A sermon delivered at the Wycliffe College Chapel, Friday October 3, 2014
Text: Acts 21:37-22:16
The lectionary is a wonderful tool for guiding the reading of Scripture. It can also be quite frustrating in the way it divides the text, as is the case with today’s reading from Acts. After visiting with apostles in Jerusalem, Paul heads to the temple with some Gentile converts to make the appropriate sacrifices for purification. After seven days, Paul is seized and dragged out of the temple and into the streets where the crowd tried to kill him (cf. 21:31) because he was, in the words of those who seized him, “teaching…against our people, our law, and [the temple]” because he brought “Greeks into the temple (cf. 21:28).
The local tribune and his solders stop the crowd from beating Paul, and then they arrest him and put in him in chains. After a failed attempt to interrogate Paul in front of the crowd, the tribune brings Paul into the barracks, which is where our reading picks up. The tribute mistakenly assumes that Paul is a pseudo-Messiah from Egypt who, according to Josephus, had thousands of followers and was planning to take Jerusalem from the Romans. After assuring the tribune that he is a Jew from Tarsus, Paul is granted permission to give a defense of his actions, thereby beginning of a series of events that leads to Paul’s appeal to Caesar.
Paul’s apologia is this scene is essentially the same one he will give to King Agrippa in chapter 26. It is the story of what is usually called the conversion of Paul. However, calling it a ‘conversion’ assumes that Paul had a say in the matter. Rather, what happens on the road to Damascus is a primarily a confrontation: Jesus Christ confronts Paul, and tells Paul that he has a specific plan for him. God is not a respecter of the autonomy of those whom he calls; God confronts and God seizes whom he wills for his own purposes. Unlike the crowd who seized Paul and was forced to release him to the tribune, there is no one to whom God must relinquish his grasp of those in his possession. This is precisely why Paul shares the story of his confrontation: it identifies both who confronted him and why. Therefore, Paul’s testimony is gospel-saturated-speech; it is the kind of apologetic of which Karl Barth would approve. Paul is confronted by the Lord Jesus Christ who called him to be an apostle to the Gentiles.
Rather than immediately play the ‘get-out-of-jail-free card’ of his Roman citizenship, Paul takes the opportunity to share his testimony with a hostile crowd. This is a decision that can only be made be a person who recognizes that his life is fully gripped by the one who laid hold of him. God will not let go of those he calls.
In his book God’s Companions, Samuel Wells writes that God gives us everything we need to worship God and follow Jesus through practices of the Church. I would add that one of the most fundamental things God gives us to enact his mission in the world is our individual testimonies of where, when, how, and why God confronted us. Sharing our testimonies will inculcate the kind of trust and courage we need when facing a hostile or indifferent crowd because it is rooted in the realization that we are seized by a God who will not let us go. But more than that, our testimonies are true stories about this God who holds us in his grip. It is for this reason that the sharing of our testimonies is the sharing of the gospel itself – the good news that the God who confronts and seizes us is Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, who washes away the sins of the world.
In the midst of all the bad news about ‘church decline’ and so-on, it is easy to gets side-tracked by seeking the solution in the next-best-thing in worship or church programming. Let us not become blinded by these things, but rather let us be witnesses “to all the world” (22:15) simply by sharing the stories of what God has done and is doing in our lives, giving our testimonies of the God who confronts and seizes us in order to bring the gospel to the world. Amen.