March 27, 2005

The Love of Christ Compels Us to Live in the Light of the Resurrection
Acts 26:19-29

Good morning, everyone. I am Paul, and I’m told that you have been reading about my various adventures lately. I am pleased to have these few moments to share with you on this festive Easter morning here in this beautiful hall. I’ve appreciated very much, by the way, the spirit with which you worship—your songs, prayers, and readings. I feel at home here—I am clearly among brothers and sisters in Christ. That is, I must quickly point out, a different feeling from what I experienced that day nearly 2,000 years ago in the coastal city of Caesarea. I was nearing the end of my missionary travels at that time, and I was telling my story and defending my faith before yet another assortment of interrogators. I remember it well. I stood before a gathering that included three major characters: Festus, the Roman governor; Agrippa, the king of Judea; and Bernice, Agrippa’s sister.

I was thankful, of course, for the opportunity to speak before such dignitaries. I had been, as you well know, accused by my fellow Jews of disregarding our traditions and abandoning our laws, and I was eager for what I hoped would be an honest hearing. All I asked was that Agrippa and the others listen carefully to what I had to say. As they leaned forward with open ears, I raised my hand and spoke.

From my earliest years, I began, I have been a Jew of the highest order. I lived a godly life and followed our religious regulations to the slightest detail. Through it all, I clung like moss to a central promise given to us by God—God will one day raise his people from the dead. In my tenacity to live for God, I had earlier determined to protect my people and our faith from counterfeits—from false prophets who threatened the spiritual health of our community. I did everything I could, for example, to stymie the Christian movement, tracking down and persecuting followers of Jesus wherever I could find them. I was furious—enraged!—at them for what they believed: Jesus Christ died and was raised from the dead to give people like you and me life.

Then, I told Festus, Agrippa, and Bernice, this same Jesus literally knocked me off my feet and gave me a significant job to do. He instructed me to carry his message to people far and wide. With the same tenacity that I had previously tracked down Christians, Jesus now wanted me to preach the Gospel. ‘I want you to open their eyes so that they might turn from darkness to light. I want you to open their eyes so that they might turn from Satan to God. I want you to open their eyes so that they might receive forgiveness of their sins and believe in me.’ That’s what Jesus asked me to do.

And, I assured these dignitaries, that was all that I had been doing. I simply asked my listeners to repent of their sins and to turn to God. I asked them to live holy lives consistent with their new faith. And I asked them to recognize that everything we Jews had read about and hoped for over the years—over the centuries—could be summed up in this single thought: Jesus Christ, sent by God to suffer and die on our behalf, is risen from the dead. And in raising Jesus from the dead, God announced light and life to all who believe. That is the heart of my message. That is what I preached wherever I went. These are the words that changed the lives of people everywhere—in Ephesus and Philippi, Athens, Corinth—everywhere I went. This is the message that changed my own life.

It felt to me as though I had just gotten started talking—defending my position against the many charges brought against me—when I was abruptly interrupted. I had, as you can imagine, received any number of responses to my preaching over the years and miles. Luke, who recounts a good bit of my adventures for you in the book of Acts, shares many of the highlights. My audience that particular day in Caesarea, however, was less enthused than many had been previously.

Take Festus, for example, the Roman governor. He’s the one who somewhat rudely cut me off. He perhaps meant well in originally arranging this meeting, but he seemed totally incapable of understanding either me or my message. He had earlier offered what I took at least to be a snide comment about my faith (25:19). After listening to me speak the first time, Festus summoned King Agrippa and informed him that what they faced was not a major political upheaval, but an internal religious squabble about someone named Jesus, who I believed was raised from the dead.

Now, in the middle of my longer and, I might add, more eloquent defense, Festus interrupted me in midstream and accused me of being insane! He said that I had read too many questionable books and that my thinking was all out of whack. I’m not out of my mind, by the way, although I suppose I can understand why some people might think that. The entire notion of the resurrection of Jesus and the life that he offers to us might sound irrational. It might seem like a mockery of our sensibilities, a foreign concept, intellectual nonsense. Some people, I’ve learned, only trust what they can see, hear, taste, smell and feel. Their need for scientific precision and objective verifiability leaves them, like Festus, concluding that the resurrection is, well, just a crazy notion.

This entire perspective strikes me as odd, I must confess. I myself have trouble imagining a “rational” resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus was, I admit, a miracle that I myself did not believe in at first. But what other kind of resurrection is there, anyway? Nothing that I can offer offsets the fact that faith is required. Now that I understand this grand love story in the Bible in which God offers himself on behalf of sinful people, conquers death and rises to new life, the resurrection makes perfect sense. I really can’t configure life now in any other way. But Festus wasn’t there. He, like so many people—perhaps some of you—simply thought I was crazy.

