You remember where we left Paul last week? He was standing on the steps of the Roman barracks and had received permission from the commander to speak to the angry mob. He raised his hand and there was, as Luke says, “a great silence” as they wait for Paul to speak. What does he say? “I am a Jew” and then he tells his story. Nothing happens until he says, “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.'” That ignited them and they began to scream, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live.”
With that, the commander takes him quickly inside the barracks and Paul’s next two years are spent in prison and being shuffled back and forth between trials and hearings. Paul’s desire to come to Jerusalem had now interrupted his life and his plan to go on to Rome and then Spain.
Paul was not only in prison but he was caught in a web not his making. The Pharisees hated the Romans and the Sadducee elites. The Sadducees despised the Pharisees as superstitious commoners. The Romans used them both to play against each other. Jerusalem – like many capital cities even today – was a cesspool of corruption, self-dealing, betrayal, confusion, spin, partisan spirits, schemes, angles, greed, resentments, plotting, scheming, lies, manipulation and scrambling for power and prestige. Tip O’Neill when he was speaker of the House coined the phrase the “third rail” which is a description of any issue so controversial and untouchable that anyone daring to bring it up will be destroyed. In the middle of all this was Paul who had touched the “third rail” and set off a firestorm.
You may have read about the three Al Jazeera journalists who have been imprisoned in Egypt and whose trials have been delayed ten times. One of them, Peter Greste from Australia, described it this way. “We had been doing exactly as any responsible, professional journalist would – recording and trying to make sense of the unfolding events with all the accuracy, fairness and balance that our imperfect trade demands.
“Most of the time, it is not a difficult path to walk. But when the Egyptian government declared the Muslim Brotherhood to be “terrorist organization”, it knocked the middle ground out of the discourse. When the other side, political or otherwise, is a “terrorist”, there is no neutral way.”
Paul had discovered there was no more middle ground. In fact, there were so many competing and conflicting agendas that nothing he could have said or done would have won him his argument. He had offended or confused everyone. Ironically, that may have saved him because he chose to focus on one thing only – and that was the message of the Gospel and the fact of the resurrection. He did not take sides. He did not attack the players or their issues. He did not get distracted by their agendas. He seemed not to be frustrated by the delays and being a pawn in their game that had nothing to do with his guilt or innocence. He did not try to outsmart or outmaneuver them. He was not made cynical by their hypocrisy and the corruption of the entire system.
He first appeared before Ananias the High Priest – a man so greedy, violent and cruel that he was later killed by his own people in an uprising against the Romans. His own son was a leader in the uprising.
He then appeared before Felix who, according to Tacitus, “revelled in cruelty and lust, and exercised the powers of a king with the outlook of a slave.” He loved flattery and bribes and kept Paul in prison while waiting for a bribe to release him. He was banished by the Romans.
He then appeared before the successor to Felix, a man named Festus who was anxious to please the Jews and proposed sending Paul back to Jerusalem to stand trial before the Sanhedrin. There were two legal systems. The Jews were allowed to enforce their particular religious traditions and customs – something like Sharia law today in the UK – and the Romans retained the right to enforce all civil law. Paul was astute enough to know that the religious court would demand his death in spite of there being no valid charges. The only charge they could bring was his “being a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world.” But going back to Jerusalem was a death sentence.
Festus was anxious to draw up accurate charges against Paul and enlisted the new King – Agrippa and his wife/sister Bernice – to help him. Paul was not on trial before Agrippa. Festus asked Paul to present his case only in order to help Agrippa define the charges and pass Paul along to Caesar. After hearing Paul’s story, Agrippa concluded that “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment” and there was nothing to charge him with. “This man could have been set free, if he had not appealed to Caesar.” Agrippa survived the Jewish revolt that swept the country and resulted in the Roman destruction of the Temple. He died an old man in Rome.
Instead of navigating all the complexity of this or trying to come up with an elaborate defense designed to appeal to all the parties involved, Paul simply honed his message to the most basic elements:
There is a life beyond this one.
There will be a day of judgment.
It was the fact of the resurrection that kept him from wavering. Christ was not something added to his present life to make it more pleasant or easier. As he says in 1 Corinthians 15, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Christ was not merely an example for Paul. He was the first born of a new creation. Christianity was not a culture or an ethical way of life for him. It was not a way of making life more fulfilling. It was not a matter of dying honorably after a good life but the certainty of living again and the certainty of judgment.
It seems simple and even naïve but every time Paul had an opportunity to speak in his own defense he moved as quickly as he could to that message. In a sense, he was not as interested in defending himself as he was in presenting the Gospel. He was not arguing on his own behalf but for the soul of the listener. He was motivated by a single purpose. This is what Soren Kierkegaard called “purity of heart”. It is the ability to will one thing.
