Thursday, August 07, 2008

Fools for Christ

Once upon a time, I was unwisely obedient to a teacher. Twenty-six miles, two lost toenails, several blisters and aching limbs afterwards, I realised that he had not intended me to wear my brand new (3 days old) walking boots when we embarked on a sponsored walk. Next morning, as I took a full quarter of an hour to sit up in bed and ease my way to standing, followed by painfully sitting and slowly sliding down the fourteen stairs to breakfast, I wished that I had used my commonsense and had worn sensible, comfortable, shoes.

That image came to mind as I gazed admiringly at a beautiful booklet* I recently received from the Shrewsbury diocese. Amongst the abundant pieces of information on the life of St. Paul, lovingly set out as their preparation for the Year of St. Paul, which starts this month, there are also several small maps showing the journeys made by Paul during the course of his ministry as Apostle of the Gentiles. I’m not intending to be facetious, but if he did so much walking, he was not wearing new boots! He covered an incredible distance which, today, we would think difficult using modern transport, but as Paul, just like everybody else at that time, was limited to feet, a horse, mule or donkey and a ship, he just HAD to be fit!

I wonder if Paul ever regretted setting out on any of his travels? Were there mornings when he would have preferred to roll over and go back to sleep? Were there any days when he felt sick to his stomach at the things he knew he might have to face? It was all very well arguing his case for Jesus and the Gospel before groups of new Christians, but what about his meeting with the learned scholars of Judaism who had so eagerly supported Saul’s vendetta against the followers of Jesus of Nazareth? Did he think he might win any of his fellow Pharisees to his new cause, or did he know he was probably fighting a losing battle from the start?

Paul appears to have been someone who was very sure of himself. There never seem to have been any half-measures with him. When he set himself against the Christians, he did not hold back from persecuting them. As a Christian himself, even torture, shipwrecks, confrontation and death threats were challenges, rather than obstacles, on his path. He was a hard man to beat, but he was overcome by love. If he really did experience mornings when he would have preferred to stay in bed, Paul was also a driven man who would not settle for second best. He had given his heart to Jesus and that meant that, for him, to live was Christ.

Was Paul humble? Why did he appeal to Caesar? Did he think he might gain liberty in Rome instead of accepting execution in Jerusalem? Paul was the opposite of Peter, the uneducated fisherman who blustered his way through life, quick to follow Jesus, boasting that he would never desert him and then denying his Lord.

Peter became humble. It is said that he wept until the end of his life for his betrayal of Jesus. He refused the ‘normal’ crucifixion and, instead, requested to be nailed upside-down because he did not deserve to die in the same manner as Jesus. Yet, I challenge you when you next go to bed: dangle your head downwards over the edge of the bed for a few minutes and the experience is horrible. Once his request was granted, Peter could not escape a blinding headache in addition to all his other agonies, but was it not typical of his whole-hearted enthusiasm that he not only died, he did so with a refinement that even his executioners might not have considered had Peter himself not suggested it.

Peter and Paul. Peter is represented carrying the keys of Heaven. Paul bears a double-edged sword. They were both great men of courage. They had their faults, but they succeeded because they were wholehearted once they encountered Jesus. When they donned their equivalent of their new walking boots of Christianity, they did so with open eyes, knowing that they would suffer during the course of their journey. They had truly become ‘Fools for Christ’.

*Saint Paul: A Companion Booklet for the Year of St. Paul … available from the Diocese of Shrewsbury, Cathedral House, 11 Belmont, Shrewsbury, SY1 1TE. Cost £3.00