“On the night when he was betrayed . . .” The room fell silent at the sound of James’s voice. He spoke these exact words each week, but they were never routine. James had been there; he witnessed these things. He saw the betrayer’s kiss and watched them arrest his teacher. Up and down the long tables, heads turned toward the elder, eager to hear the familiar words that followed.
“The Lord Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
“Hallelujah!” the congregation replied.
Joel took a small loaf from the basket at the center of the table and tore it into three pieces. “The body of Christ,” he said, handing a piece to his wife, Hannah, who sat next to him. Joel offered the other to Xenia, the young woman sitting across from him. She extended her hand to receive the bread. As she did, Joel gently clasped her hand with both of his and said, “which is for you.”
Xenia nodded her thanks. Her amber eyes watered. A single tear broke free, rolling over her cheekbone to the jagged scar across her cheek. She laughed in embarrassment as she wiped her face. Xenia smiled at Joel and then at Hannah and joined them in enjoying the bread.
Joel could not forget the first time he saw those amber eyes. As a young man, he accompanied his father to the temple to deposit a gift. His father stood at the offering box and slowly poured his purse of coins into the trumpet-shaped bronze funnel. The coins clanged and clamored as they fell into the box. The people around them stopped talking, turning to see who brought such a generous offering. When the last coin had fallen, his father lifted his hands and prayed loudly, thanking the Lord for making him a righteous man.
When his father finished praying, Joel turned to leave, as they usually did. Only this time, his father took his arm and stopped him. His father nodded his head, motioning to an elderly woman who hobbled toward the receptacle. She put her hand to the funnel. A single, faint clink sounded. Then she turned and hobbled toward the Court of the Women.
“You see,” Joel’s father began, taking his arm to lead him out of the temple, “this is why we thank the Lord every day that he made us men and not women. A woman has nothing to offer the Lord. A woman has nothing to offer a man. The first woman offered the first man the fruit. She brought death into the world. She is doubly unclean. This is why she can go no further into the temple. This is why we do not teach the Torah to a woman. It is better to burn the Torah than to give it to a woman.”
“When you were born, Joel, I thanked the Lord,” his father continued as they left the temple and entered the city. Joel had heard this speech so many times before that he could have completed it without missing a word. “Happy is he whose children are male, and woe to him whose children are females. Ten measures of empty-headedness have come upon the world, nine having been received by women and one by the rest of the world.”
“Men are informed by reason, Joel,” his father said as they turned down a small alley in the city. His father liked to wind through the side streets and alleyways to avoid the crowds and return home more quickly. “Women do not think; they are only sensual. This is why we do not even touch a woman. Do not let a woman even take a coin from your hand in the marketplace. You will be unclean.”
His father, lost in the lecture, abruptly paused, and looked around him. His expression made it clear to Joel that he did not know where they were. They had never been to this part of the city before.
Just then, a young woman stepped out of a door. She was around Joel's age, clad in colorful garments and jewelry, with makeup on her face. She approached them.
“Please, sirs,” she said softly, “would you like to come in. We offer all manner of pleasures at every price.”
Joel’s father stammered, confused by his location and stunned by the woman’s offer. He turned on his heel and began to storm away.
“Don’t go,” the woman said, grabbing his hand to make the offer again.
Joel’s father spun toward her in rage. In one swift movement, he pulled his hand from her grasp and backhanded her across the face with the other. She fell to the dirt. He continued down the alleyway. Joel stood frozen, torn between helping the woman up and following his father.
The young woman rose to her knees and turned toward Joel. Blood flowed from her cheek. His father’s ring had left a deep cut. She woman touched her cheek and looked at the blood on her finger. Tears welled in her arresting amber eyes, which locked with Joel’s before his fathers clasped his arm and forced him to go.
Though Joel had only seen them for a second, those amber eyes were seared into his memory. A decade would pass before he would see them again.
