The Maverick

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
Galatians 1:11-12 (NIV)

Note to my regular readers: Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers is  spending most of an entire year (Sep ’18 through Jul ’19) studying the book of Acts (which we just finished blogging through yesterday). In conjunction with this study, I’ve decided to blog our way through all of Paul’s letters in chronological order. The exact chronology is a matter of scholarly debate, so I will be making a few educated guesses myself. We begin with Paul’s letter to the believers in the Asia Minor region of Galatia.

I’ve always had a bit of maverick in me. Maverick is a relatively contemporary word rooted historically in a south Texas lawyer by that name back in the 19th century. Given a herd of cattle as payment of the debt, Maverick the lawyer had no need for the livestock. He left the cattle unbranded and let them roam free. The name soon became synonymous with an “unbranded” individual who likes to blaze their own trails and go their own way.

Being a maverick is one way I find myself really identifying with Paul. I see it all over the place in the opening to his letter to the believers in the region of Galatia in Asia Minor where he’d traveled and established local gatherings of believers on his first mission to the region (Acts 13-14). He begins his letter to the believers there establishing his individual authority apart from the Twelve and James, the brother of Jesus, in Jerusalem.

First, Paul reminds his readers that he received the Message from the risen Christ, not from another human being. The “Apostles” to early believers were those followers of Jesus to whom the risen Christ appeared and commissioned. Paul repeatedly placed himself in this category by stating that the risen Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and commissioned him to share the Message. The fact that his was a singularly unique appearance and calling made Paul a maverick. While the Twelve eventually embraced Paul and his calling, they also let him do his own thing.

Paul next makes it clear to the believers in Galatia that, after the dramatic events on the road to Damascus, that he didn’t go directly to Jerusalem and present himself to the Twelve. He went off, by himself, to Arabia and then returned to Damascus. The subtext of this claim is that Paul, once again the maverick, did his own thing and went his own way apart from the Twelve.

He goes on to explain that it was three years later before he traveled to Jerusalem and met with Peter and James. The Greek word Paul uses makes it clear that he was met with hospitality. Still, he specifies that it was only Peter and James. He didn’t meet the other eleven apostles.

This morning I’m reminded of the huge paradigm change Jesus introduced to those early believers. For well over a thousand years the Jewish paradigm introduced through Moses had been that “ministry” (I refer to the priestly sacrifices and duties of the tabernacle/temple) had been confined to certain people. Only descendants of Aaron could be priests. Only descendants of Levi could work in the temple. “Ministry” was restricted to the privileged few.

Among the early believers of Jesus everyone (including women, foreigners, youth, slaves, rich, poor, etc.) who believed and received the Holy Spirit received a spiritual gift to use in ministering to everyone else. Everyone was a part of the ministry.

This made way for a maverick like Paul. The Twelve and James were doing the thing Jesus called them to do down in Jerusalem and wherever. Paul had his own calling from Jesus. He blazed his own trail. If the ministry of the temple was confined, the ministry of the Message of Jesus was liberated and unlimited.

Which leads back to me. Somewhere along the line the institutional church decided to once again define and confine “ministry” to a privileged and approved few. But that was never the paradigm. Since the day of Pentecost, Holy Spirit has never been confined. The ministry of Jesus’ love through the gifts of the Spirit is the privilege and calling of every believer, even me. Which, I must admit, stirs my own maverick heart.

 

To Be Continued….

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.
Acts 28:30 (NIV)

It’s always frustrating when a television series that I love comes to an untimely end. There have been a number of shows over the years that I wish had continued. What makes it even more frustrating when a smart, intelligent show gets cancelled is all of the mindless schlock that seems to perpetuate itself for decades.

As an amateur writer, I’m always fascinated how the writers and producers handle a show’s storyline once they know the show has been cancelled. Many shows are written from the beginning to contain multiple story lines or “arcs.” This allows for there to be a sense of closure after one season, or a part of a season, while leaving other story arcs open to lead into future seasons. So, what happens when the writing team is told that they only have two episodes to wrap things up for good?

