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Leader: Rev. David Thomas
Scripture: Acts 26:1-3, 9-18, 24-32
Date: Nov 3rd, 2019
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Someone has said “Always be ready to make your defense to any who demands an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

Paul is on the defense here in our passage.  “Paul Defends Himself before Agrippa” is what the heading above our chapter says.  Paul is in Caesarea and he’s been imprisoned for so long that a new Roman governor has been installed in Judea.  Festus.  Festus has inherited Paul as it were.  The new governor has a meeting with the Jewish client-king Agrippa.  Festus tells Agrippa that he’s been at a loss as to how to investigate the charges that have been brought against Paul.  He tells the king that the charge seems to be about some points of disagreement within the Jewish religion and about a certain Jesus who had died, but whom Paul asserts is alive.

King Agrippa and his wife Bernice enter the audience hall in Caesarea with great pomp and   ceremony with the military tribunes and thE prominent men of the city and you can be sure    everyone is adorned in their finest clothing and that this is an august event.  It’s been said that this scene represents a second climactic moment at the end Acts as we near the end of our journey through this story.  A climactic moment of proclamation.  The first was Peter’s visit to Cornelius’ house in the same city.  Paul stands up before this group and he’s completely unadorned except for the chains that he’s wearing.  Jesus had promised his followers that they would be brought before kings and  governors and here we see this promise being fulfilled. 
Someone has said “Always be ready to make your defense to any who demands an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

How do we do this and what do we have to learn from Paul’s example this morning?  Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at God’s word.

It’s been said that too often Christians tend to focus on the things they are against rather than the things they are for.  In this speech Paul very much tells of what he is for.  He tells of what being a follower of Christ is about.  Paul tells it in the form of a story.  It’s a story of what has taken place in history and it’s a story of Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ.  We talk about our own stories and how in Christ our own stories are caught up in God’s big story or God’s grand redemption plan and we use images like that of a travelling caravan to try to get our minds around this big story.

What is the story though and how should we be talking about it?  I want to note first of all, that Paul knows the person to whom he is primarily speaking and he cares for the person to whom he’s primarily speaking.  Paul’s purpose here is not to mount   what would be considered a regular defense in a court of law. Paul’s purpose here is to tell the story. He’s speaking to King Agrippa.  A descendent of Herod.  A man who represents a line of half-Jewish client kings.  They were clients of Rome.  A man who was not unfamiliar with Judaism, familiar with  its customs and controversies, as Paul says. 
It’s a story that encapsulates the themes that    we’ve been looking at over all these weeks and months. A story of promise, of fulfillment, of tradition, of troubles, of darkness and light, of outsiders, of  repentance or turning, or forgiveness, of resurrection. 
A story of life.  The story of life in fact.

A friend of mine recently said “I think we all dream of it. A raucous adventure, romance, the sense  of a heroic accomplishment and (as age advances)    the hope that we make it through without  really affecting the outcome.  Like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark!”  I think my friend is on to something in that we long to be a part of something larger than ourselves.  Paul tells the story of what this meant in his life.  A member of the strictest sect of his religion.  A member of a group of people to whom a promise was made.  A man who thought that faithful service to God meant locking up people who claimed the name of Jesus of Nazareth, even casting his vote against them when it came to their death. Trying to force them to blaspheme and even pursuing them to foreign cities.

Of course we all know what happened at that point.  It was hard for Paul to kick against the goads just as it is hard for us to kick against God’s plan for us and what God created us for and who God created us to be and what God created us to do.

I mean if you’ve ever kicked against that stuff.

What happened at that point when Paul was kicking? Jesus found Paul.  This is the objective thing, the thing that happens outside of ourselves.  Being a follower of Christ is not simply about self-fulfillment and it’s certainly not primarily about   our search for truth.  It’s about God pursuing us. Surely goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life, is what the Psalmist sang.  Francis Thompson described it like this: “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled him down the labyrinthe ways; Of my own mind and in the midst of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter… From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.”

