Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Acts 27

Acts 27:1-12: Paul could have been set free, but he had already made an appeal to the emperor, and so to the emperor he shall go. Of course, for Luke, this is an emphasis on how the church under the power of God’s Spirit will be a witness for God and for Jesus as the Christ to the ends of the earth. Julius, the Roman centurion treats Paul kindly at Sidon. This is the kind of treatment that Luke would like to encourage all Romans to give to Christians. Sailing is difficult and Paul advises that the ship should spend the winter in Fair Havens.

Acts 27:13-38:
While making Rome before winter was not possible, the ship’s captain and the centurion hope for a more adequate destination and set sail from Fair Havens. The ship encounters a violent storm, and after a couple of days all hope of being saved was seemingly lost.

Paul stands up to make a speech, to provide a witness. He begins by reminding them that he was right in advising that they not set sail – and you wonder about such a rhetorical strategy. Nevertheless, Paul assures them that he will speak before the emperor, and that God has guaranteed his safety. He advises them to keep their courage and not be afraid. Such words are found frequently in the New Testament and seem an appropriate response of faith to the assurance that God’s Spirit remains at work.

After fourteen days without eating, Paul encourages them all to eat, reassuring them that things will be all right. The scene of Paul’s breaking bread is meant to evoke the sharing of the Eucharistic meal. For the church, it is in sharing the eucharist that strength and courage are found for the journey of faith, even when that journey encounter turbulent seas and violent winds.

Acts 27:39-44: A shipwreck ensues, but everyone survives, not only the wreck, but also the plot to kill the prisoners.

Acts 28

Acts 28:1-10: The ship has run aground on Malta, and there the ship’s passengers enjoy warm hospitality offered by the islanders, their “unusual kindness.” The tale of the snake biting Paul is meant to convey God’s on-going protection of Paul and the importance of Paul getting to Rome. The power of God’s Spirit not only works for Paul, but through him as Paul heals people on the island. In gratitude for all that Paul has done, provisions are provided for the journey to Rome.

Acts 28:11-16: The journey continues, and along the way, Paul encounters a community of believers. The message about Jesus has preceded Paul. The church in Rome was not founded by Paul as his own letter to Roman Christians indicates. When Paul arrives in Rome and sees believers there, he “thanked God and took courage.”

Acts 28:17-31: Paul has arrived at his destination, Rome. The gospel message has traveled from Jerusalem, to Judea, and to the ends of the earth. Here Paul again reaches out first to the Jewish people in Rome. He invites the local leaders to a gathering for conversation. He begins by telling them the story of his arrest and innocence. He reiterates his Jewish identity and begins to indicate that his new faith is part and parcel of his faith journey as a Jew. His audience tells Paul that they have heard nothing about him from Judea, but they have heard about this “sect,” and what they have heard has not been good. They want to get Paul’s take on it, and a date is set to do just that.

A great many people gather at Paul’s lodgings and he explained and testified “to the kingdom of God” and tried to “convince them about Jesus.” Here again, Luke uses a couple of summary phrases to describe the content of the teaching and preaching of the early church. The kingdom of God may be thought of as God’s dream for the world, a world of peace, justice, reconciliation, beauty, love, compassion, care, forgiveness. It is an alternative to the way the world most often works where the powerful define “justice,” where poverty is allowed to stand, where people are divided by race or ethnicity or religion, where violence runs amok. For Paul, and for the early Christians, God’s power in working toward God’s dream for the world was seen most fully in the life and teaching of Jesus, in what he said and what he did.

As happened throughout the Book of Acts, “some were convinced by what [Paul] said, while others refused to believe.” Paul uses a few verses from Isaiah to caution his listeners against being too quick to turn away. The unwillingness of some seems to open the way for more Gentiles to be welcome among the people of God.

Paul lives two years in Rome, making his own way economically, a backhanded reference to other wisdom teachers who had as a primary goal making money from their followers. Paul “welcomed all” who came. He continued “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.” Again, the language suggests an alternative way of life to the Roman way, the Roman kingdom where Caesar was lord. Paul continued this work with “boldness.” At the end, Paul serves as a model for the church of Luke’s own time.

Luke’s book seems to end rather abruptly. What happens to Paul and the Christian movement in Rome? Some have speculated that Luke wrote or intended a third volume of his work. Others argue that the ending fits Luke’s purpose, given what happened to Paul. From the historic record is appears that Paul appeared before the imperial court and was condemned. Nero was the emperor. In 64 CE, Christians became the target of a significant persecution in Rome. Nero blamed them for a fire that had destroyed the central part of the city. Nero, himself, was widely regarded as the instigator of the fires so that he might engage in a grand “urban renewal” project. Paul and Peter were both executed during this persecution. Luke seemed to prefer to view this action against Paul as an isolated and unwarranted imperial response to the Christian movement. He wanted to foster and encourage a more positive response. By ending his gospel with Paul continuing his work unhindered, he suggests a more appropriate Roman response to the Christian movement. To have ended the book with Paul’s death, which would have been fairly common knowledge to Luke’s Christian community, would not have been the positive ending Luke wanted.

So do we simply ignore difficult realities? Of course not. Luke knew Paul was executed. Most of Luke’s readers would have know that Paul had been executed. To focus only on that fact would not have presented a very accurate picture of the Christian movement. Obviously, given the communities for which Luke wrote, the Christian movement continued on. It was in a position to continue the work of Jesus and Paul and Luke wanted to encourage them to do so. 2,000 years later, we, too, have the opportunity to continue that work. Will we do it with boldness?

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