Chapter 27: The Mission

That same week, Paul received another invitation to Stephanas’s house. He was not surprised. He’d left Stephanas with a great deal to think about after their last dinner.

Some men come to faith easily, Paul thought again. Though not too easily. He suspected his new friend had suffered some sleepless nights. A man like Stephanas would not change his life lightly.

He visited the baths again. He had his tunic laundered. He could barely contain his excitement. Stephanas would be the first. Paul could feel it. Oh, God, let him be the first of many.

At sunset, he knocked on Stephanas’s door. This time, the boy opened to him. “Good evening, Fortunatus. You’re just the man I’m looking for.”

Fortunatus was not comforted by that news. “The master’s waiting for you in his study.” He stepped aside to usher Paul in.

But Paul stayed rooted on the threshold. “In due time, Fortunatus. At the moment, it’s you I’d like a word with. Come walk with me in the orchard.” He didn’t give the young man time to refuse, turning on his heel and making for the trees.

The boy watched him for a moment and then followed. He fell into step with the strange little man, though he walked with his arms crossed and a readiness to be difficult. “What do you want?” It was a challenge.

“Some words,” Paul shrugged, slowing his pace. “A bit of your time and some words. That won’t cost you much, will it?”

“Depends on the words, I guess,” the boy answered grudgingly. “Did the master send you to straighten me out? It won’t work, you know.”

“No,” Paul shook his head. “Your master did not send me. But if he had, what would need straightening? And why wouldn’t it work?”

“Achaicus, then,” the boy grimaced. “It must have been Achaicus. He doesn’t like me, you know. Well, the feeling’s mutual, I can tell you.”

Paul stopped and turned to face the youth. “I’m sorry about your father,” he said. “I’ve lost a father myself. I know how much it hurts.”

Fortunatus stiffened. “You know nothing about my father.” He said this quietly, but Paul could hear the anger behind it. “Don’t talk to me about my father.”

Paul replied, just as quietly, “I’m sorry, but I must.”

The boy turned to walk back to the house. Paul caught him by the arm and turned him around with surprising strength, though his voice was calm when he spoke. “You think you honor your father’s memory by hanging on to your grief and taking it out on Stephanas and the rest of this household. You think your anger about his death is a measure of your love for him. It’s not, you know.” He could see by the boy’s eyes that he’d struck a sensitive place.

“Tell me, if your father were here, watching you, would he feel honored by your behavior? Would he be pleased by how you are mourning him?”

“You know nothing of my father,” the boy said again. “I am his son. And I will mourn him as I see fit.”

“I do know something of your father, though I never met him. I know how he felt about Stephanas. And I know how Stephanas felt about him.”

The boy looked away.

“Your father loved your master, isn’t that true?”

He refused to move or speak.

“He was the son your father never had. Until you came along, that is. Isn’t that right?”

The boy’s face was closed, his eyes as blank as a wall.

“So how do you honor your father by dishonoring the man he loved? How do you respect his memory by showing disrespect to his first son?”

The wall cracked a bit, and Paul could see uncertainty float across the young man’s eyes. They stood among the trees in silence for a long stretch, staring at each other. Until, again, the boy looked away.

“You like books, I’m told,” Paul started over.

A flicker of interest. And then the wall again. “I like them well enough. When I can sneak them from the library.” The boy shrugged. “Though whether it’s the books or the sneaking I like most, I can’t say.”

Well, there’s an opening, Paul thought. “Do you know your Homer?”

The boy nodded and quoted the opening lines of the Iliad.

Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
Murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
Hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls.[i]

“Excellent,” Paul smiled. “Then you know the story. How, for the sake of his wounded pride and bitter anger, Achilles sat and watched his friends butchered by Hector and the Trojans. He watched while they suffered and died. Because of his rage. Because he loved his anger more than his friends.”

The boy shook his head faintly. He knew the story well.

“And you recall how the story ends? Achilles himself dead. His anger and pride killing his own future.”

The boy nodded again, more firmly.

“Fortunatus,” Paul took a step forward and placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Don’t you become the Achilles of this household. Don’t hang onto your anger at the cost of your father’s friends—your friends … at the loss of your own future. That isn’t what your father would want.”

The boy stared at him.

