My Interview with writer and director, Andrew Hyatt, of Paul, Apostle of Christ:
This past weekend was full. Perhaps it was for you too. Before I tell you about my experience with the Paul movie, it is worth mentioning the most meaningful weekend of the Church calendar.
It started off with two Good Friday gatherings. We read the passion narrative and intentionally didn’t take communion (which is a common fast to take on this day).
Then, Holy Saturday. Jesus is in the grave. The already and not yet nature of the Kingdom is revealed afresh. Is all lost or is hope real?
And of course: UP FROM THE GRAVE HE AROSE! Easter reminds us that God’s renewed world is being born in the womb of the old one.
Jesus’ resurrection offers hope to the whole cosmos. And those of us who are followers of Jesus can find meaning in resurrection: what happened to Jesus’ body on that first Easter is the future reality that we all look forward to.
Of course, it was Paul the Apostle who gave us much insight to the significance of these three days of Holy Week.
He understood Jesus resurrection of the first fruits of all God plans to do for creation and humankind.
Creation will be “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom of the children of God.” That freedom, of course, is resurrection. (See Romans 8.18-28)
Paul had a powerful vision of Jesus after God had raised him from the dead (Jesus, not Paul, to be clear ;-)).
This vision changed everything.
The hopes of earlier times were coming to fruition through the life, death, resurrection, and enthronement of Jesus.
For years, Paul would spend time all over the Mediterranean world working out the ramifications of that vision and hope he encountered.
He established faith communities. Wrote letters. Encountered hardships. Went to jail.
He proclaimed that God had raised a Jewish Messiah from the dead, right under the nose of Rome.
And then he came to his final hours. We know little about his later life. But, in a new movie, we get a compelling attempt to draw out the humanity of the apostle: Paul, Apostle of Christ.
<<<Listen to my interview with writer and director, Andrew Hyatt>>>
In the film, we find Paul in jail under guard. Much time has passed since that initial meeting with Jesus (see Galatians 1 for Paul’s version, Acts 9 for Luke’s version). Under the constant threat of death, the faith communities of Jesus in Rome are wrestling with if they should stay or go.
Luke, wanting to write down the stories of Paul, so that his life extends beyond the letters he wrote, gets special permissions to visit the aged leader in jail.
The interactions between them are moving. In fact, many things moved me in this film.
I cried a little. Yes. I admit it. At least 3 times where I was deeply touched. I’d say that I felt the strange and beautiful presence of the Spirit while I watched.
Although I’m not going to break down all my tear up moments, I want to draw out a few powerful aspects of the film.
The Jesus-Followers in Rome, Under Nero
This film takes place in 67 CE. One of the most disturbing parts of this time in history, if Tacitus’ account can be trusted (an ancient historian), is how Nero had burned down a large part of Rome and found Jesus-followers to be easy scapegoats.
They were blamed.
On June 18, 64 CE a great fire broke out in the city of Rome. Some would place the blame on Nero because many in the surrounding area believed that he was a mad man who sought to use this situation as a means of demonstrating heroism.
Nero publicly demonstrated great charity during the fire, and even opened up public buildings and his personal gardens as shelters for the homeless. In spite of these acts, the rumors that he had in fact caused the fires persisted and he needed to figure out a way to shift the focus from himself. This, he would find in the Christians.
By the end of the fire, ten of the fourteen sections of Rome had suffered great damage.The common people were devastated by the catastrophe that had destroyed their way of life. Blame soon began to shift towards the unpopular emperor. Justo Gonzalez states:
“Nero tried to allay such suspicions, but it soon became clear that he would not succeed in this as long as there was no one else to blame.”
By blaming the Jesus-followers, Nero found some freedom from his accusers. Tacitus, a first century historian, gives some insight to how this would not be complete freedom from accusation:
“Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man’s brutality rather than to the national interest” (Annals 15.44).
Without giving too much away from the story in Paul, Apostle of Christ—this is the historical scene which we as viewers enter. It is hard to imagine the cost of following Jesus in such circumstances.
I was in awe. And it wasn’t merely the scenes of pain and torture that captivated me, but rather, I was inspired by the way the Jesus community in Rome sought to be a presence of love in the midst of seeing their loved ones lost.
It also reminds me to pray for those who sacrifice more than many of us can imagine to follow Jesus in other parts of the world. They are my sisters and brothers—as much as Luke, Paul, Pricilla, and Aquila.
Paul, the Human Being
I was also moved by the raw portrayal of Paul (and his dear friend Luke).
Throughout the film we see a Paul who is still haunted by his past. His guilt and shame are gone, but his remorse remains.
Through flashbacks and dreams we sense that the days of zealously seeking to stamp out Messianic Judaism are recalled, as if they had happened yesterday. He describes the night terrors as being one way that the Satan haunts him.
In the midst of the darkness, Paul chants “Your grace is sufficient.”
Paul needs Jesus. He isn’t super-human. He is a flawed human who is increasingly becoming more human as he follows the fully human one: Jesus himself.
Paul’s humanity comes out in other ways. In another part of the movie, he is having a conversation with the head jailer. Paul, as you might imagine, starts getting inspiringly longwinded about the goodness of Jesus his Lord. The jailer pushes back at one time, not in anger, but asks Paul what it means if he is not convinced by this.
As I recall, Paul answers with a smile: “I wasn’t trying to convince you.”
Such a human moment. I can’t imagine Paul being a robotic preacher who constantly used apologetical tactics to argue eloquently enough to manipulate minds into belief. No way! Paul was passionate about Jesus, but Paul was a real person who embodied Jesus’ way of love.
It was Paul’s love that was compelling, even in his weakness.
This film reminded me over and again that Paul’s humility and imperfections are part of what make him so compelling.
Love is the Only Way (Nonviolence in the Film)
Lastly, I’ll mention the theme of love and nonviolence. I chatted about this in detail with director Andrew Hyatt on The Paulcast.
What do you do when your friends and family are being burned alive, beaten on the streets, and released as bait for wild beasts to dismember during Nero’s games? Do you follow the teachings of Jesus?
In this day an age, when the teachings of Jesus have been coopted by militaristic agendas and various political ideologies, we need more than ever to have a witness of love.
The leaders of the community in Rome, Pricilla and Aquila, made it clear what they believed was the only path forward: love. Those who would choose to pick up arms against the Romans would have no place in the Christian community.
Luke, when telling Paul of the great hardships facing their loved ones outside of the jail cell, breaks down in anger and sadness about all Nero has put into place. Overcome with emotion, Luke suggests that the Romans should have to pay for what they have done.
Then come Paul’s powerful words of response:
Love is the only way.
And love remains the only way forward for Paul and all of those who choose to follow the way of Messiah Jesus together, all the way to the film’s climactic ending (yes, cue the tears!).
Love looks like Jesus who models nonviolent enemy love, even when Romans torture you.
Paul believed this until the very end.
I pray that we will also believe that love is indeed the only way.
Well, friends, I hope this reflection was interesting and that it inspires you to check out this film. Yes, I’m endorsing this film and no, I’m not one who usually watches “Christian movies.”
May we lean into the resurrection. May we lean into love. May it be our only way.
Oh, and don’t forget to check out my new podcast project: Rapture Drill: Reframing Revelation, the End Times, & our Weird Obsession with the Apocalypse.