Awkward

Have you spent much time in meetings, especially ones in which something important was supposed to be decided? It might be nice to think that all we have to do is put on our thinking caps and carefully and objectively weigh the pros and cons.

That’s at best a partial truth, though. We also come to meetings with ingrained social expectations of which we may be unaware. We have implicit rules about what can be said to whom, by whom, and under what circumstances. And when things don’t go as expected, someone may get frustrated and angry, while someone else may be embarrassed and evasive. That’s when things get awkward.

But sometimes, awkward can be useful.

The closing scene of Paul’s defense before King Agrippa, the third and final such defense in the book of Acts, is a deeply human one. Luke gives us some nice details that allow us to richly imagine the reactions and motivations of the people involved.

Governor Festus, apparently, had been sitting by silently as Paul told his story to Agrippa, a tale that included a summary of the gospel Paul preached. But none of this likely made much sense to the Roman governor, especially the part about death and resurrection. His reason for arranging the meeting in the first place was to get some help writing a sensible letter to the emperor. After having listened to Paul, he still didn’t know what to say.

In exasperation, he shouted (if you’ll indulge my less than literal translation), “Paul, you’re certifiably wacko! All that studying has gone to your head.”

This, from the co-chair of the meeting.

Paul was unruffled by the outburst. Cleverly, he simultaneously smoothed Festus’ feathers and recruited Agrippa to his side (Acts 26:25-26): “I’m not wacko, most excellent Festus! Here, Agrippa will tell you. I’ve been addressing my remarks to him, after all, as one Jew to another. I’m sure he knows exactly what I’m talking about. He keeps up with the news; he knows that everything I’ve said is public knowledge.”

And then, the master stroke. Without missing a beat, Paul turned to Agrippa and asked, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do?” (Acts 26:27, CEB).

Awkward. And for a moment or two, I imagine, nothing but crickets.

Think about Agrippa’s predicament. This was a state occasion of great pomp, and he was in the spotlight. He and his sister Bernice may well have been the only Jews in the room other than Paul. Festus was relying on him to say something intelligent that would fix the governor’s problem with the letter he had to write to Rome. But Festus himself had just declared Paul a lunatic — not an enemy of the state, perhaps, but a nutcase nonetheless. And now Paul had turned to Agrippa and asked him point-blank to admit that he, like Paul, believed in the ancient prophecies.

Like I said, awkward.

Doesn’t this guy know his place? I imagine Agrippa thinking nervously. What am I supposed to say now?

Backed into a corner, Agrippa evaded the question: “Are you trying to convince me that, in such a short time, you’ve made me a Christian?” (Acts 26:28). It was probably his best rhetorical move: without making any commitment in response to Paul, he put the onus back on him.

And Paul, of course, was ready with an answer. He would not be deterred from preaching the gospel: “Whether it is a short time or a long time, I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today will become like me, except for these chains” (Acts 26:29).

Ever the apostle to both Jews and Gentiles, Paul prayed for Agrippa and the whole audience of Gentile dignitaries in one swoop. “I wish you could all be like me,” he said, before looking down at his shackles and quipping, “Well, except for this bit of jewelry, of course.”

Festus’ earlier outburst had effectively scuttled the hearing, and Paul’s attempt to evangelize Agrippa may have made things even more prickly. But his well-timed bit of levity disarmed the tension, without backing off from his presentation of the gospel.

It was the cue for everyone to breathe again. They rose and filed out of the hall, talking amongst themselves as they left. Everyone could see the obvious: Paul had done nothing to deserve jail time, let alone a death sentence. I imagine Agrippa throwing up his hands as he spoke his last words to Festus: “You could have let this guy go if he hadn’t appealed to Caesar” (Acts 26:32).

Scholars differ on whether Festus was in fact obligated to honor Paul’s request. But even if so, he wasn’t eager to send someone he knew was innocent without having a good reason. Agrippa’s word was reason enough: if this king, who had friends in Rome, said Paul had to go, that was all Festus needed. Paul went.

A somewhat circuitous way to get to Rome perhaps. But Paul continued to bear witness to Jesus every step of the way, even when it made things a bit awkward.

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