Chapter 31: The Mission

The Sabbath went just as Hester predicted.

Crispus led the opening blessings and supervised the readings from Moses and the Psalms. And, as was now his habit, when the time came for the word of exhortation, he beckoned to Paul. Only this time, Sosthenes jumped to his feet before Paul could rise and addressed the congregation.

“Brothers! It is my sad duty to inform this assembly that the elders have voted to remove Crispus as Synagogue Ruler.”

A few gasps were heard, though not many. The congregation seemed sad rather than shocked.

“On what grounds?” Crispus surprised himself with calm.

“You already know the grounds, Crispus.”

Crispus spoke softly. “Let’s do this properly, Sosthenes. According to the traditions.”

Sosthenes took a deep breath. “On the grounds that you, Crispus, have misused your office to encourage the teaching of heresy.”

The congregation was so still it could have been a mosaic, an assembly peopled with figures cut from glass and stone. The news of what would happen this Sabbath had long preceded the day itself. But, now it was here, time slowed and every word, every deed, took on a dream-like quality.

Paul bowed his head and prayed courage for Crispus.

“For the record, if what Saul says is true, it cannot be heresy, no matter how difficult his message is to hear. And if it is not heresy, I cannot be charged with encouraging false teaching.” Crispus knew the battle was lost. But this was his last chance to sway the few who remained undecided. He could hear a rumble of agreement from some in the crowd.

“The elders have made their decision, Crispus. It is heresy. And you have subverted the faith and good order of this synagogue by your stubborn insistence on letting this man,” Sosthenes pointed an accusing finger at Paul, “speak week after week.”

“Again, for the record, I would remind you that neither Saul nor I have spoken in anger or in any way that is unseemly. If the order and conduct of our assemblies has been threatened, Sosthenes, you and others in this group are responsible.” This time the rumble was louder, stronger.

“Sometimes ugly ideas have to be countered with hard words, Crispus. I am quite willing to let this assembly judge whether my words were justified by the provocation.” A larger segment of the congregation voiced its assent.

Sosthenes straightened and spoke in formal tones. “Crispus, son of Jechaniah, you are hereby relieved of the role and responsibilities of Synagogue Ruler. By vote of the elders, I accept the office and will endeavor to meet its responsibilities faithfully.”

He turned his eyes to Paul. “The first and most important of those responsibilities is to protect this assembly from false teaching. Saul of Tarsus, you are banned from this synagogue. You are not to enter our house of worship again.”

Paul rose from his seat. “Will you condemn and sentence me without allowing me to speak in my own defense?”

Now it was Berekiah who stood. The veins in his forehead jumped and pulsed. His hands were clenched in angry fists. “We’ve heard quite enough of your speeches, Saul. It was your own words that condemned you in the first place. Leave here now, before I give you the beating you so richly deserve.”

Paul turned to him calmly. “I’ve been beaten by better men than you, Berekiah.”

Berekiah flushed a dark red and his bulk seemed to expand, filling the room with a palpable threat. He pointed a shaking finger towards the door. “Get out. Get out now.”

Paul stood and stepped into the aisle, nodding for Timothy and Silas to join him. Aquila, seated by them near the front, put his hands on his knees and pushed himself erect. Turning, he searched the balcony for Prisca’s face and gave her a small nod. She rose and threaded her way through the women to wait for her husband at the door.

Paul spoke one final time. “The Messiah you’ve been looking for has come. But you don’t want him.” He took the folds of his robe and shook them out in full view of them all. He extended each arm in turn and wiped away his responsibility like dust. “If you don’t believe, it’s your own fault. I’ve done all I know to do. From now on, I’ll take the good news to the Gentiles.” He turned to walk out, and the howls that followed the little band through the door seemed strong enough to physically push them into the street.

Berekiah still stood at the front of the congregation. “Good riddance! We should have done that weeks ago.” He turned and glared at Crispus. “And while we’re at it, anyone else stupid enough to believe in Saul’s dead Messiah ought to leave with him.”

Once again, silence fell over the assembly. No one stirred. No one coughed. It was almost possible to believe that no one breathed.

Sosthenes stepped into the silence, alarmed. “No! Now is a time for healing, not tearing ourselves apart.” He and Berekiah locked eyes for a moment. “Saul’s words will be forgotten. There will be peace again now that he’s gone.”

Crispus watched the two of them, feeling like a man under water. He could hear them talking. He could see their mouths moving. But their voices were muffled and their faces floated in and out of focus. He couldn’t breath. Yet he felt a great peace, a calm sense that if he were drowning he had nothing to fear. All the while, he was thinking that words were powerful things. They could change a life, a community, a world. And he knew Sosthenes was wrong. Paul’s words would not be forgotten. They forced people to confess or deny. Once they got into you, you could only surrender to them or vomit them up.