Paul smiled, then nodded and turned back towards the house. The boy followed, a little more subdued.

“Ask your master if you can use his library,” Paul suggested as they went.

“He won’t let me,” the boy said, though there was a note of regret in his voice. “We’re not exactly on good terms at the moment.”

“Oh, I think he will.” Paul smiled again. “At least you’ll discover whether it’s the books or the sneaking you enjoy most.”

The boy almost smiled in spite of himself.


Stephanas welcomed Paul into his study. This time, one of the leather chairs had been cleared of books and Stephanas motioned for Paul to take a seat. The desk had been cleared as well. On Paul’s first visit, scrolls and tablets sprawled across its surface. Today, there were only four scrolls, three neatly rolled and tied with ribbons, a fourth opened across the breadth of the desk.

Stephanas motioned to the scrolls. “I’ve spent the last few days reading through your Scriptures—or, at least, the Greek translation of them. Fortunately, one of the rare-book sellers had a full set.” He grimaced. “Unfortunately, he demanded a small fortune for it.”

Paul caught his breath and leaned forward to touch the scrolls. The Torah and the Writings? He moved a reverent hand from one scroll to the next. The presence of them was overwhelming. He’d spent a great deal of time with such scrolls in Jerusalem as a student and, later, in synagogues that permitted him some access to the precious books. He carried scraps of Torah and the Psalms, tattered pages heaped with his cramped hand, on his travels. Though they were few and badly worn, they were his most treasured possessions.

But to have the entire Scripture at your fingertips. To pick up Moses or Solomon or Joel at a whim and read at leisure … Paul’s eyes filled with tears. It was an unimaginable luxury, an inconceivable blessing.

Stephanas looked up, surprised by Paul’s reaction, until it dawned on him how much those scrolls would mean to someone like Paul. He felt ashamed. There were times when his wealth blinded him to the true value of things, things he could easily afford and others could only dream of. He rolled up the fourth scroll and placed it with the others. “Take them, P-P-Paul. They’re yours. I want you to have them.”

Paul could not bring himself to speak. He could only shake his head. Apostles must travel light, he wanted to explain.

Stephanas studied him and then stared back at the scrolls. “You’re welcome any time you wish. Come and read. As much as you like. My study is always open to you.”

Paul nodded a wordless thanks. He pulled back his hand from the scrolls and kissed his fingers.

Stephanas started again. “As I said, I’ve been reading all week. You Hebrews are a strange p-p-people. And your God is even stranger.” He shook his head. “Frankly, I wouldn’t have p-p-put up with Israel. Jacob? Sampson? Your name-sake, Saul? Such incredible flaws. Such magnificent failures. But this God of yours is so … ” He frowned, groping for the right word. “He is so p-p-patient.

“You told me a story about a king and his rebellious sons. But that wasn’t the half of it. It’s all there,” he pointed towards the scrolls, “in p-p-painful detail. Disrespect. Disobedience. Stubbornness and p-p-pride.” He shook his head. “The wonder is there weren’t a thousand floods. The wonder is that God didn’t destroy Israel a hundred times over. I can’t believe his p-p-patience. I can’t believe how much he loved them.”

He leaned forward and moved his fingers distractedly across the scrolls. “I’ve always thought the world could use a p-p-patient God. I just never imagined gods came in that flavor.”

Paul, recovering himself somewhat, realized something was happening in the man across the desk. He’d been reading himself into faith. The God of stiff-necked Israel, their patient God, had caught up with Stephanas.

“And the grace!” he continued, shaking his head again in wonder. “You told me about his Son and the cross. But all the little mercies! All the second chances and new beginnings. A p-p-prophet when they’d lost their way. Food from ravens and water from a rock. I had no idea.” He looked at Paul with brimming eyes. “I had no idea there could be such a God.”

“And now?” Paul managed to croak.

Stephanas straightened himself in his chair. “Now,” he gestured again at the scrolls, “I think this is the most hopeful thing I’ve ever read.”

Paul stared at his host for a long time, marveling at a God whose fingers moved in so many hearts. Here in Corinth, long before Paul arrived, God was at work preparing the way for faith. A tent-maker and his wife. A synagogue ruler. And a wealthy Greek merchant, with a soft voice and a perceptive ear and a grasp of the gospel that moved Paul deeply. All of them readied for this moment, for his coming.

