NRSV ACTS 9:1-20
9 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 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. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 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. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 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, 12 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.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 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; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
17 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.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized,
19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
Many years ago, more than I would like, we first year seminary students were given a little impromptu quiz by our New Testament professor, a gentleman by the name of Keith Nickle. We were fresh out of Greek school, just getting started, and it was his job to introduce us to the wonderful world of the Pauline Corpus, that is, the works of the apostle Paul. We talked about his early years, when he was known as Saul, and Dr. Nickle asked us, “What kind of horse did Paul fall off of during his Road to Damascus experience?”
We looked at each other trying to remember the images of that event. We remembered seeing a horse but we didn’t remember what kind it was. Once we batted that around a little bit, Dr. Nickle said, “Open your Bibles to Acts 9.” Dutifully we did. Then he said, “What does it say about a horse?” Well, as you may have noticed, nothing. No horse trotting around in that story. Then how come many of us have a picture in our heads about Saul falling off a horse? He told us, “Most people think Saul fell off of a horse because it is portrayed that way in most paintings of the scene. Actually we don’t know if he did, but he probably didn’t. Horses were mostly used by the military or on race tracks.”
So what was the point of all of that? He was getting us to question the presuppositions we bring to any Biblical text. What are the things we bring to the reading of Scripture, the images, the thoughts, the words that we just know should be there. He wanted us to read the Bible and to listen to what the Bible actually said, not what we thought it said, or what we thought it should say. He was teaching us to let the Bible speak for itself without us getting in the way.
It’s an interesting point, one that we would all do well to remember. This is a story that is so familiar to us; we may talk about our “Road to Damascus” experience if anybody asks us about our religious background. But we may forget that what Saul was doing was letting his religious intensity get the better of him. We talk about people being ‘on fire for the Lord,’ and think it’s such a praiseworthy thing. It can be. It should be. But we can burn people with our religious fire without realizing that it may be taking us down the perilous road of judgmentalism rather than the path of love and truly listening to another. I remember one time in a training course saying something that trivialized the pain of someone who had what is called “a first world problem,” something that to my patronizing mind didn’t sound so important. My supervisor warned me: “Watch out for that righteous indignation stuff. People have been lynched in the name of that.”
But it’s easy to fall into that, especially if we – like Saul – know we are right, if we know that our position is the right one, that everybody else is wrong. I mean, who sets out to be intentionally off target? But in our journeys we always have to face the reality that we might be wrong. If we don’t we might veer off course, sometimes to the point where we get so intent on my position, my thoughts, my beliefs as being ultimate, uncompromising and unquestioned, that we can become totally intolerant of everyone else. The other becomes an enemy. The commandment of Jesus is distorted from, “Love one another,” to “Love being right.”
We can become like Saul, so focused on our own righteousness that we lose sight of the gifts that other people have. This particular Sunday, for instance, is of course the third Sunday in the season of Easter, that wonderful seven-week march toward Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit to the church. It’s a time to really treasure the gift of resurrection and deeply – and joyfully – reflect on what it means. What does it mean that Jesus rose from the dead? What does it mean to live in resurrection and know by faith that death will not ultimately win out? What does it mean for churches like ours to know that because of our faith in the resurrection, and in the Resurrected One, there may be many signs of new life around us, ready to burst out in unexpected ways; and yet we don’t see them. What does it mean to let resurrection touch us every single day with new life and new possibilities to live out our calling to love one another?
But this particular Sunday is a nice confluence of special days for other people. It is also the fifth of May, Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican Independence Day. It marks a battle in the town of Puebla in 1862 when Mexican campesinos defeated an army of occupying French forces. As such it has special meaning for the people of that nation. It has become their own exodus story, their own event in which their own people rose up against an occupying oppressor and defeated them, bringing freedom.
It is also the start of the season of Ramadan for our Muslim friends. This is a special time of the year when, for 30 days, they will fast during the daytime and not take any food or water. They also are called to abstain from other activities, all designed to bring their attention to Allah, their word for God, and to reflect upon God’s work in their lives. The festival recalls the giving of the Quran from Allah to the prophet Mohammad, and as such it is one of the most holy times of the year.
