November 27, 2011

The Angel Gabriel was Sent

During this six-week blog-study we’ll be unpacking the story of the Nativity with reference to scripture (the Gospel of Luke) and snippets from Mary, My Love by Cynthia Davis. We’ll consider how we accept God’s call to ministry. Exploring the people most closely impacted by the birth of Christ and their response to God’s call will offer insights into our own ministry and deepen your Advent adventure this year. You do not have to have read the book to enjoy the blog. If you do want to order a copy, email me.

What is the ‘call’ of God? How do we hear it? My definition is that Call is when my woundedness (and we are all wounded in some way) meets God’s healing and I feel the need to share that healing with others so that God is glorified. Call is our response to the wrongs or wounds in our lives. You might think of big organizations like MADD or AA that came from one person’s search for healing and answers to the wounds in their lives. Answering God’s call doesn’t have to be big and grand, though. My first book It is I, Joseph was born of the healing of my wounds of betrayal and I saw that in writing I could share God’s love.

The group Celtic Woman has a song titled, “The Call” that says, when we open our arms and accept the call, “you will find the answer…to the call”. The call of God is the answer to our wounded hearts which respond to the whisper of God. (*words at the end of the blog or watch them.

Sometimes we hear the call in the innocent response of a child to need or wrong in the world, too. It could be like the little girl who got an idea to do a read-a-thon to raise money for an orphanage. Today we meet Mary of Nazareth, a young girl, who heard her call through the voice of an angel. The first ‘character’ we meet in the drama is the angel Gabriel who was “sent by God…to a virgin…[whose] name was Mary.” Most scholars agree that Mary was likely a young teen at the time, probably no more than 14. Men, however, did not usually marry until they were older and established in their work so Joseph was probably several years older. Some traditions say he was a widower. In my book, he is not an aged gray-beard, but is several years older than his betrothed bride. He does love her though as we see in this scene from Mary, My Love soon after the betrothal when Mary stops at the carpenter shop.

Bravely, I laid my rough hand over hers where it rested on the wood. She did not pull away and I was thrilled. Her other hand traced the whorls in the wood.

“It has a lovely grain.”

“I chose this piece especially for that design.”

Mary seemed oblivious to my pleasure at her presence. I swallowed convulsively when the soft hand under mine turned over and small fingers twined with mine. When she looked up her dark eyes were serious.

“Joseph, I am a lucky girl. I will try to make you a good wife,” she promised.

“I know you will.”

The hoarseness in my voice came from the lump of emotion that threatened to choke me. Suddenly not trusting myself, I stepped back from the loving look in Mary’s eyes. My hands shook with longing. The young woman tilted her head as if confused. Something in my demeanor reassured her and a tender smile appeared.

“You will make a good husband. God brought us together.”

Before I could move, my betrothed bridged the distance between us. Stretching up she placed a soft kiss on my cheek and hurried out.

“I will come back tomorrow,” she called over her shoulder.

Jacob found me energetically sanding the tabletop.

“A year is a long time,” he noted.

I pretended to be engrossed in creating a satin smooth finish. A friendly hand rested on my shoulder.

“Mary is a jewel worth waiting for. Like me you have waited for the one woman who trapped your heart. A pleasant torment it is, too.”

I heard the amusement in my father’s tone and turned abruptly to face him.

“A year is too long,” I said, my voice ragged.

“Keep busy,” he counseled. “Time will pass more quickly.” (From Mary, My Love, (c) Cynthia Davis 2010)

By our standards a teenage girl is not a likely or logical choice to be the mother of the promised Messiah. We would think that someone mature in their religious life or from a royal or priestly family or rich, etc. would be a better choice than a young girl from a relatively small town far from the Holy City of Jerusalem. God doesn’t measure our worth in such ways, though.

Consider some of the heroes and heroines of the Bible. Moses, an exile and murderer, was sent back to the country he fled from. Ruth was a foreigner, as was Rahab, yet both are important links in the lineage of King David and of Jesus. Few of the prophets were rich or famous or priestly, yet their words were recorded rather than those of kings and priests. David was the youngest son of Jesse, yet he was anointed as king.

