I’m trying to tell the truth sideways, so this is a little different: a fictional piece, exploring the themes of suffering in 1 Peter. If you want to catch up, Episode 1 is here. Today’s (Episode 2 of 5) is based on 1 Peter 1:22- 2:11. Take a cup of tea, settle down and enjoy!
It was a day when I was despairing of church, the kind of day when you stare at your Twitter feed and wonder why it is that you call yourself Christian, when so many believe something so vastly different from you. It was the kind of day when you want to yell at Christians, when Christian ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ don’t signify terms of endearment but rather the desire to pull their hair and bite them in retaliation for how much they have hurt you. That was all I could see on Twitter: hair-grabbing and punching and scratching. It was the kind of day when you feel desperately alone.
I looked up at the apple tree, out in the garden, the last of the August sun dipping behind the trees. Why is the Church so broken? I asked God. How can we ever expect to change the world for good?
I lazily watched a dandelion seed, paragliding through the air, slowly swaying from side to side in the warm breeze as the wind caught it and lifted it. At that moment, the air seemed to part and go dark, and for the second time I falling, and landing on a very hard floor.
I opened my eyes. A boy with damp, sandy-coloured hair was standing over me, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old, tall like a quick-growing weed, all height and eagerness. I recognised Talitha standing next to him – just as she was before but with a more pronounced pregnancy bump. But her face was a shocking white. I looked more closely: she was covered in flour.
“Who…” the boy asked, “is this?”
“This is my guardian angel,” Talitha replied. “She’s come here in judgement for your flour attack.”
The boy’s eyes widened.
Talitha, laughing, helped me to my feet. I was in a different room – a large kitchen, clean and bright, pots and pans bubbling away. I could smell basil and tomato and some kind of meat. It was good.
“I know that you talk about your Jesus being alive but…” the boy was addressing Talitha, “an angel…? Right here? Wow.”
I felt awkward: I didn’t want to mislead him, but it seemed too long to explain that I was from the future and came here via reading 1 Peter. Just then we heard footsteps coming from an outside corridor, and Talitha shoved me into a cupboard and half-closed the door.
Through a gap in the door I saw a stern-looking man entered the room.
“What is this racket?” he said. “Talitha? Demetrius?”
Talitha and the boy were both standing rigidly, heads bowed, eyes to the floor. There was a silence.
“Please accept our humblest apologies,” Talitha said, still looking to the floor. “I very much hope we have not disturbed Master Justus.”
The man grunted. “Fortunately for you, it was only me who was disturbed. Don’t let it happen again.”
He turned and I could hear the footsteps going in the distance.
I saw Demetrius flick Talitha’s ear, and after a brief muted yell of objection, the two burst out into giggles.
“Come, come with me,” Talitha said as she pulled off her apron and washed the flour off her face. “Come with me. I will leave Demetrius here to clear up and find Cilla to serve up dinner. I’m done for the day. I want to see my husband.”
She roughly ruffled Demetrius’ sandy hair, and he ducked under her hand and grinned.
Talitha put her hair up in a scarf, a mass of black waves curled up into a bunch at the back.
“We’ll go out the back,” she said, and took my hand and led me through white corridors, our shoes clicking as we went. We came out into a grand atrium, all pillars and white marble, with bronze statues to the side, and a large golden vase with beautiful flowers in the centre.
“Wow,” I said, and my voice echoed round the room. Talitha put her hand over my mouth, and pulled me to a cove in the side as a couple of other servants passed us. We waited till they had gone, then tiptoe-ran out of the hall, and down the stairs outside.
“Sorry about the clandestine exit,” Talitha said. “I thought it would be hard to explain you. Oh, it feels good to be out of the house and free! Good view, isn’t it?”
The sun was bright, though descending, and as I looked down the valley I could see dark green everywhere, cut through by a warm and dusty road down into the market place; I could smell the pine and olive trees of a hot mediterranean climate, the scent of orange blossom occasionally drifting on the breeze. It was beautiful.
We started to walk down the road, and I looked back to admire the house one last time: the grand pillars, the stone steps. Most of the walls were slightly pink and faded, but I could see there were some men building at the side of the house with a pile of white stone, marble perhaps. The section of the wall they had rebuilt shone bright white in the sunlight.
“Ah, Demetrius is a lot of fun, isn’t he?” Talitha said.
“Is he a slave too?” I asked.
“Yes. But he’s a slave for life, poor kid.”
“Are you not also?”
