As we continue in our Easter celebrations this morning, we’re going to look at a well-known story from the book of Acts. By this point, some time has passed since the resurrection – thanks to the work of the Twelve and others, the gospel had spread from Jerusalem to faithful Jewish people in many cities across Israel and beyond. The religious leaders were still trying to squash this new movement, who called themselves ‘The Way,’ partially to reinstate their own authority and partially because they feared that new Christians would incite a rebellion and upset the delicate relationship between the religious authorities and the Roman government. Bad things happened when you upset the Romans.
Here, we encounter a Pharisee named Saul, from Jerusalem, who was very excited to help in this effort. So excited that he’s ready to take the show on the road, and go to Damascus to round up any members of The Way.
This is a bit of a long story, but it’s worth it – promise.
Scripture: Acts 9:1-20
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
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.’ 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.’ 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.’
One of the reasons I love superhero movies is that there are usually pretty clear lines – there are good guys and bad guys, and you know who to root for.
But that’s not the way the Bible works, because that’s not the way humans work. We’re all complicated and messy and none of us, even with the best of intentions, get it right all the time.
Saul was so excited to do God’s work – and in his mind, God’s work was eliminating those whom he believed were dishonoring God and leading others astray. This is the story he told himself: that despite the violence and the upending lives, he was doing something good and righteous. The ends justify the means, right?
To most of us, this sounds ridiculous. We don’t understand the logic. We’ve been taught since we were kids that just because someone’s different, that doesn’t make them evil. We may not like it, but we know better than to respond to those differences with threats and violence.
And I would love to be able to say that this logic died out with Saul’s recognition that he was wrong about Jesus – but it didn’t, and it still hasn’t. We saw that same logic at work last weekend in the synagogue shooting in Poway, California – committed by a self-avowed Christian, whose father was an elder at his church. We saw it in the church bombing in Sri Lanka, committed by followers of the Islamic State. We see it in bomb threats and armed protestors at mosques here in the US and in Europe. It doesn’t take much digging to see that members of every ethnic group and religion under the sun have taken up the same tactics Saul used.
In the same way that each of us sometimes gets caught up in the stories we tell ourselves, Saul was so focused on his own definition of righteousness that he couldn’t see God doing a new thing in Jesus. So when Jesus himself, who was supposed to be dead, strikes him blind and speaks to him saying “why do you persecute me?!”, Saul is like ‘…WAIT, WHAT. Who are you?!”
As commentator Dr. Amy Oden puts it:
“Saul’s blindness can help us see the ways our religious commitments, however righteous, can be obstructions. How do our religious (or political or ideological or social) commitments keep us from seeing the new thing God is up to? How do we narrow rather than expand God’s mission in the world? What, in our good intentions, do we mis-read completely?”
Anne Lamott, a theologian and writer, says it slightly more plainly: “You know you’ve made God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do.”
The first part of this story is, for us, a call to accountability – to remember that we as Christians are responsible for using our words and our influence to bring the life and love of Jesus to the world – and for turning away from the ideologies and ways of living that lead to death and violence.
The second half of our story, though, gives us a slightly different perspective: Ananias, a follower of Jesus in Damascus, also hears God’s voice. He, too, is shocked and surprised when he finds out what exactly God wants him to do—to go and pray for Saul, whose initial purpose for being there was his destruction.
He knew Saul’s reputation. He knew what he had done to others who followed Jesus – a few chapters earlier, he stood by while a disciple named Stephen was convicted of heresy and stoned to death. Ananias knew exactly what this man was capable of.
But Jesus had other plans for Saul – it was Saul (whom we now know as the Apostle Paul) whom he had chosen to bring the gospel not only to the Jewish people, but to the rest of the known world. He would be among the first to preach the gospel to Greeks and Romans and everyone in between. That same energy, that same drive to do God’s work and follow God’s will, would serve him well in that task. But in order to do that, he needed to be part of this community, to learn the stories of Jesus’ life and hear the good news of resurrection. And that was Ananias’ job.
Can you imagine how hard it must have been to take this stranger, who had definitely already been part of the plot to wipe you and your friends from the face of the earth, and not only pray for him – but welcome him as a brother?
Interestingly, the same logic of ‘purifying the community’ that we talked about at the beginning can also lead to a slightly different toxic way of being in the world: cultural commentators call it ‘cancel culture.’ This is what happens when you’re only welcome to be part of a community so long as you believe, speak, and behave in a very precise way – you have to use the right words, like and dislike the right people, avoid a very specific set of words and actions, and do so perfectly. You step one foot out of line, you screw up once, and you’re out – you’re cancelled. There is no redemption, no forgiveness, no learning curve.
We see this in a lot of the more extreme religious and political circles on both ends of the spectrum – the spaces where there is no room for compromise, for disagreement, or even for saying “well, I don’t like 90% of what she said, but she had a really good point here.”
Ananias could’ve shut Saul down before he even started. There were some pretty good reasons to cancel him – to say ‘nope, we don’t forgive you and you are not welcome here.’
But he didn’t. Some historians even believe that after his dramatic conversion and baptism, Saul stayed with Ananias in Damascus for up to three years, learning the ways of Jesus.
At the end of the day, what we learn from Ananias is that Jesus really, truly meant it when he said to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you – and that when Jesus calls us to go and help even that person who is The Worst, we need to go.
Now, I want to put a disclaimer in here: Ananias heard the actual voice of Jesus telling him that Saul was ready and waiting for him. Ananias didn’t seek him out on his own, didn’t try to convince him or change him, didn’t put himself intentionally in harm’s way. We really can love God and love our neighbors and maintain solid boundaries for the sake of our own health and our safety. Sometimes, there is good reason to love your enemies and pray for them from a distance – and that’s just fine.
This is what makes community so hard: there are so few hard and fast rules. Cultivating a healthy community with good boundaries that can hold each of us, with our quirks and failures and the thousands of ways we’re different from one another, is work. But it’s work God calls each of us to do, both inside and outside the walls of the Church – and it’s work Jesus models well for us.
But it’s also not work we can do on our own. One of my seminary professors, Dr. Sue Rozeboom, used to tell us at least twice a day that ‘nothing good happens apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.’
So when we pray for our enemies, perhaps we need to be praying for ourselves, too – that we would have the strength, humility, and courage to love them well, to call out the harmful ideologies that lead to death and destruction, to forgive when we can, and to welcome as many people as is physically possible into this community where love can truly grow.
That’s why we gather at this table – because, as Rachel Held Evans puts it: “This is what the kingdom of God is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they’re rich or worthy or good, but because they said ‘yes’ [to the invitation].”
And so we come…
…to give thanks
…to say ‘yes’ to the one who invites us again and again to this table where there is always room for more.