Our role is to let ourselves be caught.  Our role is to stop and to look into the loving eyes of the one who has always been pursuing us and in those eyes to see our true self reflected – our true self as beloved child of God and to see the love in those eyes that is deeper than the mighty ocean.

Christ called out.  The famous double name call -  “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?  It hurts you to kick against the goads.”  The question comes “Who are you, Lord?” and the answer comes “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting…”  What we have here is an admission that it is Jesus who is Lord which is really quite the admission to be making in front of a Roman governor and a local king but this is the message that we’ve been talking about and praying about and sitting with throughout these weeks.  What does it mean to call Jesus Lord?

It means to be caught up in God’s story.  What is God’s story?  Paul tells it very succinctly in just two verses.  “To 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, that the Messiah must suffer, and by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” (22-23)  In other (and more words), promises had been made long ago to a people through whom God would work out his plan to save wayward humanity (and as we’ve said, don’t we all have a general sense that we and our world are in need of saving) and the person through whom this saving work was accomplished is Jesus and Jesus’ suffering is redemptive and atoning and…

He is risen.  He is risen indeed.

And he would proclaim light (for in him was life and the life was the light of all people) both to     our people and to Gentiles. That is – Jesus would proclaim.  Note here that the work of proclamation is given to Jesus in case you thought it was all up to us.  It’s Jesus who is doing the proclaiming through us which reminds me of something else Paul wrote one time – “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us…” (2 Cor 5:20a) and this message is for everyone.  And so Paul speaks it just as we’re called to speak it. 

Paul’s call was to serve and testify.  To be a servant of Christ (and in so being to find freedom and if you’re a servant of Christ you know what that’s like) and to tell of Christ.

To tell of God’s story. To tell of his own experience of God’s story.  Because this is the other part.  It’s not just about knowing about Christ.  It’s like the difference between savior and connaitre in    French.  I was watching a re-run of SNL recently with Chris Rock.  Rock was talking about the commercialization of Christmas, funnily enough – a topic that the culture has been on since the Charlie Brown Christmas Special and how we have turned Jesus’ birthday into a sales fest basically.  He said at one point, “Now I don’t know Jesus but I’ve read a lot of about him and he was one of the least material people ever.”  Rock’s point was well made but I couldn’t help thinking “Ah Chris you could know him…”

To know him.  To know his love.  To know his grace.  His mercy.  His justice.  His peace. To  experience the risen and living Christ.  This invitation is for everybody.  For 2,000 years now Christians have been telling of their experience of the living Christ, following Jesus’ words to the man whom Jesus made whole – “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”

He’s done things in my life that I know could not have come from me.  He’s given me a whole new way of looking at and relating to the world and   everything in it. He’s given me a purpose and a goal.  He’s given me peace.  He’s given me…

He’s had a personal experience of Jesus.  He has an ongoing personal experience of Jesus.  Followers of Christ are having an ongoing personal experience together through the power of the Holy Spirit.  It doesn’t mean suffering is over.  It doesn’t mean    we don’t sorrow, mourn or grieve.  Rather, our  experience of the risen Christ enables us to persevere, to persist.  Christ provides substance   and sustenance to this community and it’s been happening now for over 2,000 years.

So why not come and join us?!  Agrippa asks the question “Are you so quickly persuading me to   become a Christian?”  Paul comes back with “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.”  I’m sure he gave a wry smile.  It would be like me saying I pray that everyone listening might become as I am, apart from the hair loss.

This is the invitation.  If you accept it for the first time today you can signal your acceptance by gathering around this table with us.  If you turn to Christ for 1,041st time you can signal it by gathering around this table with us.  Repent.  Turn.  Not toward something unnatural but toward home.  Away from kicking against the goads because that’s hard.
Someone has compared repenting to walking out into an oncoming tide.  The water sucks at the sand around your feet.  The waves hit your legs, your chest.  It gets harder and harder to make any headway.  Until you surrender to those waves.  Lie back and let them carry you toward shore.  Toward home.  Toward the place where a sign hang that says “You Are Forgiven.  Welcome Home.”  May we feel so welcomed this morning as we come to this table.