On that Sunday evening, Joel and Hannah stayed after the communal meal to help her parents clean up. A woman dressed in tattered clothes stood on the edge of the courtyard. It was not uncommon for the poor to attend banquets in hopes of receiving leftover food. Their gathering had gained a reputation for being particularly generous.
“Greetings,” Joel said, approaching her. She did not lift her head. “Would you like some food? There's still some left.”
“Yes,” she replied softly.
“Follow me,” he said. “My wife, Hannah, would be glad to help you.”
Joel brought the woman to his wife, then left them and returned to cleaning tables.
A few minutes later, Hannah approached. The woman, whose name was Xenia, had no home. She slept in the streets and begged for food. Hannah suggested they invite her to stay with them for a time. She hoped they could not only help her but might also find an opportunity to talk to her about the Messiah. Joel smiled at his wife’s wisdom, compassion, and initiative. He agreed and encouraged her to take Xenia home while he stayed to finish the remaining work.
When Joel arrived home, Hannah and Xenia sat at the table, sharing a bowl of figs in the glow of the oil lamp. Joel joined them.
“Welcome to our home, Xenia,” he said, taking a seat.
“Thank you,” she replied shyly. For the first time, she lifted her head to look at him.
Joel stared in unbelief. He couldn’t look away. He couldn’t speak. Even in the dim light of the flickering oil lamp, he knew those amber eyes. He knew that scar on her cheek too. He’d seen the cut it covered and the blood that flowed from it. She was the young woman from the alleyway, the one his father struck and left in the dirt.
Tears cut lines on Joel’s dusty cheeks. Xenia’s face showed no sign of recognition, though her brow furrowed with confusion at the sight of this crying stranger.
“What’s the matter, dear?” Hannah asked, putting a hand on her husband’s.
He tried to speak. His efforts produced nothing but sobs, which grew in intensity with each attempt at a word. Finally, he buried his face in his hands and wept. The women sat in respectful silence.
At last, Joel regained his composure. He slowly recounted the day he and his father encountered her in that alleyway. Now Joel bowed his head in shame before the woman. Through tears, he asked forgiveness for his father’s actions. He begged her to forgive him for leaving her to bleed in a filthy alley.
Xenia sat silent, staring into the dancing flame of the lamp. Several minutes passed before she spoke.
“No man has ever asked my forgiveness before,” she said in a whisper. “I don’t know how to respond.”
The three sat, unspeaking, while Xenia thought. Hannah and Joel prayed silently until, at last, their guest spoke.
“My father was a fisherman,” she began. “He drowned when I was a young girl. He left my mother with nothing. A man agreed to marry her but refused to bring me into his home. One day, my mother led me to an unfamiliar part of town, down a side street into an alley, where we stopped at a doorstep. She told me to wait there while she ran an errand. She never returned.”
Xenia took a fig from the bowl and turned it in her fingers while she thought.
“I slept next to that doorstep that night and waited there all the next day. I stayed there two nights and two days, never leaving except to find water. I did not know how to find my way home. A woman found me and offered me a meal and a bed. When we arrived at her home, there were several other women there. None were married. Many men came and went that night.”
“I stayed for a few days. When it became clear that I had nowhere to go, they required me to earn my lodging . . .” Xenia fell silent, taking a deep, shuddering breath as she put the fig back in the bowl. “. . . with men.”
Hannah reached across the table, taking both of Xenia’s hands in her own. She stroked the back of her hands with the gentleness of a mother soothing a child.
“I’m so sorry, Xenia,” Hannah said. “It must be so hard for you to tell us these things . . .”
“This went on for many years,” said Xenia, slowly pulling her hands out of her host’s. “But when this happened . . .” She raised a hand to touch her cheek. “I was no longer desirable to the men who visited us. I could not earn my share. They put me out. I began to beg and learned how to live on the streets. No man would marry me, though many men . . .”
She stopped. For the first time since she began telling her story, she looked up at her hosts who were both were crying. She looked at Hannah and then turned her eyes to Joel.
