Sunday, 30 March 2014

Acts 28 - the end of the story ... or is it?

And so we reach the end of the story!

Or do we?

It turns out the ship has been wrecked off the shores of Malta.  It’s almost as if there is a cruel twist in the tale.  Sitting around a fire on the shore a viper is drawn to the heat of the fire and fastens itself on Paul’s hands.

After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us round it. 3Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.’ 5He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.

7 Now in the neighbourhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. 8It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him. 9After this happened, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. 10They bestowed many honours on us, and when we were about to sail, they put on board all the provisions we needed.

For the locals who had been drawn to the wreck and its survivors it was sure proof not just of Paul’s guilt but of the severity of his crime – he must have been a murderer they say!

When the death they expect does not materialise they swing to the opposite conclusion – he must be a god.  It was something of a relief for the shipwrecked crew, the passengers, the soldiers and the prisoner, Paul, with Luke and their travelling companions to find that the local landowner was prepared to extend hospitality to them.

Publius was his name … and his father was sick with fever and dysentery.  Paul attended to him in his home and shared in prayer, laying his hands on him … and healing came.   Paul shared with many people the healing ministry that had become very much part of all he shared wherever he went.

Lots of connections to make – the danger of leaping to conclusions about people – the danger of those who swing from one extreme – he’s a murderer to the opposite extreme – he’s a god, the welcome of the locals for those who have faced shipwreck.   Their hospitality of Publius.

The importance of a healing ministry.

The sense of camaraderie in the face of adversity that you get the feeling the people involved in the shipwreck now have – they are in this together because they have faced so much together.

Then there is the generosity of those locals – not only  had they honoured Paul and his companions … but when the time came for them to set sail once more they saw to it they had all the provisions they needed.

As they set sail once more notice the detail in the account – it really does have the feel of a record of someone who was there – another of those ‘we’ passages that suggests Luke was recording what had happened.

They make their way overland from the port at Puteoli where they enjoyed the hospitality of the believers.

And so we came to Rome.

A wonderful, almost thruway line – but it marks the beginning of this ending.

This is the destination the whole back has been heading for – from Acts 1:8 when Jesus challenged his followers to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the world

Three months later we set sail on a ship that had wintered at the island, an Alexandrian ship with the Twin Brothers as its figurehead. 12We put in at Syracuse and stayed there for three days; 13then we weighed anchor and came to Rhegium. After one day there a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli. 14There we found believers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. 15The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.

They had reached the end of the world – the heart of the Roman world.  And what should greet them but the believers who had heard of their imminent arrival and came to greet him.

It’s fascinating that you can build up a picture of the kind of people these people were.  It was while Paul was on that third of his missionary journeys and planning a fourth to Rome that he had written to the church in Rome.   The very last chapter of  Romans is made up of greetings he gives personally to people he knows in that church, in spite of the fact that he has not met them before.

You sense they return that compliment now as they come out to meet him on his arrival in Rome.

I love the response Paul makes when he sees them …

On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.

There have been moments on his journeying when he has spoken of courage and now he has arrived he takes heart and he gives thanks to God.

On the opposite page of my Bible to Acts 28 verse 15 is Romans 1:1-17.   Romans is not a sequel to Acts … it is one of the documents that accompanies the story in Acts and gives some of the back story to the churches Paul and the other apostles were part of.

Paul had given thanks to God for the people of Rome right at the beginning of that letter …

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. 9For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. 11For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. 14I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish 15— hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

In spite of so much, his longing has been fulfilled.  He is here.  And these are the people who greet him.  No wonder he takes courage!

16 When we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.

Next we have an important glimpse of what happens to Paul.

He is under arrest.

It is Nero’s Rome.

But imprisonment in the Roman empire was very different from what imprisonment is in our day and age.

Here imprisonment is itself a punishment.  It is something we should be proud of in our Congregational heritage that we count among our forebears one of the great social reformers, John Howard.  He advocated prison reforms, came up with a plan for an approach to imprisonment that would ensure that imprisonment was the punishment, that further things were not added in subsequently.

The Howard League for Penal Reform is one of the oldest reforming charities dating back to 1866 and named after John Howard, a Congregational Minister in Bedford.  They campaign for the rehabilitation of prisoners, and for prison to be the punishment and within the prison the emphasis to be on rehabilitation.