The prophet/priest Samuel makes the mistake of judging by appearances when he comes to Jesse’s home to anoint a successor for King Saul. “He looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’” (I Samuel 16:6-7)

God sends Gabriel to Mary in Nazareth of Galilee. We don’t know what she was doing, when “he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’” Mary does not seem to be astonished at the appearance of the angel. Instead she wonders what he means by his greeting! His next words are even more astounding. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:28-33)

Stop for a minute and try to remember yourself at 13 or 14. How would you have responded to an angelic visitor? Perhaps it is not so surprising that God chose a young girl. Children often are more open to the holy things around them. They see the beauty in a dandelion and the joy of a rainstorm. Young people are more open to believing that angels can appear and offer astonishing opportunities.

Mary does question her visitor who explains, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:35-38)

The young girl is open to the call of God, who seems to challenge her with something unbelievable. Her response is joy and self-giving. Like Isaiah (6:8) she responds “Here I am, send me.” She was willing to open her heart and respond to the call of God to be mother of Messiah. She teaches us that when we “Open your arms You will find the answer When you answer to the Call.”

Mary responds “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She is willing to embrace all that God has for her even though she does not really comprehend how much that will change her life. As the Celtic Woman song says, sometimes the call is your “wounded heart calling” or it can be “in desire or in the love we fear.” Often “when we have no dance to dance…or… voice to sing then the call is calling strong.” Finding the call of God will make you whole.

What is your brokenness that you can offer to God? What inspires you? What is your passion? What is your gift? What whisper do you hear?

Next week we will see how Joseph hears and responds to the call of God.

Lord, I offer to you my brokenness. Take it and redeem it with your call. Only in answering and living into your will, your call on my life can I be fully whole and fully human and fully yours. Amen.

*Sometimes in this life we hear
Calling from somewhere
Sometimes it is loud and clear
Sometimes it's so softly there
Sometimes it is in the sea
Sometimes in the sky
Sometimes it's in you and me
Sometimes it's a cry

Open your heart I am calling you
Right from the very start
Your wounded heart was calling, too
Open your arms You will find the answer
When you answer to the Call

Sometimes it is in desire
Or in the love we fear
When the call is calling us
'Till the fear will disappear

When we have no dance to dance
The call is in the song
When we have no voice to sing
Then the call is calling strong
Open your heart I am calling you

Right from the very start Your wounded heart was calling, too
Open your arms You will find the answer
When you answer to the Call (The Call, Celtic Woman)

November 20, 2011

At Last to Rome

In last week’s post we met Hermanus, warden and centurion in charge of Paul during his imprisonment in Caesarea and on the journey to Rome. He has been telling his wife, Portia, of the events leading to his return to Rome. (Acts 27-28) Today he concludes with the story of the journey to Rome.

Portia, I have to tell you I wasn’t sure that we would ever make it back to Rome. The seas were against us, it seemed. Paul was in my charge, but we were all under the command of Julius, a centurion of the Augustan Cohort. We set sail from Caesarea, planning to sail along the coast of Asia, but the winds kept us to the east of Cyprus. Finally we came to Myra. It is a town on the coast of Asia in the district of Lycia. It faces the western sea 100 miles from the island of Rhodes.

I have to admit I was glad to get on dry land for a time in Myra. The waves had been hard on my digestion. Julius found another ship for us. It was from Alexandria bound for Italy. We headed north and after too many days we arrived at Cnidus, only 100 miles up the coast from Myra. Then we sailed toward Crete fighting the wind all the way. Eventually, when I was sure all was lost, we rounded the tip of the island at Salmone and worked our way down the coast of Crete to Fair Havens. It seemed like a good place to stay. Even Paul urged that we go no further.

Later, I knew he was a prophet as well as a man of God. At the time I just wanted to stay on dry land. Paul told us, “Sirs, I can see that the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.”

You ask why we didn’t stay at Fair Havens. The ship’s captain and owner were convinced we would do better to head for Phoenix which had a safe winter harbor. It was only 25 or 30 miles they insisted. When a moderate wind from the south came up, we set out only to be struck by something the sailors called a northeaster with winds roaring across Crete. We were driven by the wind to a small island called Cauda, but we could not linger there because of the wind which drove us ahead of it into the open sea.

It was awful. The second day the sailors threw cargo into the sea and the next day they threw over the extra sails and ropes and other tackle. The storm was so violent that we could not see the sun during the day or the moon at night. I was sure we would all be drowned. My thoughts turned to you here in Rome.

Paul was the only one who seemed calm in the midst of the storm. After many days, he called us all together and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and thereby avoided this damage and loss. I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship.” We all stared at him, a couple of the sailors grumbled and took a step toward the man. He ignored their threat and continued, “For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.” So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we will have to run aground on some island.”

