Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and 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.
3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5He asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul 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. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.”
He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
11The 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, 12and 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.”
13But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”
15But 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; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
17So 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.” 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength. (NRSV)
In a Washington Post article on the April 28 shooting at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue, the writer opens with these two sentences: “Before he allegedly walked into a synagogue in Poway, Calif., and opened fire, John Earnest appears to have written a seven-page letter spelling out his core beliefs: that Jewish people, guilty in his view of faults ranging from killing Jesus to controlling the media, deserved to die. That his intention to kill Jews would glorify God.”1
In his diatribe, Mr. Earnest “also spoke of biblical justification and of Christian belief throughout the document.”2
John Earnest, a 19-year-old, active Presbyterian, son of an elder, heard and internalized something in his spiritual upbringing that convinced him that his religion authorized him to single out members of another religion and persecute them. It’s no real consolation to me that Mr. Earnest is not a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) but of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, an evangelical denomination founded in 1936 in reaction to what they call “the infiltration of theological liberalism”3in the PC(USA).
I appreciate John Earnest’s pastor, the Rev. Mika Edmonson, stepping up and taking some ownership. “We can’t pretend as though we didn’t have some responsibility for him,” he says. “[H]e was radicalized into white nationalism from within the very midst of our church.”4
How does that even happen? What made Saul, who read the exact same scriptures that Jesus read, and John Earnest, who read the exact same scriptures that people like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. read, decide to persecute people as an act of devotion to God?
Why do we do the things we do? What motivates us to make decisions and take actions?
When feeling anxious and offended by Jesus, the chief priests, scribes, and elders challenged the charismatic rabbi by saying, “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things?” (Luke 20:2)
It’s a question of authority, isn’t it?
Saul seeks his authority from the religious hierarchy. He asks for written permission to track down and torment Jesus-followers. When he has the authority from his “superiors,” he hunts, tortures, and kills efficiently. John Earnest followed a similar, but much more dangerous authority. And as with Saul, it was an authority not entirely of his own making. Somewhere in the Christian teaching he received, he detected a mandate, an inner, biblically-justified authority to take a gun into a place of worship and kill people who were different from him. According to the Rev. Duke Kwon, a Presbyterian Church in America pastor in Washington, D.C., Earnest’s activating precepts included “a frighteningly clear articulation of Christian theology…He has, in some ways, been well taught in the church.”5
I have to say something for the record: Whether directed toward people of different skin colors, nationalities, religious traditions (or lack thereof), genders, sexual orientations, political parties, or anything else, hate-based actions, and hate itself, are categorically antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And while white nationalism is hardly the only source of hate violence in our nation, it’s one of the deadliest right now, and it all-too-often associates itself with the Christian faith – albeit some hideous perversion of it.
Hate causes a moral blindness which presents as a subjective authority for people to intimidate minorities, or shoot worshipers, or drive vehicles into crowds. As such, white nationalism is not only an offense against God, it’s incompatible with our basic American principles. It is a scourge on our land, and not to speak out against bigotry, hate, and the violence they inspire is to be complicit in the slaughter. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called – we’re authorized – to speak love through solidarity with those who are being singled out for persecution, whoever they are. Arrogance, hate, fear, and violence simply have no place in a community which calls itself Christian.
So, what do we do with those who are hateful and violent?
That’s the really, really hard part. While the voice of white nationalism has absolutely no place in a Christian community, all people – including white nationalists – do. Those who are inclined toward fear and hate need to hear a message that encourages love, humility, compassion, forgiveness, and welcome.
Ananias responds quickly to God’s voice. “Here I am, Lord,” he says. His response stands in stark contrast to Saul’s oblivious question, “Who are you, Lord?”
And God tells Ananias to go find “a man of Tarsus named Saul.” He’s praying right now. He’s blind. I’ve told him you’re coming. Go lay your hands on him and help him see, again.
Ananias wants nothing to do with Saul. Lord, I know who he is and what he’s done. He’s a walking hate crime! And powerful people have given him the authority to do whatever he wants to people like me!
God says in effect, That’s not your concern. Just go.
Under the authority of God, the authority of redeeming grace, Ananias goes to the house, and the first two words he speaks to the man who has so much in common with John Earnest of Poway, CA are, “Brother Saul.” And so, Saul begins a life-long process of restoration.
This story is most often referred to asThe Conversion of Saul, but it’s also a conversion for Ananias. Ananias has to swallow the great porcupine of fear, and a hedgehog chaser of pride. God calls Ananias to demonstrate to Saul a measure of mercy that is so frequently foreign to fundamentalism.
Ananias’ conversion bears witness to the demanding and yet foundational authority of our faith: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” says Jesus. (Luke 6:32) “I say…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28)
As angry and reactive as hate violence can make us, when we truly follow Jesus, when we focus on him as a way to see through his eyes, we will live kingdom of God lives even in the midst of the world’s chaos. Yes, we must speak out loudly against every form of hatred and brutality, and the apathy that allows them to continue. We must stand visibly with the poor, the hungry, the grieving, and the persecuted. At the same time, Jesus calls us to live with the humble and vulnerable trust of Ananias who welcomed not only the outcast but the powerful, dangerous sinner, as well. The conversion that matters is not necessarily to any particular doctrine, but to the transforming and unifying reality of love – which is the very heart of God beating at the very heart of creation.
There’s no easy way to do any of this, but as Easter people, we can trust Jesus, whose teaching authorizes us to share with others exactly what he has given to us: Redeeming grace in a world overwhelmed by selfishness and meanness.
My name is Allen Huff. I am a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA) living in the delightful community of Jonesborough, TN. Jonesborough - home of the International Storytelling Center and the National Storytelling Festival - is nestled in the beautiful foothills of northeast Tennessee.
I find that preaching forces me to wrestle with God, my faith, and trying to live as a Jesus-follower in a broken and all-too-often violent world. I want to be known as someone who trusts and follows the Jesus' way of compassion, peace, and justice. I also know the road of discipleship is fraught with challenges from within and without. I tend to use my sermons as a way of struggling, like Jacob at the Jabbok River, with God and with how to make sense of life in this magnificent but incomplete creation. If something you read in these sermons, newsletter articles, and occasional, random musing speaks to you in a positive way, I will be grateful. I'd love to hear your thoughts, too. And feel free to take issue with anything I say. I certainly don't claim to have a lock on the truth.
When I'm not writing sermons, I may be writing songs on my guitar, taking photographs of the mountains, rivers, or streams in east TN and western NC, hiking the woods with my wife, or throwing a stick for our insatiable Border Collie, Todd.
*I have been posting my weekly sermons and monthly newsletters for several years on another site, Storied Faith at: pastorallentn.blogspot.com. While I will soon stop posting on that site, I will maintain it. So if you find anything on either of these sites interesting and helpful, please share with others!
Blessings and peace. Allen
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