Acts 22-26

The homestretch of Acts isn’t all that funny, nor does it strike me as all that inspiring. But it could be because it’s so relevant.

George Will once called football the marriage of the two worst American vices: violence punctuated by committee meetings. From the point at which Paul arrives in Jerusalem in Acts, the story is pretty much partisan hate punctuated by legal loophole-maneuvering. 

There’s a point in Acts 22 when the Jewish leaders say Paul “is not fit to live.” And a point at which 40 of them vow no to eat or drink until they kill him, and then plot an extrajudicial lynching (a term I use cautiously; read Acts 23:12ff if you think it’s inappropriate) that is only spoiled by Paul’s young nephew, who happens to eavesdrop on the plotters. Paul escapes his closest call with death (to this point) by lobbing a wedge issue, splitting his opponents into the rival sects that they were and creating the only close-to-funny moment, in which half of the group that wanted to kill him on the spot suddenly join his cause in a scene (23:6-11 for the Hanna-Barbera devotees) that calls to mind the “Rabbit season! Duck season!” showdowns of Bugs and Daffy. Given the ever-presence of partisan hatred around here, the joke is not as funny.

After that, he just keeps filling legal appeals to buy time.

I think this stretch is so dispiriting in part because things have changed so little. But more than that, it’s a reminder of how easy it is to lose the Message of the whole thing. 

Now, sure, Paul’s a fighter and a debater, and so maybe things couldn’t go down any other way for him. But I think the blues that this stretch bring come with the recognition that a Way of mercy can so quickly get spun into an assault on law and order. A Way of grace can be so thoroughly overcome by spite. A Way of unity can be drowned out by the accusations that it’s a threat to the tense partisan equilibrium. A Way of love can get trampled and torn asunder by hate.

In this stretch, that feels like the outcome. You kind of have to zoom the lens back to see that we are only telling this story two millennia later because the heartbeat of mercy, grace and love have inexplicably survived the stompings of the judgmental, spiteful, and joyless. And that is a sign of hope.

I really don’t know that the moral universe arcs at all, much less in what direction. But even despite centuries of inside attempts from “believers” to do it in, the Way Paul got targeted for still survives, preaching that a loving God wants only for us to return that love and pass it along. Maybe it’s enough to believe that that Way is only mostly dead, to recognize where that Way still lives, to keep it from getting snuffed out, and to try to expand the circle of its Love just a little bit wider.

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