Ed Tillman noticed the diminutive, middle-eastern gentleman enter the sanctuary and take a seat in the back right before Pastor Taylor began his sermon. Ed was seated in the back as well, but not by design. He’d been waiting for his friend Phil to show up, but he hadn’t been coming to Ed’s church lately.
Ed had expected to see Phil again at the end of what he called the Month of Elul. Ed had completed the thirty-day plan of prayer and repentance his friend had suggested. Elul, the Jewish High Holy Days, and the holiday of Sukkot were long gone, but so apparently was Phil.
When Phil was absent, Ed usually sat with his friend Mark and his family, but Mark’s wife Evelyn had the flu and Mark stayed home to take care of her, leaving Ed to attend alone once again.
As usual, Ed was taking notes on Pastor’s sermon, which this week was on how the grace of Jesus Christ had replaced the Law, but he kept sneaking peeks at the stranger. He didn’t often see people from the middle-east here. The man was dressed well, but not expensively. He had a full, rich beard streaked with gray, and was nearly bald.
The man was nothing to look at, but for some reason, Ed couldn’t help continuing to watch him. The man seemed nervous, like he didn’t belong or didn’t know what do to with himself in this setting. Ed certainly knew how that felt. If it hadn’t been for Mark and Phil, Ed would have bailed on church a long time ago.
Pastor’s sermon went along predictable theological lines. He spoke of how God gave the Israelites the Law of Moses only to prove that no one could possibly keep all of those laws and instead, needed the grace of Christ in order to achieve redemption and reconciliation.
Ed still had a lot of trouble with the “Christianese” terms and expressions as he called them, but he was trying to learn.
He also heard his friend Phil say a few things that contradicted this typical Christian doctrine being taught by Pastor Taylor. Was the Apostle Paul really “law free” or did he merely absolve the non-Jewish disciples of Jesus from obedience to the Law rather than have then convert and observe all of the commandments of the Old Testament?
It was very confusing to Ed. According to Pastor, anyone, Jew or Gentile, needed to confess Jesus as Lord, and then they were all one in Christ, one new man, and that new man only needed Jesus, not the Law.
But Phil had pointed out that in Acts 15, only the Gentiles were released from any obligation to the Law. The verses said nothing about the Jewish disciples, and Acts 21 specifically stated that there were thousands of Jewish disciples of Jesus who were all zealous for the Law.
Ed had been so wrapped up in his thoughts and in watching the man at the end of the row that he hadn’t realized Pastor had ended the sermon and the congregation was being dismissed. Ed was planning to go to his usual Sunday School class after services and headed toward the back of the sanctuary.
He had lost track of the middle-eastern man until suddenly, as Paul exited the sanctuary, the man came up from behind him and spoke.
“Excuse me. Are you known as Ed Tillman?”
Ed couldn’t place the accent. It definitely sounded Mediterranean, but he couldn’t decide what country exactly. Syrian? Egyptian?
“Yes, that’s me. Why do you ask?” Why would a complete stranger want to talk with Ed?
“A mutual…ah, friend suggested I speak with you. His name is Phil.”
“Phil? Yes, we’re friends.”
The crowd was thinning. People were either going to their Sunday School classes or leaving church.
“Perhaps there is someplace we could talk.”
Phil thought a moment. “The church library isn’t usually occupied right now. Let’s try there.”
“Please lead the way.”
Ed felt unsettled as the strange, short man followed him down the hall. True enough, when Ed peeked in, the library was empty.
“Let’s sit over here.” Ed chose a long table usually reserved for small study groups.
Both men settled in their seats opposite each other.
“What would you like to talk about?” Ed was curious about who the stranger was, how he knew Phil, and why Phil would have this man come and find him.
Come to think about it, Ed knew next to nothing about Phil. Phil worked part-time at a nearby liquor store, said he often worshiped at different churches each week, and seemed to have an uncanny understanding of the Bible, particularly from an ancient Jewish point of view, but Ed didn’t even know where Phil lived.
“I am confused and frankly disturbed by the sermon delivered by your…Pastor this morning.”
It was as if the strange man were struggling to find the right English words to use.
“What do you mean?”
“You see, oh, excuse my manners. My name is Paul.”
Ed reflexively put out his hand to shake Paul’s. The other man took a moment, then seemed to realize what was expected and extended his own hand to shake.
“You see, he does not have the correct understanding of the scriptures he cited. I didn’t…that is, the Apostle did not intend to replace the Torah of Moshe for Moshiach’s grace and mercy for the Jews.”
That was just what Phil had been trying to tell Ed.
“Our mutual friend agrees with you, but that’s contradicting nearly two-thousand years of Christian doctrine.”
“Nonetheless, it is not traditional doctrine that is at hand here, but the intent of the teachings of the Apostle to the Gentiles. I am afraid that those teachings have been severely misunderstood to the detriment of the Jewish people and to your own.”
Ed barely understood the nuances of Christian doctrine and felt as if he were being asked to give this man an account of how such doctrine had come to be in its current form.
“I think you have the wrong man, Paul. I haven’t been a Christian very long and there’s a lot I’ve got to learn. Maybe you should talk to the Pastor.”
