October 11, 2020
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 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. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 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. 9 For 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.” 11 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, 12 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.”
13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But 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; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
17 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.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.
Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
The air we breathe consists of about 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen and 1% assorted other gases like Carbon dioxide, methane and argon. Of course, Oxygen levels on Earth have fluctuated throughout the millennia – as low as 10% and as high as 35% – but the health and continued existence of humankind hinges on that number staying within a couple percentage points of 21. Tinker with it too much and something within you may very well die.
For Saul – there was something else in his air: “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…” Interesting verb.
It’s not Saul day-dreaming threats and murder
It’s not Saul plotting threats and murder
It’s Saul breathing threats and murder…it came to him as easy as breathing.
It makes you wonder about the air he was breathing before we first meet Saul at the stoning of Stephen back in chapter seven.
Was there something about the air in his childhood home? Did his parents feed him a steady diet of rage and blame and distrust? Or was he really a sweet boy by nature? Did his parents give him good, kind, godly air to breathe. But then he fell in with the wrong crowd and they watched – helpless and heart-broken – as their sweet boy drifted into the company of radicals.
Was he out with some friends who for once in his life made him feel like he belonged, even if he was a little uncomfortable with the way they talked? At first it was just a joke, maybe about Gentiles…it’s just a joke, he said to himself, it doesn’t mean anything.
But then the jokes turned in to spiteful speech in private, which turned to name-calling in public, which turned to vandalism and then open assault – until that sweet boy was standing there with a bunch of coats at his feet, giving approval to the lynching of some Christian boy named Stephen…until that sweet boy was asking for letters of introduction so that he might set up a chapter of Christian-hunters in Damascus. That’s where we find him in our reading today – leading a column of men marching to put an end to the Church of Jesus Christ.
It’s hard to say what kind of air Saul breathed that made him that way.
My mind turns to Charlottesville three summers ago. I don’t think I will soon forget the image of all those white men marching with torches in the night, chanting “You Will Not Replace Us.” That was a wake up call for me. I don’t think I realized just how much hatred there was in this country. I was disgusted and furious and felt this need to distance myself as much as possible from what I was seeing.
If we wish to truly understand this story in Acts 9, though, we need to get closer to that revulsion. When we speak of Saul, we are speaking of the most vile, despicable person that we could ever imagine. We speak of the one that we could never, EVER accept.
We often lose sight of that knowing the rest of his story.
But consider him before this Damascus Road experience and he might as well be sporting a white polo shirt and a Nazi arm band, spouting off vile things about Jews and people of color.
But then – with a flash of brilliant light – Jesus calls out to him.
But he doesn’t just call out to him – he uses the oh-so-rare divine double vocative. He says to him “Saul, Saul…” repeating his name twice.
That may not seem like a big deal, but in the Bible, that is a very big deal.
The list of people in Scripture who receive the double vocative is very short: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel…That is it.
Four giants of the faith. This hate-filled, death-dealing, threats-and-murder breathing Saul is suddenly occupying some extremely rarefied air.
How can this be?
I’m sure that’s what was going through the mind of Ananias. Good, old reliable Ananias, faithful and true. Ananias who gets the meager single vocative: “Ananias” the Lord says, and immediately he snaps to attention “Here I am, Lord.” God gives him the very unpleasant task of going to pray for Saul so that he might receive his sight again.
We speak of this story as the conversion of Saul, but it is actually Buy One Get One Free Day at the old conversion factory – because this requires an equal-if-not-more-significant conversion on the part of Ananias. Saul is given Ananias to heal him from his blindness, but Ananias is given Saul, whom he must accept.
And that is perhaps the most amazing thing about this text – not that Ananias walks in and heals a blind man, but that he calls him brother, “Brother Saul.”
Whenever grace – real grace that embraces the very one we thought to be beyond redemption – whenever that kind of grace enters the picture, we cannot forget that it’s not just the sinner who is converted – it is also the community that must embrace him too.
It would be tempting for Ananias to judge his own righteousness by how far he can distance himself from Saul, but he doesn’t. Ananias acknowledges that they are both in need of God’s grace.
The community that God has called me to preach to is you, almost exclusively white folks, and while I know that you are not vile or hateful, not the kind of folks who would carry torches, I wonder with you, what is our work to do?
The term “anti-racist” has emerged in our vocabulary as of late. The sense of the word is that it’s not enough to be a non-racist; we cannot simply to define “the racists” as those on the radical fringes who are explicitly hateful and then stand far enough away from them to be counted among the good white people. No, we must be actively anti-racist. Our work is to hold others and ourselves accountable for that which is hurtful or harmful to people of color.
Yes that might mean doing the uncomfortable work of challenging a friend’s comment or attitude that is racially insensitive, but it goes so much deeper than that. It means doing the even more uncomfortable work of interrogating the policies and practices that shape our community and even our Church, all the assumptions that are so ingrained in our being that…well, that it’s simply in the air that we breathe.
For this reason the Session of University Presbyterian called for the creation of an anti-racism team to help us check the quality of our air. This team will be asked to help us be more proactively anti-racist.
And the truth is I’m not altogether certain where this will lead us, but
I believe that this work is crucial if we are to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; a Gospel that insists on justice and kindness, but a Gospel that never, ever gives up on any one of us.
It might be as explicit as Saul or it might be the more subtle racism that is baked in to our culture, but I choose to believe that God’s love can overcome even the most deep-seated prejudice.
And though I may not be half the disciple that Ananias is, still I pray for the strength to embrace even the ones who repulse me the most.
Because here’s the thing – when you read the rest of the book of Acts, the Church didn’t grow by cloning the Christians they already had. The Church grew by grafting on all kinds of odd-looking branches. Ethiopian Eunuchs, Roman Centurions, Greeks and all kinds of Gentiles – people from every nation and every walk of life.
But perhaps no branch is more odd or unexpected than Saul, that great persecutor turned into the Church’s greatest champion. The tree that is the Church takes on an entirely different shape when it includes the ones who seem like they would never fit.
And when a tree is healthy, do you know what it does? It changes the atmosphere – it makes bad air better – and perhaps, by God’s grace, it helps us all breathe a little easier. May it be so. Amen.
 Gratitude to Rev. Pen Peery for calling attention to the verb breathing and the air we breathe that shapes who we are.