John Howard’s cells were designed for an individual.  It was a shock to my system to be in a prison cell and be locked in on the one occasion I visited – a single bed, a bunk bed – three people and a toilet pan.

Francis Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League, wrote an article that has sparked outrage that since November it has not been possible to send books in to prisoners.   If ever there was a campaign worth supporting, that’s one.   Reading, for some maybe study – is a key part of any rehabilitation.  To withdraw access to books and anything sent in from the family really is awful.

But for Paul prison served an entirely different function.

You were put in prison to await a trial … and then the outcome of the trial would determine your sentence – you might be set free, you might be flogged, you might be executed.

Usually, that was quick.  As we have seen happen to |Paul before in places like Philippi.  There was no facility for long term imprisonment of offenders.

So when Paul arrives in Rome he is allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.

So, he has comparative freedom awaiting his hearing.

He starts as ever by making contact with the local leaders of the Jews.

He then shares what is at the heart of his faith … and I think it is telling to see where the centre of his faith is.

After they had fixed a day to meet him, they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers. From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.

As we come towards the end of the story it is as if Luke makes sure we clearly have a picture of the heart of the message Paul has spent what seems like a life-time sharing.

And it boils down to something very simple that Paul explains.

What is it he testifies to?

He testifies  to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets

The heart of the message finds its focus in Jesus … and it echoes exactly the message Jesus had shared.

The story had begun, right back with John the Baptist who had come proclaiming the kingdom of God and the need for a whole new way of thinking.

Jesus had come with a message about the kingdom of God, the rule of God breaking into people’s hearts, people’s homes, breaking into the world – and this was precisely the message Paul had taken up.

The whole message focuses on Jesus and his kingdom.

And Paul, rooted as he is in his Jewishness, sees this as the fulfilment of the law of Moses and of the prophets.

Luke touches on the beginnings of that dividing of the way between those who see Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets and those who don’t.

This is nothing less than salvation, and this salvation is something that now reaches out to and embraces the Gentiles too, all who will listen.

Then we reach the end of the story.

Or do we?

30 He lived there for two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, 31proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.

No one knows what happened to Paul.

It looks very much as if four of the letters were written in this period while Paul was under arrest in Rome – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon are the Prison letters of Paul – they give a good feel for the spirit Paul had at this time, not least that spirit of joy that comes in Philippians and we read earlier.

Some suggest Paul was executed.

Others suggest he resumed his ministry – it may be that the three Pastoral Letters of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus were written by a much older Paul passing the mantle on to the younger Timothy and to Titus.

When we booked a holiday just south of Barcelona in a place called Taragona I was sceptical of their local traditions we read about before going that Paul had visited there.  But when we saw a wonderful ancient medieval walled town built on the foundations of the capital of the Roman presence in the Iberian peninsula, with an amphitheatre with a church marking the spot where Bishop Fructuous was thrown to the lions, and catacombs without parallel outside of Rome, and a cathedral dedicated to St Thecla a woman associated with the later life of St Paul, and built on the site of a temple to Augustus as the son of god … I really did begin to wonder.

No one knows.

But the story finishes as if there should be a sequel.

We want to know how it ends.

I have a feeling that could be deliberate.

Because we are still writing the end of the story.

It’s up to us to finish it off … we can carry on the task that Paul has begun.

And if we are to grow in our faith what should we focus on?

You can read all those letters – and I do commend those letters from prison.   You can grapple with Paul’s theology.

But at the end of the day as far as Luke is concerned, it all boils down to something very simple.

Paul was welcoming to all who came to him – there’s a welcome to all.

And he focuse on ‘proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness.

That’s it.

The kingdom of God, the rule of Goe – and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could get hold of what that teaching was like?

I wonder, I just wonder … Luke has finished his story … but he has another story to tell.  Maybe when Paul was in prison in Caesarea he had done some of his research.  Maybe he was there when Paul shared this dimension to his teaching.

Who knows?  But maybe we could do worse than to follow our reading through Acts by turning to the one at the heart of our faith, and drawing on Luke’s insights see what Paul’s proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about Jesus was like!

No comments:

Post a comment