The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
We are People of the Way Sermon by the Rev. DWHinkle E3C May 5, 2019
Scripture: Acts 9:1-6 (7-20)
“Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and 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. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 5He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ (7The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul 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. 9For 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.’ 11The 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, 12and 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.’ 13But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ 15But 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; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ 17So 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.’ 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’)”
Sermon: The tension is building from the beginning. Saul, whose name changes later to Paul, is breathing threats and murder against “the people of the Way.” He requests an authorization from the high priest to arrest and return to Jerusalem in bondage any man or woman he discovers to be a follower of this Jesus. Authorization is granted.
Before the crucifixion, the authorities had expected the death of Jesus to end this new Jesus movement, but now it seems to be bursting into life with more energy than ever before. His followers were speaking with a boldness they hadn’t exhibited while he was alive. The movement was getting out of hand and someone smart enough to see its dangers needed to step forward to put it to an end once and for all.
Saul, a brilliant and well educated Pharisee of the most conservative branch of the Pharisees, stepped forward. He’d grown up in Tarsus, a city in present day Turkey, and traveled widely and understood both Rome and Jerusalem. Saul would stamp out this grass fire before it could endanger their culture and traditions any further. Already the fire had spread to Damascus.
These followers of Jesus didn’t have a name. They weren’t yet called Christians. Luke describes them simply as those who belonged to “the Way.” What an interesting name for a group: “the Way.” How did people on “the Way” differ from those who weren’t on “the Way?” What is this “Way” Jesus is leading them on, and what’s he leading them away from, and what’s he moving them toward that set them apart? If we had read the full text for today, it would begin with Saul “breathing threats and murder” and end with Paul’s baptism. This gives us a clue.
As always “the Way” starts with an awareness of our participation in human violence, in this case Saul breathing threats and murder, and ends with a path of deliverance for the whole world, where we humans die to our submersion in violence and find deliverance in baptism. This is the deeper meaning of baptism. In baptism, even if we’re only sprinkled with a little water, we go under the water as in death and rise through the water to new life.
Baptism had become a largely meaningless sacrament until I started viewing it as a deliverance from human submersion in violence and a taking on the capacity for life lived non-violently in imitation of Jesus. Remember the three Renunciations of “the world, the flesh and the devil” followed by the three Affirmations of following Jesus that were a part of the Baptism Liturgy we did last Sunday? Baptism marks that transition away from violence and evil and toward Jesus and non-violent love, though I think the church has largely forgotten this, especially the church as it has been so closely aligned with the state.
Now, back to Saul. As Saul moves toward Damascus, he travels with the certainty that he is doing the right thing. He has authorization from the highest religious authority and he knows Rome won’t care. He’s doing the right thing in getting rid of those...those...darned Jesus followers
The text continues, “During the Journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground.” It’s important to noticed that the light didn’t knock him to the ground. Light doesn’t have that kind of power. His own fear buckled his knees. Being a man who specialized in the administration of fear, he was full of fear when his defenses were breached.
Luke says the light came from heaven. Heaven is that place outside human control and all the pressure we put on ourselves and others. Heaven is run by love and forgiveness, not rivalry and fear. It’s where the transcendent comes from. It’s the place of resurrection on this third Sunday after Easter.
“He heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The voice doesn’t ask, “Why don’t you believe in me, Saul?” No. It’s why are you violent toward me, Saul? Why do you hunt people down and throw them into prison and have them stoned to death for following me (like the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, by the way)? Saul has divided the world into those he considers the good guys and those he considers the bad guys. He thinks he’s wiping out evil by attacking those he’s judged to be the bad guys, but actually, he’s persecuting Jesus.
Isn’t that just like us humans. Ever since we ignored God’s warnings and reached for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we think we can tell who the good guys are and who the bad. And isn’t it interesting that we’re always the good guys? “Judge not lest ye be judged.”
Until now Saul had seen no evil in himself. The voice challenged all that; his entire understanding of himself as God-fearing falls into doubt. “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asks. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” comes the reply. Did you hear that! Can you imagine Saul’s shock? The very one he’s committed his life to eradicating is speaking to him. Everything Saul believes is being contradicted. His world shatters.
Without even the smallest hint of retribution, Jesus responds with instructions to guide the lost and blind Saul. “Now get up and enter the city, and you will be told what to do.” With Saul’s guidance system run aground, Jesus provides him with direction. First get up, then enter the city, then you will be told what to do.
“Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see.” Saul’s world has just fallen apart and his blindness is a dramatic way of telling us this. “So they led him by the hand into Damascus.” Saul will need to rethink everything. Later in his letters, he tells us it took him three years to work through and rebuild his world. The new world was built on completely different foundations.
Luke’s story now picks up another thread. “In Damascus there was a certain disciple named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, ‘Ananias!’ He answered, ‘Yes, Lord.’ The Lord instructed him, ‘Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.’
“Ananias countered, ‘Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who call on your name.’”
The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
That last phrase “how much [Saul] must suffer for the sake of my name” struck me as never before. I think Luke is saying that the Lord is going to show Saul, this man so driven by rivalry and zeal and so comfortable with violence, how to live in another way. Does it mean Saul must learn to suffer violence rather than inflict it? Could this be “the Way” and how people of “the Way” live? If so, it’s completely different from what we’ve been taught, isn’t it?
“Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
When do you think Saul was converted to “the way?” Was it when he was surrounded by that light and fell to the ground? Was it when Jesus asked him the question about why he persecutes him? Was it while he was blind and being led by the hand toward Damascus?
I think it was when Ananias placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul,..” Did you hear that? Ananias called this terrible man “Brother Saul.” What tender words to say to such a zealous, violent persecutor. Ananias could have extracted revenge on Saul who stood blind and helpless before him. Saul probably expected that. But Ananias touched him and acted in forgiveness and gave him the Spirit of Forgiveness that Luke calls the Holy Spirit. “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” That was the moment of Saul’s conversion. The persecuted community, in the name of Jesus, forgave Saul, and he became Paul.
It’s the way of Jesus. It’s the way of peace. It’s what Luke calls “the Way.” Like Paul, we’re in the process of being struck blind with light. We’re rethinking everything and finding a new path. It’s a path illumined by the Holy Spirit, centered in forgiveness, and lived out as suffering violence rather than inflicting it. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said.
This new path is the hope of the world. Walking this way makes us “People of the Way”.
Sermon by Pr. Thomas L. Truby April 10th, 2016