Meanwhile 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. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Saul was a middleman for state sanctioned violence. The high priest Caiaphas said it best, “Better that one man die for the people than that a whole nation perish” and he might have added because Rome may be provoked to violence against Israel. Yes, Saul was a religious leader in Jerusalem. As such, he thought it was his moral duty to protect Israel from these followers of the Way who were saying they belonged to a different kingdom and had a different king. In this Roman occupied territory, those beliefs were treason and could (and had in the past) led to military intervention into Israel leaving people dead and temples crushed. Saul was furious, “still breathing threats and murder,” because this sect was going to bring the wrath of Rome down onto the Jewish people.
It is clear that Saul completely believed that he was righteous. Perhaps, he was thinking about the prophet Jeremiah telling the Jewish people to plant roots in Babylon and seek the welfare of the city. Perhaps he was thinking about the other failed Jewish revolts in recent history that were squashed by Roman might. Saul was on a righteous mission to protect the Jewish people from annihilation. He thought if I can stop the followers of the Way it will allow Israel to survive this occupation like so many other occupations before it.
I want to take a momentary break to look at this wonderful phrase from our text today, “The Way.” These folx who were trying to follow in the footsteps of Jesus were not Christians. They were Jews trying to live a life like Jesus. They are called Christians later because people thought they were acting like Christ. This amazing phrase says so much about who they were and how they thought of themselves. The Way was a group of people who lived their faith. It was not a doctrinal statement or specific polity structure. It was a simple action based faith. Jesus fed and healed his neighbors so his followers did likewise. And it was actions like these that threatened the state’s stranglehold on truth and power. Because if common folx come together across the differences and work together to feed each other and heal one another then those in power aren’t able to make as much money off of them.
So, as Saul traveled along his way to jail those following The Way, he was blinded by the light. The heavens cried out, ‘Why are you hurting me?” I like this translation because hurt is so much more tangible then the perceived persecutions of Christians today focused on culture wars and starbucks cups. “Why are you hurting me?” Saul must have been shocked and not just because he could no longer see. “Who are you Lord?” Saul was protecting his people, not hurting them right? Saul was on a righteous mission from God, right? God answers, “No. I am Jesus who you are persecuting.” By hurting an oppressed people (oppressed by Rome), Saul is hurting Jesus. A clear picture of the Matthew 25 call to see and treat the oppressed as Jesus because this is who Jesus is in solidarity with.
Now, I need to take another momentary tangent to help bring clarity to this whole situation. And this is important. Saul was not wrong because he was Jewish. Sometimes that is how this passage is interpreted and I completely disagree with it. In fact, Saul, now Paul, never stops being Jewish. This is not a conversion story as it is so often told, especially not a conversion to a new faith. Paul is invited into a deeper understanding and meaning of his own faith. He uses the same biblical texts. He worships the same God. And as I was reminded by the Rev. Anne Dunlap this week, Paul was called into accountability with oppressed people instead of collaboration with the state. (The Rev. Anne Dunlap, “TWIR 5.1.22 #MutualInterest: Conversion or Calling? Paul on the Damascus Road,” The Word Is Resistance podcast.)
Jesus is God in solidarity with oppressed people. God hears the oppressed cries of the Hebrews in Egypt. God hears the cries of the oppressed Jews in Babylon. God hears the cries of the oppressed people under Roman occupation. And God hears the cries of all oppressed peoples today. God came to earth as Jesus to show just how connected to oppressed people that she is. So it only makes sense that the followers of the Way continue to live in solidarity with the oppressed.
We see this solidarity continue to grow and expand all throughout the book of Acts, people are sharing all things in common. There is a focus on caring for widows and orphans. There is a recognition that many gentiles are similarly oppressed by Rome. We see this solidarity in movements of revolution throughout history from poverty movements in the 1600s to marching with MLK Jr in the USA. And we continue to see it in movements like the Poor People’s Campaign today. There are 140 million poor and low income folx in America, the richest country in the world. We have the highest prison population in the world. The Poor People’s Campaign joins people across race and class and religious lines to stand in solidarity with the oppressed.
They are planning a major assembly and march this June because in their words, “any nation that ignores nearly half of its citizens is in a moral, economic and political crisis.” (Poor People’s Campaign June 18 March) The Poor People’s Campaign is standing in solidarity and marching to change all of those oppressive systems. If you would like to get more in touch with this campaign both nationally and locally, let me know and we will get you connected.
These last two years of pandemic we have been blinded by the light, the light that is exposing all the shadows of our society from white supremacy to racial capitalism to climate disasters. Paul was made vulnerable, like so many of us these last two years, so that we can identify with the most vulnerable in our midst, so that we can identify with our vulnerable God, Jesus. Paul was led by the hand into a new community called The Way to heal, grow, learn, and imagine a new world that he was then sent out to bring forth. May we, people of The Way, walk hand in hand into solidarity with the most oppressed in our communities and embark into a new world of love and grace for all. Amen.