Greetings from the church next door!!! I am deeply honored to be here and to meet all of you. I am also deeply grateful for the opportunity to share with our brothers and sisters in the church across the parking lot. Since your pastor informed me that he often preaches from the same lectionary passages that we do, I am going to continue that tradition and take a look at Acts 9.
“Easter is not done yet!” says the theologian Walter Brueggeman and the passages we read today certainly say the same. In the liturgical calendar, this is the third Sunday of Easter, the time when we think about the resurrection and wait for Pentecost. It is celebrated at the time of year when we see new life all around us—flowering buds on trees and daffodils and tulips blooming in our yards. Hopefully, it is a time when we experience new life in ourselves.
Certainly, Saul on the road to Damascus found out that Easter wasn’t over yet. He starts out convinced that there is no Easter. Instead, our text tells us that he was “breathing threats and murder.” How did this intelligent rabbinic scholar bring himself to the place where he was breathing hate? He had been raised in a religion that taught him to love God and to love one’s neighbor. It was Rabbi Hillel, the grandfather of Saul’s own teacher Gameliel that said, “Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you” a quote very similar to Jesus’ own golden rule. Saul had no excuse there.
But here he is, breathing hate. We hear a lot of hate these days. Just listen to a conversation about politics for a few minutes or turn on the TV to a news station and you hear all sorts of name calling, spiteful remarks, and accusations swirling around. Political parties are jostling for power and whatever side you fall on, there is plenty of ammunition to attack the other side. It seems our public conversations have reached a new low. Respectful conversation seems to be a thing of the past.
The problem is that Saul’s hatred doesn’t stop with words. Hatred rarely stops with words. He becomes a zealous crusader, convinced that God was on his side. He does horrible things—the text tells us that he obtains power from the authorities to arrest people that follow Jesus. He drags people out of their homes, jails them, tortures them. Power plus hatred is a terrible combination.
It’s easy to blame Saul here and go on. But, how often in the history of the world have people done similar things convinced that God is on their side? Christian history is littered with the stories of people who killed, made war, and discriminated against those they disliked—hated—all in the name of the resurrected Jesus. We can think of the crusades, when rivers of blood were spilt in God’s name. We can think of the conquest of the Americas when native peoples were destroyed, all under the banner of a cross. I remember reading a history of the Spanish king who ordered all the Jews of Spain out of the country. He talked about his deep faith and his conviction that what he was doing was a way he wanted to honor God. Isn’t that what Saul is trying to do in this text? He thinks he is honoring God by breathing out threats and murder. Scary, isn’t it?
I’ve been to many churches and in a variety of denominations throughout my life. One idea I encountered in some churches as a child was the image of a God who is a harsh and angry judge. This God demands conformity and harshly punishes those who err. I remember my heart aching as a little girl, desperately hoping that I could be good enough for this God, so that he would love me. I remember fearing this God too, wondering what I might be doing wrong. This is the God of Saul in the beginning of Acts 9, a God who is a harsh judge. Saul is convinced that he is preserving the purity of his faith and he is willing to kill for that.
But something happens. For Saul, his career of hate in God’s name is cut short by an encounter with the risen Jesus. Picture the moment. Saul is riding out on a dusty road from Jerusalem to Damascus. It’s 135 miles between cities, by the way. Not a short jaunt, even if they had horses or some sort of transportation as you see in so many of the pictures about this story. Saul is on a long journey. And that journey, that pilgrimage, brings him to a very unexpected place. His nice, neat, successful world is shattered by an encounter with Jesus alive and speaking to him. A bright light. A voice from heaven. These things rattle his world and give him a whole new way of looking at God and looking at the world. Easter was not over yet for Saul. Saul must have been overwhelmed with fear and probably not a little confused. It’s interesting that the first thing Jesus challenges him about is his hatred. “Why are you persecuting me?” Why all of this hate? What an amazing wake-up call that must have been for a man who was convinced that he was indeed serving God.