“I have other scars,” she said, before lowering her head again.
The lamp flickered and then extinguished. Hannah went to find oil.
“Xenia,” Joel said as they sat in the dark. “I don’t know what to say. I am so sorry.”
Hannah returned and filled the lamp.
“My father took your life from you,” Joel said as his wife worked on lighting the lamp. “I am no longer who I was then, but I am still my father’s son. His debts are my debts.”
A new flame jumped from the lamp, illuminating their faces again.
“Here is what I will offer you, Xenia,” Joel continued. She looked up at him, waiting to hear what he could offer her.
“My life . . .” Joel stopped and took Hannah’s hand. “Our life is now yours. You will be a member of our family. This will be your home. If you are willing, we will provide for you for the rest of your days.”
Xenia did not answer that night. Hannah made a bed for her, and they all turned in for the night.
Xenia was still sleeping when Joel left the following morning to buy fish and loaves for breakfast. He breathed a prayer of thanksgiving when he returned to find her and Hannah at the table. Setting the food on the table, he offered a prayer of thanks and served their guest first.
“You have been so kind to me,” Xenia said after eating her fill. “I do not mean to insult your hospitality, but I must ask, why are you like this? I did not think that Jews and Greeks . . .”
“There are no Jews and Greeks in this home, Xenia,” Hannah said, interrupting her mid-sentence. “We are not citizens of this city or this country.”
“I don’t understand,” Xenia replied, her face scrunched in confusion.
It was now Joel’s turn to tell his story. He explained his father’s zeal for the Torah and his own inability to live up to his father’s standards. Eventually, his father cast him out of the home, forbidding him to ever return. Since he had already failed to keep the commands of his father, Joel abandoned them altogether. He went to work as a fisherman, earning wages during the day and spending them on lawlessness during the night.
“This continued,” he explained, “until I went to the marketplace to buy a new shirt. A woman—more beautiful than I had ever seen—was selling clothing, the finest I’d found. I could not afford her prices, and she refused to haggle. So I saved my money, returning every day to offer a slightly higher price—and, each day, she refused to budge.”
“After several weeks, I returned with enough money to buy the shirt. Only now, I was not interested in the shirt. Instead, I expressed my interest in the seamstress.” He looked at Hannah and winked. “She told me that I would need to meet her father. If I was truly interested, she said, I would pack up her booth and carry everything home for her.” Joel laughed. “It didn't look as heavy as a net of fish—and she seemed to be a good catch—so I did what she said.”
A slight smile formed at the edges of Xenia’s face, the first they’d seen from her.
“When we got to her house,” James said with a laugh, “which was farther away than she led me to believe, she walked through the front door without so much as a word to me. A few seconds later, her father walked out. He took the bundle from me and sat it inside the house. Then he invited me to sit with him in his courtyard, where told me about The Way.”
“The Way?” Xenia asked.
“I’ll let Hannah explain,” Joel said. “She’s got quite a story to tell.”
Now Hannah spoke. Her father had been an early follower a Jesus of Nazareth, a name that Xenia found familiar. Hannah explained that this Jesus was the Messiah Joel mentioned earlier. He was Israel's long-awaited king. Only, when he arrived, they rejected him. They had him executed at the hands of the Romans. But on the third day, several of the women went to his tomb and found it empty. They said he had risen from the dead.
At first, Hannah’s father did not believe the women. But soon after, Jesus appeared to him and the other men. Her father even touched the wounds left by the nails and spear that pierced him. This was the same Jesus, alive again.
Jesus spent forty days with her father and his friends, teaching them about his kingdom. His death was for the forgiveness of their sins. And one day, he promised, they would be raised from the dead just like he was. Anyone who received this message would be a member of God’s kingdom—and the Spirit of God would come and live within them. Jesus told them to tell everyone this good news and to keep preaching it until he returned. Then, they watched as he ascended into the heavens.