So may you give
To the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing
To the heart, sincerity to receive this and this only
To the will, purity that wills only one thing
In prosperity, may you grant perseverance to will one thing
Amid distraction, collectedness to will one thing
In suffering, patience to will one thing.
You that gives both the beginning and the completion
May you early, at the dawn of the day,
Give to the young the resolution to will one thing
As the day wanes, may you give to the old
A renewed remembrance of that first resolution
That the first may be like the last
And the last like the first
In possession of a life that has willed only one thing,
To know God.
That is a description of Paul’s life. He willed one thing – to know God – and none of the circumstances of his life, including prison, distracted him from that. He had learned, as he says in Philippians, the secret of being content. That’s not resignation. Resignation destroys our souls and takes away all hope. Contentment allows us to see purpose in whatever situation we find ourselves – rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, up or down, free or bound. We are not dependent on circumstances to discover meaning in life.
“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
I lived for four years with a group of men who counted off every day they had to endure their circumstances. We were all in the Navy and they had calendars on which they marked off how many days it would be until they were out. They saw those years as an interruption of an imagined life that was waiting for them. They were killing time and wasting away waiting for something better. But there were others who spent the same amount of time exploring the world around them, meeting new people, stretching themselves in spite of the same constraints as the others. Both were released after four years and their lives were vastly different then and for the balance of their lives.
I read a description of what Adam Phillips has called “unlived lives” in his book “Missing Out.”
“We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason — and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason — they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. Indeed, our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.”
Paul did not see these two years as wasted or as an interruption of his life. In fact, many great figures have been shaped by similar experiences while others have been destroyed. Were it not for prison we would not have the best work of not only Paul and his letters from prison but the lives of men like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alexander Solzhenistsyn. Chains remake some people and deaden others. In a real sense, it is what we do not choose that defines us in the end.
“Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Paul had come to terms not only with death but with what haunts most of us sometimes even more – the prospect of a wasted and unlived life.
Paul knew not only who he was but, more importantly, whose he was. He didn’t worry about wasting his talent but about being disqualified in the end. He wanted more than anything to finish the race without a trace of shame or remorse.
I Corinthians 9: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
There is a difference between self-control and legalism. Self-control is necessary to accomplish something while legalism is simply the fear of breaking a rule. Self-control looks to the goal for which we are striving while legalism lives in bondage to perfectionism. Self-control has a purpose for good behavior while legalism robs life of joy. It is not the elimination of desire but the re-directing of desire to please God. It is knowing that our lives are not our own and we are not the masters of our fate and makers of our own destiny.
Where are you this morning?
Are you clear about who you are and at peace with that or are you living in an imaginary unlived life?
Are you clear about whose you are that gives you a release from living to please or manipulate and control others?
Are you focused on resurrection and a life beyond this one or spending your time using Christ to make this life better?
Are you a prisoner of circumstances and in a place you did not choose? Have you learned the secret of contentment and not the soul killing disease of resignation and resentment?
This was written by an 83 year-old woman to her friend.
I’m reading more and dusting less. I’m sitting in the yard and admiring the view without fussing about the weeds in the garden. I’m spending more time with my family and friends and less time working. Whenever possible, life should be a pattern of experiences to savor, not to endure. I’m trying to recognize these moments now and cherish them.
I’m not “saving” anything; we use our good China and crystal for every special event such as losing a pound, getting the sink unstopped, or the first Amaryllis blossom.
I wear my good blazer to the market. My theory is if I look prosperous, I can shell out $28.49 for one small bag of groceries.
I’m not saving my good perfume for special parties, but wearing it for clerks in the hardware store and tellers at the bank. Someday” and “one of these days” are losing their grip on my vocabulary. If it’s worth seeing or hearing or doing, I want to see and hear and do it now.
I’m not sure what others would’ve done had they known they wouldn’t be here for the tomorrow that we all take for granted. I think they would have called family members and a few close friends. They might have called a few former friends to apologize and mend fences for past squabbles. I like to think they would have gone out for a Chinese dinner or for whatever their favorite food was. I’m guessing; I’ll never know.
It’s those little things left undone that would make me angry if I knew my hours were limited. Angry because I hadn’t written certain letters that I intended to write one of these days. Angry and sorry that I didn’t tell my husband and parents often enough how much I truly love them. I’m trying very hard not to put off, hold back, or save anything that would add laughter and luster to our lives.
And every morning when I open my eyes, tell myself that it is special. Every day, every minute, every breath truly is a gift from God.