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Sermon for Weds in Pentecost 10

Paul before Festus, Agrippa and Bernice and a Roman soldier.

Paul before Festus, Agrippa and Bernice and a Roman soldier.

 

Acts 25:13-27

The context for the second reading tonight is rather interesting.  After all his journeys, Paul was back in Jerusalem to the temple.  He had brought some Gentile converts with him to the temple and along with his notoriety for teaching about Jesus, ran afoul of the Jewish leaders at the temple.  The crowd at the temple turns into a violent mob calling for Paul’s arrest and so the Roman soldiers there removed him from the temple.  Just as Paul was about to be arrested, he began to address the crowd of Jews there on the steps to the temple.  It’s a pretty good little speech there in chapter 22.  Paul basically just tells them who he was, a well-educated Jewish man who studied with the great Rabbi Gamaliel and then He “vividly describes his life-changing encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus as well as another time when Christ appeared to him.”[1]  The crowd listened very patiently up to the point when Paul began to relate how he had become convinced that God was including the Gentiles into the people of God.

The crowd then goes nuts and the Romans are none too happy that they have what is starting to look like the makings of a revolt on their hands.  So they bring Paul into the barracks right there by the temple and the officer in charge proposes they just start flogging  Paul until they find out from him what he could have possibly said or done to make the Jewish crowd go so violently crazy.  It’s at this point when Paul mentions to the officer that he’s a Roman citizen and one of the privileges is you don’t get tried by flogging by captains of the guard in a barracks.  You get a proper trial.  It’s in the midst of all this, back and forth to the Roman governor, Felix who was quickly relieved by Festus.

If you get the idea that Paul really hadn’t done anything wrong, at least not according to Roman law, you’re right.  But that didn’t stop Paul’s final journey through every kangaroo court in Palestine.  Paul’s real crime was preaching that Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary, was Yahweh incarnate and that Jesus had not just died but had been resurrected.

By the time we get to our reading for tonight, Festus found himself in something of a bind, politically, because of Paul appealing to the Caesar.  Festus would have to write an official report specifying the charges that stood against Paul, and the reason for his appeal to Rome. On the one hand, if the charges were insubstantial or not sufficient under Roman law, the emperor would surely wonder about Festus’s competence. Why had he not resolved the matter in Judea, one way or another, even if it meant dismissing the matter and setting Paul free? On the other hand, if Paul, a Roman citizen, had appealed to Rome, there must have been something about the situation that was grave enough to warrant this action. What was Festus not telling the emperor that he ought to know about the situation in Judea involving the Jewish authorities? These are the sorts of thoughts that were likely running through Festus’s mind as he sought way to write his report so that he himself would not fall under suspicion. As fortuna would have it, he was about to receive help from an unexpected quarter—Jewish nobility,[2] Agrippa and Bernice.

I’m sorry for the big history lesson tonight, but I hope it helps to explain what’s going on here.  One of the things that newly appointed public office-holders will normally do is to greet, and be greeted by, the local dignitaries and, in this case, the local royalty. The Romans liked to govern through local aristocracies where possible, since it meant getting other people to do the dirty work and take any rap that might come. Part of the difficulty they had faced in Judaea was the incompetence of Herod the Great’s family, which was why they had sent in governors like Pontius Pilate and Felix and now Festus.  This new king, Herod Agrippa II, was great-grandson of Herod the Great, and popular both with the Romans and with the Jews, unlike his father Agrippa I. His power was of course severely curtailed back by the Romans, and so it was always an interesting question as to which matters fell directly to the king, which to the Roman governor, and which to the high priest, and which should be sorted out between them. For Agrippa’s sake it important that he meet the new Roman governor as soon as possible. (A big chunk of this paragraph came from Wright’s, Acts for Everyone)