“So, my father stayed here, telling people about the Messiah,” Hannah said, coming to the end of her story. “He soon gathered a group of believers that met in his home each week. That’s the home where we met you. My father, James, still teaches the church every week. We want to live for Jesus, to be like him, and introduce him to others. Our Lord surrendered his life for us. How can we not do the same for others?”
Xenia’s head spun. She had heard the stories of the Greek gods. But never had she heard something like this. She felt confused—like her heart wanted to rejoice and run away at the same time.
“I know it’s a lot,” said Hannah. “But, if you’ll stay with us, I can tell you more and help you understand. You’ll stay with us, won’t you?”
Xenia did stay, at first, because she had no other option. But soon, she began to learn how to love Hannah and Joel. Slowly and gradually, she felt at home.
Hannah ran a business in the home. She made clothing, as her mother taught her, and sold it in the marketplace. Hannah taught Xenia how to dye fabric. (Xenia loved the purple dye, which Hannah said was sent to their church as a gift from the church in Thyatira.) Hannah would tell Xenia the Jewish stories about creation, Noah, Abraham, Ruth, David, Esther, and others as they worked side-by-side. Xenia couldn’t get enough of them. She asked question after question, each of which Hannah patiently answered.
Most of all, Xenia loved the stories about Jesus, which Hannah learned directly from her father. Sometimes, they would visit his home for a meal. Xenia would sit at his feet and listen to stories late into the night. Jesus, it seemed, actually loved women like her.
Eventually, Xenia came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Hannah baptized her in the river, and she was invited to join the church each week for their special supper—the one the Lord had given them. Eventually, Xenia found herself teaching others about Jesus.
One Sunday, Joel taught the assembly. He was a gifted speaker. Being raised in a devout home, he knew the Jewish scriptures well. Being married to Hannah, he was well-schooled in the teachings of Jesus. But as Xenia listened, she felt slightly uncomfortable. Something Joel said didn’t sit right to her. She thought about it all afternoon and evening. When she awoke, she knew what it was.
“Something on your mind?” Joel asked over breakfast that morning. “You look distracted. You haven’t touched your food.”
“There is something, but I . . .” Hannah fell silent, picking at the bread.
“Go on,” encouraged Joel, “you’re family. You can tell us anything.”
“It’s about what you taught yesterday,” she began, lowering her eyes to the table. “It was wonderful. I always learn so much from you about Jesus. It’s just that . . .”
Hannah, who had been listening while she tended the fire, sat down at the table next to Joel. Xenia looked up at her.
“And . . . ?” Hannah said. Xenia thought she saw a slight grin on Hannah’s face—as though she knew what was about to follow.
“And I think you said some things that weren’t quite right,” Xenia spoke so quickly that the sentence came out as one long word.
“Well,” said Joel, “I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. It’s certainly possible that I could be wrong. Hannah has corrected me more than once.”
Xenia looked up again at Hannah, who raised her eyebrows and nodded.
“What was it?” said Joel, encouraging her to go on.
Xenia recounted his teaching from the beginning to the end. She offered insights that he’d never considered, illustrating how it applied to her and encouraged her faith. Then, Xenia began to explain why something he said didn’t seem to accord with what she’d learned. She recounted what he had taught her from the Jewish scripture, what Hannah had explained to her about Jesus, and what she learned at the feet of James (who had taken to calling her “daughter”). With care and precision, she demonstrated how one thing he had said was a bit off the mark.
“You know,” Joel said after a moment’s thought, “I think you’re right. That is certainly off. But I’m not quite sure how to understand it correctly.”
Xenia, in response to Joel’s humility, grew more confident. She patiently taught him how to understand the subject more clearly.
“You’re absolutely right!” Joel said, throwing his head back and laughing. “That is a brilliant insight. I can’t believe I didn’t see that before. Thank you, Xenia, for showing me the way of God more accurately.”
