“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
On the road, an interesting question is posed. First of all, consider what we know of Saul in the early portion of the book of Acts. He watched the coats of the witnesses who approved the men creating the first Christian martyr, stoning Stephen. Later Saul “breathes murderous threats” against the followers of Jesus. For all intents and purposes, this man is a persecutor of men, women and even children.
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Jesus Christ appears to Saul on the road leading to Damascus, the statement slices through the air: average women and men may be suffering, but Saul is actually acting out against Jesus Christ, Word Made Flesh, fully God and fully human. This doesn’t downgrade the suffering of Jesus’ followers: it elevates it. Saul, when you raise your hand against these people, you strike the second person of the Triune God.
Second, consider Saul’s zeal. He was chasing people down, hunting them out like a religious bounty hunter determined to get his dues. Saul wasn’t an internet troll spewing hateful comments; he wasn’t just a jerk spouting opinions. He was actively determined to physically intervene in the lives of those who believed differently than he did.
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” This powerful man stands up from the ground with his world flipped upside-down. He is led by the hand like a child, taken into town blinded by truth, stunned. He doesn’t eat or drink for three days. He does pray. The big raid planned for Damascus has turned into a completely different scene. God speaks to Ananias (maybe someone on Saul’s list of suspects?) to go and pray over Saul. Ananias coughs and splutters. When Ananias arrives, he addresses the famous scourge of Christ-followers, knowing this man will have a difficult road ahead: “Brother Saul…”
What do we learn from the persecutor who would later be chased down, shipwrecked, beaten, and tossed in jail – eventually to himself be martyred?
We learn that anyone can have an encounter with Jesus Christ at any time. It doesn’t matter who you deem evil; it doesn’t even matter if that person has caused you personally to suffer greatly because of your faith. No one is beyond being confronted with the blinding light of Christ, in this world or the next. Followers of Jesus are actually told to pray for those who persecute them.
We learn that those who receive a hard lesson of a spiritual truth need help along the way. Saul, whose hands had dragged believers, was led by the hand, completely helpless until someone came to him. Ananias prayed for him, and Saul depended on others to baptize him and get him something to eat as he regained strength.
While praying, Saul had seen a vision of someone named Ananias coming to him. Why? Was he despairing? Thinking he would be blind forever? Was he terrified of the people in Damascus, fearing retribution once it became known that the great persecutor was helpless and vulnerable? Was he in need of some profound gesture of grace – the kind of gesture it would be if he knew Ananias’ profile already when he had gotten the priests’ permission to go to Damascus in the first place? Saul needed to know Ananias was coming. He needed to know he was going to be healed, to be welcomed into the family. And then he heard the words, “brother Saul.”
We learn that a converted persecutor doesn’t lose his zeal. Immediately, Saul began preaching in Damascus that Jesus is the Son of God. Saul after the vision on the road to Damascus is, after all, still Saul: the same temperament, the same personality. Believers slowly creak into acceptance after initial (and not unwarranted) skepticism, fearing a trap. And almost as immediately, Saul now is the one hunted, the one on the run, escaping death threats and traps, even being lowered over the city wall in a basket as an escape measure. The hunter is the hunted, but his zeal doesn’t wane. The persecutor now proclaims.
Why does this matter?
Because during Lent we have the opportunity to examine our lives for ways in which we persecute others. You may not have lit a match to burn someone at the stake in modern-day North America; but what about the words we speak, the characters we assault, the gossip or slander that slices at speaker, listener and subject with the cold, deep bite of a sword? What about the violence we express in our interactions with others, rage that pours out and refuses to be scooped back up and contained? What about the thoughts in our minds as we assess in the blink of an eye the character of another person because of her skin tone or language? What about the ways in which our selfishness steals opportunity or joy from others, when self-will motivates generosity and twists it into manipulation?
Because our brothers and sisters in this world are suffering for their faith. Complex geopolitical matters aside, the facts remain that recently a mass beheading was carried out because the victims professed Christian faith. While we pray for the victims’ souls, the victims’ families, we are also entreated to pray for the executors by none other than Jesus himself: “pray for those who persecute you.” We are called to imagine a scenario in which someone zealous for their cause bumps up against Jesus Christ on their way to raise havoc. We are called to extend a hand, to pray for and to proclaim, “brother…the Lord, who you met on the road, has sent me…”
Because we need to remember our own hate, our own anger, our own zealousness, our own ungentle or damaging words, our own ability to destroy. What more is Ash Wednesday than this? To bow the head, receive the ash, and be led by the hand to a time of fasting and prayer? What more is Lent than putting to death the inner persecutor and praying determinedly for the outer one?
From dust we come…
And to dust…
Why are you persecuting me?
We shall return.