There’s a scene in the movie ‘Paul, Apostle of Christ’ where the physician Luke is sneaking his way around the city of Rome, trying to find his way to a hidden colony of Christians, when he comes across a scene that I’ve read described in history books, but saw dramatised for the first time…
…using human beings as torches along city streets at night.
A Christian is strapped to a ledge on a wall waiting for some soldiers to douse him with oil and set him alight.
In the dim scene, Luke and the Christian catch one another’s eye. Luke’s face says that he wants to intervene but it’s a no-win scenario and the Christian subtly indicates that Luke should stay hidden and safe.
They light him up.
This is history, and it really happened. And it’s unbelievable.
After the fires of Rome which Nero blamed on the Christians, they were targeted by the government. Luke connects with Priscilla and Aquila and then arranges to sneak INTO Mamertine prison to meet with Paul.
Priscilla and Aquila debate about whether to stay in Rome or leave. There’s no easy answer. Leave and isolated Christians may not find a safe haven, however temporary. Stay, and the whole community is at risk of death. They devise a plan to make overtures to some rich families with access to a tunnel that can take them safely out of the city. A young Roman boy in the group named Tarquin volunteers to take the message and later ends up dead. Cassius, another Roman in the Christian group sees no other way than violence and takes up the sword.
Meanwhile Luke sneaks into Paul’s cell with the help of the guard and writes down parts of what has become our Scripture. At one point, Luke says that he told the Priscilla and Aquila that love is the only way but admits to Paul that he doesn’t understand how love will be the answer against the cruelty of Rome.
Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, recites what love is. “Love is patient, love is kind, it does not dishonour others…” Paul asks if Luke has heard what he said, and when Luke says yes he heard, Paul is like, Well Dude! Write it down.
The prefect in charge of the prison – Mauritius – has a daughter who is sick and getting worse. Initially he doesn’t buy this whole Christian thing that Paul is telling him about (they talk from time to time) but just as his daughter is about to slip away, he rejects his pagan sacrifices and sends for Luke, a physician and a Christian.
I’m reading Romans 12 going into 13 about love and what it is and about how it is the way we should live and not take up a sword and seek retribution…
Hate what is evil, cling to what is good (Romans 12:9)
Do not repay anyone evil for evil (Romans 12:17)
Do not take revenge (Romans 12:19)
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21)
Love does no harm to its neighbour…love is the fulfilment of the Law (Romans 13:10)
In the end, Paul loses his head for the gospel. A grateful Mauritius cannot intervene, but Paul’s love has made an imprint on the Roman prefect of Mamertine prison deeper than the cut of a sword used in furious anger.
This lunatic regime of Rome is the authority that Paul writes of in Romans 13 when he says that Christians should be subject to. This is really hard core.
This is how radical Paul is. In this world we live in, Paul writes that we owe authorities taxes, revenue, respect and honour (Romans 13:7).
But those things are measurable and not infinite. Taxes and revenue have an upper limit. Respect and honour are expressed through gestures and utterances, like using the prefix ‘president’ or ‘minister’.
Once those things are taken care of, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8, NIV)
Love has no upper limit. We can never love our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ enough to say that our debt to that is square.
The movie ends with Priscilla and Aquila leading the group of Christians outside the city. They have escaped Rome, but they take with them a continuing debt of love to their fellow Christians.