Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why did St Paul appeal to Rome?

Much of the Acts of the Apostles details the conversion and ministry of St Paul the Apostle. In chapter 21, he visits the great Temple in Jerusalem. Although Paul is careful to follow all of the Jewish customs, some in the crowd mistakenly believe that he brought Gentiles into restricted areas and thereby defiled the temple. A riot of sorts ensued and Paul was arrested before he was killed by the crowd.

At his hearing, Paul quickly finds that he is able to give his personal testimony and gain another venue for the proclamation of the gospel. Because he could not be executed by the Romans for Jewish ritual crimes (as with Jesus) the mob accused Paul of treason. As a Roman citizen, Paul exercised his right of appeal to the Emperor. The move got him out of a hot situation and probably saved his life.

After this, however, Paul was essentially shuffled around in custody for several years -- long after his accusers and the threat they posed had passed. The Romans wanted to release him (shades of Pontius Pilate, perhaps). Yet, Paul maintained his appeal rather than go free for no apparent purpose. At one point, Agrippa even remarked to Festus, "This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar" (Acts 26:32). In Acts, Paul himself says he feels guided by the hand of Providence, but does not know the ultimate reason why. In the face of a perilous journey, he later remarks to others on his ship,

I now bid you take heart; for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very 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 Caesar; and lo, God has granted you all those who sail with you.' So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we shall have to run on some island" (Acts 27:22-26).

Perhaps he slowly came to see his appeal as a God-given opportunity -- an opportunity not just to proclaim the gospel in Rome, but to Caesar himself. Perhaps a hint of that opportunity is given in the selection of the Divine Office reading today:

Agrippa said to Paul, 'In a short time you think to make me a Christian!" And Paul said, "Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am -- except for these chains" (Acts 26:28-29).

What a possibility -- to get such a reaction from the Emperor himself! If he stayed the course, Paul could be guaranteed an audience for the gospel. With that opportunity, he could either glorify God by the conversion of Caesar or by Paul's own martyrdom.

Historically, God would grant both outcomes. Paul would glorify God by a martyr's death in Rome, receiving the mercy of a beheading according to his rights as a citizen. The church in Rome would grow strong on the dual apostolic foundation of the two Roman martyrs Peter and Paul as well as all the other early martyrs of the Roman church. When their number was complete, the first Christian Emperor was led to conversion by an event similar to that which changed the life of Paul, a sign in the heavens -- a vision and a message from the Savior of men.

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