When I travel beyond the borders of the US my favorite activity is to take a walk. For example, an unscheduled Saturday in Buenos Aires, Argentina, let me sample the city first hand. I found the abundance of sidewalk cafes and stationary stores a pleasant surprise. On the other hand, the red tape to mail letters to my grandsons in the US perplexed me to no end. On another occasion a sick airline pilot gave Sherri and me a chance to spend an evening walking around Hong Kong before resuming our journey to Singapore. Seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, and feeling a world class city can happen on an impromptu walking tour. I value the speed of mass transportation, but I cannot get the same experience while going 60 mph on a bus or 180 mph on a Japanese bullet train.
Once in a while I walk through my home town as well. The experience does not capture my attention or imagination. Everything is so familiar. Strolling through crowds with different cadences to their speech, speed of walking, and snack preferences all serve to highlight differences. Home, well, just feels like home.
I remember reading Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle tale when I was a child. Rip, a Dutch American in New York’s Catskill mountains, awoke after a 20-year nap to find his musket stock worm eaten, beard grown, and colonies transformed into a new country. For a while Rip felt like he lived in a strange country, but once he got over the changes he resumed his lifestyle of idleness under the care of his daughter.
Walking through Acts 25 gives me a strange feeling of familiarity with a twist. The feeling is not unlike a walking tour of Singapore where they speak English and use dollars. Accents, mannerisms, history, and customs differ, but so much looks similar. Of course, I am not minimizing differences one experiences in the pristine city with its strict laws and driving on the “wrong” side of the road. I am sure Caesarea offered sights and smells far different from my world, but I notice a number of similarities with my world as well. These similarities beckon me to refocus on my city as a place in need of a missionary witness.
Paul’s trials occurred in a world of pragmatic pluralism. The Roman empire provided a market place for spiritualities. The pantheon of Greek and Roman gods had room to include regional gods of conquered people. Jews could maintain their monotheism since they had an ancient religion and offered no threats to other gods or the growing Caesar cult. Rome just wanted peace where the empire could prosper, expand, and ward off threats that came from the frontiers. Those who upset this balance of peace would be severely punished.
My pragmatic world worships at the temple of tolerance as well. Contemporary American society encourages people to create their own spiritual hybrids. Morality then, as now, focuses on accepting all ideas; immorality often gets redefined as questioning another person’s truth. All other human behavior would be adiaphora – that is spiritually and morally neutral. Politics, power, and currying favor with various interest groups becomes the ‘good’ thing to do.
Festus represents the desire to find favor with others through political manipulation of events. Paul’s accusers wanted a favor from the governor, and he wanted to do them a favor. Festus also wanted to stay in favor with King Agrippa, his sister Bernice, and the emperor in Rome. To stay in favor, Festus had to navigate the existing legal structures of the day. Festus crafted his story in a way that made his administration look good.
In Acts 25 Luke set the stage for Paul’s defense/testimony in the next chapter. The setting juxtaposes Paul and King Agrippa’s character. Paul stood with his few supporters. The apostle already knew God had ordered his steps to go to Rome. He refused to live his days avoiding death. If legally convicted of true accusations, then he would accept the resultant death sentence. He would reject charges of desecrating the temple. He would accept charges of following his resurrected Lord. As we will see in chapter 26, Paul would turn the trial into one more missionary activity rather than seeking to satisfy pragmatic pluralism policies.
On the other hand, we see the pomp and circumstance around King Agrippa and his sister. Just a decade or so before their father’s life ended in the same city when he declared his own greatness (see Acts 12). Paul’s hearing provided another opportunity for the king to parade his tribunes and their soldiers through the city streets. The clanging of swords, shuffle of combat sandals, and thunder of the officers’ mounts carried the king’s authority into the courtroom. As many as 5,000 armed soldiers and the prominent men of the city created quite a spectacle.
The young king needed all of this to bolster his newly expanded authority. The apostle only saw an open door to follow the Spirit’s prompting.
This stark differences between these two sources of power call me to prayer.
I marvel again at the incarnation! You came into this world to transform it through serving and suffering. You did not declare judgement from Your magisterial throne. You still send Your people as incarnational missionaries into this world.
I confess social changes over the last couple of decades often confuse me. I lament my country’s steps away from a form of Christianity. I acknowledge my fears and uncertainties over those changes. I realize it was largely a form of godliness without any power. The loss highlights the need for missionary living once more. I repent of triumphal forms of the church where we think civil power, political prominence, and visible evidence of defeating all other thought forms serve as evidence that ‘we’ are winning.
Help me follow You and Paul, I pray. Help me to go into a confused, pluralistic world that has so little hope of finding real peace and healing. You still send Your people without extra purses and as sheep among the wolves. Expand my vision again to value the Spirit’s power in sending us rather than leaning on political, financial, or military power. Walking in the Spirit is never weak.
Finally, I want to find more comfort in sharing Your name again to a pluralistic society than in avoiding pain or even death that political forces may impose. My place is in service. I never want to feel at home here again. Thank you for awakening me from my slumber.
As we pray Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, You will give us the strength to awaken from slumber, to see stark differences between Your kingdom and this world, and retain our missionary identity rather than seeking comfort and co-existence in the pluralistic marketplace of ideas.
We can only do this through Your Spirit as we live out this mission as one people.
In Jesus’ name I pray,