The main road leading south out of Damascus is a dangerous thoroughfare these days. We know enough about the Syrian war to not want to be anywhere near that road. Well, it just so happens that the same road was dangerous in a different way a long time ago to the man we meet in the New Testament named Saul of Tarsus. In one of the most well-known of biblical stories, Saul was stricken by a light from heaven while traveling on that road. The light knocked him to the ground and blinded him.
The background to Saul falling flat on his face is recorded in words from the ninth chapter of the Book of Acts: "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 Saul were to find any individuals who belonged to the Way [that is, the Christian community of the day], men or women, he might bring them bound back to Jerusalem."
Saul was Enemy #1 of the church. People knew well of his violent and murderous tendencies. Male and female believers alike would be seized from their homes and synagogues without notice and hauled off to prison, or worse.
Saul was not without religious belief. He grew up in Jerusalem, a devout Jew. But Saul's version of Judaism made him full of hatred for the Christian community. Let's turn to the realities of hatred for a moment, especially with Saul on our minds today.
Hatred is one of those subjects that is hard to wrap our minds around. It's too profound a mystery to understand and yet too shallow a one to bear much analysis. We all know the malignant attributes of hatred, one of which, most certainly, is grounded in fear.
The fires of xenophobia--where we fear anyone who is foreign to our way of living or thinking or believing--these fires ignite when our own self-righteousness kicks in. Track the news these days, or perhaps check the pulse of your own heart on an unfriendly day, and see if you notice any sign of self-righteous certainty creating a dislike of others. Why does any American have it in for a Muslim these days? I keep asking that question.
Saul of Tarsus was a Jew so zealous for his idea of Judaism that he had no room for the Christian way. By his reckoning, the only way to destroy the religious threat that followers of Jesus posed to his certainty was to destroy those Christian believers themselves.
He recalled the evil of his early years, later in the Book of Acts:
I threw believers into jail, right and left, voting for their execution whenever I could. I stormed their meeting places. I bullied them into cursing Jesus. I was a one-man terror obsessed with obliterating these believing people. (Paraphrase of The Message)
You cannot compel a person to love another one. We know this. And no one was going to compel Saul of Tarsus. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, you can pass laws to force a white man to serve a black man in a restaurant, but you cannot pass a law requiring the white man to love the black man. Compulsion never works with love.
Bigotry that would not be undone through force or legal means is what forms the backdrop for our dramatic scene on that road to Damascus. Saul was on his way to mopping up yet more Christians when suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. Knocked to the ground, lying in the dirt, he heard a voice call out, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" When Saul asked who was speaking, a reply came back, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."
In the Christian world today, we make a great fuss over seeking God. Every one of us would like to know God better. So we have this habit of thinking we must go on the hunt for God. And why not? So much of the rest of life is a pursuit--infants search for the comfort of mother's arms...adolescents search for confidence and identity...young adults search for their vocation and often a mate...people in their middle years search for security...and in the evening of life, we find ourselves searching for ultimate peace and contentment. Because so much of life is a pursuit, it comes as no surprise that we would treat God as yet one more something to pursue.
But here is one of the most fundamental claims of our faith: God always makes the first move by seeking us out. God believes in you and me even on those days when we are struggling to believe in God. Remember who asks the first question in the Bible? It's God! And it's all about pursuit. Genesis, the third chapter: "Where are you, Adam?!" That's God looking for, and looking after, our ancestor hiding in the bushes.
So, on that Damascus road, when the voice from heaven calls out Saul's name twice, we shouldn't be surprised. This is standard practice for God when God is seeking the attention of someone who may not be listening well: "Abraham, Abraham." Or "Jacob, Jacob." Or "Moses, Moses." Today it is Saul whom God is after. And what better way to grab a hate-mongering soul than to blindside him with both light and truth in one wallop?
Saul might have expected the voice to say, "I have it in for you. You'd better look out!" But what the voice said in effect was, "I want you on my side, for I have a better idea for your life than the one you are living. Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what to do." Saul, who later took the name we know best--PAUL--never got over that voice or that moment. He was so overwhelmed by a God who would be willing to do business with him, even in his bigotry, that his whole life changed in an instant. He was never the same after that.
When God comes at you with that same gut-wrenching truth--"I want you on my side"--you might want to listen. For no matter who you are or what you have done with your life, you have a place in the heart of God. And this is an astounding truth. Exclamation point! God wants you on God's side. And there is nothing you have to do and nothing you have to be to talk God into this desire. If you doubt this truth or your eligibility for God's consideration, take a good long look at Saul of Tarsus.
