By Michael Smith
A Reading from Acts 26:1-23
1 Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and began to defend himself:
2 “I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, 3 because you are especially familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews; therefore I beg of you to listen to me patiently.
4 “All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, a life spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem. 5 They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee. 6 And now I stand here on trial on account of my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors, 7 a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship day and night. It is for this hope, Your Excellency, that I am accused by Jews! 8 Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?
9 “Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. 11 By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme, and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.
12 “With this in mind, I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, 13 when at midday along the road, Your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. 14 When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ 15 I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But get up and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. 17 I will rescue you from your people and from the gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
19 “After that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision 20 but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance. 21 For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. 22 To this day I have had help from God, and so I stand here, testifying to both small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place: 23 that the Messiah must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the gentiles.”
Paul shares his personal conversion narrative three times in the Acts of the Apostles. In this third account, he is before King Agrippa and discloses the basic outline of the story: One day on the road to Damascus, while hunting followers of Jesus, Paul (then known as Saul) was struck down and blinded by a dazzling light. He heard the voice of Jesus ask, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” After this experience, Paul’s life was dramatically changed, and he lived to spread the Christian movement, which he had previously sought to extinguish.
Paul’s conversion was sudden, extraordinary, and life-altering. But not all conversion experiences and stories are like that. Some are more gradual, gentle, and transitional. Evangelist Billy Graham used to say that his wife, Ruth, could not remember a time when she did not know Christ. Probably most are somewhere in between.
In another place in Scripture, we are told: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). While many Anglicans and Episcopalians are probably terrified at the thought of sharing their “personal testimony,” we all have experienced the Holy One in one way or another. How would you answer someone who asks about your faith journey? What is the outline of your story?
Michael G. Smith served as bishop of North Dakota for 15 years and is currently the Assistant Bishop of Dallas. He works with the Navajoland Iona Collaborative and is a Benedictine Oblate and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
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Today we pray for:
The Diocese of Namibia – The Anglican Church of Southern Africa
St. Thomas’s Church, Toronto, Ontario