The focal text is the very brief remark made by one official of the ancient Roman Empire to another, after hearing the Apostle Paul’s testimony in his own defense, which was really his narration of his own recent story; I think it may make us notice the parallels between the Apostle Paul’s situation and our own. We might need to remind ourselves of the larger story to make sense of this text …
And Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” Acts 26:32
“This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
But “this man,” who happens to be the Apostle Paul, had appealed to Caesar. So now he had to be sent under Roman Imperial protection – armed guard, because he was a prisoner – to the Imperial City of Rome.
He had appealed to Caesar, because the officials in charge of the provincial judicial system had been about to send him back to Jerusalem, where people had been spreading inflammatory rumors about him and getting people to believe scandalous things about his motives. In Jerusalem, he was … unpopular, to say the least; endangered might be more precise.
Paul was in Roman custody in the first place because, in something like the ancient version of fake news, these rumors had whipped up the rage of a mob in the Temple while Paul was there worshipping. People had accepted the report – maybe someone jumped to a conclusion on this one – that Paul had brought Gentiles into the Temple, and many people seem to have been inclined to think badly of him anyway, because they’d heard he had been telling Jews not to circumcise their children, telling people they ought to stop being Jewish, or at least stop obeying the Torah … all of which was outrageous. And while there may have been some partial truth to some of these statements, if there had been a Snopes.com in the first century, it would have declared these conspiracy theories “mostly false.” But then as now, facts were less important than feelings, especially feelings like fear, anger, and hostility.
So Paul had become the target of an enraged mob of pious first century religious conservatives. And from then on, the political situation of first century Judea and the thoroughly confused situation had propelled Paul out of the Temple and into the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. He’d addressed the crowd from the protection of the garrison, and in trying to explain himself had ended up making matters worse, when he’d announced that he had been preaching and teaching to Gentiles – the outrage! How dare he reach out to them? They’re the enemy … at least, this seems to have been the issue for his coreligionists.
Ironically, then, in a clear case of blaming the victim, the soldiers’ solution was to punish Paul for causing a public disturbance – they were just getting ready to flog him, since from their point of view he was apparently just another one of these indistinguishable Jewish troublemaking nobodies … there would have been some grounds for a first century #JewishLivesMatter movement … in the face of Roman military brutality …
… when Paul had pointed out that he was a Roman citizen.
All of a sudden, the officer in charge had seen Paul as an “us,” All of a sudden, Paul was in a different category altogether, with “rights,” or perhaps privileges, that set him apart from the run of the mill disposable resident of the occupied territories. As a citizen, he was supposed to be getting a trial, there was some due process that was supposed to apply to his case. So now, while he is still threatened by hostile forces, all of a sudden, as we read his story, we realize that a larger protective entity is operating on his behalf … namely, the Imperial City, of which he is a citizen.
The interdependence of protection and necessity comes up more than once in this long story. As the story unfolds, we get to see some of the bureaucratic machinations of the ancient political system that was the Roman Empire. These imperial forces aren’t exactly angels of sweetness and light. They want bribes. They peddle influence. One official keeps Paul in prison seeking his own personal advantage for two years. They engage in unseemly personal affairs – that rumor about King Agrippa, who’s a Roman client, and Bernice, for instance, that they’re a lot more to each other than brother and sister, if you catch my drift … again, the ancient version of Snopes.com would have labeled that one as true or mostly true, apparently. And since it was presumably widely known at the time, Luke our author seems to be bringing this up rather pointedly to call attention to the dubious moral standing of the men charged with judging and advancing the case of the Apostle Paul.
But even these models of secular indifference and opportunism acknowledge: this man could have been set free, if he had not appealed to the emperor.
How ironic is this?! As many rules as these guys bend, break & disregard, this is the one they’re going to honor? But as a matter of fact, yes, because they know what side their bread is buttered on; they don’t want to insult the emperor by short-circuiting a process that is designed to affirm his role as the highest judicial appeal in the system. Even more ironic is that Paul, we’ve learned, is a man with a mission, and the mission is to get to Rome and bear witness there to the Lord Jesus. So his imprisonment, and his continued imprisonment, serves this purpose, and Paul seems to know it. We have seen how the protection of the Roman Emperor has saved Paul from hostile local forces. But as the story goes on, we come to realize that on this larger mission, Paul has the ultimate protection of a ruler who is even greater than the imperial Ceasar: his Lord, Jesus, God’s anointed, the ultimate ruler of everything in the name of God.
Jesus has told Paul he’s going to Rome back in Acts 23:11, in a vision during the night, maybe a dream, in which “the Lord” stands near Paul and tells him “take courage, as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify about me in Rome!” Identifying Jesus as Lord – which was perhaps the earliest statement of faith in the Christian movement – had the political subtext that Caesar was not Lord, that Jesus has authority even over the emperor, the Roman emperor, over any emperor for that matter, even over the most universal human emperor of all, the emperor of death. Jesus, the Risen One, is the Lord of life itself.
