The beginning of the end

I was a fan of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy long before the first of Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations, The Fellowship of the Ring, debuted back in 2001. My wife and I had both read them in our youth. Later, we read them aloud to our kids. All of us looked forward eagerly to the first film, and we were not disappointed.

But some of the people in the theater that day were less enthused. We could hear them talking behind us as we walked back out through the lobby after the showing. “What the heck?” they complained, exasperated. “How could they end the movie there?” Fellowship, after all, had deposited Frodo and Sam at the doorstep of the evil land of Mordor, with doom still lurking and their mission incomplete. What kind of ending was that?

I had to put these poor folks out of their misery. “It’s a trilogy,” I told them, turning around. “There are still two movies to go yet.”

The expression on their faces was almost comical. “Ohhhhhh,” they said, as the light suddenly dawned.

Mission accomplished.

Once we get involved in a story, we want to see it end properly. The good guys win, the bad guys lose. Boy meets girl, they lose each other for a while, then find each other again and live happily ever after. And so on.

And having journeyed with the apostle Paul through his missionary adventures, having watched him suffer for the gospel and the hands of Jews and Gentiles alike, we want to see him win.

But will Luke give us the happy ending we want?

. . .

It had been a long, tumultuous journey. To Paul, it must have seemed that a lifetime had passed since Jesus had appeared to him in Jerusalem, promising the apostle that he would preach the gospel in Rome (Acts 23:11). Much had happened since then. He had been held captive by two successive Roman governors; both knew Paul was innocent of any crime, but were unwilling to pay the political price of letting him go.

Once Governor Festus decided to ship Paul off to Rome, the apostle still had to survive storm, shipwreck, and snakebite. But finally — finally! — it seemed he was on his way to Rome at last.

The passengers who had been aboard the wrecked Alexandrian grain vessel were forced, by wisdom and weather, to spend the winter on the island of Malta, where their ship had run aground. For the next leg of their journey, they boarded another Alexandrian ship, probably docked at Valletta, bearing the insignia of the twins Castor and Pollux. We know them as the constellation Gemini; sailors of that time knew them as something like their patron saints. To Julius the centurion and his soldiers, it was a good omen.

From Valletta, they sailed first to Syracuse, on the eastern coast of Sicily, then on to Rhegium, in the toe of Italy’s boot. A favorable wind brought them quickly to Puteoli (present day Pozzuoli), a city on the Bay of Naples that had once been Rome’s major harbor. This would be the end of Paul’s seafaring adventures; the rest of the journey would be over land.

It was in Puteoli that Paul received some major encouragement:

There we found believers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.

Acts 28:14-15, NRSV

No one knows for certain who had brought the gospel to Italy or Rome; we only know it wasn’t Paul. But he knew of the church there. Indeed, a few years earlier, he had written to them the letter we know as Romans.

Surely, at least some of Paul’s story had become known to them, as was his letter. Upon his arrival he was treated as an honored guest, even a celebrity. The believers in Puteoli lavished a week of hospitality on him (Julius must not have been in much of a hurry!). And when he left Puteoli heading northward for Rome, he was met on the road by more believers who had traveled a long distance south from Rome along the Appian Way. They had come to roll out the Welcome Wagon.

Paul had enjoyed the hospitality of the residents of Malta. But imagine the emotional impact of seeing these brothers and sisters coming out from Rome to greet him, a man known to them only by his reputation and writing. It was as if God himself had sent them to encourage Paul, just as Jesus had encouraged him in Corinth: Don’t be afraid — I’m with you, and I have lots of people in this city (Acts 18:9-10).

Everything in the story points to a happy ending.

And we’ll get one. Sort of. But it might not be the one we expected.