Following several years of house arrest, the emperor Nero had Paul executed about the time he did the same to Peter. I wonder what they thought, while waiting in the hours before they were killed, about their lives as apostles of Jesus. As far as we know, Peter left no written record of his life’s work, so our best guess would be pure fiction. On the other hand, Paul did leave a record of his work, and the evangelist Luke wrote half the book of Acts about his life and ministry. It gives us, or at least gives me, something to work on as I imagine what he might have been thinking.
I can’t imagine that he looked back with any sense of triumphant satisfaction. Except for one or two of the many churches he helped establish, they were not much of a success. Congregational infighting, disagreements over doctrine, legalism, antinomianism, laziness, syncretism, they had it all. It kept him busy writing letters of counsel, correction, and encouragement, of which a few have survived to be included the canon. On top of it, he had to endure the physical hardships of dangerous travel that included the occasional jailing, beating, and shipwreck. His former colleagues among the pharisees hated him, and his new colleagues among the followers of Jesus didn’t trust him. The Harvard Business Review would never have published an article celebrating his executive prowess, and no theological journal would have published the unsystematic, self-contradictory drivel his letters represented.
So there he was, nearing the end of his life, waiting for the executioner to do the deed. What was he thinking? In my imagination he was relieved to be going home to God at last, and grateful it would be over quickly, but I also imagine that he was mentally preparing his confession and apology for having been such miserable failure as an apostle. He could not have foreseen that some of his letters would be deemed Holy Scripture. He could not have anticipated that two millennia of Christians would study his letters to receive through them the guidance they were seeking for the problems they faced in their communities of worship.
He wasn’t right about everything, but he wasn’t wrong about everything either. He simply did the best he could to listen to what God was saying, translating it into a life of faith for himself and others. Because he knew Jesus in a particularly intimate way not share by other apostles, he tried harder to listened with his full attention, but it was a learning experience for him as it is for us. As his letters reveal, he matured in his faith as new experiences opened new vistas leading to greater wisdom. He was able to change his mind as he learned new things, sometimes casting off what he had previously thought was certain, but never losing sight of Jesus as the center of everything, never failing to point others in that direction.
Maybe a lesson we pastors and teachers of today need to learn from Paul is that our failures may not be failures at all, and our successes may be for nothing. We don’t know, and we can’t know. We can only be as faithful as we are able in the proclamation of the good news of God in Christ.