Three months later we set sail on a ship that had wintered at the island, an Alexandrian ship with the Twin Brothers as its figurehead. We put in at Syracuse and stayed there for three days; then we weighed anchor and came to Rhegium. After one day there a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli. There we found believers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage. When we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him. Three days later he called together the local leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, he said to them,
“Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, yet I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. When they had examined me, the Romans wanted to release me, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to the emperor—even though I had no charge to bring against my nation. For this reason therefore I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.”
“We have received no letters from Judea about you, and none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken anything evil about you. But we would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against.”
After they had set a day to meet with him, they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers. From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets. Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe. So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement:
“The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah,
‘Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’ Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”
He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
Persecuted, arrested, and abused Paul continues to speak. Some are unconvinced, some refuse to believe, and Paul continues to speak. Disagreements, factions, debates and arguments abound, and Paul continues to speak. When the establishment won’t listen, Paul continues to speak to the Gentiles, with all boldness and without hindrance.
When we, as Christians, claim to be persecuted, it would do us good to read Paul’s letters again. He didn’t suggest that he should receive privilege or even that everyone should agree with him. Instead, he continued tirelessly sharing his message to all who would hear it, even at the cost of his freedom. Around the world today, Christians are persecuted for their beliefs.
But not in the UK. We may not be in Christendom any longer, but we are still incredibly privileged: this country’s moral and legal code is based on Christian understandings. We are free to worship and speak out. We have seats in the House of Lords and our Queen serves in the name of God.
Why, then, do we feel persecuted? Perhaps it is because we like control. We want to think that we can choose who is in and out, that we can make laws based on our own, exact personal beliefs, that we should have endless resources, and that everyone should agree with us. That is not the Christianity that Paul preached.
Paul’s reaction to institutional persecution, to the powers that be refusing to hear his words, was not to scapegoat and blame. Instead, Paul turned his back on the institution and spoke to the gentiles – the outsiders, the lawless, the meek, the oppressed.
Who are we called to speak to? Who are we called to speak for?
God, you surpass all understanding. Help us to accept our weakness; to let go of our desire for power. We pray for all those who are in power, and for all those who struggle under it. We pray for grace-full decisions and love-filled living. We pray for justice, peace and integrity. Help us to be on the side of the gentiles – the outsiders, the lawless, the meek, the oppressed. When we can’t see through the smoke and mirrors of persecution, help us to count our blessings instead. Amen.
Alex Clare-Young is training for ministry at Westminster College, Cambridge.