“What does God want of me, P-P-Paul? What must I do?”

Paul could hardly breathe in that holy moment. He managed to find his voice at last. “Stephanas. Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God … that he died to save you from your sins … that God raised him back to life … that he is the full measure of God’s love for you?”

Stephanas bowed his head and said, “I do believe. With all my heart.”

“Then there is one thing you must do.”

He looked up, a pained expression on his face. “Do I have to be circumcised?”

“No.” Paul shook his head, smiling. “Worse. You’ll have to die.”


An hour later, dinner forgotten, Stephanas called his entire household into the atrium. Cooks, stewards, janitors, and gardeners leaned against the wall or sat on benches. Achaicus, his old and trusted servant, stood at his master’s side. The boy huddled in the farthest corner, apart.

“Most of you have been with me for many years now,” he began. “You’ve given me your service and your affection. It has been my honor to receive both.” He met the eyes of each of them. “Tonight, I find myself at a threshold. You are the only family I have. You have crossed other thresholds with me, not all of them happy.” He glanced at Fortunatus. “I’d like you to cross with me over this.”

He took a deep breath, as if opening himself were painful. “As you know, I have never been a very religious man. My relationship with the gods has been too troubled to p-p-permit worship. I’ve believed in their existence but not in their goodness. I’ve made the sacrifices but never hoped.” He paused to clear his throat.

“In this household you have always been free to worship whatever gods you chose. I’ve p-p-permitted you to keep family idols in your rooms and wear sacred charms on your p-p-person. That freedom will continue. But you should know,” he looked around again, “I have finally chosen a god of my own.”

He paused again, then gestured to Paul.

“You’ve met P-P-Paul. In a moment, I’d like him to tell you the story he told me. I ask only that you listen, that you understand the decision I’ve made. You are not required to walk this p-p-path with me. But if the story moves you as it has me, if you decide to follow this God as I have, nothing would p-p-please me more.”

He nodded at Paul who stepped forward, took a long breath, and began.

He told about the king and his sons. He told about the Carpenter and his cross. He never tired of the telling. The story was always fresh.

As he spoke, Achaicus stared down at the floor. An ancient gardener, with leathered face and dirt under his nails, looked up at the ceiling. There were times Paul worried they weren’t listening, weren’t interested in his story. But then their eyes would shift to meet his and he knew the story was making its mark. He saw them glance at Stephanas as they listened, a kind of relief written on their faces.

In the end, he told them, “If you believe what you’ve just heard, if you want to join us in this new life, the way is simple. Confess Jesus as Lord. Turn away from sin and embrace holiness. Join Jesus in his death and resurrection—through a symbol, a ritual bath, and through the way you live.”

The room was quiet. All eyes turned to Stephanas, and Paul understood they were waiting on him. Only the master of the house could hand over the household to Jesus as Lord.

Stephanas stepped forward. “I’m ready, P-P-Paul. Whatever I must do, I’m ready.”

Achaicus spoke up in a graveled voice. “I’ve served this house for nigh on forty-five years. You and yer father before. You’ve offered my freedom a dozen times. And I always said ‘No.’ Cause you be my master and always will, whate’r a piece of paper might say. So, as in all things, I’ll follow you in this.”

The gardener said the same. And all the other servants. Not the boy, though, Paul noted. He kept himself folded into his corner, guarded and distant.

They used the fountain in Stephanas’s atrium for the baptism. Paul knelt in the shallow water. Stephanas sat in front of him. The rest of the household gathered around. It must seem so strange to them, Paul thought as he watched them. Water and death and resurrection. He knew the ritual would make them uncomfortable, each in his own way. Uncomfortable for Stephanas, who was not accustomed to humbling himself before his servants. Uncomfortable for the servants, who would not relish seeing their master abased.

But that’s how it is with dying, Paul smiled to himself. It’s humiliating. It’s uncomfortable. It is no respecter of person or position. Without the dying, though, there can be no life.

He lowered Stephanas down into the pool, shoveling the water over his prone body like so much dirt, lifting him up again to rejoin the living. He did the same for Achaicus and the others.

Between each baptism, Paul sought out the eyes of the boy.

[Next chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

[i]   From the translation by Robert Fagles.

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