And then there was Agrippa, a local king who was at least a bit more familiar with the religious traditions about which I spoke than was Festus. Agrippa, after all, was the great grandson of King Herod—his roots were firmly entrenched in Palestinian soil. He’d heard about the prophets and had encountered people like me many times before. Agrippa at least had a frame of reference, then. But he showed little sympathy for my preaching, too. He wasn’t quite as rude as Festus, who interrupted me with his forceful accusations concerning my supposed insanity. Agrippa simply defaulted. After assuring Festus that I was in fact thinking clearly, I asked Agrippa point blank if he believed the message of the prophets (26:27). His response has puzzled some of your modern scholars down to this very day.

Some, for example, hear in Agrippa’s response a sort of troubling “fence-sitting” and feel sad at his inability to accept my testimony and believe. Charles Williamson goes so far as to say that Agrippa’s words are among the saddest in all of the Bible. Agrippa, as Williamson envisions him, was sitting on his seat, listening intently to everything that I said. He wanted so much to believe—he was this close—but he just could not bring himself to faith. There are, of course, people like that, perhaps including some of you. You’ve been sitting on the fence, and you’ve sensed God speaking to you: “I love you. Jesus died and rose again to give you life.” But you just can’t—or won’t—say “yes” to God. I’ve met countless people like that.

I don’t think Agrippa was one of them, however. He was, in reality, teasing me, poking fun at me. “It is going to take more than you and your message, Paul, for me to believe,” I heard him say. The message of the resurrection wasn’t so much new and unintelligible for Agrippa, as it was for Festus. The resurrection for Agrippa was instead a different wrinkle on an old coat. “I’ve known people like you, Paul, and yes, I’ve heard your people talk about the prophets and Moses before. It’s going to take more than your clamoring here to make a believer out of me.”

You probably know people like that, too, don’t you? They’ve overheard the stories over the years. They’ve dabbled with the Scriptures, heard talk about what God was doing in the world, and perhaps even given a thought or two to following. But their skin is a bit too thick, their resolve quite firm. “It is going to take more than your testimony to make a believer out of me,” they say.

Finally, let me not forget Bernice—she is usually glossed over, but she was there, too, sitting right beside her brother, Agrippa. She is typically ignored, I’m quite certain, because she never said anything. I suppose her speaking up on such an occasion would have been unusual, although certainly not without precedent. Do you remember when Herodias used her daughter to manipulate her husband, Herod, into beheading John the Baptist? Or recall when Pilate’s wife encouraged him not to have anything to do with Jesus, who she rightly perceived to be an innocent man. None of that on this occasion. Bernice just sat there, decked out in her lavish clothes, and stared at me. I can’t, I admit, be certain of what was going through her mind, but the word “indifferent” strikes me as altogether appropriate. There I was, speaking with deep conviction about Jesus and the hope that his resurrection offered to all the world—all the world—and she stared as though she had not a single care. She was dressed well, had plenty to eat, a firm roof over her head—what ever could the resurrection of Jesus have to do with her?

People, I’ve learned over the years, respond to the resurrection of Jesus in various ways. Some, like Festus, find it intellectually impossible to believe in something so “primitive” and consider those of us who do to be insane. Some, like Agrippa, dabble a bit and even listen with a fair degree of interest or at least curiosity, but just can’t get off the fence. And then there are people like Bernice, wandering through life without an apparent care. They sit and watch with total indifference, blinded by their surroundings into thinking that they have no need for the risen Lord and the hope that he offers. These three characters, I am pleased to say, are not the only ones in the overall story, however. The book of Acts, as you’ve seen in recent months, is full of others—Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor—who, like me, have experienced the risen Lord first-hand and continue to announce to all who hear: Jesus Christ is the gift of God promised throughout Scripture, the hope of the world, the risen Lord. In him is light and life for all who believe.

I made a closing comment, by the way, when my conversation with Festus, Agrippa and Bernice wound down. As they sat there and stared, I told them that I was praying that they, whether quickly or not, would come to believe in Jesus as I do. That is my prayer for all of you as well, nearly 2,000 years later. I pray to God that all of you—whether a Festus, who can’t get past his intellectual hurdles; an Agrippa, who finds little to convince him in the age-old stories; a Bernice, who remains indifferent in the midst of her self-absorption; or a Paul, whose heart has been totally transformed—would have eyes to believe. Jesus, though dead, is alive, and he is the hope and light of all the world.