I wanted to ask him how he could believe such things in the midst of the terrifying storm, but something about his calm demeanor kept me silent. It was only fourteen days after we set sail, although it seemed like a decade, when the sailors thought we were close to land. They took soundings for depth and discovered it was becoming more and more shallow. The men let out the anchors. We all waited for day. Some of the sailors thought they would escape in a small boat. Paul told me and Julius “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Immediately I cut the ropes and the boat fell into the sea. I watched it sink beneath the waves with a mixture of awe and fear.

Paul was not done encouraging us though. Before dawn he stood up with a loaf of bread. “Today is the fourteenth day that you have been in suspense and eaten nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads.” We stared at him in amazement as he prayed and tore off a piece of the bread. For some reason his simple act of eating encouraged us all and we all took some food. Then we threw the last of the cargo of wheat into the sea to make the ship light enough to make it over the rocks.

Do not cling to me, Portia. You can see that I survived. It was fearsome, though. Even lightened, the ship struck a reef and broke into pieces. The soldiers were going to kill all the prisoners, but Julius and I prevented them, mostly because we did not want to harm Paul. “Swim for shore or grab a plank and paddle to shore,” Julius ordered. That is what we did.

A welcoming party of the natives built a fire on the shore so we could dry ourselves. We learned that we landed on Malta. The residents were amazed when a viper crawled out of the wood and bit Paul. We all waited for him to die, but nothing happened. I heard them murmuring that he must be a god come to visit.

We were treated grandly and welcomed by Publius, the island’s ruler. We stayed with him for three days. When Paul heard that Publius’ father was ill, he quietly went in and prayed over the old man. He was healed! Word spread across the island and everyone who was ill came to be cured. We remained on Malta for three months until it was safe to sail. The people of the island supplied all the provisions we needed.

The ship we boarded was also from Alexandria. After a stop at Syracuse on Sicily, we landed at Rhegium on the tip of Italy. A south wind took us to Puteoli. I was amazed when a group of men met us and asked to see Paul. “We are Believers in the Way,” they said. “Please allow Paul to visit and encourage us.”

I was interested to see what would happen when Paul met these strangers who professed to believe in the same Jesus Christ he preached. We stayed for a week before traveling overland the last 100 miles to Rome. New believers met us as we neared the city. Each new group seemed to inspire Paul with more and more courage. “The word of the Lord is alive and well, here!” I heard him tell his companion and physician Lucius.

How long will Paul be here in Rome? I don’t really know. He must wait on the Emperor’s pleasure, I suppose. You know he called together the Jewish leaders here already and tried to explain his faith to them. Some of them were interested, but you heard the loud and angry discussion. Perhaps Paul was right when he told them, “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”

What do I believe about this Paul and his God? I think that I have a lot to learn from him. His God has a power I have not seen anywhere else. I am blessed for having known him and I hope he will live with us for a long time.

Paul’s impact on Hermanus and others he met on his journey to Rome was led by the Holy Spirit. He encouraged the soldiers who kept him under guard and the sailors whose courage had failed in the face of the violent storm. Paul healed even the strangers who came to him on Malta. In turn he was encouraged by the belief of those Christians who met him on the road to Rome. We can do nothing alone, but in community with other Christians we are built up and build up one another’s faith.

The Book of Acts ends with Paul in prison where he “lived for two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (Acts 28:30-31)

Paul continued to preach and teach even in bondage. In his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, written before his imprisonment in Rome, Paul enumerates many of his trials, none of which make him forget his faith in God. “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” (2 Corinthians 11:24-28) He is able to say “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Later he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

We have the promise of the same grace and faith no matter what our circumstances. Paul and the others in the book of Acts can provide inspiration by their actions in the face of all sorts of dangers.

Next week, Advent I, I'll start a new blog series about "Accepting God's Call" by looking at players in the Nativity drama.

November 13, 2011

Testimony from Prison

We are nearing the end of our journey through the Book of Acts. The early chapters helped us see the lives of the disciples after the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost. Men who cowered in the upper room, fearful of arrest, now spoke boldly in the streets and in the Temple. Thousands were converted and believed the Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah. This angered the Jewish leaders. Starting with Stephen, many were martyred. Rather than stopping the new ‘sect’ the persecution had the effect of spreading the word across the Roman Empire. Much of that missionary work was accomplished by Saul of Tarsus or Paul as he is better known. He was originally a rabid persecutor of the Believers, and even studied under the famous rabbi Gamaliel (right), but was converted himself by an appearance by the Risen Lord.