Remember how I said that you cannot compel a person to love another? Well, God has other means, and one of those means happens to bear the name Ananias. Ananias is the disciple whom the Lord asked to lay hands on and minister to--Mr. Murderer. How did Ananias respond to the request? Well, like most of us might. "You've got to be kidding, Lord. I'm not stupid. Everyone knows the evil of this man and his passion to persecute."
You can understand the reluctance of Ananias. Hunted people do not usually minister to those who are hunting them. As R. Kent Hughes put it, that's like Peter Rabbit caring for Mr. McGregor. But the Lord tells Ananias that there is indeed a reason for his mission. "This Saul is to be a chosen instrument of mine," says the Lord, "who will bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel. So go find him and minister to him."
Ananias went. He entered the Damascus house where friends had taken the now-blind Saul. And laying his hands on this man who could not see, Ananias said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus has sent me here so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." BROTHER SAUL, he said--two of the sweetest words in the entire New Testament. This archenemy of the Christian community had now become a brother to Ananias.
I know this sounds like a crazy story--one guy accepting and overcoming the hatred of another who, in no way, resembled a chosen instrument of the Lord. Yet God has a way of finding faithful people who are willing to work with even the most unlovable people.
If you do not know the story of Larry Trapp, you must hear it. Larry was the Grand Dragon of the Nebraska Ku Klux Klan. In the late 1980s and early '90s, Larry Trapp took great joy in harassing Jewish people, immigrants, and people of color. He made threatening phone calls, sent out hate mail, and encouraged his followers to commit acts of violence against non-white and Jewish people.
But Larry Trapp made a mistake when he picked on Michael and Julie Weissner in his home town of Lincoln, NE. Michael was the cantor of the local synagogue, and Trapp let loose on Michael with a string of nasty words over the phone. "You'll be sorry you ever moved into that house, Jew boy. The KKK is watching you, scum."
At first, the Weissners installed a security system. Then, one day, they realized that fear and intimidation from these escalating threats were consuming them. So what do you do when a racist becomes hell bent on destroying you? Well, you could try the unconventional approach of loving that individual. This became Michael Weissner's aim.
He began calling Larry Trapp's house. Each time, he had to listen to a 10-minute recording on white supremacy before he could even leave a message. But Weissner kept leaving messages that were frank yet loving, telling Trapp in different ways that hatred is no way to live.
One time, Larry Trapp picked up the phone. That's when Weissner learned that he was disabled, a diabetic with both legs amputated. In a stunning offer of friendship, Michael Weissner offered to take Larry Trapp to the supermarket for groceries. Eventually--and it took awhile--Michael and Julie were permitted to pay a visit to Larry Trapp's house. They found a monster in this unkempt house stuffed with racist literature. Here was a bully in a wheelchair, with a sawed-off shotgun by his side. He had trained himself in the use of explosives.
When the couple first met Larry, Michael shook his hand and all three of them started to cry. They talked for a couple of hours. Larry asked them to take down his Nazi flag. The Weissners paid regular visits after that, delivering groceries and assisting with house cleaning. When doctors informed Larry that he had no more than perhaps another year to live, medically speaking, the Weissners took Larry Trapp into their own home. Julie gave up her job as a physician's assistant to care for him. Larry ended up converting to Judaism. He renounced the horrors of racism. And catch this: He made a point of phoning every person he had ever harassed and apologized to them.
Ten months after moving in with the Weissners, Larry Trapp died. Some of the African-American victims of his hatred spoke fondly of him at his memorial service. Michael Weissner delivered the eulogy for this bigot-turned-family-member. And in that eulogy, Michael referred to him as "BROTHER LARRY"--two of the sweetest words Lincoln, NE, had ever heard.
Ananias of Damascus, who was willing to take seriously the no-matter-whatness of God, laid his hands on Saul of Tarsus one day 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." BROTHER SAUL. Those are two of the sweetest words ever recorded in the New Testament.
Not only do those two words remind us of God's tendency to use unlikely people to be instruments of grace. Those sweet words, or any variation of them that you and I are courageous enough to speak in our circles of life, those two sweet words make clear that love is the last thing our enemies might expect to hear from us, but the first thing they need to hear.