“I have considered it, but do not believe he would appreciate what I have to say. And it is the very fact that you haven’t been a disciple for very long that brings me to you.”
“Why is that?”
“Because you don’t have that much to unlearn.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“To put it mildly, I consider our mutual friend to be the foremost authority on scripture. I am glad he has begun to teach you and to teach you correctly, but you are an extreme minority in this church, in all the churches.”
“Okay. What do you have in mind.”
“Have you ever considered teaching?”
Ed laughed out loud without meaning to. “Who? Me? You’ve got to be kidding? I don’t know enough to teach anyone anything.”
“I don’t believe that will be true a few months from now. In any event, there must be people in the churches of today who are willing to speak of the Apostle as he spoke of himself, not as he has been reimaged into.”
Paul seemed quite passionate, as if this was all something personal to him.
“Is this what Phil asked you to say to me.”
“Absolutely. He said look up my friend Ed. You can rely upon him.”
Ed didn’t want to let Phil down but he felt the both of them were asking a lot of him. Sure, someday he thought he might like to try his hand at teaching a class, but he figured that would be years down the road.
“If you are willing, you will be sent several teachers who will help you learn not only how to teach, but how to teach correctly. The Torah is the basis for all righteousness and justice. The Gentiles are not obligated to the mitzvot, but you also were never intended to create a community called “church” that replaced the centrality of Israel or the devotion of the Jewish people, the disciples of Moshiach, to the Torah.”
Paul paused as if he realized something.
“Forgive me. I am being too passionate. I have not given you a chance to speak.”
Ed trusted Phil a lot. It wasn’t particularly rational. Phil worked in a liquor store, had long-hair and tattoos covering at least both arms, and looked like he’d lived a hard life before becoming a Christian. Not exactly the sort of primly dressed and groomed men and women he found himself surrounded by at this little church.
“Okay. If Phil thinks it’s a good idea and that I have it in me, I’m willing to give it a try. Who’s going to be teaching me? Why not Phil?”
“Phil has other…concerns and cannot meet with you regularly. Your first teacher will meet with you in a week or so. He will be able to find you here.”
This all sounded so cloak and dagger. This was church. It was harmless. Why all the secrecy?
“Um…okay. I’ll be on the lookout.” Ed wished he had Phil’s phone number to verify all of this was coming from him.
“Very well. I have over stayed my welcome. I’m sure you don’t realize why, but being inside a modern church is very unsettling to me. I must take my leave.”
They both stood and this time it was Paul to extended his hand first. “A pleasure meeting you, Ed.”
“Same here, Paul.” That wasn’t exactly true and Ed was anxious for the other man to leave. He needed time to process this odd encounter. Where was Phil when he needed him?
Without another word, Paul exited the library and when Ed looked out into the hall, the man was nowhere in sight.
“Sure moves fast,” Ed muttered to himself.
It was too late to go to his Sunday School class, so Ed headed out to the parking lot. As he was unlocking his car, he heard a familiar voice from behind.
“Paul sure works up a head of steam, doesn’t he?”
Ed whirled around. “Phil!” Without meaning to and out of sheer relief, Ed lunched at him and gave him a hug.
“I missed you too, Ed.”
“So you did send Paul.”
“That I did.”
“Seems like a strange little guy.”
“Well, he’s not from around here, so yeah, I can see how he probably wouldn’t fit in.”
“That’s what he said, like he didn’t feel comfortable in church.”
“As I recall, you haven’t always felt comfortable in church either.”
Ed blushed with embarrassment. “That’s true, but it was different for Paul.”
“Like I said, Paul’s passionate about what he teaches and what’s being taught in the Church today.”
“So you really think I can be a teacher.”
Phil put his hand on Ed’s shoulder. “Someday, you’ll be one of the best. Trust me.”
Ed couldn’t help but trust Phil and all of his doubts seemed to melt away.
“Can you tell me who is supposed to come and teach me to be a teacher? Paul was a little vague.”
“It won’t be anyone you know and believe me, what they’ll teach you isn’t taught in church, at least not most of them.”
“We all serve, Ed, sometimes in ways we never thought we could.”
Ed stared not knowing what to say.
“Take some time to think it over. This’ll get easier the farther you get into it.”
“If you say so.”
“I certainly do say so, Ed.” Phil reached out and hugged Ed. “I’ve got to get going now, but we’ll talk again soon. Sooner than you think.”
“Okay, Phil. Take care.”
“You too, Ed.”
Phil turned, walked a few steps, then turned back briefly to wave. Ed waved back, then Phil walked across the parking lot toward the sidewalk. Ed unlocked his car and got in. He didn’t notice his friend turn a corner no one else could see and then was gone.
It was the same corner the Apostle Paul had turned just after he left Ed in the church’s library.
Ed first met God in the guise of Phil the liquor store clerk in First Encounter about two months ago, and then again in God Meets Ed in Church published a few days later. I thought it was time to continue Ed’s “education,” but decided to take it in a different direction. I don’t know if I’ll continue chronicling Ed’s adventures, but if I do, he’s got an interesting journey ahead of him.