Over the past few weeks and months we have seen Paul attempt to convert the Jews in various cities of the Empire. Every time there is resistance and he then preaches to the Gentile community with dramatic results. After 3 missionary journeys from Asia Minor to Greece, Paul returns to Jerusalem where he is arrested. In order to save him from an assassination plot, the tribune Claudius Lysias sends him to Antonius Felix, the Roman Governor in Caesarea. Here is what happens, as told by Hermanus, (fictitious) warden of the prison, to his wife Portia when he returned to Rome. (Acts 24-26)

Jews came to Caesarea after five to press charges against a Roman Jew sent to us by Claudius Lysias, tribune in Jerusalem. I have never seen a worse miscarriage of justice. The Jews brought with them Tertullus, a lawyer versed in the laws of Rome and Caesar. He was, I must say, quite an oily character. His first words were meant to sway Governor Felix to assent to the Jews’ demands.

What did he say, you ask? “Your Excellency, because of you we have long enjoyed peace, and reforms have been made for this people because of your foresight. We welcome this in every way and everywhere with utmost gratitude. But, to detain you no further, I beg you to hear us briefly with your customary graciousness.”

It was not just his words. His endless bowing and nodding and smirking that made me think of a serpent. I wondered if he had already offered the governor a bribe in order to appear in the court. Then he went on to claim that Paul, my prisoner, who I have found to be a model of courtesy and politeness, was an agitator and ringleader of some obscure sect. All the other priests immediately started shouting that he profaned their temple, too. I could see that the governor was disturbed by the uproar they created. Tertullus saw it and quieted the Jews.

After everyone was quiet, our governor turned to the prisoner and gestured for him to make his response. I have to admit that the man was a good speaker. He too started by acknowledging that the governor has been in charge for many years.

His demeanor? There was not the least bit of fear. In fact, he addressed the governor as an equal. Paul said, “As you can find out, it is not more than twelve days since I went up to worship in Jerusalem.” He insisted he did nothing to disturb the peace of the city and would only admit one thing. It was a rather odd confession. He lifted his chin and announced, ‘According to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets. I have a hope in God—a hope that they themselves also accept—that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous. Therefore I do my best always to have a clear conscience towards God and all people.”

I saw the governor looked at Tertullus and the priests when Paul said that. My prisoner finished his defense by repeating that he was doing a rite of purification in the temple when arrested. At the end he offered a challenge, “Let these men here tell what crime they had found when I stood before the council.”

After that the governor adjourned the hearing, saying, “When Lysias the tribune comes down, I will decide your case.” Paul was remanded to my custody but he had some freedom including visits from friends. Days passed and Lysias did not come. I wondered if the governor even sent for him. It was not unknown for men to be kept in prison until a nice sum of money was paid to the governor, even without a trial.

Once the governor and his wife Drucilla had me bring Paul to their chamber. I listened at the door while the man talked about the man Jesus who he claimed had been crucified, yet rose from the dead. A rather preposterous idea, I thought at the time. Some of the other things Paul said were interesting, though. He talked about justice for all people and self control. When he started to warn of coming judgment, the governor sent for me to take him back to the prison.

Once or twice more he had me bring Paul to him. I think he was hoping that the Jew would give him a bribe to be freed. I guess Paul was the only one in the country who did not understand that part of the governor’s justice. This went on for two years, until Antonius Felix was recalled to Rome. Pocius Festus was the new governor, appointed by Emperor Nero.

What was Governor Festus like? He was a diligent leader and he had much to do. Discontent was rampant throughout Palestine. In fact only three days after he arrived at Caesarea, he traveled to Jerusalem to meet with the Jewish leaders. I hear they tried to convince him to bring Paul to Jerusalem so they could ambush him on the way, but the governor was not fooled. He ordered them to come to Caesarea and plead their case again.

In fact the Jews returned to Caesarea with the governor and almost immediately Paul was summoned before the tribunal. It was a raucous scene with the Jews shouting wild accusations. I saw the governor frown, but I sensed he wanted to build a rapport with the temple leaders. Even though Paul stated, “I have in no way committed an offence against the law of the Jews, or against the temple, or against the emperor,” Governor Festus asked if he would go to Jerusalem to be tried.

