The following text is a rough translation of a sermon preached by Pastor Richard Cadoux at l’Oratoire du Louvre on Sunday 20 August 2017. Biblical quotes are taken from the Anglicised Edition of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
Merci beaucoup à Henry qui a spontanément fait cette traduction et qui nous l'a envoyée !
When we read the New Testament, if we try to free ourselves from all prejudice, we realise that it is dominated by two characters, two ‘stars:’ Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus. If we compare these two lives, we notice that we are abundantly informed about the death of Jesus as the accounts of the Passion occupy a significand and, in a sense, disproportionate amount of space in each of the Gospels. This is not the case as far as Paul is concerned: When did he die? Where? In what circumstances? So many unanswered questions! Of course, the remnants of primitive Christian literature as well as the early veneration of his martyrdom, attested by archaeology, permit us to think reasonably that Paul probably died witnessing to the faith, in all likelihood in Rome, perhaps as a victim of persecution from the emperor Nero.
We may say to ourselves that the Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke, could and should have recounted the end of the earthly pilgrimage of the ‘apostle to the nations.’ But you have heard the finale of this book and its author remains entirely silent on this subject. Why does Luke, who is an admirer of Paul, stay silent about the death of his hero? On the subject of Paul’s death, Luke can’t have been ignorant. Well anyway, I hypothesise that Luke knew what became of Paul at the time of his death but that his silence is deliberate. Not because there are things to hide, as if Paul, handed over to the imperial powers, had become a victim of an internal settling of scores within the Christian community. Had this been the case, it would suggest that Luke has cast a discreet veil over embarrassing events that didn’t live up to the standards of brotherhood that the Church promotes and claims for itself.
In fact, Luke knows what he’s doing in finishing his work like this. Indeed, the ending of a book is of the utmost importance. The ultimate message delivered by an author is a threshold leading from the world of the narrative to the world of the reader. Once the book is closed, we return to daily life enriched by what it had to teach us and open towards the future. So, given that we are on the threshold now, it’s worth analysing this finale of the Book of Acts. Luke, who is a very great writer, presents us with four scenes, four vignettes: The arrival of Paul, two meetings and a final speech. The first scene is the arrival at Rome. Paul is a prisoner who has been arrested at the temple in Jerusalem as a disturber of public order who, having been brought before the occupying authorities, makes an appeal to Cesar in his capacity as a Roman citizen. Now he must appear before the tribunal in the capital city of the empire, which he enters as a captive. The paradox is that Luke describes a joyful entry, a solemn arrival of a sovereign in his beloved city. The brothers in the faith come to meet him and he is surrounded by a crowd full of joy at the news that he has entered the city. It’s as though the apostle is playing out again exactly what happened to Jesus on the morning of Palm Sunday: a festive and cheerful, almost triumphal, entry into the city of Zion. Paul regains his courage and bursts into the city with a sense of victory that establishes him in confidence and in the joy found in the knowledge of divine grace.
Scene two: Paul, who has the benefit of a scheme that’s closer to house arrest than to incarceration, receives at home a delegation of notable Jewish leaders. These are those who administer and lead the Jewish religious associations at the time, the synagogues. As per their intention, Paul makes his apologia. In other words, he must justify himself before them. He certainly doesn’t have a good reputation in the Jewish world at the time and, with the skill of great orator and intellectual master, he proceeds with great care first of all to exonerate the Romans from all responsibility in this affair. He also recalls his own fidelity to the religion of his ancestors, a story to win over the Jews present at the meeting. He evokes the hope of Israel and he explains that he has recognised Jesus as the Messiah. Effectively, Paul is passing from a Pharisaic type of Judaism to a form of Messianic Judaism. Thus he maintains that, in the end, his opinion is legitimate and is worthy of attention from other Jews. The only ones to be accused by Paul and attacked directly are the restless Jews of Jerusalem of whom he considers himself to be a victim. Of course, it’s easy to accuse those who aren’t present. As for those who are present, Paul is ready to prolong the dialogue with all who desire to know more about his own faith and convictions.
Everything is then ready for the third scene, a new meeting with notable Jewish leaders, but Paul’s position has changed: He is no longer speaking as a defendant. Rather, Paul proceeds to proclaim the Gospel, speaking of God’s reign and of Jesus Christ, beginning with the Law of Moses and the Prophets. Evidently, his speech divides opinion with some being convinced while others refuse to believe it. Why does this Pauline sermon receive such an unsatisfactory response? Paul himself provides the answer in his letter to the Romans: “a hardening has come upon part of Israel” (Romans 11:25). Just a part. This increase in heard-heartedness has already been invoked elsewhere by the prophet Isiah. But, in Paul’s eyes, this inability to create unanimity among his brothers is not a failure, a fault, an accident or, even less, a tragedy or a curse. Completely the opposite in fact. It’s an opportunity for Paul to turn himself towards the pagans and to enlarge the mission field.
