I have been a defendant at court only one time in my life. To say I did not enjoy the process would be an understatement. I could have settled the situation out of court, but in my mid 20s justice captured my emotions and decision-making processes more than pragmatic concerns. I felt like I was the victim rather than the perpetrator, so I wanted my day in court. Even 35 years later I am still a bit bugged by the incident.
The drama started late one night on the way home from the Busti Fire Department where a brother or two served on the volunteer roster. My first and only motorcycle, a 1974 Honda 450 if memory serves me correctly, was beneath me, and my friend Kyle held on for life behind me. The country lane from Busti to my parents’ home in Jamestown, New York, could probably accommodate two automobiles passing one another, but it did not have the room for my bike, its passengers and an Alaska Malamute dog. Something had to give.
While I truly feel sorry for the dog, I give thanks for the guardian angel that fought to keep the bike upright and both of its passengers astride. As a relatively inexperienced biker, I could not hardly believe my good fortune. I had trouble breathing as well. We made it to our destination without further incident even though the bike needed a little work before I could shift gears again.
The dog did not move. Cops were called. One of my beloved brothers outed me. I got a summons to appear in court to face my charges of leaving the scene of an injured dog. Who knew that was even on the books! Evidently Busti’s justice of the peace feared I was a flight risk, so I had to post $60 bail. I could have just paid the $20 fine, but I wanted justice. The dog attacked me where I minded my own business on the public thoroughfare.
Two weeks later I lost my case. I listened to the JP’s tirade that he could not level a heaver fine. He also threated to start all investigations involving biker violence at my parents’ house where the cop saw four of the dangerous rigs. After I got my $40 refund, the judge left his bench to shake hands with the grieving dog owners; he must have been up for reelection.
In hindsight, I should have asked for a jury trial – the judge rigged my case!
Walking through Acts 26 I see a completely different attitude in the defendant’s heart. Paul’s ability to keep himself out of the center of the story astounds me. After the show of force we saw in chapter 25, the apostle acted like … well, he acted like an apostle. For someone on Christ’s mission, every event looks like an opportunity to share God’s goodness. Paul knew the potential outcomes of the trial – after all he explained that he had served as the prosecutor on a few cases just like this.
I find Paul’s statement of charges quite fascinating. He explained to the gathered dignitaries that he his primary crime was hope. I thought I got a bum rap for leaving the scene of an injured dog; Paul faced the charge of having hope.
I wondered if I could get convicted of that one. Would my accusers find enough evidence of hope to keep the circuit court’s interest long enough to hear the case?
With the charge clarified, Paul astutely argues his case. If he occupied the center of the case, then the defense would be around his actions. Since his hope came from above, Paul served as a witness for the One who brought him hope. The Old Testament promised hope; Jesus delivered it. Would the circuit court find Paul guilty of receive this eternal hope that the dead would rise?
Paul’s first exhibit for the defense was his old life of fury. He pursued, persecuted, and affirmed the death penalty for other people who followed Jesus. His greatest hope at that time was to see someone blaspheme their savior. Instead he had to hear people like Stephen intercede on his behalf. Hope replaced fury.
Paul used his conversion story as his second exhibit. Each time Paul tells his story it looks a little different. He focuses the details on the audience. They HAD to feel his condition, perplexity, and finally joy in conversion. After all, that is what a witness does; he tells of his experience.
The commission as servant and witness made up the third exhibit. This piece of evidence could play a critical role in proving he truly lived in joy. Some could offer counter evidence that ship wrecks, beatings, prison deprivations, and loss of status made joy impossible. Paul insisted he joyfully lived to serve and witness regardless of any given day’s incidentals.
Paul finished his argument with his strongest evidence. His joy came alive when he saw the light and liberty God offered to all people. Not only could they repent of sinful ways, they could actually live like it! Paul explained how witnessing the power to change triggered his arrest. He ought to know … he had arrested others for witnessing to the same power.
As I look over the trial transcript, I think Paul left out some key evidence. He does not talk about raising people from the dead, casting out demons, or healing the sick. Miracles would not convict him of having joy. He had learned the lesson of the 70 witnesses in Luke 10. Jesus taught them to find joy in having their name in the Book rather than making demons obey their command. Paul and the 70 had power, but power did not bring them joy. Witnessing did.
No wonder Festus said Paul was out of his mind. The prisoner should not have such joy.
My goodness, the joy-filled prisoner’s case calls me to pray.
You know I am a check list kind of guy. I put celebrating simple joy on my list for this week. You also know my basic personality resides on the melancholy side. My personality interacts with the gifts You give me to see spiritual things; this can be an explosive combination. I see men in scripture as well as the contemporary world that suffer from more depression than joy in certain seasons of their life. I repent of looking for joy in wrong places. I confess of seasons of emotional unholiness – emotions controlled by circumstances rather than faith and true hope.
I pray for the kind of hope Paul modeled. I confess I want that more than things to go my way around me. I confess my longing to recenter all things in my life around You and Your mission. You have already fulfilled Your promises. You have already determined the end of the age when all things are restored to You. That fills me with hope. That kind of home brings the transformation of my emotions and my purpose.
I reposition signs of Your power to the position of following me as a believer rather than something I pursue. Miracles and other faith outcomes cannot bring lasting change in my emotions. Instead I know You have saved me, transformed me, and commissioned me to be a missionary witness with all of Your people. You took me through strange paths in my life, but these paths simply reveal Your goodness in many different ways. Thank you for this seedbed of hope and joy. I harvest it today. I live today in the wonder of being Your son – the wonder of sharing Your eternal goodness with others.
When I pray, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, I do so through the hope of seeing that kingdom unfold around me. Thank You for eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to feel the outbreaking of Your kingdom. I delight in witnessing about the kingdom unfolding right in front of me.
In Jesus’ name,