Summer Sermon Series: Acts 9:1-10

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“Hate what is evil…”

As we’ve been reading Romans 12 at our cottage meetings, this phrase raises questions for at least one person at every meeting we’ve had so far.  It’s jarring to hear the word hate in the Bible.  It doesn’t mesh with our version of what we believe we’re supposed to do as Christians.  It raises questions of what is evil, and who gets to decide what is evil.  Is it really ever okay to hate?  What did Paul actually mean?  And what do we do with this questionable little phrase he wrote?  There have been so many good and thought-provoking questions coming out of these Bible studies! 

Today, we get the story of Paul (who’s Hebrew name was Saul), and while I don’t know if his story will give us all the answers, his story does help us wrestle a little more with these questions. 

So, some of you might remember when we read the story in the first chapter of Acts where Peter decided to call a special congregational meeting to fill Judas’ vacant council position.  They read some scripture and said a prayer and decided on Matthias. 

And then the Holy Spirit came through and the church started to do all kinds of crazy stuff, like speak in different languages, and share their story about Jesus, and share their wealth, and work together.  As the church grew, the Spirit raised up all kinds of new leaders besides Matthias and the original 12.  Last week we heard about Philip who became a super disciple who crossed all kinds of boundaries to share the story of Jesus and baptize people he never thought he would baptize.  There was Stephen who started out waiting on tables and making sure the widows each had their fair share of the potluck food, and ended up doing all kinds of great deeds and gave all kinds of sermons that eventually got him killed by the established religious leaders.  Today we get the most surprising and important leader of all—Paul. 

Paul was there and smiled when Stephen got stoned to death.  I get the impression he was top of his class in Pharisee school.  He followed all the rules.  He was smart.  He could out discuss anyone.  He was well-connected and respected as a religious teacher.  He was even a Roman citizen—a status few Hebrew people obtained.  And he was driven and passionate about what he did.  He believed that all the Jesus mumbo jumbo was a threat to his religion and his Country, and he was willing to go to great lengths to protect both.  It looked like he viewed this new way of Jesus as an evil to hate. 

Jesus was a criminal of the Roman state, and crucifixion was a death penalty reserved for the worst of the worst.  The claim that Jesus came back from the dead was not only outlandish, it defied the Roman Empire.  Not to mention all of Jesus’ wrong interpretations of Jewish teachings—like forgiving enemies instead of an eye for an eye.  Saul, the Hebrew Pharisee, had a long list of bones to pick with Jesus’ contrary teachings. 

So Paul breathed threats of murder against the disciples of Jesus and wanted to make sure that this movement didn’t spread outside of Jerusalem.  He got special permission from the High Priest (who was at this point in history more of an appointee of the Roman Empire than of God), to go to the synagogues in Damascus and throw any followers of Jesus into jail. 

I imagine Paul was so sure he was right.  I imagine he believed this was his duty to protect God and his country.  I imagine he had no doubt that this violence was totally justified.  I imagine Paul was acting out of a very passionate faith. 

“Hate what is evil…”

This can be a dangerous phrase. 

When we care so deeply about things like our faith, or our country, or traditions, or any of the big things that shape our lives, it’s easy to get defensive and want to protect these things.  It’s easy to rationalize our actions, and justify our hate.   

What evil are we called to hate?  How do we know? 

Well, the way Acts tells the story, Paul gets the advantage of a literally blinding light and big booming voice of Jesus from on high.  Jesus asks him a piercing question.  “why do you persecute me?” 

 

It turned out that hating what is evil isn’t supposed involve persecution.  Hating what is evil doesn’t justify violence.  Hating what is evil doesn’t mean hurting others.  Hating what is evil doesn’t involve fear, or defensiveness.  It turned out that Paul was wrong about what he thought was evil.  We dare not hate what is evil until we confront any evil lurking inside us first. 

Paul’s conversion isn’t so much about accepting Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior.  It isn’t about reciting the creed or passing some test.  His conversion isn’t about accepting a correct doctrine. 

Paul’s conversion is more about a change of heart and a whole new way of looking at the world. 

Paul started following this Way of Jesus that meant things like humbling oneself and accepting grace, rather than trying to prove oneself or live in fear of not being enough. 

It was a Way of living out one’s faith by practicing compassion and forgiveness and generosity, rather than judgement and punishment. 

It was a Way of welcoming and embracing others, rather than defending God by excluding or keeping certain people out. 

Following Jesus was a whole new way of life, which is why the early church was known as “people who belonged to the Way.”  There really isn’t a whole lot of room for hate in this different way of life. 

 

We all too easily judge Saul, the strict Pharisee who persecuted Jesus’ followers.  And yet, we are not immune to being defensive of our faith, or our country, or our traditions.  Especially on these patriotic weekends where we get really excited about our country and traditions, and all too easily treat them with religious zeal.  There are lots of great things about our country, and I love the ideals of democracy like freedom and equality.  There are countless inspirational stories about our history.  And we’re just downright lucky to live in this country. 

And yet we haven’t been immune from persecuting others.  Our history with slavery and our treatment of Native Americans is atrocious.  We have often mislabeled people as evil.  We wrongfully imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II.  And this just scratches the surface.  There doesn’t seem to be any vaccine to prevent the diseases of hate and persecution—even here. 

When I look at our country today, I still see us acting in misguided ways like Paul did.  There is so much hate and division and fear.  Persecution persists.  We continue to exclude and judge.  People still prove themselves by putting others down.  I hate it.  I really want to blame a bunch of other people, and I hate when I’m forced to admit the ways I contribute to it. 

Hate what is evil…

 

The story in Genesis tells us that humanity’s downfall was eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  I think we know what is evil.  I think our downfall is our ability to rationalize what is evil.  Paul rationalized his persecution of Jesus followers, and we are just as capable of similar rationalizations. 

Perhaps there is evil for us to hate, but I don’t think we get to do any hating without first confronting the evil lurking in our own hearts.  I don’t think we get to hate anything without first practicing this Way of Jesus that leads us to acts of compassion, and forgiveness, and radical welcome, and grace.  I don’t think we get to hate anything until we see that practicing any kind of persecution or violence wounds God. 

I believe God hates what is evil.  I think God hates it when we hurt each other.  I think God hates things like oppression and persecution and terror and violence.  I think God hates to see people excluded or starving or homeless or hurting.  But rather than reacting with retaliation, I believe this hate breaks God’s heart. 

 

I see God’s broken heart most clearly on the cross, where Jesus chose to be broken rather than retaliate, where he fought evil with compassion, and he ultimately declared forgiveness rather than linger in judgement.  This is the Way of Jesus that Paul, and we, are called to follow.