"THRICE was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep."
Paul was on a mission, literally a mission from God. His first two Letters - Romans and First Corinthians - reflect the optimism of one with God on his side: confident, bossy, out to change the world.
Second Corinthians, written many years later, reflects a different Paul: weary and disenchanted, struggling to keep his faith. What happened? We pick up the story in Acts of the Apostles, when a mob from Antioch and Iconium stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, leaving him for dead. Acts also reports that Paul and his companions were at the mercy of a mob in Ephesus, city of the Temple of Diana.
Even when Paul succeeded in setting up Christian communities throughout Asia Minor and Greece, his Letters reveal his frustration with the inadequacies of his followers. Indeed, it is clear that some of these communities were in open rebellion against their founder.
And so we come to his extraordinary admission in Second Corinthians. He holds nothing back: the public floggings, the stoning, the shipwrecks, the rigors of travel, the exhaustion and privations, the personal betrayals, of being set upon by bandits. But all that pales in comparison to what is really on his mind. "I fear," he writes to his Corinthian community, "that when I come I may find you different from what I wish you to be."
All that suffering - for nothing? Is that what life is all about? God, what happened? I thought Paul was Your anointed servant. I thought he had Your blessing.
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Either God isn't talking or no one is listening. Perhaps His half of the conversation went something like this:
You presume to act in My name? Well, let's see how sincere you are after a mob has tried to crack open your skull. You think you are committed? Then let's see how committed you are holding on for dear life to a piece of boat in the open sea. You want it real bad? Let's see how bad you want it when your friends turn on you, your followers abandon you, and your love is returned in endless measure with hate. You want to spread light? Well let's see how it feels when the darkness closes in.
And there you are, all alone, your life up in smoke.
It's not in God's nature to make things easy. You want an easy life, then do something easy. You want to accomplish something, well don't expect any breaks. The nature of things is you will be tested. The last we hear from Paul in the New Testament is in Rome, under house arrest. "I considered all toil and all achievement," says Ecclesiastes, "and it all comes from rivalry between man and man. This too is emptiness and chasing the wind."
Clement of Rome reports that for all his hardships, Paul "won the noble renown." There is no surviving account of whether or not he died a martyr. Let's trust he died a man at peace.
First published as a blog Oct 2010, republished as an article Jan 14, 2011, reviewed Dec 3, 2016.
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