Romans 1-3

Good morning! Today we begin the book of Romans, the first of many New Testament letters (also called “epistles”) written by Paul or other apostles to specific communities or people, expressing guidance for a given situation. These letters form the rest of the New Testament except for the final book, which we’ll approach in the week after Christmas. Epistles have been judged worthy of inclusion in the New Testament by how well their specific admonitions inform Christian theology (decided largely by vote of councils that convened the Bible’s current contents). These books follow ancient forms of letters or public address, since they were understood to be read aloud in assembly as a substitute for the writer’s actual presence.

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Acts 27-28

Good morning! In today’s final chapters of Acts (27-28), we follow along as the apostle Paul laboriously sails to Rome with his unnamed companion, in whose voice much of the journey is recorded. Paul acts as a sort of chaplain to the entire Roman ship, though he is supposedly a prisoner on it. He gives a reliable sense of when it is too hazardous to travel, as the shipwrecked passengers find out almost too late. As the boat is driven by late-season storms (think of those now facing Syrian refugees also seeking ports in Europe), we learn something about ancient maritime customs aboard ship. Paul acts for group cohesion when part of the crew tries to flee in the sole lifeboat, and encourages the hundreds of passengers when it seems all hope is lost. According to the author here, it is Paul’s wisdom (and the overseeing centurion’s mercy) which makes sure all aboard arrive safely on the island of Malta. There again, Paul heroically survives a snakebite that would have felled a lesser man, and cures people of diseases by laying hands on them. Throughout these accounts, Paul takes on a near-mythical status—this reads almost like the adventures of one of the ancient Greek heroes. One wonders what Paul would have made of such a lionizing account, were he alive to read it himself.

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Acts 24-26

Good morning! We are nearly done with the travels and travails of Paul, as well as the entire book of Acts altogether. But today in Acts 24-26 we read about his continued captivity in Caesarea, trying to prove his innocence against the false charges brought against him. What most captures the moral imagination in these chapters is the way Paul, by standing firm to his identity and experience, withstands the opposition that tries to throw everything at him. The favor he receives from Roman rulers also goes a long way toward helping him survive years in captivity.

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Acts 19-20

Good morning! Today’s passage (Acts 19-20) reads like chapters from a travelogue, describing Paul’s travels in Asia and Jerusalem, then preparing to go on his way to Rome. I confess that I find nothing deeply stimulating in these stories, but take note of several things. First, observe that Paul contends with other populist movements such as that baptizing “into John’s baptism” (presumably John the Baptist). Christianity not only has to define itself against a hostile Jewish elite and polytheist Greek culture, but other purity movements as well. Second, this Christian movement, growing swiftly, continues to arouse resistance such as that which gathers in the theater of Ephesus in a riot. Paul wisely accepts the suggestion that he stay away for the good of everyone, and the riot melts away after a stern address by the unnamed but brave town clerk.

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Acts 15-16

Good morning! Remember a few days ago when the disciples, overwhelmed by the number of Jews and Gentiles to take care of, established a system of deacons? That episode yielded insights into the parallels in how churches then and now respond to concerns, and how their fixes establish precedent for years (sometimes centuries) to come. We have a similar window into ancient church drama today in Acts 15-16, where we see how the disciples respond to the question of whether Gentiles need to follow the same behavioral covenant as Jews.

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