Talitha explained how she and Joseph had struggled as day labourers when they first came to Asia Minor, and eventually sold themselves as slaves for Captain Justus, the richest landowner in the area.
“It’s not forever,” she said. “Our debt wasn’t huge. If we behave ourselves and please our master, then we can hope to be freed again in ten years or so. Maybe less, who knows. Justus is known for his generosity, and Joseph is so useful to him as his scribe. And it’s nice – a luxury, even – that we have our own little quarters nearby, down the road from the house. We can’t complain, really.”
Talitha stopped by the side of the road to pick a sprig of wild rosemary. I could see dandelion seeds drifting in the air, just like at home. I was walking easily. It appeared that in my time-travel, as well as my dreams, I could run and walk as a healthy person. I was enjoying this.
“So what’s Demetrius’ story?” I asked.
“He’s an orphan, found abandoned as a baby in the city. At least, that’s what we think – there’s no way of knowing for sure. Slave traders often round up the orphans and lost ones, and sell them on. Demetrius may well be there for life. But perhaps that is no bad thing? Justus is not a bad master. And – hey, he has me to keep him in line.” She smiled fondly.
“Well, it’s the day of our church gathering, so you’ll get to meet everyone else,” she said. “Are you going to teach us all? Is that why you’re here?”
I wasn’t sure, but we got talking as we walked down that dusty road to the market. We talked possible names for her baby, due in a few weeks.
“I always envied my sister,” she said. “My sister was called Sarah, Princess. My name just means ‘little girl’. And I was – the little one, I mean. She was always getting me out of trouble.”
I thought of my own sister when she was a toddler, cheeky and cute.
“Oh my goodness – this one time I really thought Abba was going to blow a fuse. He was out the front with a customer, and Sarah and I were playing hide and seek at the back. I went to the room where the dyes were kept – I was sure she wouldn’t find me there – but I tripped, and knocked over one of the pots. By the time Sarah found me, there was purple everywhere, and I was desperately trying to scrub it off, but of course that was just making it worse. Abba came storming in, and Sarah put her hands in the dye and said it was she who knocked it over, and so she got the beating, though I don’t know if he ever fully believed it was her and not me. It took about a week before our hands stopped being purple – we looked like grapes.”
We were entering the market place, the people were bustling about us. By the sides of the stalls I could see old women sitting on rocking chairs, knitting or gossiping with each other, children playing with stones in the street.
“It’s lovely seeing families together like this,” I said. “Everyone seems so close-knit here, with all generations together. Do you have your family here?”
Her face seemed to cloud over.
“Do you really want to know?” she asked. I nodded – perhaps this is why God had sent me.
She told me. She grew up as a Jew, and then when she was young, her parents gathered them all together in one room. They explained how they had heard of Jesus, the promised Messiah.
“He is the cornerstone, the one we have been waiting for,” her father explained. “We need to build our lives on him. But we are telling you now – it won’t be easy for us.”
And it wasn’t. Her father had been prominent in the Jewish community, close with the local rabbi. The Jews viewed it as a betrayal.
“It started with red paint on our walls, people turning away in the market place, traders refusing to do business with Mama and Abba,” she said.
We continued to walk slowly in the market, and her voice grew quiet.
“Then one night – it was after we were married and had left home, so it was just the two of them there in the house. We don’t know exactly what happened – whether they knocked them out before the fire, or whether it was the fire that – ” she gulped, and tears welled in her eyes.
“Anyway. However it happened, they’re with Jesus now. We don’t know exactly who it was that did it. But it was almost certainly our own people – the people we had grown up with, the community we had loved.” Her voice sounded flat.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. It felt so inadequate. “So – that’s why you left?”
“Yes,” she said. “Joseph said it wasn’t safe – it would be us next. So we went with his whole family – we packed in the middle of the night and left. But Sarah – she stayed. She was in a different part of the city, and her husband didn’t want to move. She told me not to worry, that Jesus would be with them. And I know He is. I just wish she was here with us. I miss her.”
We were passing stalls of leather goods, fruit and vegetables. The sun was low in the sky, and everything had a hazy, golden glow.
“Sarah is really wise. She used to say -” but Talitha was interrupted by an old lady, sitting by the side of the road. She grabbed Talitha, her wizened and leathery fingers wrapped around Talitha’s pregnancy-swollen wrist.
“It’s not safe,” she hissed. “A man has been beaten. You must go home now.”
