(Paul confesses Christianity in front of the Sanhedrin, from St. Peter and Paul Church in Tyrol, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(This post originally appeared in the Speaking to the Soul blog Saturday, August 13, 2011)
“After I had returned to Jerusalem and while I was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw Jesus saying to me, ‘Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And while the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing by, approving and keeping the coats of those who killed him.’ Then he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”
Up to this point they listened to him, but then they shouted, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” And while they were shouting, throwing off their cloaks, and tossing dust into the air, the tribune directed that he was to be brought into the barracks, and ordered him to be examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him. But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.” The tribune came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.” Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.
Our reading from Acts once again describes something that is illustrated multiple times, not only in this book but particularly in the Gospels--the visceral response of crowds to hearing the revealed truth. In Paul's case, this seems particularly true--the stories in Acts illustrate more than once a crowd listening to him with rapt attention, and then suddenly something happens to turn the crowd against him in a heartbeat. In this passage, it appears that Paul's own words did the trick.
Have you ever noticed that there's something about the recognition of the revealed truth that sparks such a visceral reaction in people that their response, at times, can be a heated and rather vicious non-recognition of it? Our passage reminds me of the wave of heated responses to Rob Bell's book, "Love Wins." The moment a few people read the book and publicly stated, "You know, I think the guy is right--maybe we're a little off on that popular traditional version of that Heaven/Hell thing," a virtual tsunami of condemnation ensued among some segments of Christianity.
In light of this story, other stories in Acts, and several of the Gospel stories, we can see that one of the fundamental concepts of Christianity is this: If you are really, really listening to what the stories of the New Covenant are all about, it will turn your world upside down. Everything you thought you knew like the back of your hand will be questioned, and everything you believed will be thrown into doubt. It's very common for our initial reaction to something new and revealed in our hearing of the Word to be one of pushing back in some way--to shout, "No, that can't be right! Everyone knows that...(fill in the blank.)"
The issue, then, becomes one of how we react to this news. Do we attack the messenger? Do we close our ears to it, followed by closing our heart? Do we scream, "Heresy?" Or do we simply take a step backward and say, "Hmmm. I need to think and pray on this one a little bit," and prayerfully ponder the topic?
I remember the time it was first suggested to me that that place we call Heaven might well include some political figures I really, really dislike, or some people in my world that really, really did me dirty. My initial reaction, flashing in my brain in bright neon lights, was, "NO! They can't be there! Heaven is a good place, for good people, and I don't think those people are good at all." For me to be happy, they had to be out. But over time, as I mulled over this thought (and my reaction to it,) I became reminded of my own track record of "not good," and realized my very exclusionary criteria would, in fact, exclude me, too.
This passage calls us to simply think upon, but not necessarily immediately react to those moments that the Good News in Christ doesn't sound particularly good, or when that sudden new revealed truth we hear tells us that everything we thought we knew, maybe we didn't know so well. What would happen if we could only change one thing about our reaction to such things over the upcoming week?