I’ve observed that some try to wrap up all of the loose ends, which leaves things feeling clunky, because not all of the story arcs have been fully fleshed out. Some introduce a tragic end to the protagonist which allows for a reason that the series has ended. Much like the untimely end of a loved one in real life, this option leaves viewers grieving for what “might have been.” Sometimes the writers simply let the series end without ever trying to give viewers closure. This, in turn, reminds me of Wendy.

Wendy has always been an avid reader. She tells me that when she was a young girl she never wanted to put a book down in the middle because she was afraid the story would go on without her. Instead of “to be continued” the next time she picked up the book, she feared that the story wouldn’t wait for her.

I mention this because in today’s final chapter of the book of Acts we find Paul arriving in Rome to wait for his trial with the Roman Emperor, Nero. The tension of the story has been building as Paul appeals his case to Caesar and makes an epic journey, including shipwreck, to Rome. In this final chapter, Luke tells us that Paul rented his own place, was allowed to live a relatively free existence with his Centurion guard. He met with the local Jewish population. He “welcomed all” who came to see him and continued to proclaim the Message of Jesus.

And then it ends, as if the show suddenly got cancelled. Luke simply leaves the storyline there, and we must assume that his historical narrative, penned for a man named Theophilus, was wrapped up and sent off at this point. Luke leaves the rest of the story open because it hadn’t happened yet.

The rest of Paul’s story is left for us to piece together from the writings of early Christians and Roman historians. In July 64 AD the “Great Fire of Rome” broke out for six days. According to the Roman historian, Tacitus, only four of Rome’s 14 districts escaped damage. Nero blamed the fire on Christians and immediately set out to persecute them. It is documented that Nero had both Paul and Peter executed, which is consistent with his persecution of Jesus’ followers. The exact dates and the specifics surrounding the events and executions were not well documented at the time.

In the quiet this morning I’m smiling as I think of a young, curly-haired Wendy, with her nose in a book, convinced that the story will go on without her. Indeed, as the story of Acts comes to an abrupt, even unsatisfying end, I’m meditating on the fact that the story did go on. We know that Paul was executed and that the Message of Jesus continued to spread despite horrific persecution. The story continued, and continues to this day. Having taken up the mantel of faith in my youth, I am a part of the same story; Just a wayfaring stranger traveling through this particular story arc, in this particular chapter, during this particular point in the epic.

I only hope that I to play my part as faithfully and as well as those in Acts who led the way.

Have a great day, my friend.

Weathering the Storm

 But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed.
Acts 27:22 (NIV)

Living in the midwest you soon learn that some rather nasty storms can pop up at a moment’s notice. This past summer Wendy and I were witness to a small handful of storms that did considerable damage. It’s always disconcerting to survey the aftermath and find one house almost completely obliterated while the house next door appears to have no damage at all.

I thought of those storm and the damage we witnessed as I read today’s chapter. Paul is in the custody of a Roman centurion making his way to Rome where he is to be tried in Caesar’s court. A terrible storm comes up threatening the lives of everyone on board the ship. Throughout the ordeal, Paul continues to assure the passengers that they will be okay. He urges them to keep up their courage and their physical health. Paul had received an angelic message assuring him that God’s purpose was that Paul stand before the Emperor, not die at sea.

I couldn’t help but contrast the experiences of Paul with another famous sea-faring voyager, Jonah. In Jonah’s case, he was on the run and trying to escape his destiny. His reactions and responses amidst the storm are a stark contrast to Paul.

This morning in the quiet I’m reminded of Jesus’ words: “[Your Heavenly Father] sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” In other words, I can’t escape the storms of life. They will crop up when I least expect them and everyone has to weather them from time to time. The difference between Paul and Jonah, was in their purposes. Paul was sailing with purpose. He was on a mission, and he was confident that the storm was not going to alter his date with destiny. Jonah, on the other hand, was running away from God’s expressed purpose for him.

I can’t stop the storms of life from raging, but the purpose with which I’m walking this Life Journey can make all the difference in how I weather them.

The People v. Paul of Tarsus (Part 3)

Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
Acts 26:32 (NIV)

What do I believe in so strongly that I would be willingly imprisoned for it?

