Saturday of week 7 of Easter – First Reading


Commentary on Acts 28:16-20, 30-31

Today we complete the readings for the Easter season. During these seven weeks we have been going through the Acts of the Apostles. As with most of the books which form the liturgical readings, much had to be omitted but at least we do get a general picture of the extraordinary developments of the Church from a small group of uneducated fishermen to a chain of communities which in such a short time reached to the very centre of their known world – the empire’s seat of government in Rome. This would be the new centre from which it would over the centuries expand to every corner of the world.

Yesterday we saw Paul in the presence of King Agrippa and Bernice while Festus explained the reason for Paul’s arrest to them. The following day, Paul was again brought before the king and, for the third time in Acts, gave them an account of how he had tried to destroy the followers of Christ only to experience his own conversion on the way to Damascus. At the end of the speech, Festus said he thought it was all crazy nonsense but both he and the king agreed that Paul had done nothing to warrant punishment. If he had not appealed to the emperor, they agreed, he could have been released.

We are then told of the long and eventful sea journey to Rome which included a storm and being shipwrecked on the island of Malta. When they eventually arrived in Rome, members of the community were there to welcome them on the Appian Way, the ancient highway that led to the city of Rome.

It is at this point that today’s reading begins. We are told that when Paul entered Rome, he was allowed to live by himself with a soldier who was guarding him. It was clearly a benign form of house arrest. Another reading says that “when he entered Rome, the centurion handed the prisoners over to the commander. But Paul was allowed to live outside the [Praetorian] camp.” A note in the Jerusalem Bible comments that “this additional information agrees with what in fact must have happened. By the concession of custodia militaris [military guard] the prisoner had his own lodgings, but his right arm was chained to the left of the soldier in charge”. Clearly, the prisoner was not regarded as dangerous.

As he did so often in the past, Paul made contact with the local Jews. The decree of the emperor Claudius, which, we remember, had caused Apollos and Priscilla to leave Rome, had been allowed to lapse and Jews now had returned to Rome with their leaders. Paul wants to establish good relations with the Jews of Rome as soon as possible. He insists that he has nothing as such against his own people although it was certain Jews who did cause him a great deal of trouble and who were ultimately responsible for his having to appeal to Caesar. Ironically, as we saw, Governor Festus and King Agrippa had agreed that Paul had done no wrong and could have been released if he had not made his appeal to Caesar. In fact, as Paul had emphasised all along, “it is on account of the hope of Israel [for a saviour Messiah] that I wear this chain”.

In the final sentences of the Acts we are told that Paul spent two years in his place of arrest preaching “the Kingdom of God and the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ”. He was able to receive all who came looking for him and was able to preach without hindrance. The two years represents the legal period during which he could be kept in custody. Within that period his case would have to be tried, so it is likely that, at the end of the period, he was released. At the end of his short letter to Philemon he seems to be looking forward to his release and asks that a room be made ready for him in Philemon’s house. During this time also he would have written his letter to the Christians at Colosse and the letter to the Ephesians (although the immediate authorship of this letter by Paul has been questioned), as well as his note to Philemon.

As the NIV Bible points out, there are a number of indications that Paul was released from his imprisonment at the end of two years:

1, Acts stops abruptly at this time;

2, Paul wrote to churches expecting to visit them soon; so he must have anticipated a release (see Phil 2:24; Philem 22);

3, A number of the details in the Pastoral Letters do not fit into the historical setting given in the book of Acts. Following the close of Acts, these details indicate a return to Asia Minor, Crete and Greece;

4, Tradition indicates that Paul went to Spain. Even if he did not go, the very fact that a tradition arose suggests a time when he could have taken that journey.*

It is clear that the sudden ending of Acts indicates that it is not an ending at all but a beginning. Luke’s story had begun with Jesus’ ‘mission statement’ made in the synagogue at Nazareth. From there he progresses steadily south to Jerusalem, which is the climax of his life and work – through passion, death and resurrection. The story is then taken up with Acts which begins with the Pentecost experience when the baton of Jesus’ mission is passed to his disciples. It begins where Jesus left off, in Jerusalem, and from there spreads progressively to the surrounding territories and then on to Macedonia and Greece and ultimately to the heart of the empire and the centre of their world – Rome. The Gospel is being preached freely in the very heart of the Roman Empire.

Christianity from being a tiny movement of a small number of Jews is now a world phenomenon. From now on, its mission is to make the Kingdom a reality in every corner of our planet. There are many more triumphs and tragedies to come. But to have reached Rome in such a short time was little short of miraculous.

So, these final sentences sound an understandable note of triumph for the fledgling Church. “You have come a long way, baby”, and, we might add, “And you ain’t seen nothin’ yet”.

* On Paul’s ministry after his discharge, his second imprisonment, and his death, see the Introduction to the Letters of St Paul (Jerusalem Bible)

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