Luke is now able to paint a fourth and final scene that depicts how the mission of the Church becomes universal. From now on, Luke tells us, Paul addresses himself to everyone, proclaiming the reign of God and teaching about Jesus. To ‘evangelise’ is to speak of the message (the Gospel) and of the messenger (Jesus). The author of the Book of Acts makes clear that Paul received everything that he came to find. Paul receives people at home, which again is a paradox as this man is a prisoner. His door is nonetheless wide open and he warmly welcomes all those who seek direction and truth. The site of the mission is no longer the temple, nor even the synagogue, but the home, the place of everyday and ordinary life. The Gospel is made to resonate in the most concrete sense with human existence, in the places where real life happens. I think of what was written by Madeleine Delbrel, a Christian who spent her life in Ivry-sur-Seine where she was a social worker and where she wanted to testify to the Gospel in a life so connected to the world around her. She wrote a wonderful book called ‘We, the Ordinary People of the Streets.’ The ordinary people of the streets are those who “have an ordinary job, an ordinary household, or who are ordinary single people. People with ordinary sicknesses, and ordinary times
of grieving. People with an ordinary house, and ordinary clothes. These are the people of ordinary life. The people we might meet on any street. They love the door that opens onto the street…We, the ordinary people of the streets, believe with all our might that this street, this world, where God has placed us, is our place of mission.” For Paul, the place of mission is this home to which he is confined. The book ends thus with a portrait of Paul, apostle of Jesus Christ, as an exemplary figure of evangelism and as a witness to the Gospel.
The end of the narrative is therefore deliberately unfinished and provisional. In this sense the close of the narrative in the Book of Acts is paradoxical. It presents us with a prisoner, but the close of the text is an open door, wide open with regard to three questions. Three questions that arose within the context of the early Church and that continue to be relevant to us today.
The first question is fundamental: What about the Jewish people and their final destiny? There must be a return to the Pauline intuitions in order for the Church to move beyond its long and shameful history of promoting anti-Semitic teaching. Paul never pronounces any curse on his brothers. Certainly, a part of Israel has rejected his preaching, and this has driven Paul to turn himself towards the pagans, but the preaching of the Gospel to the nations does not signify the rejection of Israel by God. The Church does not become a substitute for the people of the first covenant. The children of Israel who remain faithful to the Law of Moses are blessed by God, whose gifts are without repentance. The existence of conflict between the churches and the synagogues is a sign that the Kingdom of God has not yet been fully realised on Earth and that history remains open, unfinished until the final gathering when all Israel will be saved. In the meantime, it is a pressing invitation addressed to those who invoke Jesus the Jew to view the Hebrew people with the utmost respect and esteem.
The second question: How far will the word of God extend? If, for Paul, Rome is a point of arrival, it remains only the end prescribed for the mission in the Book of Acts, where it is considered to be the ends of the Earth. The finale of the book marks a departure point. The mission field is wide open, and remains so in our day. The ends of the earth as far as Paul is concerned were perhaps Spain or the borders of the Danube. Throughout the history of Christian mission, these boundaries have been continually pushed further back. These boundaries, without doubt, should no longer be considered in a uniquely geographic sense. If the Gospel is to be preached to the ends of the Earth, we must also take into account new frontiers, whether they be social, intellectual or cultural and invite ourselves to go out to them.
The third and final question: What about the witnesses to the Gospel? Luke could have recounted the death of Paul and celebrated his martyrdom, as he had done for Stephen who was stoned to death at the gates of the city. Luke is always trying to eulogise his heroes and attempts to edify us with their final words. But Christianity is not a vocation to a cult of saints, even less so a cult of personality. It’s not really important to know the circumstances of a death. In spite of his genius, Paul is an ordinary servant, one among many. Being a servant is really what counts here. In this sense, in speaking to us about Paul, the finale of the Book of Acts gives us the
model of a witness to the Gospel, a being who takes a stand and who speaks with full assurance and without hindrance. Such are the final words of this book, pointing to the courage of the one who speaks, of his capacity to take risks in the speaking of the truth. It also points to the confidence that the witness places in the one who sends him. To speak “with all boldness and without hindrance.” Quite a programme!
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