Paul, by Frederick Buechner

He wasn’t much to look at. “Bald-headed, bowlegged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose.” Years after his death that’s the way the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla describes him, and Paul himself quotes somebody who had actually seen him: “His letters are strong, but his bodily presence is weak” (2 Corinthians 10:10). It was no wonder.

“Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one,” he wrote. “Three times I have been beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked. A night and a day I have been adrift at sea. In danger from rivers… robbers… my own people… Gentiles. In toil and hardship, in hunger and thirst . . . in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). He also was sick off and on all his life and speaks of a “thorn in the flesh” that God gave him “to keep me from being too elated” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Epilepsy? Hysteria? Who knows? The wonder of it is that he was able to get around at all.

But get around he did. Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Galatia, Colossae, not to mention side trips to Jerusalem, Cyprus, Crete, Malta, Athens, Syracuse, Rome-there was hardly a whistle-stop in the Mediterranean world that he didn’t make it to eventually, and sightseeing was the least of it. He planted churches the way Johnny Appleseed planted trees. And whenever he had ten minutes to spare he wrote letters. He bullied. He coaxed. He comforted. He cursed. He bared his soul. He reminisced. He complained. He theologized. He inspired. He exulted. Punch-drunk and Christ-drunk, he kept in touch with everybody. The postage alone must have cost him a fortune, not counting the energy and time. And where did it all start? On the road, as you might expect. He was still in charge of a Pharisee goon squad in those days and was hell-bent for Damascus to round up some troublemaking Christians and bring them to justice. And then it happened.

It was about noon when he was knocked flat by a blaze of light that made the sun look like a forty-watt bulb, and out of the light came a voice that called him by his Hebrew name twice. “Saul,” it said, and then again “Saul. Why are you out to get me?” and when he pulled himself together enough to ask who it was he had the honor of addressing, what he heard to his horror was, “I’m Jesus of Nazareth, the one you’re out to get.” We’re not told how long he lay there in the dust then, but it must have seemed at least six months. If Jesus of Nazareth had what it took to burst out of the grave like a guided missile, he thought, then he could polish off one bowlegged Christian-baiter without even noticing it, and Paul waited for the ax to fall. Only it wasn’t an ax that fell. “Those boys in Damascus,” Jesus said. “Don’t fight them. Join them. I want you on my side,” and Paul never in his life forgot the sheer lunatic joy and astonishment of that moment. He was blind as a bat for three days afterward, but he made it to Damascus anyway and was baptized on the spot. He was never the same again, and neither, in a way, was the world (Acts 9:1-6; 22:4-16; 26:9-18).

Everything he ever said or wrote or did from that day forward was an attempt to bowl over the human race as he’d been bowledover himself while he lay there with dust in his mouth and road apples down the front of his shirt: “Don’t fight them, join them. He wants you on his side.” You, of all people. Me. Who in the world, who in the solar system, the galaxy, could ever have expected it? He knew it was a wild and crazy business-“the folly of what we preach,” he said-but he preached it anyway. “A fool for Christ’s sake” he called himself as well as weak in his bodily presence, but he knew that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). There were times he got so carried away that his language went all out of whack. Infinitives split like atoms, syntax exploded, participles were left dangling.

“By grace you have been saved,” he wrote to the Ephesians, and grace was his key word. Grace. Salvation was free, gratis. There was nothing you had to do to earn it and nothing you could do to earn it. “This is not your own doing, it is the gift of god-not the result of works, so that no one may boast,” and God knows he’d worked, himself, and boasted too-worked as a Pharisee, boasting about the high marks he’d racked up in heaven till the sweat ran down and Christian heretics dropped like flies-only to find en route to Damascus that he’d been barking up the wrong tree from the start, trying to beat and kick his way through a door that had stood wide open the whole time. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,” he wrote; in other words, good works were part of it, all right, but after the fact, not before (Ephesians 2:8-10).

