He was an old man, when he died. He was a young man when he first began to live. He met a man named Jesus, with whom he traveled for a few years, until the execution, and then he carried on the mission.
At the time of the execution he was in his early twenties. Together with his friends, he spent a decade spreading word about Jesus. In time he went about this on his own, with those he had gathered around him, when communities based on the Way began to form, outside the immediate reach of these original friends. When the persecutions began in earnest and executions became a common occurrence based on followers of the Way, and he was sent into exile, he found a new calling, a new voice.
Which is to say, he began to write.
It was a few decades into the movement that letters began to circulate, after these communities solidified. The letters kept these communities in contact. Some were written by a man named Paul, who joined the Way years after the execution, who had never known Jesus in life. And some were written by those who had known Jesus.
The friends had not been of an overly literate manner. Many of them had been fishermen. As the Way progressed, they found those who filled in the gaps of their experience. The one I followed, by the time I met him, as I said, he had found his voice. Sometimes it takes time. Often we are told to believe that talent is inherent, that it needs to exist in some recognizable fashion in order to be nurtured. Sometimes it simply appears. Sometimes it is inspired by forces that cannot be rationally explained. We came to believe such things. We believed in God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Some of us because of a man we found beloved.
He wasn’t always easy to love. He could be irascible. He had a peculiar sense of humor. If you didn’t understand it, if you didn’t understand him, you might get the wrong impression. He never hid from his reputation. Instead he would joke about it, or deflect. He’d say it was Phillip, not himself, who was the cause of all the mischief. This was funny, to me, in part because Phillip had been dead for years at this point.
But he understood things better than anyone I ever knew. His words became like angels. He was a poet. He would say he learned from the master. If you want someone to remember something, tell it in a way that’s impossible to forget.
He was always telling us about Jesus. By this time there were stories about Jesus, about his life, circulating, to explain him to those who had never known him, who saw these friends spreading the message and perhaps might think it was them and not Him they should thank for it. It could be difficult, to reconcile the things said about Him. To many of us, he was God, and to the friends, he was Jesus. In the stories, he was both. But only in the words of my friend was this truly evident.
Over the years, over the decades, the more the Empire sought to stamp us out, the harder it became. Many of us expected Jesus to return in our lifetime. There were those who believed this was the whole point of our faith. There were many, and are, who confuse what our faith is about. They are the ones who struggle over whether Jesus was God or man. They miss the point, but at least they believe, although I confess I sometimes wish their faith was stronger.
My friend saw many things, and he amassed a great many followers, although he never for a moment let it reflect off himself. He kept the emphasis on Jesus. As the years progressed, and as he approached his death, the last of the first generation, he was in his nineties, but you wouldn’t have known it to see him. People often assume everyone ages the same. But some who are old are still young, and he was one of those. He never tired.
He died seventy years after the execution. A lifetime. He never forgot a moment of his earliest years, in the footsteps of Jesus. Those of us gathered around him, we were writing our own letters, keeping the faith, the Way, and some of us were on our way to much more violent deaths, shorter lives, but no less consequential in our devotion to Jesus, in the face of an empire, Babylon, awaiting a glorious future, not in this lifetime, in this life, but in a different kingdom altogether. We believe in a life that can endure, that seeks the best of humanity, even in the midst of the worst, because God so loved the world he gave us Jesus, himself, his only son, the Son of Man, to an execution, a reconciliation, a new baptism, an affirmation, to wipe away forever the sins of the world, for all time, from the face of the earth, even as we continue to stumble and fall, to fail.
And I believe this because of my friend, who never gave up, who was old when he was young, and young when he was old. We should all be so lucky.