catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 6 :: 2004.03.12 — 2004.03.25


Appropriately anxious or insanely cocky?

Acts 16 contains an amazing story of Christians interacting with culture. This is the one where Paul and Silas are accused of advocating customs that go against Roman law. They are stripped and beaten and thrown in prison. I have been working with this story with one of my high school classes and at this point I usually ask my students how they would react if they found themselves naked in prison, having been accused of a crime they didn’t commit, and then beaten for it. There is generally a range to the answers the students give, with one or two macho-types claiming that in their anger they would overpower the guards and lead a prisoner rebellion to freedom. Those students more inclined to be honest, though, talk of embarrassment, or being angry at God, and of being scared. They speak of praying, but when I ask what they mean by this, they are usually talking about quiet, sobbing prayers in the dark. And almost all of them talk about fearing what the future hours and days will bring.

Paul and Silas seem to have felt none of what my students felt. We are told in Acts that they sang loudly and prayed and the other prisoners were listening to them. We are not told what the other prisoners’ attitudes toward these two were, and it isn’t reasonable for me to guess, but I will anyway. I am guessing they were listening, fascinated, in much the same way you might listen to someone with Tourette’s Syndrome, or some guy on the bus who is explaining to everyone how he is actually from the planet Koosbane. Paul and Silas were behaving in a way that was so inappropriate to their situation, the other prisoners had to listen.

Then, in the middle of the night, there was an earthquake, and the doors to the cells were thrown open and the shackles fell off. Here again, was a moment that would seem to induce panic. One would expect the prisoners to flee, not out of a desire for freedom, but to escape the death that would somehow follow when the walls fell down upon them. We are not told how, but somehow Paul and Silas must have calmed the prisoners and made them feel at ease. When the jailer came along, he was ready to kill himself, fearing that the prisoners had escaped (no doubt led by some macho high school student). Evidently the torture for jailers who lost prisoners was worse than the pain of stabbing yourself in the gut with a knife. Paul reassures him, though, calms him of his fear, and tells him that all the prisoners are still right where they belong (including Paul and Silas who were there unjustly).

The Bible doesn’t actually describe the jailer’s reaction, only the request he made of Paul and Silas. I suspect, though, his reaction was that he was severely freaked out. First of all, the unnatural earthquake would make anyone feel strange and frightened, but then the idea that these two guys, who were calm and singing the night before, have told everyone to stay put instead of encouraging them to flee, is weird beyond imagining. So the jailer asks Paul and Silas what he has to do to be like them. He recognizes that they have something that will allow him to master this fearful life.

Paul and Silas baptize the man and his family and then, in the morning, the magistrates come and turn Paul and Silas free. Only there, Paul and Silas reveal what they hadn’t the whole previous night. They are Roman citizens and someone is in a whole lot of trouble for beating them and locking them up. They don’t sue or threaten to have the magistrates disbarred; they just demand an escort out of prison.

Through this whole story, Paul and Silas set an example for Christians when we relate to the world around us. Paul and Silas, acting out of insane levels of self-confidence, go through a nightmarish event as if it were a picnic in the park. They remind me of a moment in the newest first Star Wars movie when the Jedi knights are aboard an enemy space station and the bad guys try to poison and shoot the heroes. The two Jedi stroll through poisonous gas, battle droids, and a confusing maze of corridors with perfect confidence that they will win. My students seem to agree. When I ask them to give me some words to describe the behavior of Paul and Silas, I get back the words “different” and “confident”.

I think I, and many of the rest of the Christians in North America, could learn something from this story. Jesus has come, and because of that, Paul and Silas act so differently from those around them that people ask them to tell the gospel story. Most North American Christians I know are working really had to be just like everybody else. We want a big house, a three-car garage, we wear the same clothes, eat the same food, spend our free time in the same way as the family next door. And in this culture of fear, we worry about the same things our next-door neighbors do, and worry about those things in the same way our neighbors do, too. I fear that I won’t have enough money to pay my Visa bill. I fear that someone will break into my house and take my stuff. I fear that someone will kidnap my children. I fear that someday I will be out of a job. I fear terrorism, cancer, radiated food, people who are different from me, traffic when I am on my bike, and that people around me will realize what a phony I am. Most of the time, I lack confidence and I don’t really act much differently from those around me.

But this isn’t a story of two saints with miraculous powers. These are just disciples, empowered by God to be free of fear. God tells us this again and again in the Bible. Do not be afraid. And we shouldn’t; we have the God who made the entire universe on our side. What’s to worry about?

Of course, it isn’t that simple, and our sinfulness gets in the way. But perhaps as Christians, we can approach culture with some confidence. We can read Harry Potter, we can see The Passion, we can talk to somebody we don’t know, we can take a lower paying job, we can do without a third car, we can stand up for what we believe in, we can bring Christ into politics, because we can be confident that God is with us. We’ll make mistakes, but how much better to make them with confidence, and apologize when we mess up, than to cower under a rock and do nothing?

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