In the distance we heard it: drunken and angry laughter coming gradually nearer. Talitha’s eyes widened and she took my hand. My stomach flipped and I could heart my heart thudding. Who had been beaten? What if it were Talitha’s husband? She had been through so much already.
“This way,” she said, and we ran together down a country lane, across grass and scrub and broken rocks. We said nothing, and panted together as we ran. Sometimes I could hear a twig breaking, and it felt like there was a presence, a shadow behind us, but I dared not glance behind. We ran till we got to her home.
As we approached Talitha’s house there was a tall, thin man standing in the doorway. He was in his late twenties or early thirties, he had kind brown eyes, dark hair and a short beard, and he embraced Talitha, holding her close, stroking her hair, kissing her head.
“Praise Jesus, you’re safe,” he said. Talitha grinned at him.
“Of course we’re safe. And if you hug me any tighter you’ll squash the baby,” she said.
“This is Tanya, by the way – she’s an angel. Tanya – this is my husband, Joseph. And just inside is – oh – his brother Reuben – but what has happened to you?”
Inside, there was a man sitting at the table who looked a little like Joseph, only broader; his face was cut and bleeding, and he was holding his left arm painfully as a woman patted his face gently with a damp cloth.
“It’s a lot better than it was,” he said, his words slurred through his swollen lip. “Soldiers. From Ephesus. They were just looking for an easy target.”
Talitha and another girl tended to Reuben’s wounds, and the house began to fill up for the weekly gathering: Joseph’s family were all there, children running around with sticks outside, some older ladies wearing black, Claudia and five Greek women with her.
There were about twenty of us, all crammed into Talitha’s tiny cottage. The room grew hot with everyone’s breath and the steam from the stew on the table. Everyone had a plate and a cup, and there was a hum of happy noise.
At one point I thought I saw a shadow pass by the window, and my heart thudded again. I studied the window more closely – but the shadow had gone. It was probably a trick of the light: the sun was setting and the sky was turning pink-gold.
When everyone had a plate of stew, Joseph stood up and took up a loaf of bread, and said a few words giving thanks for Jesus’ death, and they all smiled as they handed bread to each other to dip in the stew. Talitha stood up with the wine and prayed her thanks to God for our forgiveness through Jesus’ blood, and we passed the wine around and filled our cups, and ate and drank together. After we had finished, someone else stood up and read from Peter’s letter, another stood and prayed, someone else prophesied, and voice after voice proclaimed the goodness of God. They began to sing, and the sound of untrained, passionate voices filled the room with praise. This was church: a meal with Bible and singing and joy.
BANG BANG BANG.
It was a heavy knocking, the door shaking from the force of the blows, and the song died away as the whole room fell silent. My heart was thudding in my ears, and I knew in the pit of my stomach that this was the soldiers – they had come for them.
They were all here, all the Christians in the village, so vulnerable – the whole church could be wiped out in one night. I found myself praying that they would be spared. The church was so fragile, a delicate seed floating on the wind. I wanted to protect them.
The knock came again, and Joseph stood up, motioned to the others to be quiet, and opened the door.
But there were no soldiers. Standing in the doorway, his blond hair more tousled than ever and his hands clasped tightly together, was Demetrius.
“I knew you would be gathering today,” he said, his voice hesitant. “I came because I have decided I want to follow Jesus like you do. You Christians are different, you live for someone else, you have hope. I can see it in you. I want Jesus to be my master, too.”
There were tears in Talitha’s eyes as she hugged him, and the new disciple was embraced and furnished with food and wine and love in that tiny house.
I had been seeing the church through worldly eyes: Peter made me see the church anew through God’s eyes. Peter was right – these people weren’t seeds floating in the air, they were deceptively solid.
This gathering was a house of living stones, being built into a spiritual house. These despised and beaten slaves and misfits were a royal priesthood, God’s special possession. There was weakness, to be sure, just as there was weakness on the cross, but there was glory there, and sitting in that room, as their many voices sang as one, I felt a stirring in my spirit, and tears came to my eyes.
This is the church – then and now – the place where wounds are bound up, and voices join together, and misfits and rejects share a meal and drink wine to remember the one who was rejected on their behalf, the one who is now the cornerstone. They were stones, not seeds, and they were built on Jesus, and there was so much glory in that room, I felt my soul could not contain it.
Read 1 Peter 1:22-2:11
Over to you:
- How do you feel about church at the moment?
- When do you get glimpses that God is working through the suffering and weakness of the worldwide church?
- Where do you find that community, ‘where wounds are bound up, and voices join together and misfits and rejects share a meal’?
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