The Roman Soldier
These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.
This morning, think of yourself as a Roman soldier. You are part of a massive army, which provides the backbone for the greatest empire the world has ever known. You and your colleagues are the ultimate authority.
It’s the first century AD. There’s been a lot of talk in some parts of the Empire about a new religion that has broken off from Judaism. It’s known as “The Way” and the founder claimed to be the son of God, and his followers said he rose to life again after being crucified.
You probably don’t know that much about it. After all there are dozens of different religions within the Empire, and you are a soldier, not a priest or theologian.
One day you have to escort a group of prisoners to Rome. You’ve done this before. To be honest, its fairly easy work. The prisoners are chained up, and most of them are terrified of you. Those that aren’t will soon learn that it’s best to be!
One of your prisoners this time is unusual. He was a very significant person in Judaism, very well educated, very respected, totally despised the followers of The Way. But now, after what you might call a “Road to Damascus” experience, he is one of the most dynamic preachers of The Way. This has got him into a lot of trouble, but it turns out he is a Roman citizen and he has appealed unto Caesar. This is why you are taking him to Rome.
What is unusual about him? He is your prisoner, but you haven’t imprisoned him. Sure, you have control over his body, but as the journey has gone on he has become the de facto leader of the mission. Not only has he become de facto leader, but he continues to lead the expedition towards Rome. You could maybe believe it if he was leading you all away from Rome, but he’s not. He’s leading you towards it. He is continuing towards captivity, and he’s even convinced the other prisoners to do the same.
How did this start? How did this prisoner become the leader? And why did he become the leader if he wasn’t trying to save himself? Why does he want to go to Rome?
It started with your Centurion, Julius. He began with a bit of respect for this prisoner called Paul. When you landed in Sidon he let Paul visit his friends there. You are a prisoner of the Roman Empire being taken to Rome, you are not on an excursion to see your friends. But Julius treats Paul as though he is, and Paul behaves as though he is. He goes to see his friends and comes back. He must be absolutely insane.
The journey continued. Then Paul starts being really odd. He starts telling the Centurion and the owners of the ship how to sail.
Sirs, I perceive that this voyage will be with hurt and much damage, not only of the lading and ship, but also of our lives.
If you are feeling cynical you might think “Of course there will be damage to your lives; you aren’t going to Rome to be given some sort of honour,” but you probably just think Paul is getting more peculiar than he was before. The centurion and ship owner don’t believe him though, and the voyage continues anyway.
Shortly thereafter you are caught in a terrible storm. It goes on for days and days. What does Paul do? He doesn’t show any fear. He has confidence, and he even tries to boots the morale of the whole ship.
Sirs, ye should have hearkened unto me, and not have loosed from Crete, and to have gained this harm and loss. And now I exhort you to be of good cheer: for there shall be no loss of any man’s life among you, but of the ship. For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve, Saying, Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar: and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee. Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me. Howbeit we must be cast upon a certain island.
Be of good cheer! Nobody is going to die on this ship! My God wants me to go before Caesar, so I’m going to survive, and my God is also going to save all of you too. I was told this by an angel.
Suddenly Paul’s behaviour doesn’t seem so strange. His God wants him to go before Caesar, that’s why he didn’t try and escape. And he has great faith in his God. His God is looking after him, and his God is looking after us too. You thought his only travelling companion was Luke, but now you realise that his God is with him, and has sent his angel to him.
Paul’s confidence is unshakable, and you and your colleagues begin to see what Julius the centurion sees in him. It is at that point that Paul becomes the de facto commander of the soldiers.
Sometime later the crew lose their bottle and they want to abandon the ship. Paul doesn’t let them.
Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved.
So you all stopped the crew leaving. You’d taken a direct order from a prisoner, and you had done it because his God seemed to be with him, and because his faith in his God was strong.
Soon afterwards, Paul gives another instruction.
This day is the fourteenth day that ye have tarried and continued fasting, having taken nothing. Wherefore I pray you to take some meat: for this is for your health: for there shall not an hair fall from the head of any of you.
Eat something he said. Eat something and don’t worry. None of you are going to be harmed.
Paul took some bread and gave thanks to his God. In the midst of all that was happening Paul still found time for his God. And Paul gives you confidence. He trusts his God, and you are beginning to do the same.
At last you are in sight of land, and the ship runs aground. Your soldier’s instincts come back all of a sudden. The prisoners can’t be allowed to escape. We should kill then all now, Paul included. If the prisoners escape you and your colleagues will be punished.
Julius stops you.
He’s your centurion. He should be the one to order the killings, but he doesn’t. He wants to save Paul’s life, and he organised the evacuation of the ship. Those who could swim were to swim to land. Those that couldn’t would be given bits of wood and the like to help them get to shore.
Amazingly it works. Nobody is harmed. What Paul said was true. There shall be no loss of any man’s life, and there was no loss of any man’s life.
Paul is even more amazing on the island. He is bitten by a snake and suffers no ill effect whatsoever. His God saved him from the sea and he has now saved him from a snake. His God must want him to go to Rome, because his God could surely save him from the Romans too.
If there was any doubt in your mind about Paul and his God, it all vanishes after what happens next. He starts to heal those around him. Maybe you would all have survived the storm anyway. Maybe that snake wasn’t really poisonous. But you have seen Paul heal disease. There is no other explanation for that. His God is with him, and his God is a powerful God.
The rest of the journey seems to be fairly routine. There isn’t really anything recorded in Acts that is particularly remarkable about it. The soldiers must have talked among themselves about Paul and his God, and Paul must have spoken to them. What a privilege it must have been, learning about God from the apostle Paul himself. There were no questions he couldn’t answer, no fears he couldn’t dispel.
You didn’t know why Paul was so confident at the start of the journey. He so obviously wanted to go to Rome, and he obviously wasn’t trying to avoid it. Paul may have been a prisoner of the Roman Empire, but only very superficially. His God was guiding his life, and he was sent to Rome to teach. He didn’t fear the Romans because he knew his God was with him.
It was with some sadness that you would have parted with Paul when you arrived in Rome. So much more he could have taught you if only he had had the time. You would have tried to keep up with what the followers of The Way were doing, and you would probably even have become one yourself.
Paul of course continued preaching.
And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.
At the start of the journey you couldn’t understand why Paul was so confident. Now you knew. He had a great, loving, powerful God. Paul’s captivity was only superficial, and if he had tried to save himself his salvation would only have been superficial – he would have avoided the Romans, but not oblivion.
The thing that Paul knew, and that Paul preached, was very simple.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.