June 18, 2015

Acts 26:1-32 Speaking for Ourselves

St Paul
Paul in chains speaking to King Herod Agrippa II (c 60 AD)

Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and made his defense:

2 “I think myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, 3 because you are especially familiar with all customs and controversies of the Jews; therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently.
4 “My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and at Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. 5 They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee. 6 And now I stand here on trial for hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, 7 to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! 8 Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?

9 “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And I did so in Jerusalem; I not only shut up many of the saints in prison, by authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. 11 And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme; and in raging fury against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.

12 “Thus I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round me and those who journeyed with me. 14 And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ 15 And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand upon your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles—to whom I send you 18 to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’

Roman Coins
Roman coins from the reign of Agrippa

19 “Wherefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but declared first to those at Damascus, then at Jerusalem and throughout all the country of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and perform deeds worthy of their repentance. 21 For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. 22 To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: 23 that the Christ must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to the people and to the Gentiles.”

24 And as he thus made his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are mad; your great learning is turning you mad.” 25 But Paul said, “I am not mad, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth. 26 For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak freely; for I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner. 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” 28 And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time you think to make me a Christian!” 29 And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.”

30 Then the king rose, and the governor and Berni′ce and those who were sitting with them; 31 and when they had withdrawn, they said to one another, “This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment.” 32 And Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”

One of the striking features of this passage is that Paul uses “I,” “me,” or “my” 36 times. In other words, his testimony is based on his personal experience. He fearlessly talks about his pre-Christian past as an angry, violent traditionalist, zealot and persecutor. And then he talks about the change and new direction that came to him after his encounter with Christ. But he then connects all of this with God’s centuries-long revelation. Paul doesn’t remain fixated on his own experience. “I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass.” 

Paul’s personal and unrepeatable experience doesn’t set him apart, it connects him with God’s purposes for Israel and for the entire world. And he holds out to everyone listening to him the same opportunity. It’s a remarkable fact of Christian life that we can each have our own unique story and path to Christ and the Church, and at the same time recognize our profound connection with others who each in their own unique way share this same experience with us.

Paul’s task in those early days of the Church’s life remains our own:  to serve and bear witness to what we have seen and experienced, and to offer God’s forgiveness and a place of welcome to any who wish to receive it.


18th AAC

Here are more comments I’ve heard from diocesan chancellors about the current strengths of the Orthodox Church in America as we get ready for the 18th All-American Council next month. In coming days, I’ll turn to their thoughts about weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

I’m sensing a general desire to make the Church work, to serve Christ. Most people are tired of disputes and just want to serve Christ and be the Church. I say generally because there are some who still dwell on the past, but they are isolated.  Most recognize that we do have issues to address as Church, but there is a desire to try things and do something.

The OCA has a huge strength in simply being the Church. Many are still looking for this. They are shell-shocked from experiences elsewhere and amazed to find what we have. We don’t change with the wind, we have beautiful services and understandable, simple gospel preaching.

The OCA vision is still alive and well: an Orthodox Church in America, an American missionary church. Our parishes get this and are multicultural. Eventually we could even sacrifice our own existence to share this with other Orthodox Churches and unite with all to be one Church.

The majority are very happy about how the Holy Synod handled recent issues. Regarding Metropolitan Tikhon, anyone who has any dealings with him is very happy right now. He has a pastoral air, doesn’t put himself above others, listens and consults with other bishops.

We have the best governance system in the Orthodox world, with lay involvement in the administration of the church. Yes, it’s a struggle at times, takes hours of conversation, but in the long run this will bear better fruit than the church dynasties of the old world.

We have talented and active laity and lots of good ideas.

People I meet across the diocese do share the vision of an Orthodox Church in and for North America. Individual parishes and clergy are doing well, there’s a good spirit, people are working hard, catechumens are coming into the Church.

Even our weakness—the past internal scandals of the last ten years—can be seen as a strength because we dealt with it. All the negativity taught us something. We’re learning and we have transparency. And we are far ahead of most other Orthodox churches in this.