‘Unhindered’

The final of the PDC World Darts Championships always signals the proper start of the New Year for me. I have caught a good amount of it this year and look forward to tonight’s final between Gary Anderson and Gerwyn Price. As with practically all live sport in recent times, the atmosphere is clearly not the same despite the best efforts of ‘Sky Sports Fans’ sounds alongside the charismatic MC and referees, particularly Russ Bray. No doubt some players, who tend to be more popular with the Ally Pally crowd and feed off their energy, have been adversely affected by this. I wonder though if some players, particularly Anderson, who have reached the latter stages have not minded and their play has not suffered. We could say that their play has been unhindered by the absence of fans and they have played more boldly and freely.

In the last few days of 2020, I felt inspired to spend some time reading over the last two chapters of the book of Acts in the Bible.[1] It seemed an appropriate place to land following a year of trials, shipwrecks, and much running aground in the world. In Acts 27–28, the apostle Paul’s journey to Rome and arrival there is narrated. According to Acts, facing some charges of sedition, Paul uses his Roman citizenship to appeal to the authority of Caesar for a trial. He is allowed to go to Rome and makes the arduous journey there via a storm, shipwreck, and spell on the island of Malta. Nevertheless, he makes it to Rome intact and the book ends with the following portrayal (Acts 28:30–31):

He stayed in the same lodging for two whole years and he welcomed all those who came to him: proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with total boldness, unhindered.

I have often been struck by the power of ending the account in this way, particularly with its final word, ‘unhindered’, to describe Paul’s preaching in Rome. Over the last few days, in the light of this passage, I have spent some time reflecting on what it might mean to set out in 2021 ‘unhindered’, which I offer here.

On the one hand, it is entirely reasonable to believe that Paul spent two years preaching the gospel with great boldness, and from that perspective, unhindered. Luke and Acts are determined by movement and Paul conceivably wanted to reach Rome – the centre of the empire – for the message of Christ to be shared most effectively and to gain influence, which against the odds, gradually happened over the next few centuries.

On the other hand, this portrayal of Paul in Acts could be viewed as somewhat sanitised.[2] No mention is made of Paul’s probable death following these two years and the conditions in prison were less idyllic than these final verses suggest. If Philippians was indeed written from Rome, we see signs that Paul really needed money from Christ-believing congregations to sustain him in his imprisonment (4:14–16). While the letters of Paul often show him to be courageous and virtuous as in Acts, there are occasions where he is weak and downcast – particularly in 2 Corinthians.[3] These should be borne in mind alongside Acts’ presentation of Paul’s circumstances as entirely ‘unhindered’.

I think this background of Paul’s hindrances can be an encouragement to us as we embark on 2021. Already it feels like there is so much hindering us: extended lockdowns, uncertainty about what should open when, and continued loss. These initial months of 2021 are not going to be easy. Yet, I believe that we can and should still hope for an ‘unhindered’ 2021, as portrayed at the end of Acts, regardless of how quickly vaccines are rolled out.

Acts tells the story of some of the main events and people of the early Church. That story continues with the Church today. By ending with the image of being ‘unhindered’, a baton passes over to future hearers and readers of this text: including us. We face struggles both similar to, and different from, the earliest followers of Christ in the Roman Empire. While our circumstances might be hindered as much as ever, the gospel never really suffers from hindrance. The message of Christ will keep going out through – and in spite of – the Church. This is where Acts is entirely realistic: Paul’s ability to proclaim the kingdom of God and everything about Jesus Christ was unhindered by the circumstances in the background. The death and resurrection of the divine Christ set in motion something which cannot be hindered, even when our times suggest otherwise.

So, let us step or stagger up to oche of 2021. Despite our hindered circumstances, let us aim at Christ, and recall his unhindered love and unchanging companionship.[4]

Happy New Year. (And come on Gary Anderson.)


[1] I even put together a little Twitter thread which I seek to expand here: https://twitter.com/Alex_W_Muir/status/1343507712282419200

[2] Such a view of Acts might strike some people as problematic. The main consideration is that as ancient texts, the genre and purpose of Acts and the letters of Paul, are different. Acts, while wonderful and useful, was clearly written a good deal later than the letters of Paul and is second-hand evidence for the life of Paul. The finest account of the genre of Acts of which I know is by Sean Adams who argues for Acts being ‘collected biography’; see Adams, The Genre of Acts and Collected Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[3] Notably, 2 Cor 1:8, 4:7–11, 6:4–10, 11:21–30, 12:1–10. In fact, there currently seems to be a growing and fruitful trend in Pauline scholarship that draws attention to Paul’s weakness – even disability – as an apostle.

[4] I have spent much time in recent weeks listening to this song from folk at HTB, ‘Love All Along’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_hiCsr3wFA.

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