Believe it or not, I’m walking on air. I never thought I could feel so free. Flying away on a wing and a prayer. Who could it be? Believe it or not, it’s just me. —The Greatest American Hero theme song
If you are old enough, you remember the short-lived series starring William Katt and Connie Selleca from the early 80s, about a kind-hearted high school teacher who reluctantly becomes a super hero who gets sucked into helping out the government catch bad guys. “Ralph” is a sweet guy who discovers an alien suit that gives him super powers he can barely understand. When he is matched up with special agent Maxwell, played by Robert Culp, Ralph faces a series of bad guys.
Ralph wasn’t born to beating bad guys. In fact, he is known to even apologize for having to knock a few of them out! He cares about his students, struggles to juggle his new duties with the time he needs to do his day job and maintain his relationship with his lovely girlfriend, played by the beautiful Connie Selleca, and gets into philosophical arguments with his foil, Maxwell.
We Americans tend to like more forceful heroes. We want the Marvel Avengers, flawed characters who nonetheless wind up beating all the bad guys, even if they get a little banged up in the process. We like our heroes to be the strong, silent type, like the archetypal image of John Wayne as he stands outside the house framed within the doorway, alone, at the end of The Searchers.
I was reading the book of Acts this week, and I was struck by a particular incident with Paul where he seemed to me to be more like our American version of the tough, ultimately triumphant hero who “takes out” his enemies before they know what has hit them. Paul is in Jerusalem, and the crowd he gathers gets stirred up, especially when he says that he has been called to witness to Gentiles.
The crowd becomes so stirred up, that the Roman contingent actually takes Paul into custody, assuming that he is beginning a riot:
As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and interrogated in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” (Acts 22:23-25)
Immediately, the centurion pulls back and calls his commander, who is horrified to discover he has come so close to punishing a Roman citizen without first giving him the proper hearing according to Roman law. As I read this passage, I was struck by the kind of “cool customer” Paul was. He didn’t start yelling about his citizenship as soon as the soldiers laid hands on him. Instead, he waited until he was fully stretched out, and then he calmly asks them about flogging a Roman citizen!
Of course, why am I surprised that Paul would act this way? He was, after all, a man with enough courage to admit his mistakes in persecuting the Way in the first place, with the courage to go to Peter and ask for permission to preach the Word, a man who began each visit to a new city by preaching in the synagogue, the one place he would least likely be accepted.
In these respects, Paul is the kind of hero any American audience can sink its teeth into. But in so many other ways, he exhibits the kind of attributes that Christ wants from all of us, and that we don’t often see in our heroes of the big screen:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-25)
The same Paul who holds his Roman citizenship close to the vest, only using it when necessary, is the same Paul who thanks God for his afflictions because they bring him closer to the Almighty, the same Paul who uses the years he spends waiting for a proper trial in jail continuing to write letters to the churches he has begun on his mission trips, the same letters we use today in our churches to help us better understand the narrow way that is the walk with Christ.
Christ Himself was not the kind of hero we like to see in the movies, even when He walked the earth. Even John the Baptist, who heralded His coming, wondered why Christ, the Messiah, did not come wielding a great sword and freeing the Jews from the oppression of their Roman overlords:
When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?'” (Luke 7:20)
In His answer, Jesus offers an insight into the kind of hero He was always meant to be:
So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.(Luke 7:22)
Love instead of hate, forgiveness instead of revenge, these are the qualities that Christ showed us and that Paul encourages us to cling to if we are to truly live by the Spirit through our belief in Christ.
Our heroes are mostly tough guys and gals who use their muscles and weapons and brains to make villains pay for their bad deeds. But God uses heroes whose weakness shows His strength. Those who wake every day submitting to His will are the meek who shall inherit the earth–the greatest heroes of all.