Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 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. Acts 9: 1,2I don't know if you have ever experienced the sort of moment when someone you are speaking with, perhaps someone with whom you enjoy a level of comfortable intimacy, becomes so overcome by hate, prejudice and pain that it feels like the scent of their anger is in their very breath? I think of that when I read the above passage. Saul's fervent desire to purge the followers of Jesus' "way" from the community of the faithful is so strong that the stink of those threats and his intent to scourge them even to the point of murder is coming out of him with every exhalation. Beyond hateful action, beyond hateful speech he is polluting the air around him with every single breath.
Being around that sort of person is unsettling. Most of us aren't ready for that sort of nastiness, at least when it is that overt. We naturally recoil, because that is what polite, good people do, yes? But when that person is breaking into places around you (perhaps even your home), threatening people you know and threatening (or harming) those who have been targeted, what do you do?
Most of us find ways to hide, pull back, avoid the tainted air and seek clearer atmospheres. Most of us? Yes...look around the world: we are in the midst of one of the greatest mass migrations in human history. People are fleeing hated, violence, persecution and war on a global scale; and that is just the side of it we can see in regard to human conflict. Layer up onto that the people who have to face displacement due to changing global climates as weather patterns become more extreme and as sea levels rise and you can wonder at just how much contempt and violence we can possibly exhale as to decimate not only each other, but also the planet.
That, in no small measure, is the level of hatred that is pouring out of Saul of Tarsus as he carries the High Priest's warrant to places where the people of the Way had fled hoping for respite and the protection of foreign powers. He is no doubt feeling righteous, justified and the anger he notes is rightfully directed at the people he sees as corrupting influences on a community he is certain that he is defending. He KNOWS he is in the right, and that the violence he encourages and commits is the right thing to do. He sees himself as the champion, the defender of the right even as he commits great wrongs. Saul's hot breath is just a symptom of the fevered energy that sustains him on the crusader's path....he is blind with hate
So blind with hate that when he is given a vision of Jesus himself he cannot see...and loses all his sight.
He does not enter the city of Damascus as an avenging angel. He enters sightless, led like a beggar who is blind before those he was seeking to harm.
Ananias is among those who have fled Saul's persecutions in the past. He may have thought Damascus was a safe refuge. Hearing of Saul's impending arrival, he has to decide what to do for himself and his household. He knows the hateful stench of Saul's breath. He has been through the gauntlet once and wants to avoid it again. Perhaps, he is even now packing to flee?
Instead, he receives a vision and a commission: instead of starting on the refugee's path again he is to turn around and head into the midst of the oncoming storm.
Ananias is sent to find Paul, and to lay hands on him while praying for his healing and for the restoration of his sight. God has chosen Saul as a vessel of the Gospel. He is going to be the voice of the way for the Nations.
Imagine what Ananias has to overcome in order to approach Saul: he has to overcome his own hatred and prejudice; to expel his own fear. When someone comes at you breathing hate, where do you find the strength to express love? How do you find in yourself the grace needed to touch eyes that were recently seeking you out to cause harm? From what place does love flow, so that God's healing can find you a willing conduit?
We forget, often, that the love and forgiveness we are tasked with offering is not just reserved to those we consider acceptable recipients. Often, the ones that God targets as recipients of that holy love, grace and forgiveness are not the beloved we know, the friends we expect....but rather the enemies we too easily respond to, contempt for contempt and hatred for hatred in full measure.
Ananias' faith and trust in God were the true template by which Saul's transformation and rebirth into Paul would find expression. By Ananias being willing to walk with hope into the lion's den of Saul's hatred, into the fetid atmosphere of that miasma of persecution means we all now have a Gospel that we are in turn tasked to share. Saul's redemption reminds us that even the nastiest breathing of hate can be refreshed by God's grace and hope. The challenge is for us to be willing to turn back from fear, loathing and hatred toward hope, love and reconciliation.