Sunday, 2 February 2014

Acts 22 - A Defence of the Faith

There are moments when faith can feel very much under threat.

This was one of those moments.

Paul had done everything possible to ensure he would be well received in Jerusalem … he had bent over backwards to ensure that he would be seen to be doing the right thing.

He had been warned to stay away – it was a dangerous place.

But he insisted he had determined to take the collection he had made personally for those who were afflicted by severe shortages in and around Jerusalem.

For the best part of a week all seemed to go reasonably well.

It was on the seventh day of the festival as Paul was in the temple that he was tracked down by people he had crossed on his travels in Asia.

Jerusalem was a tinderbox of tension, always on the brink of very real trouble.   The trouble held down by the Roman garrison.

It got completely out of hand – the crowds became a mob.  Paul’s life was under threat – the soldiers intervened and he had to be carried shoulder high to safety.

The soldiers brought him to the barracks when Paul spoke to the senior officer, the Tribune.  Above the shouts and anger of the crowd he asked, May I say something to you?”

The Tribune is taken aback that he speaks Greek- he had been mistaken by the Roman garrison for a freedom fighter who had come from Egypt and had roused a militia of 4,000 in the wilderness.

Paul pleaded with the tribune to allow him to speak to the people.

It was into the middle of the anger – in a moment that was fraught with danger that Paul spoke.

There was a hush as he began and he switched languages to the Hebrew that would be understood by the Jerusalem people who were in the temple.

“Brothers and father, he said, listen to the defence that I now make before you.”

Let’s just pause there.

Sometimes there are circumstances when it becomes necessary to give a defence of the faith that is in you.  The Greek word is ‘apologia’ –

I well remember on my father’s shelves a book with a curious Latin title … Apologia pro Vita Sua – not so much an apology for living in a sewer as many a wit has suggested – but a defence of the faith that was in him by John Newman as he became a Catholic.

How do you defend the faith that is important to you?

When faith is under fire how do you give an account of what you believe.

The crowd became even more quiet and Paul began.

He begins by telling them about himself – and he concentrates on the way he had grown up steeped in the traditions and faith of the Jewish people …

‘I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today.

He begins with the faith he had grown up with, the studies he had made at the feet of Gamaliel.  Then he describes how zealous he was in attacking the  Way – persecuting the followers of Jesus.

 4I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, 5as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment.

Then as the heading goes, Paul tells of his conversion.  And there is a detailed account of what happened to Paul on that road to Damascus.

It’s interesting that two stories are each told three times in Acts.  One is the breakthrough moment for Peter when he has that vision that persuades him it is all right to share his faith with non Jewish Gentile people.

And the other is this account of what happened to Paul when he was on the Road to Damascus.

See it as simply an account of his conversion and you in a sense miss the oint.  It is not the moment when Paul ceases to be Jewish and becomes the follower of another religion, ie Christianity.

No, something happens on that Road that makes him see his faith differently, that fills out for him what his faith is all about.

‘While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. 7I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 8I answered, “Who are you, Lord?” Then he said to me, “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.”

He wants to know what he is to do, he is directed to Damascus, to someone whom he describes as a devout man according to the law, to the Torah, who is well spoken of by all the Jews there.

It is not a conversion.

Paul is adamant that what he hears from this wise, devout person steeped in the Torah is not a denial of his faith, but the moment it comes to fulfilment.

14Then he said, “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice; 15for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. 16And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.”

It wasn’t long before Paul found himself in Jerusalem in the Temple and again, he senses the presence of Jesus with him.  He describes a moment of a trance – and the challenge

“Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.”

Paul is very conscious of the horrific things he has done to the followers of Jesus, in many places, culminating in standing by as Stephen is stoned to death -– and is distraught.  Only to find the rich depths of the forgiveness of Christ who says, “Go for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.”

It is at this point that the crowd lose it and intervene, baying for his blood.

The Tribune intervenes, orders Paul into the safety of the barracks where he is to be tortured to get the truth out of him.  Or as the NRSV says, he ordered him ‘to be examined by flogging’

Then comes one of those surreal moments as Paul switches back to Greek the language of the Eastern Mediterranean world of the Roman empire

when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, ‘Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?’ 26When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, ‘What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.’ 27The tribune came and asked Paul, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ 28The tribune answered, ‘It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.’ Paul said, ‘But I was born a citizen.’

Among the Jewish people he is so very Jewish.  And among the Romans he is born a Roman citizen.

29Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.

The Tribune has a plan B

And so arranges to hand Paul over to the Council, the Jewish authority that has control of the  Temple but is willing to act under the overall  control of Rome.

It is an exciting story and a wonderful insight into what makes Paul tick.

But there is something more that I want to come back to in this chapter.

For Paul what makes sense of his life, what makes sense of the world with all its troubles is not a set of beliefs that he defends, it is not a set of principles that he defends.

It is an encounter with Jesus Christ.

That to me is the key to the difference our Christian faith can make.

When confrtoned with things that call faith in question on the news in our own lives it’s easy to be drawn with our rational minds into trying to figure it out.

Start with the  God of the philosophers and you come up against a massive brick wall.

If God is all powerful, if God is all knowing, and if God is all loving how can he allow this to happen?

There is no answering that.

But that’s not the starting point for the faith that is at the heart of what we share in the church family and as we meet around the table.

Let’s start with Jesus Christ.   It may be we meet him in a moment, it may be we get to know him over a life-time of reflecting and thinking and exploring who he is.

Start there and what do we find – no easy answers about why God allows things to happen.

But rather we see that Jesus comes alongside people in their hurt and their pain.  He remains with them through the awfulness they experience.  And he draws them into the love of God to find that that love is a lover that restores and strengthens, that brings forgiveness and peace.

He shares with us at the point at which things are at their worst – sharing the awfulness of God-forsakeness on the cross.  And then remains with us through to something beyond.

And through it he opens up a relationship with God that finds God to be our father, close to us through that valley of deepest darkness and into the glory of his eternal love.

Paul’s apologia, moving as it is, is moving precisely because it is not a conversion moment from one religion to another, but a reminder that it is in the meeting with God that comes in Christ that our faith comes into its own.

And it is here as we gather around the table of our Lrod that we claim his presence and celebrate his presence hearing those words …

Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.

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