Two old men meet in a tavern in a small, unremarkable village. They embrace, their heavy, solid hands slapping each others’ broad backs affectionately. They kiss twice, on each cheek. They sit and drink, hunching over the shared table in a conspiratorial way. The dust that coats their faces highlights the deepening lines around their eyes. Their graying beards betray the years. They are like two old lions, warriors who’ve fought many a battle, but live to fight another day.
Wiping crimson wine from his moustache with the back of his hand, one says with a smirk, “You’ve gotten old quickly.”
The other looks up and raises his eyebrows.
“I just mean,” continues the first man, “I haven’t seen you for a while and you seem to have aged quite a bit in that time.” Another smirk.
The other man goes to defend himself or make some equally rude comment, but finally waves his hand dismissively at his friend. “Why do I even bite at comments like that?” he smiles. “You’re not exactly the strapping young fellow you used to be either, you know.”
They both smile and the first man reaches across and places his hand on his friend’s arm. The tone turns serious. “It’s the travel that wears me out,” he confesses.
“Agreed. And the disappointment. I could bear the travel, the strange lodgings, the mishaps. But the disappointment of hearing about comrades turning from the cause or cells diverting from our doctrine, well, that’s what wears me out the most. Apparently, I’ve heard it makes me look old,” he says, eyeing his friend warily.
“Very old, actually.” They laugh. Silence.
After a while, the first man says, “The Corinthians still causing you a headache, Paul? Should I blame them for all your gray whiskers?”
“Headaches and whiskers are nothing, Peter. Have you heard the latest? You don’t want to know. Jealousy, quarrels, and divisions. Some of them have even rejected me as an apostle. Apparently, they prefer ‘more gifted’ leaders! Can you believe that? They fail to understand that wisdom is from the Spirit. After even such a long time, they’re still babies in Christ. I could list their crimes: sexuality immorality, lawsuits against each other, abuse of freedom, tolerance of immoral brothers, taking pride in their spiritual gifts, chaotic and disorderly worship, improper theology on resurrection, and, well, just a complete lack of love among them. I’ve written them four letters about all this, and each one seems to get me into further trouble with them. I’m of a mind to stop writing and start fighting. Teach ‘em a lesson with my fists that my letters obviously can’t. Actually you’re probably a better fighter than me. Fancy a trip to Corinth? ”
“Clobbering Corinthians probably won’t do the trick, friend. Though I am inclined to join you,” Peter smiles sympathetically.
“How is the cell at Galatia? Have you had contact with them?” Paul asks after a downing a mouthful from his cup. Peter shakes his head slowly. Paul continues, “Their faith was not strong enough to resist the confusions stirred up by the teaching of the Jewish-Christians about the circumcision requirement and they doubted the Gospel I preached to them. Like the Corinthians, they even doubt my authority too.”
And so it goes. Two tired men sharing back and forth, recounting stories of new communities in Asia Minor, new converts in Europe, new developments in Greece.
Finally Paul says, “Peter, I’m not sure when I’ll see you again…”
“You say that every time we get together.”
”I know, and it’s always true. But in case our paths never cross again, can you tell me about him one more time.”
Peter smiles sadly, “Oh Paul, you’ve heard me tell you those stories a million times. You tell them better than I do.”
Paul leans forward toward his friend. “Brother, I’ve been beaten, abandoned, betrayed, shipwrecked, and left for dead. It’s hard to think of a church I’ve planted that isn’t in the grip of some crisis, personal or doctrinal. I’m not well. I’m often hungry. And according to some of my friends, I look like an old man. The revolution is unfolding, slowly but surely. Ah, the things we’ve seen. But at times it feels arduous. I long for the Lord as the watchman longs for the end of night. And there are times when I wonder whether these small, struggling cells we’re planting will become the movement we dreamed of. Yes, I do wonder. Even after all I’ve seen and done. All we’ve seen and done…”
Then he fixes his eyes firmly on Peter’s and says, pleading, “Tell me again.”
From the doorway of the ancient tavern, imagine looking into the darkened room and seeing two battle weary warriors sharing stories of their hero, their standard, their inspiration, their king.
Would Paul and Peter have met like this and spoken in this way? Who can say. The point is that there seems little doubt that it was the story of Jesus that inspired their work and ministry and was the lifeblood of their mission.
Indeed, writing to the Romans, Paul introduces himself as, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom.1:1). What is the “gospel of God” for which he felt set apart? Is it a set of doctrinal propositions, a revolutionary dogma, a collection of beliefs and practices centered on Jesus? In fact, it’s far more. The gospel is not simply theological ideology. It is history! Listen as he explains it for himself,
“…the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” (Rom.1:2-6)
When Paul explains the content of his gospel it doesn’t consist of propositional statements about creation, sin, atonement and redemption. It is a recapturing of the historical story of Jesus! For Paul, the gospel is Jesus – his messianic credentials, his physical descent from David, his vindication by the Spirit of God, and his resurrection from the dead. This looks identical to the ‘gospel’ given to us in Matthew’s Gospel. In effect, Romans 1:1-6 is a Reader’s Digest version of the Gospels themselves.
Would Paul and Peter ever have met in a darkened tavern, shared a drink and swapped those stories? We don’t know, but if they ever did we should have little doubt that the stories they would have swapped wouldn’t have been the trivial or the nostalgic. If you can picture Paul imploring Peter to rehearse one more time the stories of the events of Jesus’ life, you can understand how desperately they clung to the gospel narrative as their sole reason for being.
Try to imagine those battered old lions telling those stories. ReJesusing each other. Then ask yourself how desperately you cling to the ‘gospel.’
When the going gets tough and you feel like giving up, find someone to retell you the story that defines who you are and where you’re going in life. Not the Four Spiritual Laws. Not the Bridge to Life. Not your church’s mission statement. Not a doctrinal catechism. But the story of Jesus. And then join us in our quest to reJesus our churches in this day and age.
Adapted from ReJesus by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch