The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Easter 3—Year C; Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19. Video.
If we think witnessing the empty tomb turned us upside down, that’s nothing compared to what happens when we have to engage with the reality of resurrection life. It’s one thing to know that love has come again; it is quite another to reckon with it in the nitty gritty of your life.
So let’s jump in. Saul, who will become Paul, is on a mission. He’s obsessed. He doesn’t just dislike the disciples of the Lord, he wants to destroy them. He breathes threats and murder—really, that’s what it says—he breathes threats and murder against them like he breathes air. He goes to the powers-that-be and asks for letters to the synagogues in Damascus so that if he finds any who belong to the Way, men or women, he could haul them back to Jerusalem. His thirst for the blood of these perceived enemies can’t be assuaged in Jerusalem alone, he has to expand the reach of that hate wider.
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.”
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”
Jesus has bound himself to those undergoing persecution, and when we persecute anyone, we are persecuting him. That’s a daunting thought.
But Jesus doesn’t consign Saul to the outer reaches of darkness; no, Jesus tells Saul to get up and enter the city, where he will be told what to do. And this was no privatized religious experience. The men traveling with Saul heard the voice, too. This was a confrontation with witnesses. That makes it a little harder for Saul to turn back.
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.
Saul can’t see—he can’t see physically; he can’t even see with his mind’s eye—he is completely, totally, absolutely disoriented. Every way that he had of seeing had to be dismantled so that his heart could be awakened again and have a chance to source his sight from a different place than hate. And Saul, big, bad, independent, murderous–threat–breathing-renegade Saul, will have to depend upon others to help him find his way. If his confrontation had a communal dimension, so too will his healing.
Now enter Ananias. 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.”
Now, Ananias had heard about Saul. Everyone had heard about Saul. Ananias knows how much evil he has unleashed on brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. And Ananias knows that he has authority from the powers-that-be to bind all who invoke Jesus’ name. So, step into Ananias’ shoes. How are you feeling about taking up this particular call? What are you thinking? (pause) I know what I’d be thinking, “Uh, no way Lord. That’s just not smart. That’s way too risky.”
But when has true transformation ever been a cakewalk? Saul had to leap in the dark. Ananias has to leap with full knowledge of what could be done unto him by this man who’s been breathing threat and murder. Both have to leap. And Jesus won’t be deterred anyway. He’s knows that this meeting, this relationship, will be for the transformation of both Saul and Ananias.
So Jesus hears him out, and I imagine as with the rich young man, looked at him and loved him and said, “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.” And this “suffering” is “pascho” in the greek—it’s tied to the kind of suffering that Jesus is always talking about, the suffering that his disciples never could understand, the suffering that is tied to the paschal mystery, the suffering entailed in dying, the suffering entailed in rising, the suffering entailed in being stripped of our illusions and prejudice and blindness and everything we think we see and understand, the suffering entailed in letting go and being made completely new. Saul is getting a new heart, but Ananias needs a new heart too if he is to let Saul out of the box that he’s got Saul in.
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 [Saul] 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.”
Now, this confounded those who previously believed as Saul believed, those who believed that those who belonged to the Way of Jesus deserved to die, and in short order, they were plotting to kill Saul.
This is always the way. When we surrender and align ourselves with those being persecuted, we will become targets ourselves, but when Jesus confronts you, and convicts your heart, and throws you into that swirling, confusing darkness where everything you thought you knew becomes sand slipping through your fingers, when Jesus sends that messenger who awakens your conscience and consciousness, you can’t ever return to that state of not knowing again. When your heart expands and your mind is made new and you experience Christ-consciousness, then you don’t have the option of opting out because harm done to a brother or a sister or an enemy is harm done to your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself.
And trust me, this will confound everyone around you because your heart yearns for the transformation of the enemy as much as it does for those who are walking the Way with you.
Living in the power of this love will give you everything and cost you everything. The power of this love restored Peter lifting him out of the shame of his denial, commissioning him for the tending, feeding, loving work that was his to do. And to make sure he got the message in his bones, Jesus gave Peter three opportunities to profess his love for him—the same number of times Peter denied that love as Jesus made his way to the cross. Just as with Saul, Jesus didn’t consign Peter to the outer reaches of darkness; he pulled him back into life.
If you have ever really messed up and been on the receiving end of that kind of forgiveness and reconciliation and restoration, then you know how powerful this exchange between Jesus and Peter is. Peter is a different person for having blown it in such a colossal way, and he is a different person for having come to terms with it. Jesus loved Peter too much to sweep it all under the rug under the “it’s-ok-it’s-no-big-deal” rubric. By dealing with it honestly, truly, Jesus did not retain Peter’s sin.
But you can’t experience that kind of transformation and dodge what comes next. “Very truly, I tell you, Peter, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” After this Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”
When Jesus throws us to ground with the stark truth of all the ways we persecute others; when he blinds us so that we can see a different truth, a deeper truth; when he convinces another heart that ours is worth saving, and when he restores our sight and restores us to relationship, then our life is no longer just our own. We have been swept up into love’s wide embrace, and that gift of transformation is never just for our individual edification alone, but through the crucible of grace, we are forged into instruments of peace and love and reconciliation for the salvation of the world.
When we were younger, we went wherever we wished, but our life is no longer our own. It wasn’t for Saul, it wasn’t for Peter, it isn’t for you, it’s not for me. All Saul could do was follow. All Ananias could do was follow. All Peter could do was follow. All we can do is follow. Follow the love that brings us back to life again. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 10, 2016