, and an adequate response to the words that washed over them.

What they did not do was look at Paul. His words were too much for them. They needed something to stare at that would keep this strange little man at a safe distance. They needed the protection such distance afforded.

Some were still angry. Paul could see it in the muscles of their jaws, the opening and closing of fists. Yet they said nothing into the silence, waiting for a later time when anger might do some good.

Others were plainly curious, heads tilted to the side, brows knit together in concentration. Something in the story had caught them. Paul read no anger in those eyes. Just questions. About pieces that didn’t seem to fit.

Most, though, were simply confused. Their stillness and silence were symptoms of an internal paralysis, as if the story had struck them so hard a blow they found themselves unable to protest or question or even breathe.

The service ended that way, not in a riot but a daze. The congregants shuffled out, herding children before them, seeking the refuge of their own homes. A few paused long enough to speak politely to Paul. More huddled together just outside the synagogue, staring into the shadowed doorway and muttering under their breaths.

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[Beginning of the novel]

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