I write to you as a 21st century vicar – vicars are deacons and presbyters/priests, so that should help you understand an unfamiliar word. I’m a church leader in the north of England – the Romans hadn’t made it this far in your era – suffice to say it’s quite a long way beyond Rome if your starting point is Jerusalem! Things are a bit different now in the world than you would remember – most of us do a lot less walking and donkey riding but we whizz around in these things called cars and other forms of transport that would make a Jerusalem to Damascus trip last just a few hours. We can even get the eagle’s eye view by flying from one place to another high up in the air – I know that’s pretty hard to imagine, but it’s true. But there’s also plenty of stuff in our world that would be only too familiar to you. Boats still sail the seas and even still occasionally get shipwrecked like you did. And we still have tents as well, though I don’t know if they’re as well made as yours and Aquila’s would’ve been. Some of us use tents for our holidays, but some people end up having to live in them for months or even years when their homes are destroyed in natural disasters, or they have to escape to another country because of war and other horrors like that. Even today, there are cities of tents accommodating thousands of people not very far from places you once knew like Antioch and Damascus. You see, what you’d also recognise is the violence and evidence of man’s inhumanity to man (and I’m afraid to say it is still predominantly men in that role!). Some of this is the kind of persecution you once meted out yourself to those you disagreed with. And it’s those familiar things that would probably make it nearly impossible for you to retrace your old Jerusalem to Damascus journey, though you’d likely still find a friendly, helpful Ananias-type along the way, if you could only get through the border restrictions, police checks and so on.
I’m guessing you’d find it a strange old world here in the 21st century but I think you’d be encouraged by the number of followers of the Way – fellow believers in Christ still proclaiming the good news of his death and resurrection to the ends of the earth. In other words, we’re still carrying on that work that you and the other early Christians first started. You see all your amazing travels, and details of the new church plants you got going and other stuff, has all been written down. Those letters you sent to the Galatians, Corinthians and Romans all got included in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. The scriptures you knew like the back of your hand, that you had learned at the feet of Gamaliel, and quoted left, right and centre – we call that the Old Testament. Actually, while I’m on the subject of your letters, I do wish you could’ve been a bit clearer about which ones actually were all your own work because we’ve since had 2000 years of people arguing about the authorship. And students still have to write essays and organise debates entitled: Did Paul write the Book of Ephesians? and so on. Well, did you? Because the thing is, we’re no nearer getting a definitive answer than we ever were – there are just more and more books being written about it all and conferences where it all gets debated again and again. One British theologian has just recently had a massive tome published on what he thinks you thought about the faithfulness of God – all 1680 pages of it. I wonder what you’d make of it? His name is Tom (or N.T.) Wright if you want to look him up – I’m assuming there’s a way of doing that wherever you are with all the other ‘saints in glory’ as we like to call you. I must admit I haven’t read the book myself yet but it looks pretty comprehensive – looking at the world as it was when you lived in it, your mindset and theology, and how you’ve come to us down through history as well.
And I have to say, it’s not only the question of which of the letters in our ‘final’ version of the scriptures you actually did write that keeps us talking about you, it’s some of your other stuff as well. Some of it’s turned out to be really controversial and Christians have been taking sides for centuries to try and get everyone to read and understand you the way they do. I don’t know if you meant it to cause us all so much hassle as we wrestle with interpretation, but I have to be honest and say a bit less ambiguity would have been handy. I know you can’t do much about it now, but I thought I’d mention it because debates about the role of women in church and society and what you were actually saying at times on the subject of sex go on and on. And believe me, a lot of this debate is so heated and people hold onto their views so passionately that it continues to threaten to divide the church even more than it’s already been divided since those first early churches you and the other apostles set up.
Anyway, I just thought you might be interested to hear how things are going for those of us who have come after you. I hope you’re encouraged to know that when you wrote to the Corinthians, encouraging them to:
Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.
1 Corinthians 16:13-14
I think it’s fair to say that most of us are still trying to follow these instructions, and while lots of us, including me, feel just as unworthy as you often did, God’s grace still means we are the body of Christ and there’s still plenty of fruit to be seen as we continue in obedience to God in Christ, working by the power of the Holy Spirit within us.
Thanks for all your hard work back then – and for all those words that still both confuse and encourage us today!
Your sister in Christ,
This post has been written as an open letter very loosely in the genre of historical fiction in response to the Daily Prompt weekly writing challenge – it’s something different and intended only to be a bit of creative fun!