Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
When we’re children we sometimes play games that can be pretty morbid that we probably wouldn’t suggest as adults. One that I remember like that was called ‘Who’s in Hell?’ it goes like this: you name someone who HAS to be in hell because they did just horrible, horrible things they couldn’t be anywhere else. Then I name someone else who did even worse things and so must be in hell. We try to one-up each other, terrifying one another, and simultaneously reassure ourselves that we’re not going to hell because we aren’t as evil as these people. It’s a really bad, childish game.
And never once did Saul’s name come up – even though he arrested, drove out, split up the families of the first generation of Christians after Jesus died. He helped murder Stephen with stones. Saul was the one even the adults whispered in fear about. Saul had the legal authority to do whatever he wanted if he suspected you were a follower of the Way of Jesus. The city, the temple, the priests — he had documents proving their support for him to get rid of any of the heretics.
Religious-based violence is what Saul was carrying out. Violence, murder, and destruction, in the name of God.
In our reading today, Saul is leaving the cleansed Jerusalem and is on his way to the next city to pass judgment on the Jews he meets there and on the way. Anyone found suspicious is to be bound like cattle and hauled back for a trial that may end in crucifixion, stoning, being shoved off a cliff, testifying against family, betraying family, or denying ever knowing Jesus or his Way.
Why Saul never made it into my harmful elementary school game is beyond me. Probably because I only ever remembered him as who he was AFTER he met Jesus: Paul. The author of so many of our foundational letters and scripture.
The Bible didn’t hide the details about Saul – Saul was a radical religious extremists bent on enforcing his understanding of God with violence. He was accounted as “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women,”
Yet, as Stephen dies, he prays to God to forgive Saul and the other murderers — saying the words just as Jesus did: “Father, forgive them.”
And the Resurrected Jesus comes upon Saul in a blinding light. Saul KNOWS this is divine, he has read his scripture – he knows through and through that blinding light is likely a messenger or angel of God – but it is none other than Jesus himself. Jesus tells Saul ‘listen up!’ Pay attention to what is to occur to you in the city ahead and know who I am!
Meanwhile, in town, there is a man named Ananias who receives a call, a message and mission, from Jesus. Jesus tells him the specific house to find Saul… and then tells Ananias he is to lay his hands on Saul and bless him, cure him even, with a miracle from God invoked in the name of Jesus.
Ananias even questions Jesus – Jesus! Don’t you know what you’re asking? If I say ‘I’m here to bless you in the name of Jesus,’ I may get hurt, be arrested, or even stoned to death. Who knows what will happen to my family. This Saul, if he even THINKS you are Christian, can do whatever he pleases to torture, maim, and kill you. You want me to go announce I am Christian to him?!
Yes. Says God. Go.
And this faithful man complies with God’s vision and seeks out Saul. There, he touches the man who’s touch has murdered, and Ananias says, “Brother Saul, Jesus heals you; Jesus blessed you with the Holy Spirit.”
… What kind of faith does it take to pray for your enemies? Pray goodness upon them?
… What kind of faith does it take to bless those who persecute you? Bless them, and aid them?
… What kind of faith does it take to forgive and believe God forgives?
… My childish game forgot the basic message of our Risen Christ. It forgot the Good News: the Good News is that God Forgives. God Loves. God Gives New Life. The Good News is that Saul wasn’t sent to hell even though he murdered so many Christians… he was offered forgiveness, offered love, offered a new life in Christ. The Good News is that Peter — who denied even knowing Jesus three times — if offered three chances to say yes to Jesus, and he receives forgiveness, love, and a new calling, a new mission, a new life with deep purpose in Christ. These two men were offered such radical new lives they even took new names: Simon we know as Peter; and Saul we know as Paul.
The Good News is that we have received mercy beyond measure; offered forgiveness that is endless; we can never be beyond the love and redemption of God. Every time we come to the table Jesus invites us to, we come like Simon and like Saul — broken, having purposefully done wrong and unintentionally done wrong. We come carrying sins — sins we inherit from our society; and sins we make ourselves. We come with nets empty of nourishing fish, we come with our hands out stretched, our eyes clouded, and the taste of curses and threats lingering on our tongues.
We come like this… and here, in the name of Jesus, God offers to renew us. To refresh us.
God offers to be our partner in restoring the relationships we have with each other, with our own selves, and with God.
Our partner — who loved us first, so we can love others. Who forgave us first, so we can forgive us. Who blessed us first, so we can bless others. Who first showed us how to feed and attend to each other, so that we too know how to feed and tend to each other.
No one — no one — not Simon Peter, not Saul Paul — not a single person I naively named in my silly kids’ game — no one at all is beyond the mercy and forgiveness of God.
The Good News is for all people.