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Fearless witness, fiery testimony (June 30, 2024)

Shea Watts writes about ordinary time and Paul's defense in Acts 26.

Acts 26:1-11

“Ordinary Time” is the season on the Christian calendar after Pentecost, and it is the longest period of the church year. I have always loved that there is a new normal, filled with Spirit-filled, holy disruption after Pentecost. Many of the so-called “acts” of the apostles are more like (re)actions by them to the Spirit. 

In our reading from Acts 26, Paul finds himself in trouble and must answer to the authorities. His faith has come under fire. We learn at the end of the previous chapter that “the whole Jewish community” petitioned Festus, the successor of Felix as Roman governor of Judea, to put Paul to death. But Festus finds no offense grave enough to execute Paul. Paul the prisoner now finds himself before King Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, the angry ruler who brought about the infanticide in Matthew 2 to snuff out the Messiah. 

King Agrippa says: “You have permission to speak for yourself” (v. 1). With that invitation, Paul gives his defense. Interestingly, Paul does not begin with the charges against him but rather with an account of his life. Paul cannot help himself; he tells Agrippa a testimony of his experiences of God. The verb for his defense here is ἀπολογέομαι (apologeomai), from which we get the word “apologetics” and “apology” in English.

A few things are clear in Paul’s testimony.

First, Paul acknowledges Agrippa’s deft diplomacy toward the Jewish people and uses this to his advantage. History tells of how Agrippa played a conciliatory role between Romans and Jews. He was a proponent of orthodox Jewish customs. 

Second, Paul demonstrates his Jewish heritage and how God has worked in and through both the Jewish people and through Paul. Paul was a Pharisee. He admits to imprisoning Jesus’ followers and casting a vote to execute them. Ironically, Paul now finds himself in the position he previously put other followers of Jesus in. Perhaps this was not the confession Agrippa expected. But we should not forget it, because it testifies to God’s power that radically changes people.

Third, Paul’s defense is a story about how God transforms him. His Road to Damascus experience shows faith in need of a detour, a new direction. Paul was heading down a road of faith that brought death, but he made a U-turn to seek a path toward a faith that raises the dead to life. Yet, this new way isn’t without its own risks and dangers. The path is narrow and bumpy. 

Finally, faith is dynamic, which means it is always under construction. We learn from Paul that our lives with God are not so much about the destination as the journey. It is a lifelong road trip. Along the way, we may need to stop and rest or ask for directions when we get lost. We may be dependent upon the hospitality of others and kindness of strangers. 

To be a fearless witness means to tell our story of God’s leadership and companionship regardless of the consequences. Like Paul, God interrupts our lives and breaks through our dogged defiance and resistance. This is part of what people call the providence of God — God is always present and at work in our lives. Any good that happens stems from God’s initial action in Jesus and through the Holy Spirit. And God’s presence with us does not mean the absence of trouble; on the contrary, we should expect it!

Paul’s faith, and life itself, has come under fire, but it is the kind of fire that consumes without destroying. It is the fire of the Upper Room that propels people out of hiding and into the public with a message burning on their tongues. It is the fire that empowered early Christians to stand before Nero, the Roman Emperor who, after scapegoating Christians for the great fire in Rome (ca. 64 CE), subjected them to gruesome public punishments, such as crucifixion, being fed to animals, and setting them on fire. Even in the face of death, these early Christians refused to bend the knee to the gods of empire. The church needs such fire today. 

Are we willing to be fearless witnesses like Paul? To answer yes is to risk having our lives disrupted by the Spirit who makes good trouble.

Questions for discussion

  1. What story is God making in our lives?
  2. What type of holy trouble is needed in church and society today?
  3. What has your faith road trip been like? What have you noticed along the way?

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