Easter 3C (April 10, 2016)

Meet Saul of Tarsus. He first appears in the Book of Acts almost as a one off character: he’s the coat-check guy at the stoning of St. Stephen. But he is not a one off character; in the next scene he is going door to door, arresting Christians. In Saul’s opinion, Christians deserve to die. Why? In Saul’s reading of Torah, Christians are blasphemers. Saying Christ is God or equal to God is blasphemy. Leviticus 24:14 says, Take the blasphemer outside the camp. Anyone who heard the blasphemy touches him, perhaps returning the blasphemy to the blasphemer, perhaps symbolically placing it upon his head. Then we all kill him. This scene has played out, starting with Stephen, and then repeated in a door-to-door lynch mob in Jerusalem. Today, Saul desires to expand his reach. He wants to murder blasphemers in Damascus. That’s out of the High Priest’s jurisdiction, so Saul’s got a bundle of letters of introduction that say, “To whom it concerns: Let Saul stone to death your blasphemers. Sincerely, Caiaphas.” And now Saul can take his hate show on the road.

Saul knows that what he is doing is right. Jesus cannot be God. If nothing else, the cross is proof. Jesus died on a cross. As Saul will much later in life note, Deuteronomy 21:23 says, “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” Simply put, Jesus cannot be God because he is cursed and God cannot be cursed. God would never be cursed. God doles out curses to those who do not follow. In Saul’s religious understanding, blessings are God’s way of saying “well done,” while curses are God’s way of saying, “Wrong!” A cursed man cannot be God. End of story. Those who violate this understanding are to be killed.

The thing is, when we believe that there are people who are cursed, the absence of the curse in us becomes a mark of our superiority, our getting a more favorable review from God. We can explain our situation in life as one of blessing, godliness, wholesomeness. We can explain situations different from ours as due to failing in godliness. I wanted to say it’s childish but it’s not because 1) kids don’t always act this way, and 2) we don’t “outgrow” this. It is a way in which our lower brains—our reptilian survival instincts and our mammalian emotional centers—put our higher brains—the complex, creative centers—to work for them. Instead of the brains God gave us running things, basic urges run the brains God gave us. Saul is on his way to kill more Christians because the lower part of his brain is frightened and angry and wants to defend itself and has complete control over the part that should be in charge.

Many of us saw this play out Tuesday at Ben Franklin Middle School when the Valparaiso Human Relations Council held its open forum on the city’s proposed Human Rights Ordinance. The ordinance is meant to prevent discrimination, period, and to foster a better community by trying to get parties in dispute to reconcile their differences and, I don’t know, maybe even listen to each other and learn from each other. Some of the complaints about it were general: We heard questions from citizens clearly in denial or willfully ignorant of racial, religious, or sexual discrimination—some outright declaring that these things do not happen in Valparaiso. (I kept wishing Larry Baas live tweeted because as most of you know he heads the tracking of these things, and, yes, they happen here a lot.) I heard a woman say we don’t need to promote diversity because, “Look at all the diversity in this room!” Words uttered without a trace of irony to a room containing 99% white people. (I mean, I’m Lutheran, so I get that, like, my German grandfather and Danish grandmother had what Lutherans consider an interracial marriage. But this is not diversity.)

Most of the opposition had to do with LGBT protections, and came from self-identified Christians who said that offering goods and services to LGBT persons would violate their faith; that the “gay agenda” has “failed nationally” and now they are trying to sneak in locally (like there’s some gang of gay ninjas that breaks in at night and hides protections in legislation); that people who support LGBT persons are not Christian; that if the complainants lost the power to assault, harass, or deny goods and services to people they would be oppressed; that they cannot understand why people would interpret having their rights denied to them, or being harassed, or being assaulted as hateful. Honest to God: could not understand how if someone threw a can at me and called me a slur, I might be upset. I mean, it is the Valpo welcome, right? When I first met with the call committee, Mike Delliquadri pulled the car up to the arrivals gate at Midway, Kris Lopez got out, threw some rocks at my head while yelling ethnic slurs, and then we drove to Valpo. And more than once we heard speakers cite their having possessions, successful businesses, security, or wealth, military service—anything our society considers respectable—as signs that God had blessed them, so they must be correct.

They turned the cross of Christ into the tool by which to stamp out or stomp on what differs.

Imagine having to be Ananias. That’s the guy God sends to Saul. Imagine having to be Ananias to them. God tells you to go down into the city, into a house to help someone who has been throwing rocks at you and calling you terrible things, who refuses to serve you in restaurants and who has tried reporting you to your boss and your friends because your God is the dead guy who dines with prostitutes and lepers. “Ananias!” “Yo!” “I need you to go heal Saul.” “Lord, you see all; you see so much that you probably have trouble keeping track of it all, so you might have forgotten that this is the guy that keyed my car and assaulted my sister and told my boss I was a prostitute and got me fired, and said he was allowed, nay, commanded to do so by you!” And God says, “Yeah, I know. Go. Oh, I’m just getting started with him. Now, move!” That’s where we find ourselves.

And if we think it is hard, well, imagine being Saul. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you? Are you the God of the women, gays, and minorities?” “Well, yes, but I just go by ‘God’. That guy you got fired is going to come by and heal you. Until then his friends—you know the ones, whose house you spray painted with the swastika last fall?—they’ll keep you safe. Oh! Here they come. You can’t see them. Sorry. That light was brighter than I meant it to be.”

There’s no room in our faith for thinking we’re better than anyone. Luther famously writes, “It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.” To us today, Luther is saying that without our dead Christ who dines with prostitutes and lepers, we tend to think of our actions and our lives as superior to others, especially to those actions and lives that don’t look like ours. When we do that, we’re on the road to Damascus, ready to unleash our self-righteous wrath and claim God wants us to do it.

The real power in the cross of Christ is not that it can be used to stamp out or stomp on differences. (Heck, I can use anything to do that.) The real power of the cross of Christ lies in its ability to deflate and destroy the fear and disgust, the fight or flight attitude of the lower brain. The real power of the cross of Christ is apparent when Ananias doesn’t pull a Jonah and run away, doesn’t go into Judas’ house and kick Saul a couple of times, but listens to what God is telling him, lays hands on Saul, and restores his sight and fills him with the Holy Spirit. The real power of the cross of Christ is apparent when Saul goes on his synagogue tour as planned but instead of rounding up Christians he is preaching that Jesus is the Son of God. The real power of the cross of Christ is apparent in that when we gather for Easter worship, we praise God for raising Jesus from the dead, yet we do not treat this priceless blessing as making us superior to others but rather as the call to raise up others when the world tries to hold them down.