Easter 3—Year C–May 5, 2019
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20), Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
The Prophet Ezekiel, most famous for his vision of the valley of dry bones coming back to life, describes in his first chapter a wild vision that is called the Throne-Chariot Vision: He sees angelic beings, then a heavenly chariot with spinning wheels and lights and on top of the chariot… there is a dome and above that there is a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form. Upward…he writes, he sees something like gleaming amber, like fire enclosed all around….Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”
Scholars including N. T. Wright tells us that some Jews had a prayer practice in which they would imaginatively enter into this throne-chariot vision in order to be drawn into a deep experience of the presence of God. It is suggested that maybe Saul is doing this prayer practice as he draws near to Damascus to arrest followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified rebel and heretic.
As his meditation deepens, Saul sees the dome and the lights and then a throne and on the throne he sees a face—is this the face of God? He strains to see more clearly then all of a sudden the vision clarifies and he sees a face: but it is the last face on earth he wanted to see—the face of Jesus of Nazareth. Then he hears a voice, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
And Saul says, “Who are you Lord?”, and the voice matches the vision: “I am Jesus who you are persecuting.” This shatters Saul’s world! His life has been guided by the worldview in which Gentiles, and sinners, and teachers like Jesus who hang out with Gentiles and Sinners are to be cursed and killed. But now this mental construct collapses and Saul loses his sight.
Three days later, Jesus sends Ananias to help reconstruct in Saul a Jesus-shaped worldview. He lays his hands on Saul and says these remarkable words: “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me.”
I believe it was Nadia Boltz-Weber who said she knows someone who was converted to Christ by this scene of Ananias coming to the man who had wanted to throw him into prison, and calling him “Brother.”
What kind of God can create a heart capable of doing that?
Saul isn’t being converted to another religion. Rather he remains a faithful Jew who now believes the crucified and risen Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the face of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As he would write years later in Second Corinthians: “Christ is the image of God” and “Jesus Christ is the one who shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Now Saul’s understanding of the character and purposes of God is grounded in the character and purposes of Jesus.
Saul’s healing begins in an instant, but it takes years for the Spirit to rebuild in him a Jesus-shaped worldview. In Galatians he says that after this traumatic encounter with Jesus he goes into Arabia, maybe to pray on Mt Sinai where God appeared to Moses. Then Paul returns to his hometown of Tarsus as God slowly sorts Paul out.
After 10 years in Tarsus, Barnabas comes for Paul and takes him to the church in Antioch, so he can experience the most unusual thing in the world: a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-economic class, all-inclusive community surrendered to the leadership of Jesus Christ.
And it is this experience of such a community that enables Paul to write to the Galatians that there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, no male and female, for you are all one in Christ!”
But does this apply to us? Do we have any destructive worldviews that need to be replaced with a Jesus-shaped worldview? Of course we do!
I recently finished Erik Larsen’s excellent non-fiction book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin which follows American Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd and his family, as they move to Berlin in 1933 just as Hitler and the Nazi Party begin to take control. During the first year Dodd thinks the random attacks on Jews and foreigners is not really part of the Nazis plan, but in the next two years Dodd knows for a fact that the White Supremacy and Anti-Semitism of the Third Reich is a great sickness and a profound evil that if not stopped will destroy the world.
Dodd writes urgent cables to Washington to alert them to what’s going on, yet it is clear that his bosses at the State Department and the White House don’t take him seriously.
At one point the author wonders why this might be so. Do the American leaders think it is possible to appease Hitler and get him to change? Is it because there is also a strong anti-Jewish sentiment in America?
Or could it be that the U.S doesn’t point out the crimes of Hitler toward the Jews, because that will invite Hitler to point out the crimes of America toward Blacks: its segregation, injustice, and the 119 lynchings of Blacks in America during the 1930s.
The myth of White Supremacy can be traced back to Tacitus and Aristotle, and followed through to the Puritans and Pilgrims who came to this country to build a white and shining city on a hill.
Two hundred years later Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became a world figure for freedom wrote: “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial, and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.”
170 years later this destructive worldview is still in the air we breathe, and for a long time we wondered why we should fight it, since we get better access to self-esteem, work, education, and money than do people of color.
How does God deconstruct slaveholder Christianity when all who believe it think they are already faithful followers of Christ?
Imagine this: Imagine a man named Peter is a White Supremacist on his way to Charlottesville, Virginia to participate in the Unite the Right rally on August 11 and 12th 2017. And on his way, he is practicing Ezekiel’s Throne-Chariot vision and as his meditation deepens he begins to see God’s glory more clearly, then his excitement rises further when he sees the glowing throne and he senses he is being drawn into the Divine Love and he is, for the Divine Love includes him just as it includes all of us. So he lifts the eyes of his heart higher and sees something that simply can’t be: he sees the face of God seated on the throne—and it is not White.
And he hears a voice that says, “Peter, Peter, why do you persecute me?”
And Peter says, “Who are you Lord?”, and the voice matches the vision: “I am Jesus who you are persecuting.”
“But Lord when did I persecute you?” And Jesus says, “Whenever you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me.”
But I love you, Lord!
Then Jesus says, “Do you love me?
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus says to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he says to him, “Peter, do you love me?” He says to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus says to him, “Tend my sheep.” He says to him the third time, “Peter, do you love me?”
Paul says to him “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus says to him, “Feed my sheep… including the black ones. And Peter, Follow me.”