Sermon; Easter 3C; Acts 9:1-20; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
Fear divides humanity.
In the short-term it unites us. Going back to tribal days, fear of other tribes and/or outsiders made our tribe more cohesive. In more recent times, fear of the USSR drove our push to the moon. And I'm sure there are other examples. But again, these are short-term situations. In the long run, fear divides.
It's out of fear that whites put up barriers to full equality between themselves and blacks, Hispanics, and other people of color. It's out of fear that men refuse to see women as fully equal and capable. It was out of fear that McCarthyism took hold in this country. It's out of fear that organizations refuse to deal with abuse. It's out of fear that we would rather build walls than educate and feed people. Fear of the Other eventually leads to finding the Other in Us, thereby leading us to continually divide and separate, creating new Others to make Us feel better. Fear divides. And ultimately, fear kills.
Fear of aliens. Fear of Muslims. Fear of Jews. Fear of Americans. Fear of any other group. When we feel threatened by others, we become fearful of them and it allows us to be okay with finding ways to punish and eradicate them.
We see this in today's scriptures. But, fortunately, we also see the other side.
In Acts, Saul, on authority from the high priest, was rounding up people who belonged to the Way. That is, he was on a mission to arrest anyone who professed to follow Christ. Imprisonment was a certain outcome. Torture may have been an outcome. Execution was a possibility. And all of this was done because those in power were afraid.
Speaking on behalf of Saul and the high priest, those people were a threat to our way of life. Those people worshiped a false god. Those people were the cause of all our problems. So Saul and the religious leaders looked to eliminate what frightened them by any means necessary. Sound familiar?
That very irrational and imaginary fear also led to a very rational and real fear by those being persecuted. After Saul's encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, the disciple Ananias also has an encounter with the Lord. “Go and lay hands on Saul so he might regain his sight.”
I can just imagine the reaction.
“Um . . . what? Dude, I don't think so. You do know that this guy us rounding us all up to execute us, right?”
This fear of Ananias is real. Saul is a very real threat. He (Ananias) may very well have heard of the execution of Stephen. But God is now asking him to literally step in front of a person who has the authority to arrest and possibly execute him in order to live into the commandment to love your enemy.
Ananias has a choice to make. He can either continue to live in fear and let that fear continue to divide humanity; or he can take an incredible risk, an incredible leap of faith, and reach out his hands in love. Obviously he chooses the latter, and it is this act that pretty much changed the course of Christianity. Or, maybe more properly, set the course of Christianity.
And on Saul's side, there was the very real fear of not only change, but of going against everything he understood about God. His entire faith system was being upended. There was the very real fear that he himself would be classified as an outcast, as a threat to be eliminated. He also had a choice. He could choose to remain as is, holding onto his pride and his system of belief, or he could step out in faith, opening himself up to a new thing. The first choice would continue to divide. The second choice would begin the process of closing those divisions.
Granted, we're dealing with human beings here, so that process is taking awhile to accomplish. But I hope that we are working on it.
Amid all that fear, though, there is hope. Amid all that fear, a seed of love and inclusion is planted.
In the reading from Acts, that seed shows up in Saul's willingness to take into account that he just might be wrong. It shows up in Ananias' willingness to visit a sworn enemy in the name of Christ and minister to him. This is the beginning of the breaking down of walls instead of building them. This is the beginning of unity over division. This is an example of what love instead of fear can accomplish. And the scales of fear which blinded more than his sight fell off his eyes.
Were does all this lead us?
In the gospel it leads us to listen to the voice of Christ telling us to feed, tend, and feed his sheep. Remember that those sheep of Jesus aren't only Episcopalians. They aren't only Christians. They are also all those we don't even know: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” Jesus is telling us that his flock is bigger than we know, and we must feed them, not fear them.
In the reading from Revelation, John sees myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands surrounding the throne of God and singing. He also hears every creature in heaven and on earth singing the praises of God and worshiping. This does not come about because of fear. This doesn't come about because we built walls to separate and divide. It doesn't come about because we've exterminated those not like us.
Rather, this comes about because the love of God draws all creation into his loving embrace. It comes about because we have learned to love, not fear, others. It comes about because, as Saul will eventually write as Paul, “Christ has broken down the walls which divide us.” It comes about because humanity has finally learned that love unites.
As we move forward through the Easter season, let us remember that the Resurrection of Christ gives us the freedom to live without fear.