Third Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2019
- Revelation 5:11–14 (NRSV)
- Psalm 30 (CEV)
- Acts 9:1–6 (NRSV)
We just heard about a villain struck down by a flash of light. Jesus’ disembodied voice was calling him out as Saul, better known to us as Paul, on the road to Damascus. Don’t we tend to assume that Saul is the bad guy in the story? However, coming to think of it—is he the bad guy? What’s important for us when we hear the story, is to remember that Saul sees himself as the person with good intentions, who is trying to protect the faith. He could just as well be like you and me, a person with well-intended aspirations. Saul loves God, serves God devoutly, and wants to stamp out anything that, in his view, dishonours God. In this case, that means the Jews who had joined the movement of following Jesus.
Saul is God’s champion. When he breathes “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (as the story starts out according to Acts 9) Saul is championing for God by going after the “bad Jews” who are straying away from the tried and tested faith tradition. He sees Jesus’ followers as those within his own faith needing to be rescued from their error. He asks for letters to the synagogues in Damascus that will give him authority to conduct his policing there, to clean up his own faith community and rid it of the straying, unrighteous ones. As far as he is concerned, this is not a matter of going after people just to persecute them, but rather a correction of “Jews gone bad.”
Saul is the classic example of the devout person who is so determined to do good that they are blinded (literally!) to the destructive consequences of their purity campaign. He does as much harm as he is trying to do good. I’ve found myself trying my very best to do a great thing and to be helpful, only to find that I should have rather minded my own business or I should have been better at consulting ahead of time. You might know that feeling.
We must be careful, then, in how we portray Saul. Rather than painting a picture of him as a persecutor, we might see him as a committed and devout person of faith, someone trying to do the right thing so that he could strengthen the people of God.
The bigger question is whether it is wise to narrow, or is it wise to expand? When we read this story in a more sympathetic manner, we might wonder whether Saul is shocked not only by the flashing light, but also by being accused of persecution, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” We might imagine Saul can hardly believe his ears, thinking, “Who? Me? A persecutor?” This is not Saul’s story about himself.
His one-track—very determined—focus on being correct and faithful narrows rather than it 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. He’s not only literally blinded by a bright light, but he is unaware of a blind-spot in his actions.
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? Do we have biases, prejudices that drive us towards a narrow vision?
At both ends of the ideological spectrum, Christian progressives as well as Christian conservatives look to purge what’s happening of any who step even slightly out of their line. The story each side tells about themselves is that they are holding firm to sacred values. They have principles. 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?”
On this third Sunday of Easter, to respond to the Risen Christ, we expand, we don’t narrow the vision of what God is up to, far beyond ourselves. It’s our time to pause and examine our blind spots, often tied to our deepest commitments.
1.) This message is based on the insights of a commentary by Amy G. Ogden on workingpreacher.org
Copyright 2019 – Heinrich Grosskopf, Minister of Dayspring Presbyterian Church
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