So the deeper irony in this story is all of the people who seem to believe themselves to be in charge, to have control over the situation … the mob, the plotters of Paul’s assassination, the soldiers with their torturous punishments, the layers upon layers of imperial functionaries with their procedures … when we know full well that God is in charge here, and for that reason, come corrupt officials or Mediterranean shipwreck – and all those things do come – Paul will finally travel unscathed to Rome, and will preach the gospel there to Jews and Gentiles alike. We know it the way we know how a B movie is going to end almost before the establishing shot is through, even though we don’t know, and do still care, exactly how the plot elements are going to fit together. We know Paul’s story is going to work out as God has announced, because we know God is going to work it out that way.
The deepest irony is that Paul, the prisoner, may be the freest person in the story, precisely because he had long ago appealed to the Emperor he called the Lord, namely Jesus, for forgiveness and salvation, and had long ago become, in his own words, repeated throughout his writings and speeches, a servant or slave of that Lord, in which service he always insisted was true freedom.
Maybe because it’s the first Sunday in Advent, and getting ready for Christmas is on the agenda, but the structure of the imperial system as presented to us by Luke reminds me – of a doll my mother had, that we used as a Christmas decoration. It was one of those nested dolls, with a doll inside a doll inside another doll, all the way down to the tiniest doll – only this one was a figure of St. Nicholas and it opened up to reveal 5 or 6 little toy figures all contained inside the St. Nicholas’s big middle: a little toy soldier, an angel, a guy with a really tall hat, a shepherd with a staff … That’s a little like the relationship of the Roman Emperor to the arrangement of political figures in this story: the Roman soldiers and their superior officers, the tribunals, the client Jewish king Agrippa. The Roman Empire would be like that St. Nicholas figure, that nesting doll. But of course, at the beginning of the Christmas season, it was my mother who took that doll out and decided where she was going to put it in the house, and then at the end of the season, when we were all done with those decorations and it was time to move on, my mother would pick up that doll and all the other decorations and pack them away into the Christmas box for the next year … because my mother was the one in charge, and the St. Nicholas was just one element of the whole Christmas project – and that was just one of her projects. So, while from one perspective that St. Nicholas figure really was the “outside” the whole of something, there was an even bigger outside that included him … the outside defined by my mother, by our family, by the context for which that figure was one of a large number of toys or tools and concerns and purposes.
And that’s the way it is with the Roman Empire in this story … and for that matter, the way it is for every other empire, according to our Christian theology … there is a bigger outside, a larger reality, than the world of political systems and human arrangements that is so top-level to us; that whole world belongs to someone even greater …
We don’t always maintain our clear perspective when it comes to this structure, nested as we usually are on the far inside of the political and social arrangements in which we find ourselves bound, and most of the time, protected. Like Paul, we all face challenges, we all have our “joys and concerns;” and sometimes those concerns are tragic, and even life-threatening – we get sick, our loved ones get sick, we lose jobs or develop disabilities; sometimes our neighbors, or family members, decide we’re the enemy because we have conflicting ideas about how things could or need to be, sometimes we become the targets of opposition, even of falsehoods and campaigns of rumor or misinformation; sometimes we might find ourselves at the center of some drama. None of that feels good.
The Bible acknowledges this state of affairs over and over again, especially in Psalms, where the Psalmist bemoans God’s silence and seeming absence in the face of evil-doing enemies and wicked oppressing, over and over again. When that happens, we may wonder what the purpose of all this conflict is. We aren’t always as blessed as Paul, in that we don’t always have specific advance instructions about what we are supposed to be doing and where our lives are intended to go.
But maybe Paul’s experience can be instructive for us if we allow it to be. Because we, too, as Christians and as witnesses to our Savior Jesus, all share Paul’s general mission: 1) we too are citizens of Christ’s empire of life; and 2) we, too, as citizens of that larger reality, have a mission, to bear witness to its unique way of life and its truth, wherever we are.
We can do this because, when we accept the doctrine that God is sovereign, we probably don’t imagine that sovereignty to be a Czarist or Stalinist autocracy, that metes out misery for the fun of it. We’re probably more likely to try to understand it as the absolute rule of love and care and justice that we have an understanding of, however difficult for us, thanks to the demonstration Jesus has given to us in his own life. If we accept the doctrine that this sovereign God is fully in charge of everything, and that ultimately things are proceeding according to plan, we can probably also accept that what we know of misery and hardship from our experience is real, but is also – as immense as it seems from our perspective – limited, contained. So despite our acquaintance with unfreedom of various kinds, we can have confident hope in the goodness of the larger reality of which we are citizens, in the service of which we are genuinely free.
As loyal citizens of that larger reality, our task is to bear witness to that way of life, in acts of courage and kindness, looking ahead not to our immediate comfort or apparent self-interest, but to the common good and faithfulness to that eternal kind of life. Most of us aren’t called to travel to Rome in chains – we usually only need to go as far as the office, or shop or kitchen or school room. But there, we can speak with as much conviction as Paul … because we too can honestly wish everyone was as we are, citizens of the empire of life, but for whatever temporary chains imposed on us by the governing arrangements of the world in which we find ourselves at present.