In arguments between two people there is always the wondering of who is going to get the last word. We desire the last word because it is powerful. More than just the symbol of victory, the last word literally reverberates through our ears as we walk away. It resonates over and again in the chambers of our hearts and replays again in our heads.
Luke, the author of Acts, seems to be aware of this: the ending of the book is not Paul’s release or his trip to Spain or his rearrest or eventual execution. The ending is actually surprisingly positive for the fact that Paul is left a prisoner in Rome. But Paul isn’t the point or even the main character of the book of Acts. The spreading of this movement (what the Jews call “a sect” and what Paul calls “the Way”) through the work of the Holy Spirit is this is the main point and the main character of the book. The optimistic ending comes from the fact that the door is opening to the Gentiles and the spreading of “The Way” is, despite subjugation of many key disciples and advocates, unhindered.
“Unhindered.” That is literally the last word of the book. *
But, let’s back up: after many seafaring adventures, mishaps, shipwrecks, snakebites, legal battles, healings, and countless speeches, Paul and company arrive in Rome. Many scholars believe Paul was eventually let go but Luke doesn’t end the story like that. Luke ends the book deliberately with Paul still on house arrest. The chapter closes with an open door: people can come to Paul but Paul’s not going out to them anymore. God can bring who He is going to bring but Paul is put in a place where he has to actively wait and receive.
Ronald Rolheiser, says in one of his books, “ – Life is what happens while you are planning your life. – I always resented interruptions to my work until I realized that those interruptions were my real work. – Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is the person who is actually in my life while I am plotting how to be in somebody else’s life.”**
Perhaps these are things Paul was realizing while a prisoner, waiting: that his life is the time he spends arrested, his work is the work he can do while arrested, and his neighbors are those whom he can reach via letter or those who come into his house.
Paul is chained to one place but this idea of restricted physical freedom is juxtaposed in the same verse with “complete freedom of speech.” This verbal freedom is enough for the Holy Spirit to work with: the gospel slips out of the cracked-open door of Paul’s house and into the cracks of the empire. For two years he is allowed to preach and is never shut down. Anyone who wished (or was curious) could come to Paul; the door was always cracked open.
But what exactly did Paul do with all of his time? Maybe he entertained visitors. Maybe he opened an impromptu and unofficial seminary for those who came to learn of the “The Way.” Or maybe he spent much of his time waiting and working on his trade: making tents.
Like Paul on house arrest, many faithful churches are sprinkled among the epitome of the civil world today. Inside those doors, followers open impromptu and unofficial seminaries: teaching, encouraging, walking with, challenging and pastoring those curious souls who walk through our unassuming doors. Some of the time we make tents, we entertain guests, and yes, we are often bored and wish to be free of our chains. We are Paul on house arrest.
We, like Paul, are left in a place. Rooted. Perhaps even feeling trapped. What are the chains that bind us to this place? Are those chains bad? Or are they good? How is God at work in that? Who is God bringing into our lives through the cracked door? Do we hope, with the depths of our hearts, to be a member of the body of Christ in our location and, by that, bring hope and encouragement to those who enter through the cracked-open door and happen to find us here? Do we provide a space where the curious can come? Indeed, some may come, argue, disagree and leave -having not been persuaded- but some will be changed and, even though we may watch their backs as they walk away through the cracked door, they carry the light of Christ further into the world.
We don’t always get the privilege of knowing the good that God works through us but that is exactly why we must practice trust. We trust He is at work through us. In The Message translation of verse 20 Paul says, “I’m a hostage here for hope, not doom.” We trust and have faith -even yet, we hold a hope- that our house arrest is not in vain: Christ is at work.
We may, at times, feel chained and trapped by house arrest. But the verbal freedom we have is enough for the Holy Spirit to work with: the gospel will slip out our door and into the cracks of the empire. For 2000 years we’ve been allowed to preach and have not been shut down. In some sense, the book of Acts has not yet ever ended. This is the very same story of our spiritual ancestors. These are our grandparents, our parents, and yes, even us who are carrying on with the good news. We are living out the continuation of the book of Acts. The Spirit is still active. There is still work to do. We are being made further into faithful characters of this story as long as we allow, through Jesus’ spirit and through love for one another, the preaching of “The Way” to go forth from our lives, unhindered.
What we read in the 28th chapter is not the end. With the kingdom coming, a hole is broken in linear time. We can still go back and enter that cracked-open door; we can enter into the book of Acts as participants. We can join in the with the chosen people of God -join in with those gone before us and enter the communion of saints.
The more I ponder the death of the Christ, the more I imagine the solemnity and finality of it. He was dead and no direness can capture the depth of his death. He was utterly gone. But, was He? Was there not a crack in that grave? Was there not a cracked-open slit of light- albeit ever so small that we could not notice- piercing through the stone that held our savior in death the morning of that third day?
Hope has a funny way of breaking through. Hope has a way of leaking through the cracks of this world that seek to contain it. It is the resilience of this hope that finds its way, carried on the wings and winds of the Holy Spirit, to our hearts when we need it most -and to those who happen to find a humble, unassuming door that is cracked open and stumble inside to find a group of people on house arrest, faithful to the path, “the Way,” God has endowed upon them.
Some of our time we are making tents. Some of our time we are entertaining guests. Some of our time we are teaching, encouraging, walking with, challenging and pastoring those curious souls who walk through our unassuming door. And yes, even some of the time we are bored and we wish to be free of our chains, but, my prayer is that we, as individuals and as churches- when we are feeling bound and trapped- we still allow the doors of our hearts and lives to be cracked open. May we allow the Holy Spirit to bring to us curious souls. May we allow ourselves to embrace the waiting. May we trust and have faith, holding to a hope that our house arrest is not in vain. May we remember, Christ is still at work, even after the last pen stroke of Luke.
Who gets the last word? What is the last word? Hear now the last word of Acts: Paul’s door is cracked open and the Spirit carries the word, unhindered. The Spirit has been carrying it through time, unhindered. Even as we find ourselves getting older each day and as our lives draw ever nearer to an end- yet, if we are faithful, even after we die, the gospel proclamation continues to the very end of the earth, by God’s grace, unhindered.