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Little by little the forgiven person became a forgiving person, the person who found he or she was loved became capable of love, the slob that God had had faith in anyway became de-slobbed, faithful, and good works blossomed from his branches, from her branches, like fruit from a well-watered tree. What fruit? Love, Paul wrote the boys and girls in Galatia. Love was the sweetest and tenderest. And then “joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” till his typewriter ribbon was in tatters and he had to take to a pencil instead (Galatians 5:22-23).

And Christ was his other key word, of course. Christ-the key to the key. He never forgot how he’d called him by name-twice, to make sure it got through-and “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” he wrote out for the Romans (Romans 5:6) and for the Galatians again, “I have been crucified with Christ”-all that was dried up in him, full of hate and self-hating, self-serving and sick, all of it behind him now, dead as a doornail-so that ” it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). And then, to the Philippians by registered mail, return receipt requested: “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21), and to the Ephesians, for fear they’d feel neglected if the mail carrier came empty-handed, “You he made alive when you were dead” (Ephesians 2:1). Alive like him.

But there were other times too. Sometimes the depression was so great he could hardly move the pencil across the page. “I don’t understand my own actions,” he said. “For I don’t do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I can’t do it. For I don’t do the good I want, but the evil I don’t want is what I do… For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin… Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” He sat there by himself, aiming his awful question at the plaster peeling off his walls, and maybe it was only ten minutes or maybe it was ten years before he had the heart to scratch out the answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” he said (Romans 7:15-25).

It got him going again, and on the next page he was back in his old stride with a new question. “If God is for us, who is against us?” He worked on that one for a minute or two and then gave it another try. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” It was the story of his life, needless to say, and at last he’d laid the groundwork for an answer he could get his back into. “No!” he wrote, the tip of his pencil point breaking off, he bore down so hard. “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-39). He sat there, with his cauliflower ear and a lump on his forehead the size of an egg from the last time the boys had worked him over, and when he reached for the drawer to get out an envelope, he found that his hand was shaking so badly he could hardly open it. The ups and the downs.

The fights with his enemies and the fights with his friends. The endless trips with a fever and diarrhea. Keeping one jump ahead of the sheriff. Giving his spiel on windy street corners with nobody much to hear him most of the time except some underfed kids and a few old women and some yokels who didn’t even know the language. Where was it all going to get him in the end? Where was it all going to get all of them, any of them, in the end? When you came right down to it, what was God up to, for God’s sweet sake, sending them all out-prophets, apostles, evangelists, teachers, the whole tattered bunch-to beat their gums and work themselves into an early grave?

God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn’t have a regular body anymore, so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he or she might just possibly do. He was using other people’s hands to be Christ’s hands and other people’s feet to be Christ’s feet, and when there was someplace where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, he put the finger on some maybe not all that innocent bystander and got that person to go and be Christ in that place for lack of anybody better.

And how long was the whole great circus to last? Paul said, why, until we all become human beings at last, until we all “come to maturity,” as he put it; and then, since there had been only one really human being since the world began, until we all make it to where we’re like him, he said-“to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13). Christs to each other, Christs to God. All of us. Finally. It was just as easy, and just as hard, as that.

Nobody’s sure whether he ever got to Spain the way he’d planned or not, but either before he went or soon after he got back, he had his final run-in with the authorities, and the story is that they took him to a spot about three miles out of Rome and right there on the road, where he’d spent most of his life including what was in a way the beginning of his life, they lopped off his head.

At the end of its less than flattering description of his personal appearance, the Acts of Paul and Thecla says that “at times he looked like a man, and at times he had the face of an angel.” If there is a God in heaven, as even in his blackest moments Paul never doubted there was, then bald-headed and bowlegged as he was, with those eyebrows that met and that oversized nose, it was with angel eyes that he exchanged a last long glance with his executioners.

~originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words

One thought on “Paul, by Frederick Buechner

  1. LJVanDeusen

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Rather than dry facts and “biblical speak”, you put it in such a way that keeps the reader interested and able to relate to the story. Paul has always been a favorite of mine, despite his sketchy past. I hope you write more of these posts in this same manner. God bless.

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