I collect capital cities. And so this morning we fly to Hungary in order to add Budapest to my collection.
There is something strangely satisfying about ticking your way down a list. Just like the I-SPY books beloved of my generation.
You may have read earlier this month of David Brewer from Chorley who has now succeeded in taking a photograph of a train in every station in Great Britain, all 2500 of them. Epic.
The apostle Paul had a similar but infinitely more fruitful passion –“to preach the gospel where Christ was not known.” (Romans 15:20). He reflects: “So from Jerusalem all the way round to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.” That’s some distance – Illyricum approximates to today’s Croatia.
Such was the explosion of the early church (just read the list of nationalities of those who were in Jerusalem for that initial Pentecostal outpouring) it wasn’t easy for Paul to find new places to preach Christ.
So he has to travel far and fast. He continues: “But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to visit you (in Rome), I plan to do so when I go to Spain.” (Romans 15:23f).
Whether Paul ever made Tarragona is doubtful – for the simple reason is that there is no record of an early congregation in this ancient Roman city. But that was his intention – to go as far as you could get with the good news of Jesus.
Here we do get a fascinating insight into how Paul saw his own ministry and how he expected churches once planted to grow vigorously, like saplings in cracks in the concrete.
The apostle didn’t stay long in a city – with the exception of Ephesus and those times he found himself in prison. (Sometimes it wasn’t his decision – he was simply thrown out.) Maybe just a few days, never more than a few weeks. But each would have a strategic position.
Relying on the Holy Spirit Paul ensured that his Gospel message took root, even in just a handful of people. He seemed unconcerned if they were slaves or even women. The point is that they are now in God’s hands.
That was enough. Once planted he expected the Gospel to grow and bear fruit, effortlessly pushing the concrete aside. Of course, this meant that these early saints needed a lot of guidance, encouragement, even discipline – hence his epistles. Moreover, he trained and commissioned apprentice leaders.
But this tent-making evangelist kept moving. Such a big world and so little time. His secret was that he was convinced that God himself was at work.
“There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears” he writes to a church in a Roman colony (Philippians 1:6).
You can see this in how Luke structures his two books for Theophilus –the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. To all intents and purposes they are a single work, a tale of two capital cities.
So Luke begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome. Whatever happens to Paul then (he was probably released) is besides the point. The point is that the Gospel has now arrived in the capital city of the Empire.
Capital cities are invariably designed to impress, even overawe. And certainly imperial Rome was no exception. In fact, the Emperor himself collected capital cities – but in his case, literally.
However, no way was Paul taken in by this show of pomp, no way intimidated by Rome’s grandeur. He knew that Christ and not Caesar is Lord, that it is not Nero but Jesus who is Divi Filius/Son of God.
And this apostle understood that it would be only a matter of time before the church in Rome would grow to bear abundant fruit, assuming Jesus did not return in the meantime.
Look around Rome today and see the outcome of Paul’s faith. See all the churches, look at those remarkable ruins from the glory that was Rome.
So the apostle may rejoice using the word of the prophet Isaiah:
“There’s the root of our ancestor Jesse, breaking through the earth and growing tree tall,
Tall enough for everyone everywhere to see and take hope!”