Year C, Easter 3
April 14, 2013
Thomas L. Truby
Acts 9:1-6 (7-20)
“Church, Church, Why Do You Persecute Me?”
“Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest.”
The tension gets set right from the beginning. Saul, who later changes his name to Paul, is still breathing threats and murder against the people of the Way. He is doing this as an expression of his faith, his belief that the followers of Jesus must be rooted out of existence. He thinks he is doing God’s will!
Along these lines he requests the high priest authorize him to arrest and return bound to Jerusalem any man or woman he discovers to be a follower of “the Way.” It was the high priest who wanted Jesus crucified and both Herod and Pilate complied when they saw that the mob, lead by the high priest, demanded it.
Strangely, Jesus’ death had not put these people out of business. In fact, Jesus’ death seems to have fanned their flames. Now they seem to be bursting into life with more energy than before. The ones who seemed so docile before his death were now speaking with a boldness they had never exhibited while he was alive. This was getting out of hand and clearly someone smart enough to see the dangers to the religious and political status quo needed to step forward.
Saul, a brilliant and well educated Pharisee, who had traveled widely and understood both Rome and Jerusalem, stepped forward. He would take responsibility to stamp out this grass fire before it could endanger their culture and traditions. The fire had spread to Damascus and so he asked permission to go there and squelch it. Permission was granted.
These followers of Jesus that Saul sought didn’t have a name. They weren’t called Christians yet. Luke, who also wrote the book of Acts, simple describes them as those who belong to “the Way.” “The Way,” what an interesting term! How is following Jesus’ “the Way” different from following something else?” What is it leading away from and toward what is it moving? Clearly it involves some sort of transition. Does the story, beginning with Saul “breathing threats and murder,” give us a clew? Does “the Way” start with an awareness of human violence? Does “the Way” tread a path of deliverance from violence meant for the whole world?
The Book of Acts is the sequel to Luke and written by the same author. In it we see how the resurrected Jesus impacts his community of followers and how they, in turn, impact their world. The new dimension animating the action is the coming of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ spirit, and it powerfully changes everything. That is the point of Acts; in it we see the coming and workings of the Holy Spirit on the community of believers. Let’s see what happens to Saul as he travels toward Damascus looking to round up the people of “the Way” with the hope of expunging them from the earth.
Saul travels with deep assurance that he follows the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He has the law behind him and authorization from the highest religious authority. His is a just cause and he the righteous leader in executing “the will of God.” Is he in error? Could he be wrong? Is God different than Saul thinks?
“Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.” Notice it is light that flashed and nothing more. I John says, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” Darkness can’t come from God. And notice the source of the light is heaven. More and more I am seeing heaven as that place beyond human rivalry and striving. It’s that place of peace where all is well and we deeply know ourselves to be loved. We have been reconciled and the block from our side that separates us from God has dissolved.
Saul “fell to the ground.” The light didn’t knock him down. There is no violence in it. It was his own fear on what this light might mean that buckled his knees. If this had been drawn as a cartoon there would be no caption with words like “POW, bang or kazzam” with an exclamation point. Luke is trying to tell us something about God. God isn’t violent.
“He heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The voice comes from a place of weakness not power. It asks a question instead of making a demand. It asks, “Why do you persecute me?” The question is about what Saul does, not what he believes. It’s not an intellectual or philosophical question at all. It’s a question concerning Saul’s violence. The voice doesn’t ask, “Why don’t you believe in me?” It’s not even a religious or theological question concerning Saul’s faith. It is a “doing” question and the doing has to do with the thing Saul is doing. Saul has divided the world into those inside and those out, assigned evil to those out, and now persecutes them, hoping in this way to wipe evil out of existence. Is this the thing we human’s do?
He sees no evil in himself and assigns it all to those he hates. He does this thinking he is doing God’s will. He is deluded! His understanding of God totally distorted and turned on its head. God is a God of love and persecution can have no part in it. Saul, you got it wrong! “Why are you persecuting me?”
In response to the voice Saul says, “Who are you, Lord?” The voice comes from outside Saul’s frame of reference and he has no context within which to place it. A voice from an utterly different place is speaking to Saul. The reply comes, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” The voice is none other than Jesus; the very one he has committed his life to eradicating. Can you imagine the shock! Saul’s whole world has just gone out of sync. Everything he believes is being contradicted. At this point nothing makes sense. Paul is having the equivalent to a nervous breakdown.
But even here the gentle Jesus is graceful. He does not leave Saul defenseless, boundary-less and shattered. After all Jesus’ intention was never to shatter Saul but to help him reshape himself in a way that leads toward life and peace. Now even Saul is part of “the Way.” It is “the Way” that leads out of violence and towards peace.
The gentleness of Jesus finds expression in the instruction he gives Saul when he says, “But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Saul’s first instruction involves trusting Jesus. With Saul’s own guidance system totally wrecked, Jesus provides him another and this one centers on trusting Jesus in tiny, immediate ways. “Get up, enter the city and you will be told what you are to do.”
“Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing.” Our eyes are the guidance system by which we sighted people orient our movement. Saul’s guidance system has just come undone. He will need to redo it before he can see again. That will take time and during that time he will be vulnerable. For now, he is blind and must be led by the hand. I hope those around him will take care to lead him well and not take advantage of his vulnerability. If they want to take revenge on him in any way, this would be the time to do it.
Now Saul is as vulnerable as Jesus had been in those days between Good Friday and Easter before God acted in the Resurrection. In fact, Luke says, “For three days Saul was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” The mystics call this the dark night of the soul. Many of us have been through those times in our lives. Often they are days of transitioning from one way of making sense of our lives to another. They feel dark because our eyes have not yet found a new way of seeing.
The story now picks up another thread that begins to weave its way into the narrative. We see in it how the Holy Spirit works through humans even though, at the time, nobody understands how it will all converge. “Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight. But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” (I sense a little resistance from Ananias and a struggle to trust. He views Saul as a lethal enemy and now he is being asked to meet him? Are you sure? Maybe this vision is coming from some evil spirit that is trying to do him in.)
“But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’” That last phrase about “how much Saul must suffer for the sake of my name” is a mind twister. Translated, I think it says the Lord is going to show this man; so driven by rivalry and comfortable with violence, how to live in another way. He will learn to suffer violence rather than inflict it and he will do this because he understands how Jesus works and the power of weakness.
“So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”
I pray the scales will fall off the eyes of the contemporary church and that our sight will be restored. We must see that the human issue is violence in all its forms and that each of us participates in it. When we act violently, whether in word or action, we attack Jesus. Jesus is hidden in the least of these, in the most vulnerable, in the brother we dislike and in the enemy we dismiss. Like Saul, we must convert to another way. We must be struck blind with light and find a new path. The alternative is unthinkable and now is the time. Jesus says to us “Church, church, why do you persecute me?” Learn to suffer with me and bring peace to the world. Amen.