The very last line of this passage might seem like an odd little coda, but to me it’s the whole point. This is the second meeting between Paul and Jesus that we’ve heard about in Acts. Their encounter on the Road to Damascus was much more dramatic and strange, and the low-key nature of this second encounter makes me wonder if Paul and Jesus haven’t been having little private chats all the time. Maybe this is just the one that Paul told Luke about, or told someone who visited him in prison about so that the story could find its way back to Luke. But it’s not surprising that Jesus shows up again now, standing beside Paul and saying “Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.” In this moment, Paul is going through the same thing that Jesus went through. He has been arrested, he is being tried, he is being threatened with death. In prison, he is alone and isolated from the community that has sustained him. He has been stripped of everything but his deep relationship with God.
He’s going through the same thing that Jesus went through, but Jesus, of course, did it better. Paul doesn’t acquit himself with noble silence and humble utterances. His testimony before the council flails around. He flares out at the High Priest, and then has to apologize. He tries to stir up trouble between the Sadducees and Pharisees. He’s using every tool that comes to mind in his defense, and it feels like he, unlike Jesus, isn’t really reconciled to his situation. He’s afraid of what might happen. “Keep up your courage,” Jesus tells him, because courage is what’s at stake here.
It’s significant to me that Jesus, during his own passion, didn’t lose his courage when he was tried before Pilate and Herod. His moment of wavering came when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he asked God to take this cup of suffering from him. His courage, like all courage, wasn’t about not being afraid. It was about accepting fear, but not being constrained by it.
In Paul’s case, courage comes after the fact, in reflection and solitude. In Jesus’ case, it’s anticipatory. He knows what’s about to happen and that he can’t change it, but he needs the courage to resign himself to it. His courage in the Garden is show by his deep willingness to set himself, and his fears, aside. Paul doesn’t know what’s going to happen until Jesus speaks to him after his appearance before the council. He’s been fumbling after some legal means of preserving his life, because he hasn’t accepted the possibilities of a frightening and disastrous future. He needs Jesus’ reassurance, and Jesus is there to reassure. Unlike Jesus, Paul still has some spiritual work to do. The next few years, as he languishes in different prisons, will lead him into a time of relinquishment, of letting go of himself and his mission. But he’s not there yet.
There is a kind of beautiful symmetry to these two meetings of Paul and Jesus in Acts. Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus requires him to enter a time of learning and solitude before he answers his call as an apostle. Now solitude will be forced on him, as he prepares to surrender that call. It is within such solitude and powerlessness that most of us find the courage to face the future.