James’s voice filled the courtyard again. “In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, and said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
As they sat there, waiting for the cup to reach their table, Joel looked at his wife and then at Xenia. He thought his heart might burst with the joy he felt over these two women. They were not merely his wife and friend. They were his sisters in Christ, allies in the mission of the king. They had linked arms to run this race together—and he knew he could not finish his course without them.
He marveled especially over Xenia. The grace of God in Christ had not only transformed her, but the Spirit gifted her in incredible ways. When the church assembled, James would often call on her to lead the body in prayer. She spoke to God how a child speaks to her father, with the confidence and assurance that come from knowing you are deeply loved. During assembly each week, the elders would ask if anyone had a word from the Lord. A dozen times now, Xenia rose to her feet with a prophetic word for the congregation. And, each time, the elders encouraged the church to receive it as a word from the Lord, encouraged by her gift.
Joel also admired Xenia’s perseverance. Most of the community embraced her as a sister in the household of God. Here, she had found a hundred fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. But not everyone felt that way.
No one outwardly shunned or shamed Xenia. But Joel observed a few men who would not speak to her, who turned their heads away when she prophesied or prayed. He noticed some women who found other tables to sit at or suddenly remembered things they had to do when she joined their circle in conversation. He was sure Xenia noticed too. She was a Gentile in a predominantly Jewish church—a Gentile woman. And not only a woman, but a woman with “a past.” For some, that was entirely too much. The new way in Jesus had not yet entirely displaced the old way of their flesh.
This grieved Joel. He thought of their home and what Jesus had done in his life. His father and mother were in no way the true partners he and Hannah had become. His father had little time for his mother beyond correcting her when she did not keep the house to his standards. And the friendship he had with Xenia—his father actively discouraged him from even talking with his own sister. His father refused to teach her the Torah, insisting that to do so was akin to selling her into prostitution. And then there was that—Xenia's “past,” not to mention her ethnicity. If his father were to know of this close friendship—this family relationship—with a Gentile woman who used to be a prostitute, he would call down curses from the grave!
At last, the cup reached their table. An elder refilled it and handed it to Joel.
“The blood of Christ, shed for you,” Joel said, handing the wine to his wife, who drank deeply.
“The blood of Christ, shed for you,” Hannah said, passing the cup to Xenia, who closed her eyes and drank with joy.
“The blood of Christ,” Xenia said, extending the cup to Joel, “shed for you.”
Joel received the cup from her hand. He turned it so that he would drink from the same place on the cup that she had. They were family. Joel wanted everyone to see it.
Joel finished the cup and then he handed it back to the elder, who continued to carry it from table to table until all had drunk from it.
Where else in the world, Joel wondered, could you find a community of men and women, Jew and Gentile, relating to one another brothers and sisters? Where else were spiritual leaders and former prostitutes equals in citizenship, inheritance, and standing? Where else would such an unlikely mix of men and women sit at the same table, eating the same bread and drinking from the same cup? Only in the household of God. Only by the grace of Jesus.
Joel recalled the story of when the Messiah—their Lord—gave his followers this meal. Jesus commanded his disciples to love one another in the same manner he had loved them. That was the Torah of this new covenant with God—self-humbling, self-sacrificing, others-focused love. A love that looked like God incarnate.
It was that love that had transformed him and their home. The love of Jesus led the daughter of an apostle to marry a rebel like him. It was the love of Christ that compelled him to receive a Gentile prostitute into his home and call her “sister.” And it was this same love that led so many men and women to receive one another—and Xenia—into the fellowship. What would it look like, Joel wondered, if the love of Christ transformed the whole church—or the world?
Joel rose suddenly to his feet, shocking not only Hannah and Xenia but the entire assembly. He walked quickly into the house. When he emerged, the whole fellowship looked at him. Their eyes followed him as he carried the pitcher, basin, and towel back to their table. Joel knelt before Xenia and began to wash her feet.
What would it look like?