Then Paul did something that shocked everyone present. “I am appealing to the emperor’s tribunal,” he said. “This is where I should be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you very well know. Now if I am in the wrong and have committed something for which I deserve to die, I am not trying to escape death; but if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can turn me over to them. I appeal to the emperor.”

Of course after that, there was no further trial. The governor replied, “You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go.”

I know he had his doubts about the conclusion of the hearing because when the Jewish tetrarch Agrippa came with his sister Bernice (left) to welcome the governor, he explained the case to them. The man called himself ‘king’, but in reality he had little power even in the province he governed. His grandfather, Herod the Great, had been a king, but after his death the power was stripped away by the emperor, so his sons and grandchildren only governed under the authorization of the Emperor.

Agrippa expressed an interest in hearing Paul, so it was arranged. The audience hall was filled with the cohort of Caesarea and with many of the prominent men of the city. Governor Festus did know how to impress his guests. He claimed that he had Paul brought in so he could determine what sort of explanation or charges to send to Rome since the man had appealed to the Emperor. I smiled to myself when the governor said, “it seems to me unreasonable to send a prisoner without indicating the charges against him.”

Paul’s defense this time was much more detailed than before the Jewish priests. Most of his story I had heard before by listening to his discussions with the friends who visited him. I already knew he was a Pharisee, who are the lawyers of the Jews. I suppose that explains his ability to give a coherent and concise account of himself. He recounted how he had persecuted the followers of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. He explained, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.”

Why did the Jews hate him so much if he was one of them? It was something I had wondered about, but as he spoke, I started to understand that he had split from their doctrine because of this Jesus who he claimed was the Messiah hoped for by the Jews.

He told of something that happened to him on the way to Damascus. It was an amazing story and I saw both Agrippa and Festus leaning forward as he recounted, “I was travelling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. I heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ He answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”

It was a brave thing to say to a Roman governor and Jewish tetrarch. I held my breath to see what response they would have. Governor Festus leaned forward and shook his head, almost in pity. “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!”

Paul smiled sympathetically and replied with a slight bow. “‘I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth. Indeed the king knows about these things, and to him I speak freely; for I am certain that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.”

Agrippa pulled back as if to refute the claim. Then he leaned forward and asked softly, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?”

I was surprised when Paul replied, “Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.”

That a man imprisoned for over two years could still be so confident and calm amazed me and everyone else in the room. In fact, as the governor and king were leaving I overheard them comment to each other, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor.”

Since it was decided to send Paul to Rome, I was appointed to be his guard on the way. That is how I have come home to you, my dear wife. I will continue my story another time.

This fictitious centurion was impressed with Paul’s actions and testimony while in prison. Paul did not lose heart, but continued to confess Jesus Christ as Lord even before the authority of Palestine-the governor and king. We should ask ourselves, are people impressed by my actions and testimony of Christ’s action in our life? We may not be called before kings and rulers, but we are witnesses every day of the action of the Holy Spirit in our life. Jesus reminds us "When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say” (Luke 12:11-12)

Next week we will conclude our study of the Book of Acts and the action of the Holy Spirit in converting souls in the most unexpected situations.

November 10, 2011

Paul-citizen in chains

In our journey through the Book of Acts, and the life of Paul, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of Paul as a man of God. When we read just his letters to the churches, the Epistles, without an undergirding of Paul’s personal life and struggles, his challenges and his delights, we can think of him as a very stern and legalistic man. Taken out of their context as letters to places he had been and to people he knew, addressing issues important to their life and faith as part of the newly forming Christian church, some of Paul’s comments can sound narrow to our ears two millennia later. Understanding Paul, the man, can help us understand his writings, too, as encouragement and teaching to the people he loved in the cities he had visited.

Paul was even misunderstood by the Jewish people of his time. Over and over again, he preaches to the Jewish synagogue first, only to have them reject his radical message. Then he turns to the more receptive Gentile population. Even when he returns to Jerusalem, Paul is rejected by the leaders of the Jews. Rather than being discouraged, he uses his arrest as an opportunity to proclaim the Good News.

From the steps of the Temple, under arrest by the Roman tribune, Paul speaks. “Brothers and fathers, listen to the defense that I now make before you…I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today…” (Acts 22:1-20) Paul is indeed a man zealous for his God, both before and after his conversion. His fire of faith is worthy of emulation.