That’s the question that came to mind as I read today’s chapter which Chronicles Paul’s trial before Porcius Festus, King Agrippa II, and Agrippa’s sister, Bernice. One of the reasons the Roman Empire was so successful at occupying so much of the world for so long was that they found a way to occupy a region while allowing the local ruling families to continue to have certain power and jurisdiction. In this hearing, Paul is allowed to make his defense before both the local monarch, Agrippa II, and the Roman Procurator who represented Rome’s interest in the area.

Paul wastes no time in making his appeal to Agrippa who had life-long knowledge of Judaism, its laws, and the various sects that brokered for power within the Temple system. Festus may not have had very limited knowledge of what it meant for Paul to have been raised a strict, law-abiding Pharisee. Agrippa, on the other hand, could fully understand the weight of Paul’s testimony and defense. Sure enough, Festus appears baffled by it all and thinks Paul’s whole story crazy. Paul then calls on Agrippa’s belief in the prophets and attempts to convince the king of Jesus’ Message.

Today’s chapter ends with Festus and Agrippa agreeing that Paul could have been released had he not appealed to Caesar. But Paul knew his fate when he made his appeal. He knew what he was doing. He would write to the believers in Ephesus, “I am an Ambassador in chains.”

To the believers in Philippi he wrote:

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.

To the believers in Colossae he wrote:

And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.

Once again, as I read all of the events of Paul’s choices, his arrest, and his trials, I don’t find him to be a victim. I find Paul to be a man on a personal mission of his own choosing. He’s sacrificing his own personal freedom and well-being to advance Jesus’ Message .

Which brings me back to the question spinning around in my spirit in the quiet this morning:  What do I believe in so strongly that I would be willingly imprisoned for it?

The People v. Paul of Tarsus (Part 2)

If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”
Acts 25:11 (NIV)

Our daughter and her family recently moved to the United Kingdom along with some good friends who were scheduled to leave about the same time. On the the eve of their departure, their friends were still dealing with a snafu with their visas. As they explained it to me, the whole affair became maddening cluster of a situation involving frantic phone calls, an attorney, government bureaucracy, and university bureaucracy. The maddening situation ultimately delayed their departure for an indefinite period of time and kept them in hurry-up and wait limbo.

As we enter today’s chapter, Paul has been imprisoned in a similar “hurry up and wait” limbo in the regional Roman justice system. The Roman Procurator, Felix, had kept Paul in prison for two years as a favor to the powerful Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Felix is replaced with a man named Festus to who begins his tenure in office with a diplomatic mission to Jerusalem where the Jewish religious leaders urge him to return Paul to Jerusalem (so they could assassinate him). Festus makes a political countermove by urging them to come to Caesarea and make their accusations.

In Part 2 of Paul’s trials the Jewish leaders make their accusations. Once again they have no evidence and accuse Paul of nothing that would be deserving of death. Festus, however, is a new Procurator playing a political game of chess with the political players of his region. He attempts to appease the Jewish religious leaders by asking Paul if he’d be willing to go to Jerusalem and let the case be heard there.

Paul knows that this is a mockery of Roman justice being suggested for political gain. To return to Jerusalem would only pander to his enemies and accusers. It’s essentially a step backwards and to agree would place him in a weaker position. Festus obviously wants to appease Paul’s accusers and Paul can smell a rat. If Festus is willing to try the case in Jerusalem, outside of Roman civil court, then he just might be willing to make Paul a sacrificial offering to shore up his political position.

Paul now makes a bold move and appeals to Caesar. This is a bold move because Festus has not actually tried Paul’s case and has not rendered a verdict. It was a risky move because Festus might have ultimately released Paul. The case against Paul was weak and executing a Roman Citizen for political gain with the Jews would not have been a good political move within the Empire. It was also risky because appealing to Caesar meant being sent to Rome and more languishing in the Roman justice system for an indefinite time. Paul also knew that his surprise appeal would give Festus a political out: “Sorry guys. I tried to bring him to Jerusalem to stand trial, but he appealed to Caesar. He’s a Roman Citizen. My hands are legally tied.”

