To this day I have had help from God, and so I stand here, testifying to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place: that the Messiah must suffer, and that by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light to both our people and to the Gentiles.
While he was making this defence, Festus exclaimed, 'You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!' But Paul said, 'I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth.'
I am reading through Acts again at the moment. These events fascinate me. Paul is able to speak for himself, a defence that is passionate and hugely costly. He only asks for patience. And patience from a man whose great-grandfather had tried to kill Jesus as a baby, whose grandfather beheaded John the baptist and whose father martyred James. Despite this Paul describes himself as happy to speak. It becomes an opportunity for him to share the gospel. Paul is able to give an account of his life before his radical encounter with Jesus. He is then able to speak about that radical encounter. Paul knows that God can not be limited by anything or anyone. Speaking of his conversion experience we have the most detailed account yet.
I learn from this that our role is not for our testimony to serve us. It rarely does, in fact, far from it, it often brings persecution and suffering. Our calling is to serve the testimony. We witness to the message and we experience the message and that is a call to experiencing both the suffering and the joy, the cross and the resurrection - it will be an experience of a joy-filled but cruciform shape. The response to Paul is that he must be mad, crazy, he is having some kind of episode, he is loopy-loo.
“Paul, you are beside yourself! Much learning is driving you mad!”
“I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak the words of truth and reason. For the king, before whom I also speak freely, knows these things; for I am convinced that none of these things escapes his attention, since this thing was not done in a corner.”
Paul's reply is interesting. He denies the charge of madness definitively. He then speaks about how these things did not happen in a corner. Rowan Williams has described how 'here is Paul before the tribunal. What he insists has been going on is something public. It is notorious. People can not but be aware of it. Christianity ... is not just a set of new ideas. The imprint of the cross and the resurrection means there are new ways to respond to the world.' This notorious thing that has happened can not have escaped the attention of Festus. Paul is appealing to Festus but for a greater cause than Paul's own comfort and reputation. He hopes that Festus might be persuaded to accept the gospel.
On the day that I listened to Rowan in Derby, the Archbishop of Canterbury drew my attention to the work of William Stringfellow, who died in the 1980s: a Harvard Law scholar and lay theologian, Episcopalian and nuisance! (Rowan's words). Stringfellow was critical of the clericalising of the church who are not to be ceremonial and superfluous ... Sringfellow set up Bible studies in Harlem amongst the knife gang culture with typically uncompromising expositions of Scripture. Stringfellow was obstinate and courageous, with an absolute passion for the Bible. He differentiated between being a religious person and a biblical person. He stood in fear and trembling before a living God. He very much believed that the Gospel has to be a notorious proclamation. Rowan quoted from Stringfellow's 'Conscience and Obedience,' written in the late 1970s. This book explains how the Church is to be an exemplar - speaking God's vision for a renewed creation, presenting this to whatever authority there is around, telling that authority that it has a vocation from God. Vocation is different from blessing, it is a responsibility to join in with God's call to combat the fear of death in the world, however that manifests itself, whether in internal or external oppression. The church is to push back oppressive forces in the name of Christ.
Rowan's call is to a radical Christianity, the kind of Christianity with which the gospel presents its story of the life and trials of Paul.