By James Cornwell
A Reading from Acts 22:17-29
17 “After I had returned to Jerusalem and while I was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw Jesus saying to me, ‘Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ 19 And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. 20 And while the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing by, approving and keeping the coats of those who killed him.’ 21 Then he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”
22 Up to this point they listened to him, but then they shouted, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” 23 And while they were shouting, throwing off their cloaks, and tossing dust into the air, 24 the tribune directed that he was to be brought into the barracks, and ordered him to be examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him. 25 But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” 26 When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.” 27 The tribune came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” 28 The tribune answered, “It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.” Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” 29 Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.
Today’s reading from the book of Acts finds St. Paul bound, interrogated, and threatened with scourging. However, before the whipping begins, he invokes Roman citizenship, which stops the entire process in its tracks. As brutal a regime as the Roman Empire was, those who claimed citizenship within it were entitled to due process of law.
It is interesting here that the apostle does not shy away from his earthly citizenship in spite of his true citizenship in the kingdom of God. Indeed, in our own day, there is often a question of where precisely our earthly loyalties are to stand in relation to our Christian faith. Certainly, in one sense, Jesus tells us that these attachments are to mean nothing at all next to him: Luke 14:26 (“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother…”) certainly attests to this. Yet, Christianity is a religion based upon the personhood of a human being, and so it draws all human relations into its scope. Granted Christ’s superiority over other human relations, Scripture is shot through with imagery of family, friendship, and, yes, citizenship; and our understanding of the gospel is enriched by our experiencing these human attachments in our own lives.
Perhaps instead of essentializing these relationships or casting them off entirely, we can instead see them as provisional instruments of the gospel. Before the great moral inversion of Christianity, human lives were seen as short; it was the empire’s days that were long. Christ showed us that the might of empire was merely provisional; it is humans who are immortal.
Our citizenships and nations can still prove useful, both as a means of spreading the gospel, and as teachers giving us a sense of what it means to love our True Country. As Cornell West is fond of saying, “All flags are beneath the cross.” But just as St. Paul uses his citizenship in a doomed empire to make way for further preaching of the gospel, our earthly flags might still play a role in God’s ever unfolding plan.
James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their six children.
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Daily Devotional Cycle of Prayer
Today we pray for:
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Lake Mary, Fla.
The Diocese of Dutse (Church of Nigeria)