As a read this morning I find myself, once again, trying to crawl into the mind of Paul. Paul clearly stated when he went to Jerusalem was that his motivation is to expand the Message of Jesus and to proclaim the Message across new boundaries. He wants to push the Message forward. The prospect of a return to Jerusalem would only put him back where he’s already been for years. The appeal to Caesar, while risky, offered the potential for his story and his witness to become a matter of official public record in the Roman Empire. In essence, Paul’s deft legal maneuver assured that he wouldn’t be the sacrificial lamb for Festus’ political gain, but he would willingly sacrifice himself for the sake of Jesus and taking the Message of Jesus to the very heart of the Roman Empire.

Being stuck in the limbo of bureaucracy can be maddening. Just ask Taylor’s friends about their experience. I find that Paul, however, is finding purpose in the pain of his situation. It comes down to motives. His ultimate motivation is not about his physical freedom, but freeing others by furthering the Message of Christ. With that in mind, he’ll use his circumstances to achieve his goal.

The People v. Paul of Tarsus (Part 1)

Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus.
Acts 24:24 (NIV)

I and my team at work have had many different business engagements over the years with a number of very different companies. I’m glad to say that our team has had several on-going engagements with clients that have lasted 15, 20, and even 25 years and counting. Others engagements have been relatively small projects that lasted a week or a month. The difference between a long engagement and a short one is often dependent the level of person we’re working with within the organization.

If we’re working with the CEO and/or senior executives of a client company, we have the opportunity to positively influence the client’s entire operation along with the  health and well-being of the customer experience for decades. A middle manager, on the other hand, typically has limited means and influence. They usually bring us in for a moment in time to treat a symptom in their service delivery system.

In today’s chapter, we find Paul in the midst of a tectonic shift in his ministry. For years he has traveled the Roman Empire in Judea, Asia Minor, and Greece. He’s been among the people. He’s expanded the number of believers and followers of Jesus. He’s organized them into local groups. He’s provided for himself by keeping his day job as a maker of tents. Paul has been on a grass-roots, boots-on-the-ground, non-stop mission among the common, everyday people in the streets. Now, like Jesus before him, Paul finds himself in the justice system of the Roman Empire being accused by the leaders of the Hebrew religion who want him dead. Unlike Jesus, Paul is a citizen of Rome, and that affords him the ability to appeal his case all the way to Caesar himself.

The first trial Paul faces against the religious leadership of the Jews is before the Roman Procurator, Antonius Felix, who had authority over Judea. Felix, like many Roman regional authorities of the time, was a corrupt official with a reputation for both cruelty and debauchery. The trial, as recorded in today’s chapter, should have ended with Paul’s release. The Jewish leaders had no accusation that should have stood up in Roman court. They did not produce a single corroborating witness willing to be cross-examined, and they had no evidence. Paul’s defense was persuasive and, as a Roman citizen, he should have been released immediately. Felix, however, was in a tough spot politically.

One of the top responsibilities of Roman provincial leadership was keeping the peace. The Jewish leaders bringing charges against Paul had tremendous political and social influence, and Felix knew it. His predecessor, Ventidus Cumanus, failed to respond to a racially motivated murder of a Jew in Samaria. The result was riots and uprising. Cumanus was held responsible by Caesar and exiled. Felix wants to avoid this fate so he decides to appease the Jewish leaders by keeping Paul in prison. But the Jesus movement has been gaining popularity, as well. Tens of thousands of people had become believers and Paul is one of their leaders. So, Felix can’t just have him killed without potentially igniting a backlash.

The compromise Felix came up with was to keep Paul under a relatively comfortable house arrest within the palace. For two years Felix and his wife (the daughter of Herod Agrippa) regularly meet with Paul to have lengthy discussions. Felix, being a corrupt Roman official, is hoping Paul will offer him a bribe to let him go. Paul is on a very different mission, however. He could have easily stolen Peter’s line: “Silver and gold I don’t have, but what I have I give to you.”

This morning as I read, I thought about Paul’s situation in terms of my own experience in business. For years Paul has been working with the front-line workers of the corporate Roman Empire. Now Paul finds himself invited into the executive suite. Paul has the opportunity to influence an influencer. To convert a Roman official, to even make him aware of the Message of Jesus, could have a tremendous ripple effect throughout the Empire. Paul is fulfilling the very mission Jesus spoke of to his disciples: “On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.” (Matt 10:18)

Convert an Ephesian shopkeeper and you change a life. Convert a Roman official and you might just change an empire (which is exactly what eventually happened two hundred years later with the Roman Emperor Constantine).

