August 23, 2020
Up until now, the story of Paul in Acts has been about his missionary journeys. He is MOVING, sharing the story of Jesus in different places. But suddenly, in Acts 21, Paul is stopped in his tracks. He is arrested again, and he remains in some form of Roman custody for seven more chapters—through the end of the book of Acts.
Paul’s speech to King Agrippa, which we heard this morning, is from Acts 26, but I want to back up for just a minute and go through the story of how Paul got to this point.
-Paul arrested in Temple (Jerusalem) (Acts 21:17)
-Paul defends himself before the tribune (Acts 21:37)
–story of conversion on the road to Damascus (22:6)
Roman tribune calls for him to be flogged; Paul reveals his Roman citizenship
-Roman tribune releases Paul and sends him before the Council of chief priests (22:30)
–Paul speaks to Council; contention between Sadducees and Pharisees (23)
Tribune orders Paul back to barracks to keep him from being killed
Plot by “the Jews” to kill Paul; Paul’s nephew warns tribune of the plot
Paul taken to governor Felix in Caesarea (23:23)
Ananias and elders come to Caesarea to accuse Paul (24:1)
Paul defends himself before Felix (24:10)
Paul held in custody for two years;
Festus takes over from Felix; Festus leaves Paul in prison as favor to “the Jews” (24:27)
Jewish leaders ask Festus to transfer Paul to Jerusalem; Festus says those who would accuse Paul should come to Caesarea
Paul appeals to the emperor
King Agrippa and Bernice arrive in Caesarea; Festus tells Agrippa of Paul’s case:
In the scene we are focusing on today, Paul is in the “audience room” of Festus. He is speaking to King Agrippa and Queen Berenice, with military and prominent men of the city standing around listening. Paul begins his speech by telling the story—once again—of his former antagonism toward the followers of Jesus and his conversion on the road to Damascus. Then he goes into the portion of the speech that Jenny read.
I don’t think we quite get the full effect of Paul’s speech reading it here in the book of Acts 2000 years after the fact. But we know it was an impassioned, intense speech because Festus, a politician who has no doubt calmly listened to immeasurable amounts of nonsense, blurts out in the middle of Paul’s defense: “You are out of your mind, Paul!”
Right now I’m reading a novel by Lee Smith, one of my favorite writers, called Guests on Earth. It’s narrated by a young woman who spends a lot of time at Highland mental hospital in North Carolina in the 1930’s and ‘40s. The narrator herself, Evalina, is sent there as a teenager when she stops eating and starts hallucinating after being orphaned when her mother dies by suicide.
Another resident of the hospital is Zelda Fitzgerald—a character borrowed from real life who, by all accounts, did suffer from what we would consider mental illness today. Evalina’s almost-boyfriend, Robert, is clearly on the autism spectrum. And another friend, Jinx, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder due to childhood abuse.
Of course, “autism” and “PTSD” were not terms used in mental hospitals in the 1940’s. At the high-class, progressive hospital where Evalina is sent, people are treated with insulin injections and shock therapy–and gardening duties, because it is progressive after all.
There’s no distinction here between people with developmental disabilities and people suffering from acute grief and people struggling with severe trauma and people with schizophrenia, and people—especially women—who simply refuse to follow society’s rules.
“You are out of your mind, Paul!”
It’s not too difficult to see how Festus might have come to this conclusion; how, if Paul had lived in early 20th Century America instead of first century Roman Empire, he might have ended up at Highland hospital.
To begin with, he makes a sudden—some might say erratic—change in his affiliations and behavior: from persecuting Christians to being an evangelist for Jesus and “the Way.” Throughout Acts we see him traveling from place to place, fighting with his companions, insisting that a spirit is talking to him and giving him directions, insulting people in authority, and making some pretty wild claims about a crucified guy from Nazareth.
Just looking at today’s passage, Paul isn’t really acting the way you would expect someone facing possible execution to act. He again talks about hearing a voice and seeing a vision. Then he mentions—twice in three verses—that God called him to the Gentiles. This is the exact claim that has almost gotten him killed in the past, and he just won’t let it go.
When the governor claims Paul is out of his mind, Paul insists that he is not insane—most excellent Festus. But then goes on: “The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him.”
Now I don’t have much experience with kings, but this doesn’t seem like the way to talk to one. Paul doesn’t show proper deference to the empire that holds his life in its hands. Because there is no doubt: even though Agrippa is technically a Jew, he is both under the power and wielding the power of the Roman empire. He has, no doubt, worked hard to prove his loyalty to Rome in order to get his esteemed position and the material goods that come with it.
Paul reminds the king of his Jewish identity: “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” Of course Agrippa believes the prophets. He’s Jewish. An enforcer of Roman imperial power, but Jewish still.
Paul does in fact seem a little crazy to be pushing Agrippa like this. But the king has a thick skin. He’d have to by this point. He chooses to just laugh it off: “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
“Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”
Yeah. Paul seems a little off. Festus calls him crazy. In a letter he writes to the church in Corinth, Paul uses the term “foolish.” He writes that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” And that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.” (1:18, 27)
This is something Jesus is well known for—turning categories upside down. “The last will be first and the first will be last.” And it seems Paul is pulling a page from this playbook. Because if the wise are shamed, then are they really wise? And if the cross is salvation, is it really foolish?
When Festus exclaims that Paul is out of his mind, it makes me start to think about who is really acting irrational, who is really crazy in this situation.
Is it the man speaking passionately about his beliefs? Or is it, maybe, the people in the room who have exchanged their passion for privilege? The people working for the empire that oppresses them? The people who are stuck imprisoning a man they don’t think needs to be in prison because of the system they have chosen to serve?
I do not want to deny or minimize the fact that some people do suffer from actual mental illness. There are biochemical realities that cause people to see things that aren’t there, to be deeply anxious or depressed, to struggle to be the people they want to be in this world. Mental illness is a reality we must acknowledge and address.
It is also true that for centuries people have been labeled as “crazy” simply for not going along with social expectations. When, in reality, society has a lot of expectations that we really shouldn’t go along with. And the more dysfunctional and crazy society is, the less crazy we are for not falling in line with its expectations.
In case you haven’t picked up on it from the Gospel stories and our journey through Acts, the first century Roman empire was a mess.
And our current situation in the 21st century American empire . . .
Being faithful often looks crazy. It often doesn’t make sense. It can put us in positions that are dangerous—or just out of step with the people around us.
And that’s why God gave us the church. Paul may be called crazy in the “audience room” of a Roman governor, but he was well-received and loved by the people in the churches. He was respected and understood by others who were struggling to follow the way of Jesus in the midst of hostile powers.
Friends, as Covid-19 continues and the election season moves full steam ahead, it seems the world around us will remain a hot mess for a while. So when you hear that voice—quite likely your own—exclaiming, “You are out of your mind!,”
–I pray you will remember that Paul, too, was called insane when he was mostly just being faithful.
–I pray you will remember that the message of the cross—the way of Jesus—is foolishness to those who are committed to the way of death.
–And I pray you will find comfort and encouragement in being part of this church community where we can all be crazy and faithful together.