By David Baumann
Reading from Acts, 21:37-22:16
37 Just as Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, “May I say something to you?’ The tribune replied, “Do you know Greek? 38Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?” 39Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city; I beg you, let me speak to the people.” 40When he had given him permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the people for silence; and when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying:
1 “Brothers and fathers, listen to the defense that I now make before you.”
2 When they heard him addressing them in Hebrew, they became even more quiet. Then he said:
3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today. 4I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, 5as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment.
6 “While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. 7I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ 8I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ 9Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10I asked, ‘What am I to do, Lord?’ The Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.’ 11Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.
12 “A certain Ananias, who was a devout man according to the law and well spoken of by all the Jews living there, 13came to me; and standing beside me, he said, ‘Brother Saul, regain your sight!’ In that very hour I regained my sight and saw him. 14Then he said, ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice; 15for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. 16And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.’”
Paul’s speech in today’s lesson marks one of the greatest moments in the life and ministry of an incomparably great apostle. Just moments earlier he had been beaten by a maniacal crowd that had sought to kill him. Rescued by a Roman tribune and his soldiers, Paul is now bound in two chains. The crowd is so violent that Paul had to be carried to safety by the soldiers rather than permitted to walk on his own through the shouting, fist-ready mob. And yet, astonishingly, as he is on the steps to the barracks, he asks the tribune if he may speak to the crowd. Given permission to do so, Paul motions to the people for silence — and gets it. What kind of man could do this? What dignity, what presence, what authority he shows, and in chains!
Then, in the quiet, he begins his testimony. And notice where he begins. He first lays the groundwork on what he and his attackers have in common, including even their commitment to persecute followers of “the Way.” Then he points out their shared virtue of being “zealous for God, just as all of you are today.” The appeal is both subtle and powerful, intended to create in his hearers a desire to hear more. He uses terms such as “the God of our ancestors” alongside “Jesus of Nazareth,” who, along with his “Way,” would undoubtedly be well known to his hearers — if not by faith, then by reputation. Paul describes him as “the Righteous One” rather than as Messiah, an appealing and less controversial title. Ananias he describes as “a devout man according to the law and well spoken of by all the Jews.” Then he talks of baptism.
What will come of this peaceful appeal and its turn to the gospel? Tomorrow we will see.
David Baumann has been an Episcopal priest for 45 years, 39 of them in the Diocese of Los Angeles. He now serves as part-time priest in southern Illinois. He has published devotions, articles, and essays, as well as science fiction novels and short stories.
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