A sermon for the third Sunday of Easter at Epiphany, Euclid. We have just heard the story of the conversion of Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9)
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Jesus tells Saul, who will soon become known to us as the apostle Paul, that when Saul persecutes the followers of Jesus, Jesus’ friends, then he is persecuting Jesus himself. But then, in a heartbeat (or more significantly, in three days), Saul himself becomes the apostle whom Jesus sends to tell all the world that Jesus is the Son of God.
We are all familiar with the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. The king looks at their lives and says, “When I was hungry, or thirsty, sick or in prison, you did or did not care for me.” And the sheep and the goats each say, “Lord, when did we see you?” The king responds, “As often as you did this for the least of these, you did it to me.” We like to use that passage and that sentiment as a foundation for philanthropy, good works to those less fortunate than ourselves.
But what does Jesus have to say about those who do not need or want our charity? How are we to love our powerful neighbour; our wrongheaded neighbour? How do we respond when Jesus says, “Go to Saul, your persecutor; for he is one of the least of these, one of my little ones, too; and I have need of him”?
I had something of a mini vision some weeks ago. Leaning in to add dishes to the dishwasher, I saw Jesus sitting down to eat with the Pharisees and the tax collectors – and with the politicians. I know that in this room there are people who support each of the remaining candidates for the election of President of this country this Fall; and some whose favoured candidate has already dropped out of the race; and I know that each of you most likely has a least favourite candidate, too. To share the experience that I had at the door to the dishwasher, I want each of you, just for a moment, to picture very deliberately that least favourite personality, passing the mashed potatoes across the table to Jesus.
Shocking, isn’t it? But very gospel, very biblical: Jesus would eat with anyone. From sumptuous dinners in the house of Simon the Pharisee to barbecues on the beach with a bunch of fishermen, he would sit at table with anyone. He was notorious for it.
Now it is not as though we are called to enable or to ignore bad behaviour, especially when it damages the innocent and undermines the commandment to love; especially when it harms those least able to defend themselves. Jesus himself defended the poor, the children, the outcasts against criticism and censure. He told stories against the greed of the rich; he told stories against the parsimony of the Pharisees; he told stories against the self-righteousness of the proud and the corruption of the selfish. But he did so from a position right across the table from them, in their own homes, in the midst of their own lives, where they might hear him the most clearly.
Jesus himself put a hard stop to Saul’s persecution of his people. But he didn’t leave it there. Saul’s blinding vision on the road to Damascus was not a punishment but an intervention, an eye-catching spectacle, if you will, to ensure his full attention to what Jesus needed him to hear next.
What Jesus needed him to hear next was the Gospel, the good news that God so loved the world that Jesus, the Son of God, was sent to save us; not to condemn the world, as the gospel says, but that we might know eternal life; the life of God.
The life of God which is not found in persecution of those whose religion is different from ours, which is what Saul was about at the time. The life of God which is not found in the oppression of the poor, or the outlawing of love, or the arrest of the spread of the gospel beyond false boundaries, false fences that we erect. The life of God which is found in the life of Jesus: a life without limits. A life of love, of prayer, of justice, of sacrifice, of death and resurrection.
Whoever you pictured passing the mashed potatoes to Jesus; and whomever you want to seat at his right hand (bearing in mind that our elevation of politicians to the position of saviour, and our idolatry of our political prowess on the world stage is profoundly problematic); nevertheless, even as we rightly weigh their qualifications for the job for which they are applying, our place, our job is not to judge their souls, or their worth in the eyes of God. By extension, we are to serve one another, even with all of our differences and divisions, with the same humility. “Feed my sheep,” says Jesus. It is our job to provide the mashed potatoes to the whole table.
We have an opportunity, in a divided culture, to offer the incredibly counter-cultural message of Jesus: “Love your neighbour. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Preach the gospel, without reservation.”
It is, in the end, the only thing that will make a difference. And when we serve one another with grace and love, reaching beyond politics, race, class, age; reaching beyond what may divide us to the person made in the image of God, that which we hold in common, then we serve Jesus, who became incarnate, made in the image of God like us so that we may find him in one another. No one will save us but Jesus.
We don’t get to wash our hands of it all, like Pilate.
We don’t get to pretend we don’t know anything or anyone, like Peter.
We don’t get to persecute people who disagree with us, like Saul.
We are called to be more like Ananias, saying, “Oh God, really?” and then going anyway, to do exactly what Jesus asks of us, preaching the gospel to all people in all circumstances, passing the mashed potatoes.