Polarized Parties, Powder Keg Issues, and Paul

Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee,descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.”
Acts 23:6 (NIV)

One of the things I’ve observed along my journey is our human penchant for thinking our current events and circumstances are somehow unique in human history. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes wisely said, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” As a student of history I can usually find times and events in recorded history which were much worse than whatever it is that’s happening in the headlines today.

There is no doubt that we are living in a time of polarization in political thought and the results have been tumultuous. The time of Jesus and the following decades of Paul’s ministry that we’re reading about in Acts were also tumultuous times in which there was polarization of both political and religious thought. Conflict, terrorism, and riots were a part of their landscape just as they are in ours today.

In today’s chapter, Paul uses this polarization of thought and the rabid, inherent conflict as part of his chess game with the religious Jewish leaders and their local Roman occupiers. Paul is standing before the same religious council that condemned Jesus to death and he knows they’re just as thirsty for his blood to be spilled. Paul, however, holds a trump card with his Roman citizenship (see my previous post). Standing next to him is a Roman military commander, known as a Tribune. Paul needs the Romans to take over his case.

It’s important to remember that Paul was raised and trained in Jerusalem as a lawyer. He would have known some of the men on this council. He knew their polarized religious beliefs as well as their corresponding hot button issues. Once again I find that Paul is not a random victim of circumstance. Paul is on a mission. He is driving the action.

Paul knows that the two rival parties within the council were the Pharisees and Sadducees. These two parties were just as opposed to one another as the far-right Republicans and far-left Democrats are in the U.S. today. The watershed issue that divided these two religious, political parties was the concept of resurrection, or life after death. The Pharisees believed that there was a resurrection as well as an unseen spirit realm where Angels and spirits dwelt. The Sadducees believed the exact opposite. There was no resurrection, no life after death, this physical life and reality is all there is. When you die there is nothing else. Paul uses this hot-button, polarizing issue for his own purposes.

Paul loudly proclaims to the entire council his pedigree as a life-long, card-carrying Pharisee, and accuses the Sadducees of the council of putting him on trial because of his belief in the resurrection. Resurrection is the powder-keg issue (think Roe v. Wade today). Paul just lit a match and threw it into the middle of the room.

Watch what happens next. A bunch of Pharisees, who moments ago were critical of Paul, now jump up to defend him. As I’ve been watching current events it’s easy to notice that in polarized systems anyone on your team is good and must be defended at all costs, while anyone on the other team is all bad and must be destroyed at all costs. There is no middle ground. Paul successfully diverts the council’s attention from himself to the hot-button issue. In the riot that followed, the Roman Tribune responsible for Paul had no choice but to evacuate him from the situation because he was responsible for Paul’s safety as a Roman citizen and he would be held personally liable (and perhaps executed) if he allowed the Jews to kill Paul, a Roman citizen.

By pushing the council’s political buttons Paul ensured that the Roman Tribune would witness for himself what a volatile group the Jewish council was and the threat they posed to both of them. Not only this, but Paul knows these Jewish leaders. He could easily anticipate that their next move will be a conspiracy to assassinate him. It’s what they did with Jesus. It’s what Paul himself did with Stephen, and Paul himself has been on the run from Jewish assassination attempts on all of his journeys. If there is a plot to kill him Paul knows that the Roman Tribune will have no choice but to place Paul in protective custody and get him out of town. And, that is exactly what happens.

In a few minutes I will join Wendy in our dining room for breakfast and we will read the paper together. It will be filled with news and opinions of current events in our polarized, politicized times. This morning I am reminded that nothing is new under the sun and that I can only control my own motives, thoughts, words, and actions. Reading about Paul’s motives, Paul’s words, and Paul’s actions, I’m reminded of one of Jesus’ more obscure and oft-forgotten commands to His followers:

Be shrewd as serpents; gentle as doves.”