St. Paul’s missionary adventure is about to reach a startling climax. He has been making his way towards the west, towards Rome, but now he discovers that in order to move forward, he must go back. He returns to Jerusalem, or better said, he is returned to Jerusalem.
Paul has been arrested. His testimony to Christ and proclamation of the Gospel has created enough conflict and consternation that Roman officials have placed him under arrest. In their attempts to try to make sense of the situation, they determine that it is a matter of theology, a religious matter, that should properly be settled by the leadership of the Israelite religion. And so Paul is sent to Jerusalem and a council of the leadership of the Israelite religion is assembled in an attempt to adjudicate, if not resolve, the matter.
This effort proves futile. The religious leadership of the Israelites proves that they are themselves divided about Paul and the testimony that he gives to Christ the Lord. The leaders of the Israelite religion cast more heat than light on the situation. In fact, Paul’s testimony incites such a strong reaction, that his life is endangered.
Paul will be sent to Rome, but he will not go there in freedom, but in chains.
All this might perplex us, accustomed as we are to forms of Christianity that eschew any possibility of conflict or controversy. It is likely that most of us have grown accustomed to forms of Christianity that seek to be benign, neutral, accommodating, polite, therapeutic and inclusive. These values are assumed to be normative for Christian faith and as such, render Paul’s testimony unintelligible. Paul’s witness, a witness that causes such an adverse reaction, is something that we likely find difficult to understand if not hard to believe.
The Romans were ready to accuse Paul of treason and sedition. The Israelites were ready to accuse Paul of apostasy and heresy. What was Paul saying or doing that provoked such an adverse reaction?
For the Romans, Paul’s proclamation that Christ was savior and redeemer was considered a taunt against Roman power that acclaimed Caesar as savior and redeemer. Remember, it was Caesar’s authority that had been wielded to torture and crucify Christ.
The Romans were not fools, they knew that Paul was setting up Christ as a rival to Caesar and that his testimony was revolutionary and offered an alternative to the Roman way of life, a way of life that valued above all, wealth, pleasure, power and honors. In contrast to the Roman way, Paul’s way of life proclaimed the primacy of faith, hope and love. All the established political arrangements, political arrangements that insured Roman domination, would be overturned, if what Paul was preaching were to be accepted.
For the Israelites, Paul’s testimony that Jesus is Lord meant that Jesus is the God of Israel, and must be worshipped and obeyed as such. This meant that the Israelite way of life as they had known it would be radically transformed. For the Israelites, Paul’s proclamation was also revolutionary, an upsetting and overturning of established norms and institutions.
Today’s proclamation from the Book of Acts might serve as a reminder us that thought we might insist that form of Christianity that we prefer be benign and neutral, the revolution that Paul proclaimed is not over.
Christ’s Gospel for today continues his assurances that he will be with his disciples even though it seems to the world that he has departed.
Christ is with us, literally, really and truly. He has not disappeared into the stratosphere or passed from this world never to return. Christ is with us in the Church, abiding with us, teaching us, intervening in our lives and in the world in extraordinary ways that the worldly cannot perceive. Christ is present to us, not merely as a symbol, or idea or feeling, but as a living, divine person, and his manner of being with us is called the Church.
Christ’s disciples have as their responsibility to bring people to Christ in the Church. We can be bridges or blocks, routes of access or walls in this regard. If people are not meeting Christ in the Church, the judgment falls on us, not on those who in meeting us, cannot find him.
Christ is present to us in his Church, but it is not enough for us to bask in his presence ourselves, we must make his presence known to others, inviting people to know Christ, and share with us, the gifts he offers in his Church.