On the Spectrum
May 1, 2022
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment;his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.
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 traveling 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.
Today’s sermon is titled On the Spectrum.
There is a saying among clergy that our job is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. This is one of the many things we learn from our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. He brought healing and comfort to people afflicted with all manner of emotional and physical illnesses, he brought a hopeful message to the oppressed and to those living on the margins of society.
The story we are offered today in the scriptures is one in which Jesus is afflicting the comfortable. This is not the only time. In Matthew 19, a man comes to Jesus saying, “What must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus instructs him to keep the commandments and to love his neighbor.” “I have done all those things,” the man replied. Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and… come, follow Me.” When he heard this “the man went away sad because he had great wealth.”
Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Saul is one the comfortable ones. He is one of the religious leaders of his day, a Pharisee, highly educated and trained to be a priest; some say he was on his way to becoming Chief Priest. Saul had a bright future ahead of him but the disciples of Jesus who were still meeting each Sunday night to share the bread and cup, they were gaining followers who had heard about the appearance of Jesus after his death. They were all a part of a growing movement known as The Way and they were seen as a definite threat.
When we meet Saul in the scriptures today, we find him solidly on one end of the spectrum. He is definitely devoted to protecting life as he knew it, and the established religious order of the day which included a well-defined place for someone like him, someone who had had every advantage. As is often the case when the stakes are high, Saul becomes so overly zealous that he crosses the line and becomes an instigator in the death of a disciple, Stephen, stoned to death just outside the Damascus gate in Jerusalem. Applauded by his peers, Saul becomes another victim to blind ambition; he sets out on the road to Damascus to find and arrest more followers of The Way. Saul will later reference this phase of his life in a letter to the Galatians, where he writes, “You have heard of my former life…how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.” But on that road to Damascus, Saul does not know he is persecuting the church of God, he is convinced he is protecting it in protecting the only form of it he has ever known. He cannot see beyond what he thinks he knows, so his gift of sight is taken from him.
He loses his sight for three nights and three days and who is it that comes to his aid? Who is it that comes with the vested power to heal? A disciple of The Way, Ananias. Ananias, following instructions to find the very man he was hiding from, following instructions to heal the very person who had all power and authority to arrest Ananias and all of the other disciples, following instructions to face what may have been his greatest fear, Ananias goes. He lays hands on Saul’s eyes, Saul’s sight is restored, and Saul begins another phase of his life, a life defined by the teachings of Jesus and a life that, for better or worse, further defined the teachings of Jesus into what we now call Christianity.
Saul would come to be known by the Greek form of his name, Paul, and he would grow into the most persuasive disciple of his age, writing at least seven letters (Romans, Corinthians I and II, Galatians, Philippians, Thessalonians I and Philemon) that would comprise half of the New, or Second Testament and shepherding the early church with words that shape us still today.
Paul’s story is perhaps one of the most radical examples of transformation recorded in the scriptures. He begins as a persecutor of the followers of Christ and ends his life as a martyr, faithful to Christ even when his very life was in the balance.
What a gift we are given in the preservation of Saul’s story, for surely each and every one of us can find ourselves on the spectrum of his experience, and yet not one of us could likely identify with either extreme, persecutor or prophet. So this leads us to the questioning that every good teacher encourages. Where am I on this spectrum between persecutor and prophet? Where on the spectrum did I start? Where am I now and where do I aspire to be? Where are we as a faith community, as a church? Where are we as a village? Where are we as a nation? Where?
In Hebrew, there is one word that asks the question, “Where are you?” Ayeka? And there is also one word that can answer. Hineini. Here I am. I don’t have to remind us of the importance of knowing where we are, but we can always use reminding that it’s beautiful and necessary to say with conviction, “Here I am.” Here I am, a follower of Christ, called to learn all I can of love. I live in a time when even the temple, the mosque and the sanctuary are not immune from violence. The persecution continues and God still asks, “Akeya? Where are you?” Here I am, Lord. Here we are.
In closing, I ask that you join me in a minute of silence in observance of all those who have died because of their religious beliefs. The tally is still growing and nearing an estimated billion people from Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Muslim traditions combined, and this does not account for the countless numbers of indigenous people whose religion did not fit into familiar categories. Let’s pause to remember and pray for a time when diversity of faith will be welcomed.
Thank you. And may we carry the light of Christ within us as we learn to live without fear of another’s beliefs or practices just because they are different from our own. Amen.
God who is the Giver, the Forgiver and the Kind, I thank you for the gift of our lives and the gift of our togetherness. I thank you for the willingness of many to hold the concerns expressed here this morning. With all of the distressing events in our world, it can feel like a heavy burden to bear, although it is through this sharing that we strengthen the ties that join us to the rest of humanity. Help us, Holy One, to be mirrors of your all-inclusive love and acceptance. Help us to be the ones that edify, encourage, and appreciate; help us to focus less on problems and more on finding, and being part of, solutions. Guard us against apathy and callousness, Lord; may we retain our sensitivities to the plight of others . Remind us to lift all things to You in prayer and attune our senses to the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit so that we may think, speak and act as people devoted to God. Let us pray together the words that Jesus gave his disciples…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Saul, the persecutor turned prophet, found in his letter to the Colossians: “May the peace of Christ reign in your hearts; unto that peace, indeed, you were called in one body.”