Coffee with Theophilus
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
The following story is, obviously, fiction. It’s a conversation that might have happened if the events of the early church had happened in our culture. Luke was the author of one of the four gospels, which tell the story of Jesus, and the sequel book called Acts. Both were written to his friend Theophilus, as well as to the surrounding community. Not much is really known about Theophilus, but this short interchange reflects the parallels between his world and our own.
The buzz of my phone ranked somewhere below the din and clatter of the busy coffee shop. I glanced at the screen to see the name “Theophilus” in my list of text messages. “on my way” he wrote, though knowing him that meant he hadn’t left the meeting yet. I’d made it through the first third of my latte before he walked through the door, dressed in his usual finest. I waited to greet him until after he’d ordered and sat down.
“Most excellent Theophilus! How’s life in the rat races.”
He shook his head and smiled, stirring his caramel double-shot whatever concoction he was undoubtedly addicted to. “Oh, you know how it is, Luke. Blow this next contract with Rome and heads are gonna roll.” I honestly didn’t know if his laughter was nervous or not. “What about you? Given any more thought to heading back into medicine?”
I shook my head, suddenly a bit far-off. I remember what people said when I took off to travel with Paul to be a missionary. Most thought it a bit strange, especially since the word “Christian” was still unknown to so many. “No, no.” I replied. “I’m sure there’s something else God has planned for me.”
Theophilus furrowed his brow a bit. “Yeah, I guess maybe.” He didn’t quite make eye contact.
“Still not sure about the whole God thing?” I asked.
“It’s not that, I mean…I love God, sure…my parents made sure they gave me a name to remind me of that. And I even hear really great things about this Jesus guy and all. It’s just…I dunno…the whole church thing…”
I broke the momentary pause. “What about it?”
“Well, you run with that crowd. They don’t seem to be able to agree on much of anything. Besides, it seems like the kind of thing that appeals more to the people who have been, you know, religious all their life.”
“You mean the Jews?”
“Yeah.” He became more animated on this point. “I’m not saying I’m against them or anything like that, it’s just…I wasn’t born into that. And now, who’s to say what it really means to be a ‘Christian?’ Some say you have to go back and follow all their religious practices and all but…gosh, I don’t even know where I’d begin.”
That stung a bit. Especially since neither of us really got the whole “tradition” thing the same way that so many of Jesus’ followers did. Even Jesus had come from a Jewish home. Traveling abroad, I’d gotten to see so many cultures. And it was strange, you have to admit: no other community was as racially and culturally diverse as Christianity.
“Plus,” he continued. “I mean, I get it Luke. You’ve been all over the world. But Jesus…we all know He died a long time ago. It’s been what…20, 30 years? How can we really know how this whole ‘Christian’ thing is supposed to really work? Don’t get me wrong, I mean, I love Jesus. The things I hear about Him are great. And yeah, I’ve even been to some of these churches that have been meeting in homes. These people…they risk their lives. I mean, the Jews…people are willing to put up with them, I mean the government’s even helping remodel their temple.”
“Well, not everyone’s all that thrilled about that.”
“Yes, but at least they’re respected. I heard the other day that some people were starting to call Christians atheists, because they don’t follow Jewish or Roman gods.”
“Well, you can’t judge by stereotypes.”
“I know, Luke.” He wiped his face with his hands. “But perception is reality you know? Again, I love Jesus; I think what you’re doing is great, I just…I guess I just don’t see what it has to do with me.”
I understood right then and there what it was my dear friend needed. I remember medical school, where we read a dusty textbook by a man named Galen, who used to talk about “carefully investigating” the symptoms of his patients. And I realized that this is what my friend needed. Jesus was now a major topic of conversation. I even heard that whole books were slowly being circulated about Him. Maybe it was time to add my own voice to the mix – not just for my friend here, but for anyone struggling to understand how to love Jesus and fit into His church. And we needed this desperately, before people’s ideas about Him began to eclipse who He actually was. So I committed right then to find out more, and I committed right then to tell my own story along with it.
I asked Theophilus if I might pray for him. He had already stood up to leave when he nodded vigorously. He was a busy man.
And right now, so was I.
The following questions could be used for a small group, but they’re also great ways to start spiritual conversations one-on-one with friends or co-workers. Feel free to post responses (yours, or even theirs with their permission) in the comments below.
(1) As we see, Theophilus was a well-to-do, educated man who knew some things about Jesus, but didn’t really know how he fit into the culture of the church of his day and so it’s not clear that he was ready to make that next step. Do you or someone you know fit this description? What would it take from having good ideas about Jesus to trusting Him totally?
(2) Part of the barrier that Theophilus encountered was that with all the diversity of the early church, including those who insisted on maintaining Jewish practices, he wasn’t sure what he should believe and why. Are there “Christian” practices and beliefs that can be a barrier to belief? Which ones and why?
(3) Theophilus also had trouble understanding how he fit into the church because of the negative perceptions people had of the church (called “atheists” by the Romans). What are some negative cultural perceptions of Christians? Why might these be a barrier for people to believe in Jesus?
(4) Luke mentions that there were, by this point, there were many other teachings out there about who Jesus was. What are some of the ways Jesus is portrayed in our culture today? Where do your own ideas about Jesus come from?
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.