Acts 9: 1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5: 11-14; John 21: 1-19
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
If you read much of the Bible, you might quickly find that it is full of irony. One very good example of irony in the Bible we hear today comes from the book of Acts, involving a man named Saul. Saul has this dramatic, mystical, experience of Jesus while he is walking on a road to the city of Damascus, which in modern day Syria.
The reason why Saul is heading to Damascus is because he was intending to capture, imprison, and potentially murder heretics. Heretics, by Saul’s definition, were schismatic individuals deviating from what he considered true faith, or right belief. These heretics were following a man named Jesus, who Saul considered to be a false messiah. On his way to Damascus, Saul encounters a bright light, and hears a voice speaking to him, a voice, ironically, he believed to be Jesus himself. The voice says “Saul, why do you persecute me?”
The light blinds Saul, and unable to journey by himself, Saul is led by the hand into the city of Damascus where for three days he is without sight, and neither eats or drinks. Meanwhile God speaks to a disciple in Damascus named Ananias, and God tells Ananias to go to Saul and restore his sight. Ananias balks at this request because of Saul’s notorious reputation. God tells Ananias: “Go, for he is the instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.”
Saul’s sight is restored, and later God gives him a new name, Paul. Paul becomes an apostle and author of at least eight epistles in the New Testament. The change Paul goes through is radical, especially considering in the previous chapter of Acts, which includes multiple stories of Saul entering the homes of Christians, and dragging the men and women out of them and forcefully and violently throwing them into prison. You get the irony? This is the person God chooses to be his apostle: a man who espouses hate toward Christians, and is even complicit in the murder of Stephen, the first martyr in the New Testament. God looks at Saul and says, “He’s good for the job.” That God chooses Saul is more than just ironic – it gives all of us hope. Because God does not choose the perfect. Throughout the Bible it is the flawed, broken, human people whom God favors. That’s good news to me.
Most of us here this morning would probably not say that our introduction to Christianity was as dramatic as Saul’s. Probably for most of us, our embrace of the Christian faith came not in a sweeping moment of conversion, but rather the movement and flow of a lifetime. At least that is the case for me.
And yet, I also believe that all of us at some point have an experience of Jesus similar to Saul’s. If we are honest with ourselves, and courageous enough to look inwardly upon our soul, we will, hear the question asked: “why do you persecute me?” Who is asking that question? Perhaps it is the child within you? Perhaps it is the voice of a conflicted conscience? Or maybe it is the voice of God?
It’s up to you to figure out the identity of the voice asking you that question. Many people go their whole lives without having to unveil the identity of that voice. These people do so because facing the person who asks you “why do you persecute me?” takes great courage.
For the few who discover the person asking the question, there is often pain. It is most painful when we discover that the voice asking the question “why do you persecute me?” is not God, it’s not Jesus, it’s not our brother or sister, mother or father, son or daughter. It is your voice. Why do we persecute ourselves? Why do we persecute each other?
I have no satisfactory answer to either of those questions, except to point to the person persecuted on our behalf. The author of the book of Revelation points to a lamb that was slain (or persecuted) and yet is alive and able. The lamb is Jesus of Nazareth, persecuted, slain, and yet also intensely alive and placed upon a throne. We persecuted a God who created us, redeemed us, and promised us eternal life. We persecute each other, and we persecute ourselves.
That is the irony – the irony God understands. Because God knows there is more to our story than that question alone. God sees well beyond the persecution, embracing it, transforming it, redeeming every act ever committed by any person against themselves or each other. Ever sin, every moment of anger, ever bullet fired, every life lost – it is all absorbed into God and redeemed, forgiven, and renewed.
Persecution itself, is consumed into the holy fire of God, burned and recast into humility and compassion, so that all persecution, all evil, all pain, is wiped away and a new earth and a new heaven are born.
This is what God does. God assumes the pain, the suffering, the tragedy, the persecution – transforms it, and like a dove, releases it anew to fly.
Listen to that voice with you, because the question you hear is not one to be afraid of. “Why do you persecute me?” is a question all of us must answer on our own, and the irony of course is that we often persecute ourselves in order not to answer that question because we just don’t know any better. But God does. Because in and through God, all persecution ends, the wounds on the lamb are healed, and all welcomed into the Kingdom of God. AMEN.