Bernice.  Wow.  What can we say about her?  Bernice was a Kardashian.  Actually Bernice would make the Kardashians look Amish. Bernice was Agrippa’s sister, but they travelled together and lived together and many tongues wagged about them. She had been married to their uncle, another Herod, Herod of Chalcis, and after his death had set up house with Agrippa. At one point, perhaps to silence the whispers, she married the king of Cilicia, a man by the name of Polemo, but then went back to Agrippa, which of course started the whispers going again. At one point it was rumoured that she had become the mistress of Titus, the adopted son of Vespasian, the conqueror of Jerusalem in ad 70, and Vespasian’s successor as emperor. Though Luke mentions none of this, the fact that he just says ‘and Bernice’ in verse 13 may tell its own story; most of his first hearers or readers would have known about Bernice.  The thought of this powerful woman coming into contact with Paul is fascinating. It is as though, reading the story of some famous travelling preacher, we were to come upon a photograph of the preacher shaking hands with Marilyn Monroe.

So that’s quite a bit of background info on Paul’s situation and Agrippa and Bernice.  The thought of a Roman governor enquiring from a Herod what to do about an important prisoner does of course echo Luke’s account of Jesus’ trial and Luke will no doubt be well aware of that—as well as of the fact that Agrippa’s marital or non-marital arrangements may have some echoes in the domestic arrangements of his great-uncle, Herod Antipas (Luke 3:19). It’s pretty clear that Luke wants his readers to understand the ending story of Paul being in some significant ways parallel to the passion story of Jesus in the Gospel.

In terms of application though, this text is a little difficult.  One way into it might be to attempt ‘To see ourselves as others see us.’  Which is easier said than done.  We’re so used to hearing ourselves, to seeing ourselves, we don’t even know how we’re perceived by outsiders who are insiders in their own communities.  I’m thinking primarily in terms of religious communities but this works for political and social communities too.  It can be very enlightening to begin to see ourselves as others see us.

So how does Paul appear, seen through the eyes of the puzzled Festus.  It may be that Agrippa, popular with the Romans, could help him write to the emperor something about what the charges really were. It would look extremely odd for a prisoner to arrive under heavy guard in Rome but with no statement of the accusation against him. But what is really interesting is Festus’ summary of what it was all about.  This is how the Christian faith appeared to one outsider, at least. Paul was not charged with the sort of crimes one might have imagined. Instead, it was a matter of disputes about the Jewish religion, ‘and about some dead man called Jesus whom Paul asserted was alive’.

There we have it: resurrection from the pagan viewpoint. At least it shows Festus had been listening; and it shows, too, how ‘resurrection’ appeared. It wasn’t ‘about some dead man called Jesus who had gone to heaven and with whom one might have a relationship’. It was about a dead man—no question of that in Festus’ mind—and about the fact that Paul said he was alive—no question of that either. And ‘alive’ meant ‘alive’, bodily of course. It’s not quite clear whether Festus’ conclusion was that Paul was simply asserting that Jesus hadn’t died after all, or whether he’d grasped the full enormity of the actual Easter claim.  But it’s clear that Festus understood something at the core of Paul’s teaching, the resurrection of Jesus.  Would outsiders today say the same about us?

Part of the reason this story is so foreign to us is not just because it happened long ago in a far off land.  But rather that we simply don’t understand something that everyone in Paul’s day, the Romans, the Jews, and the new followers of the Way, understood implicitly.  And it is that religion is not separate from public life.  What one believes about who God is should have something to say on how one should live.  The Romans certainly believed this, which was why much later when Christianity was seen as a threat to the state, Emperor Diocletian and others persecuted the Christians.  The Jews certainly believed that there is no separation between faith and public life.  But today, unfortunately, we do.  Our faith has become nothing but private reflections on pious ideas about God.

How do others see us?  What Paul preaches is a unique truth claim in all of human history.  Jesus who was dead, is now alive again, really–bodily.  And we who believe this have new life as a result of it.  What we claim is true about Jesus ought to inform the whole of human life, even today, even if that means rubbing up against those who don’t believe those things.  Do outsiders, the pagans of today, see us like they once might have seen Paul?

Let us pray that, like Paul, God would grant us His grace and strength to love and serve even as Christ has loved and served us.  Amen.

 


[1] Edward A. Engelbrecht, The Lutheran Study Bible (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2009), 1884.

[2] Ben Witherington, III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 726-27.

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