The crowd listens quietly, until Paul announces that Jesus sent him to the Gentiles. Then, “they shouted, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.’ And while they were shouting, throwing off their cloaks, and tossing dust into the air.” (Acts 22:21-23)

The tribune has Paul brought into the barracks, (part of the Roman Fortress of Antonia, which overlooked the Temple grounds-see model at left) to be “examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him.” As he has in the past when arrested by Roman authorities, Paul tells the centurion the he is a Roman citizen. The centurion “went to the tribune and said to him, ‘What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.’ The tribune came and asked Paul, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ The tribune answered, ‘It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.’ Paul said, ‘But I was born a citizen.’ Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.” (Acts 22:26-29)

The tribune is in a sticky place. He cannot question Paul by torture because Paul is a citizen. There is no record in Acts that he tried to find out from Paul directly why the Jews hated him. However, he wants to “find out what Paul was being accused of by the Jews.” So, “the next day he released him and ordered the chief priests and the entire council to meet. He brought Paul down and had him stand before them.” (Acts 22:30)

Some of us, at this point, would have backed down and tried to appease the Jewish leaders. Not so with Paul. Rather than facing their charges directly, he “noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, [so] he called out in the council, ‘Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.’ When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided…Then a great clamor arose…When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks.” (Acts 23:6-10)

The Jews do not want to give up with their plan to get rid of this troublesome former Pharisee. In fact their rage seems rather excessive against Paul. It is very easy to become defensive and angry when our basis for faith is challenged. Paul's preaching of Christ risen and his preaching to the Gentiles were both a threat to the established religious order of the Jewish priests and leaders. Paul's claim that Jesus Christ was Messiah and risen from the dead and Son of God might seem to fulfill the greatest desire of the Jews. Instead, the leaders felt threatened. The prophet Malachi had warned, "the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covanant in whom you delight...but who can stand when he appears?"

Forty men told “the chief priests and elders and said, ‘We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to taste no food until we have killed Paul.Now then, you and the council must notify the tribune to bring him down to you, on the pretext that you want to make a more thorough examination of his case. And we are ready to do away with him before he arrives.’” Fortunately, “the son of Paul’s sister heard about the ambush…and told Paul.” Paul sends his nephew to the tribune who “took him by the hand, drew him aside privately, and asked, ‘What is it that you have to report to me?’ He answered, ‘The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down to the council tomorrow…more than forty of their men are lying in ambush for him. They have bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink until they kill him’…the tribune dismissed the young man, ordering him, ‘Tell no one that you have informed me of this.’” (Acts 23:12-22)

The tribune (Claudius Lysias) sends Paul to Caesarea under the protection of “two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen...[to] take him safely to Felix the governor.” It would seem that the tribune is taking no chances on having an ‘incident’ involving a Roman citizen on his watch. Much better to send the problem to the governor who has more resources to deal with such difficulties!

The letter he sends to Antonius Felix, the Roman Governor, puts a spin on the events that emphasizes the tribune’s part in a rescue of a Roman citizen. “This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them, but when I had learned that he was a Roman citizen, I came with the guard and rescued him…I found that he was accused concerning questions of their law, but was charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment. When I was informed that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, ordering his accusers also to state before you what they have against him.” Two days later, Paul and his escort arrive at Caesarea. “On reading the letter, he asked what province he belonged to, and when he learned that he was from Cilicia, he said, ‘I will give you a hearing when your accusers arrive.’ Then he ordered that he be kept under guard in Herod’s headquarters.” (Acts 23:23-35)

It would seem that Paul’s vision of Jesus saying, “Take courage, for as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome” is coming true. (Acts 23:11) As a story-teller, I wonder what Paul’s thoughts were as he waited for ‘his accusers’ to come to Caesarea. We know he probably spent time writing to the churches he established. Based on his previous imprisonment experience, he probably gave very little thought to what he would actually say when it was time to give his defense. This defense was always the same-his testimony of God’s saving acts in Christ and his own conversion experience.

What more do we need to say when someone asks us about our faith??? With Malachi we can announce "the Lord has come" and like Paul share our experience of the Living Lord.  Sometimes that takes courage, esp. if we have to speak up against the established order of things. Learning of Paul's experiences and his steadfast faith should give us inspiration.

Next week we’ll see what happens when his accusers come to Caesarea.