Sunday, 9 March 2014

Acts 26 - Light in the Darkness

It’s curious how significant people can make a big impression on you.   I can think of teachers I had when I was little to whom I am greatly indebted.

The same applies to Ministers.

As the son of the Manse and a Minister since the age of 24 that puts me in a strange position.  I have very fond memories of the one person who was Minister to me other than my Father.

I well remember on one occasion Roy Jenkins suggesting that there were only about half a dozen themes for a preacher to preach on.  Mind you there are endless variations on those themes as he well knows as he is still going strong, not least on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.

Acts gives you a glimpse into the preaching of the early church … and it is fascinating how the various sermons circle around even fewer main themes.

Indeed, time and again they come back to one theme.

And I guess it is that theme I find myself coming back to more and more.

Indeed, for me, everything seems to boil down to this basic theme.

In Acts 26 we encounter the story for the third time.

First, Luke tells us it in Acts chapter 9 at the point in the unfolding story of the church and its growth when it actually happens.  Then again in Acts 22 we find it being told by Paul as he is put on the spot and has to give an account of the faith that is so dear to him.

And now for a third time we encounter the story that made such a difference to Paul.
This is to be the final time we see Paul before the authorities.  This final hearing is before King Herod Agrippa II, grandson to King Herod the Great.

Himself, a very interesting person.

“Herrod Agrippa II, described on his coins as Marcus Julius Agrippa ( his name as a Roman citizen) was the son of Herod Agrippa I,  born in AD 27.  He was in Rome when his father died in 44 and Claudius was disposed to give him his fatehre’s kingdom, but was dissuaded ) on account of the son’s youth) and Judea again became a Roman province.  In 50, however, Claudius gave Agrippa the kingdom of Chalcis (in Lebanon) in succession to his uncle Herod, together with the right of appointing the Jewish high priests.  In 53 Agrippa exchanged Chalcis for Batanaea,  Gaulanitis, Trachonitis, and Abila, which had formed part of his fatehr’s kingdom; three years later Nero gave him in addition the regions of Tiberias and Tarichaea, west ot he sea of Galilee, together tith Julias in Peraea and 14 neighbouring villages.

As a compliemtn to Nero he changed the name of his capital from Caesarea Philippi to Neronias.  Like his father he called himself Great King, fiend of Caeasar and friend of Rome.    FF Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles (3rd Edition, Apollos, 1990)

Who they are is interesting – they come with ‘great pomp’ and are at home in Caesarea – with an audience hall.

Here we catch a glimpse of the Herodian power, its wealth, its determaination to latch on to the Romans.

There is an ugliness to this power.

A contrast with the simplicity and the humbleness of Jesus and of Paul.

But Agrippa II is an intetersing character.

What the Herodians are doing is treading a fine line between Rome and making the most of the opulence … and the Jewish people.  They are trying to get the best of both worlds.

And that world is about to fall about their ears.

Josephus records a speech in AD 66,  when Agrippa II tries to persuade the rebels not to take up arms against Jerusalem.

He wants to dissuade the Jewish people of Jersuaelm from taking arms.

And so he speaks.

Josephus records his speech at great length.

As if he had heard it.

See the might of Rome – you cannot win.

See what they have done to the Greeks, to the Gauls, in Spain.

And then comes a remarkable reference.

A reminder that what is going on here in these islands is in the same world as the world of the New Testament.

“consider the defences of the Britons, you who feel so sure of the defences of Jerusalem.  They are surrounded by the Ocean and inhabit an island as big as the land which we inhabit; yet the Romans crossed the sea and enslaved them,l and four legions keep that huge island quiet.”   (160)

Not even the Britons could withstand the might of Rome he argues in spite of othe fact their island is surrounded by the ocean.

A remarkable comment.

Because he is referring surely to something that is happening in Britain at exactly the time Paul is here in Caesarea.

The Boudica revolt.

The Romans overstretch themselves and take Anglesey – and the Icenii and Boudica take their opportunity, Colchester, even London fall to the rebels.

What do the Romans do?  Sit back?

No they march down the A5 and meet Boudica near Mancetter, near Warwick, and Boudica and the rebellion is destroyed.

Roman power is established.

That’s the lesson Agrippa II wants to share.

He wants to keep his power.

The tragedy is that the people take to arms.   They overthrew the  Romans for 4years.  And the Romans responded as they had done against Boudica.  The legions came down from the north, the city was laid waste and the temple destroyed.

And as for Agrippa II, he remained loyal to the empire throughout the war and was rewareded with a further increase of territory and in 75 with pro,motion to praetorian rank.  (FF Bruce 490f)

Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You have permission to speak for yourself.’ Then Paul stretched out his hand and began to defend himself:

Paul shows respect for King Agrippa – and begs him to listen patiently.