It might be easy for us to blow this all off, saying ‘that’s nice for them but it means nothing to me.’ But we are all in this together. Some terrifying events have happened in our world that have caused us to question any effort to dismiss people because they are different. The shootings in Charlotte last week, at a synagogue in California and Pittsburgh before that, the bombings of Christian churches in Sri Lanka on Easter, the murdering of Muslims at prayer in New Zealand, the firebombing of churches in Louisiana and a Native American Presbyterian church in Arizona are just the latest incidents of violence against people because of their faith – and because they are different. To twisted minds these are people whose very presence causes a threat, a people who should be done away with in the name of keeping our country, our state, our town, pure.
A book published some time ago by Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute had the title, “The End of White Christian America.” It told of the research that has shown that within this century, in fact within this generation, Christianity will no longer compose a majority of people in this nation. It will still be the largest minority for quite some time, but the days of assuming that everyone in this nation are Christian are over. And then there are all the stats that tell us that the classification of ‘nones’ and ‘dones’ – those people who have no religious preference, who are done with the church – show that they have surpassed Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics as the largest socio-economic-religious group in our country.
It’s enough to make people break out in a cold sweat – if we have the mind of Saul. If we have the mind that everyone has to be like us. If we have the attitude that this is our nation and it is only for people who think like us and worship like us.
Amy Oden, a professor of early Christian History and Spirituality, noted that Saul is the classic example of a religious person who is so determined to do good that they are blinded by the destructive consequences of their actions. She writes: “(Saul’s) one track focus on righteousness narrows rather than expands his vision of what God is up to. He is so convinced of the error of others that he cannot see the new thing God is doing in Jesus Christ and mis-reads it completely.”
She goes on to note, “At both ends of the ideological spectrum, Christian progressives as well as Christian conservatives look to purge their ranks of any who step even slightly out of line. The story each side tells about themselves is that they are holding firm to sacred values. No one thinks of themselves as a persecutor in the stories we tell ourselves about our own commitments. We would be shocked to hear Jesus say to us, ‘Why do you persecute me?’”
That’s a great point. It can be easy to see how someone of a different ideological or religious viewpoint can be so dogmatic and so narrow-minded about what they think while being blind to our own prejudices, to the presuppositions we bring to the Bible and everything else. But then we just remain in this attack mode our culture has foisted on us, the sense that I am so superior and so right and the others are so wrong. We forget what my supervisor warned me about, that such a line of thinking can lead to demonic results.
But thank God, literally, Jesus does not give up on Saul – or any of us. There is the bright light, the words out of heaven, the directions of where to go and who to listen to. There are also the Ananiases of our lives, those people God sends to us to be able to see again, to see things in a new light, to see other people in a different way.
When Ananias lays his hands on Saul and invokes the name of Jesus Christ, something like scales fell off his eyes and he was able to see. What are the scales of our own lives, of our own views, of our own ideologies, of our own presuppositions that need to fall away before we can see the other as they are – not as a liberal or a conservative, not as a Christian or a Muslim, not as white American or an African- American or a Hispanic; but as a child of God, someone made in God’s image?
In an article in Christian Century, editor Peter Marty noted that when we come into contact with people with whom we know we are going to have issues, it’s easy to think we are so noble in granting them tolerance. Just accept them but don’t have any more to do with them than necessary. Just put up with them. But he made the point that if we really want to follow Jesus and live in the resurrection we are called to do more than just tolerate each other. We are called to love one another. We are called to want the best for each other. We are called to pray for each other. We are called to learn from each other. We are called to respect each other’s personhood and beliefs as much as we want to be respected.
After all, we are all in this together- this journey of life, of faith, of getting along with others who, like us, are doing the best they can. We believe in a loving God who is infinitely patient with us, and in Jesus the Christ whose life, death and resurrection calls on us not to give up on each other. Our Lord calls on us to love one another, and sometimes that love is tough. But the call is there, we have had hands laid on us, and through the work of the Holy Spirit we can see others differently – with the lens of love that God has given us. Amen.