He cleared his throat. “Though it pains me to agree with Berekiah, in this instance he is right.” Every eye was on him. “I cannot forget what Saul has said, Sosthenes, because I believe what he says.” He gestured as if he could not help himself, as if his new faith were something beyond his control. “I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the one promised by the prophets. I believe that I am healed by his wounds and that I have life through his resurrection. And so I also believe that my place is no longer here. It’s with Saul and with the Messiah he preaches.”

For many at that moment, the stifling air seemed to burn in their noses and lungs. But for Crispus, the air suddenly felt cool and fresh and sweet. He laughed. “I believe in a crucified Messiah. And so it is best that I go with Saul.”

He was turning when Sosthenes surprised him. “Don’t go, Crispus. Not like this.”

The two men looked at each other, and for the first time in many years, each saw something good in the other. “It’s for the best, Brother Sosthenes.” He looked slowly around the room at faces he’d known so long. “Take care of them. They are in your keeping now.”

Hester had already made her way from the balcony and walked up the aisle to stand with her husband. They joined hands and looked over the congregation, the faces awash in their tear-filled eyes. “God be with you,” Crispus choked. “God be with you,” Hester echoed. He squeezed her hand and, leaning on each other, they walked out of the synagogue.

This time, the sounds that followed their leaving were not howls of anger but disbelieving sighs and soft weeping and a whispered “No.”


Paul baptized the two of them that afternoon. The synagogue’s purification pool was closed to them, of course, and the baths seemed too public a place for something so holy. Paul briefly considered knocking on Stephanas’s door to use his fountain. But looking at Hester’s face, he decided today was not the day to introduce them to Stephanas.

So they walked together the two miles north to the Lechaion harbor. Paul, Crispus and Hester, Aquila and Prisca, Timothy and Silas.

Technically, the distance put them in violation of Sabbath traditions. But, after the events of the morning, the transgression seemed trivial. None of them even mentioned the matter. It was, Paul knew, the first of many boundaries Crispus and Hester would cross.

They reached the water’s edge and walked along the shore to find a bit of privacy, someplace away from the wharves. Paul stopped at a likely spot and turned to face the others. They gathered about him, the pall of the morning still heavy on them all. This was meant to be a happy occasion, a time for promises and gratitude. But no one was smiling. Paul realized that the customary words were inadequate. He thought of Stephanas, how uncomfortable and humbling his baptism seemed. But no ritual death could be as humiliating and painful as the death Crispus and Hester had experienced that morning.

“I think,” Paul began softly, “that the hardest part of the gospel is the part about the cross. The cross of Christ. And the cross on which each of us dies to ourselves. It’s the part we resist the most, so it is the part I talk about most. Especially at times like this.” He paused and looked at the ex-synagogue leader and his heart-broken wife. “But the two of you need no lectures about dying. Not today. You took everything that was selfish and prideful and killed it before that crowd this morning.” He reached for their hands.

“No. Today, I think it is resurrection we need to talk about. For the promise of this washing is that, when we lay down our old lives, God will give us new life. Death, yes. But resurrection also. Pain for a season, but then hope for eternity.” He looked from husband to wife. “What you lost this morning was awful. And it will stay awful for a long time to come. Jesus was in his grave clothes only three days. You will be bound in grief and sorrow far longer, I fear.”

He looked out over the gulf. “I know what it is to die, Crispus … Hester. To die so hard and for so long, you think you’ll never breath again. It’s why what we do here today is so important. There is life in following Jesus, rich and full and whole. The washing is a symbol of that, a reminder of that. And we need the reminder.”

He looked back to the couple. “New life is yours today. It is God’s gift to you now. But you won’t feel it right away. He’s planting a seed in your hearts. But it takes time to grow. In the meantime, you’ll still have your heartaches. You’ll still miss your friends. You’ll wonder whether you’ve traded your birthright for a bowl of porridge.” He smiled at them. “So remember your baptism. It’s the promise that God will raise you up. The seed will grow. And the new life, when it flowers, will bear sweet fruit. That too, I know.”

Silas and Timothy nodded their agreement. Aquila and Prisca looked at one another. Paul walked into the water with Crispus and Hester. Each made their confession. Paul lowered them beneath the water with the words, “If we have died with Christ, we will also live with him.”

Afterwards, they stood for a long time in a knot on the shore. Nobody wanted to go back to the city. They seemed content to look from each other to the crisp blue of the Corinthian Gulf and to the ships with furled sail standing off from the shore. Nobody spoke. For a time, they were beyond words. They were content to listen for the soft “plops” of dripping robes, the drops as irregular and unpredictable as the new world they faced.

It was Hester who broke the silence.

“So, what happens now?”

[Next chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

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