‘I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am to make my defence today against all the accusations of the Jews, 3because you are especially familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews; therefore I beg of you to listen to me patiently.

He gives his own credentials as not only Jewish but identifies himself as a Pharisee – one of the strictest.

He does not think of himself as having abandoned his Jewishness but rather as one who has seen it reach its fulfilment in this remarkable hope that he has.

His is a hope that nothing can defeat for it is a hope that looks to nothing less than ‘resurrection’.

4 ‘All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, a life spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem. 5They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee. 6And now I stand here on trial on account of my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors, 7a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship day and night. It is for this hope, your Excellency, that I am accused by Jews! 8Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?

The hope Paul has is a hope that finds its focus at one point.

This is the point he comes back to now for the third time.

This is the theme that is so central.

It is the background Paul has that for him brings into such stark clarity the sheer power this one theme has in the living of his life.  To call it a theme does not quite do justice to Paul.

9 ‘Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. 11By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.

Just note the things Paul notes – locking people up, condemning them to death, punishing them, forcing them to blaspheme a veiled reference to torture, pursuit.

12 ‘With this in mind, I was travelling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, 13when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. 14When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.”

Interesetingly at this third time of telling the story Paul adds in something.  It hurts you to kick against the goads – as if Paul had had an inkling that what he wsa doing was not right, a twinge of conscience.

15I asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.

Thi sis the nub of what is happening.

It is the meeting Paul has with the risen Christ … with Jesus.  The Jesus who in a strange way Paul has already met as he has been persecuting not just the followers of Jesus but Jesus himself.

16But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. 17I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
Paul Tells of His Preaching

Paul has a job to do … and here we get to the heart of the difference this encounter with Christ has for Paul … and the difference an encounter with Christ makes for all …

  • from darkness to light
    • the contrast from darkness to light – it is a shining of the light in the darkness.   Fascination of the child with the dark, playing with a torch.  The adult who is conscious of the dark in the world.  A dark that envelops – the encounter with Christ brings light into that darkness.   Once again, those words from II Corinthians speak so powerfully into this situation.  6For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
  • and from the power of Satan to God,
    • on this first Sunday in Lent – there is that moment in our church year when we remember the power of darkness – it has all sorts of ways of expressing itself in the New Tesatment – one of the most powerful is in the figure of Satan – the one who wheedles his way into our psyche and tempts us with what seems attractive, with the world’s way of doing things.  Held in thrall and by Christ set free.
  • so that they may receive forgiveness of sins
    • this is the most powerful of Paul’s comments here in so many ways … for he had done so much that was wrong.  The capacity of God to forgive and then to give a fresh opportunity to start all over again is one of the remarkable things about Christ … and it has a liberating power.
  • and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me
    • the opportunity to become part of the body of Christ – that body of people who are bound together with Christ and held together by him.

19 ‘After that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance.

Paul goes on with his autobiography and sums up his work – an echo of Acts 1:8 – having encountered Chrst in Damascus he had gone back to Jerusalem, to Judea – to the ends of the world – it is an echo of the whole structure of Acts.

What Paul is about is the enterprise of John the Baptist, of Jesus – repentance.

The Good News Bible speaks of saying sorry and seeking forgiveness.

There is something much bigger going on here.

Repentance – the word – a whole new way of seeing the world – a whole new world-view – for Jewish people, for Gentile people – it is a whole new way of seeing the world that is centred on the Kingdom of God, the rule of God that is shaped by Jesus.

Lots of different variations – but you come back to the one thing – the centrality of Jesus.

Then he comes to his peroration

It is this focus on Jesus that sets him apart.

But notice still – the Jesus who is in fulfilment of all the prophets and Moses.

21For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. 22To this day I have had help from God, and so I stand here, testifying to both small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place: 23that the Messiah must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.’

Verse 23 sums it up again …

The suffering of the Messiah that is seen in Christ … and the resuuection – and it is this death and resurrection of the Christ who has given us a whole new way of looking at the world that is light for Jewish people and for  Gentile people – for the small people and, maybe with his eye on Agrippa II, on great people too.

There are two reactions to Paul.

Festus is furious.
24 While he was making this defence, Festus exclaimed, ‘You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!’

It is a whole new way of thinking of the world – but it is not madness.  It is down to earth

25But Paul said, ‘I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth.

At this point Paul turns to Agrippa II.  And what we catch a glimpse of is how close Paul comes to persuading him.

26Indeed the king knows about these things, and to him I speak freely; for I am certain that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner. 27King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.’ 28Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’ 29Paul replied, ‘Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.’

30 Then the king got up, and with him the governor and Bernice and those who had been seated with them; 31and as they were leaving, they said to one another, ‘This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment.’ 32Agrippa said to Festus, ‘This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor.’

But Paul had appealed to the emperor … and to the emperor he would go!

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