Remember, Saul already believed in God. This conversion story is not about an atheist who turns to God. It is a story of a deeply religious man coming face to face with Jesus as a risen savior and learning that God really isn’t who he thinks God is. God is not a harsh dictator who demands conformity to a set of rules. Saul meets instead the God of love in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus puts an end to Saul’s almost fanatical need to maintain the purity of what he believes to be true. “Why are you persecuting me?... Go and I will tell you what you must do.” It’s like Jesus is telling Saul—you’ve got me all wrong. You’ve totally misunderstood what God wants. Let me show you a new way.
Last summer, I visited England. It was a sort of personal pilgrimage for me. I felt deeply burdened and deeply needed to search for God, deeply needed an encounter with the risen Christ. I spent part of my time on a tiny island off the coast of northern England. It is really a beautiful place. There is only one road leading onto the island, which is about a mile or two across and, twice a day, the tide comes in and cuts the island off from the mainland. It is called Lindisfarne or “Holy Island” and some of the oldest Christian communities in Britain were started there. It is a place that has been a place of pilgrimage for nearly a thousand years and when I was there, I had this powerful sense of the fact that literally millions of people over hundreds of years had come to this same place to pray and seek for God.
I was there in late Spring, when the flowers were in bloom and the birds were everywhere and the place was full of life (despite the fact that it drizzled most of the time I was there). I was on a journey, away from the demands of everyday life, surrounded by the sea. You know how there are times in your life when God just speaks to you? When you are just all of the sudden aware of his presence? There was this little church on the Island and I spent a lot of time praying there. The parish minister, who led the services two times a day, was the kindest, gentlest person I have met. One particular day, during morning prayer and communion, I was deeply moved looking around me. There was this gentle old man leading us and around the room were people from all over the world, from many different denominations and backgrounds. We were all together, singing and praying. Suddenly, I saw Jesus in that room, his presence filling the place where there was love.
When I left the church, in the damp fog of the early morning, I went and stood by the sea. My image of an angry God that I had inherited from my childhood melted away with that fog and I more fully discovered that God is love. The whole island seemed to sing of God’s love—the rising sun on the seashore and the ancient stones of the church. More importantly, I had seen that love visibly demonstrated in a community of people.
Now Saul didn’t go out looking for all this like I did, but in his journey, he found the same thing. Instead of replacing Saul’s own list of rules with a new list of ways to please a vengeful God, instead Jesus spells out a different mission. Jesus shows a new way because his resurrection had ushered in a new creation. Look at what Ananias is told.
9:13 But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem;
9:14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name."
9:15 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;
9:16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name."
Ananias is understandably a bit worried here. This man just showed up breathing threats and murder, remember? Jesus has something to show Ananias too. This new mission is a mission that will include everyone. It won’t be for just one privileged group of people. Its goal won’t be to maintain rigid purity. Saul’s new mission is not only to preach this Jesus that he has been fighting against; his mission is to go to everyone--Jews and Gentiles. It is a mission that is doing the exact opposite of what Saul has been doing all this time; it is a mission breaking down barriers and crossing borders. The God of love extends love to everyone.
The passage says that scales fell from Saul’s eyes and with those scales fell the image of a hateful God. Saul becomes Paul in Christian history and a few decades later we find him writing to the Philippians saying this: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings,”
Paul is consumed with living in the power of this resurrection, this new life in Jesus. Elsewhere, the letter to the Ephesians describes what this is like in the form of a prayer:
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
The man who started out killing in God’s name is now overwhelmed with the love of Christ and sharing that love with the world.
Have we experienced the power of this resurrection? Have we encountered this resurrected Christ? Easter is not over yet! It is for us, here and now… It is for a broken world, a world full of hate. It is a proclamation that God welcomes all, includes all, loves all. It is a dream that hatred will turn to love… It is the ultimate proclamation that God is love. Amen.