This is the sixth of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, each taking a theme from the book of Acts…
by Tony Barnes.
The candidature form for the Methodist ministry which I filled out in 1965 included the question ‘How many souls has he (we were all ‘he’) brought to Christ?’ This caused me to me worry whether my offer to serve could be accepted. I had with teenage hubris argued the case for Christianity on many occasions, but without any sure sign of having made any immediate, positive effect on my interlocutors – perhaps the opposite! My preaching had always been directed at the faithful with track records of Christian discipleship far longer and stronger than mine. Many of them by their acceptance of me over several years had more than ‘almost (persuaded) me to become a Christian’ (cf Acts 26:28) by simply receiving me by social inclusion into the ways of Christian living. That pattern included worship, Bible study, and love for other people which was sometimes conditional but more often of grace.
Neil Richardson tells us that we can be sure of two things about the apostle Paul, that as Saul the Pharisee he persecuted the early Church, and that he had a life-changing experience, which he and his ‘biographer’ Luke, believed was an encounter with the risen Christ (Paul for Today, Epworth 2008 p26). The significance given by Luke to Paul’s ‘conversion’ is evidenced by its inclusion three times in Acts, through Paul’s own testimony (cf Acts 9:1-22, 22:1-21, 26:4-23). In Acts 26 Paul makes his defence against his Jewish accusers from Jerusalem and before King Agrippa, in the presence of the Roman Governor Festus at Caesarea. Festus is apparently unimpressed, maybe feeling that he is out of his depth culturally and intellectually before a verbose, if harmless, Jewish scholar talking about a suffering Messiah rising from the dead. Agrippa as a Jew and therefore more in tune with the religious categories in the discourse, and possibly sensing that Paul is acting as apologist for the Way of Christ, interjects, ‘Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’ Paul unapologetically prays that Agrippa and indeed all present ‘might become as I am – except for these chains’. The episode does not conclude with a dramatic conversion of some or all of those who have listened to the apostle’s testimony. That fact that we have read it – for the third time! – is what matters. Who knows how Paul’s audience have been affected? We note something of his ‘art of persuasion’ in these elements.
1. Paul’s apologia was targeted at Agrippa whose cultural and religious background he understood. To Festus’ ears it was pure, academic babble. Paul knew that whilst aiming to be all things to all people (1 Corinthians 19:22), you have in specific contexts to be clear who you wish to reach, and to tailor sympathetically how you present your case.
2. This necessitates a clear grasp of and confidence in the core message which does not alter with context, and is always that God raises the dead (Acts 26:8), demonstrated for all time in God raising Jesus Christ who calls people to follow him and tell others about his life. This is Paul’s own, personal testimony, his story.
3. Effective persuasion means a change of direction is set in motion by the Resurrection story recounted in the light of the raconteur’s own experience…. ‘Are you so quickly persuading me…?’ Agrippa is not lambasted for being a wicked person, nor is he preached at by someone pretending moral or hierarchical authority. Paul is powerless in the world’s terms. God’s story in the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, and exemplified in the teller of the story, is all.
1. When and how in the past have we been persuaded by argument or the story of another Christian or other Christians?
2. What is our discipleship story? How has it changed over the years?
3. What is the intellectual case for Christian discipleship?
4. How can we tell the story of God raising the dead so that it makes sense in many and various contexts today?
5. Stuart Murray writes that in ‘post-Christendom’, evangelism means ‘Searching for multiple contact points with the gospel in a culture no longer dominated (as Christendom was) by guilt, employing the full range of New Testament imagery, and learning to relate the story to contemporary angst and yearnings’. (Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World. 2nd edition. SCM Press 2018, p 169). Discuss…