Superheroes all have an “origin story.” A story that tells us how the superhero came to be. Even if you aren’t a comic book fan, you probably know that it was a bite by a radioactive spider that gave Spiderman his enhanced powers. For Batman, it was the murder of his parents by a robber. Superman was orphaned when his home planet Krypton was destroyed. For all these characters, and countless others, something happened in their lives, they came to a turning point, and they were opened to a completely new reality.
The man we know as the Apostle Paul has such a dramatic origin story. Paul, of course, is also Saul. That he has two names, gives us an indication that this superhero-in-the-making was already bridging several worlds. Paul was a citizen of Rome, well educated in the Greek language, thought, and philosophy. He had a powerful position in the forces occupying Israel and moved freely throughout the Roman empire. Paul was also Saul a devote Jew which made him a member of a small, oppressed faction within the empire.
You would think that living within multiple cultures and being a minority would make Saul open to new ways, new thinking, even prompt concern for the marginalized. Instead, Saul became a zealot for his faith. He was utterly focused on trying to destroy the new Jewish sect that identified Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.
Later in the Book of Acts, Paul recalled the evil of his early years: 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.
Saul saw Christianity as a threat to his heritage, his way of life, the faith of his fathers. Saul’s version of his religion, his personal entitlement and the power of the institution he represented combusted into a vengeful hatred of the Christian community.
Hatred. It is an uncomfortable but familiar emotion. All of us have some experience with that bitter swell of directed hostility. In the wrong context – psychologically and culturally – hatred can grow into an entity with more depth and destruction that we can wrap our minds around.
We know that very often the source of hatred is fear. And one of the most basic fears is fear of what is foreign. Xenophobia is fear of those who are different from oneself – anyone who represents a different way of thinking, believing or living than one’s own way of living, thinking or believing. That instinctive fear, coupled with a sense of self-righteousness, can form an ugly, irritating scale over one’s eyes – making it impossible to see another clearly.
Dip into the news these days, and there it is. Threats and even murderous threats breathed out one against the other. Letters, texts, and tweets intended to damage the other.
Dip into the pulse of your own heart, your own thought waves on an especially unfriendly day. There festers in most of us that dangerous combination of fear and self-righteousness that is the birthplace of bigotry.
Bigotry swirls in more than one heart and mind as Saul’s origin story unfolds.
Saul – looking for Christians to capture and persecute – was surrounded by a blinding light from heaven. 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, the reply came back, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Jesus is identifying with believers and making Saul’s bigotry a central point of his conversion.
Saul silent now and sightless is led away by the hand. His extraordinary conversion experience is not complete. It requires the participation of another convert, a follower of Jesus who is willing to shed his own bigotry to minister to Saul.
Ananias probably had a much less dramatic conversion story. Unlike Saul, Ananias had been growing in his understanding of the faith of Jesus over time, so when the Lord calls his name he doesn’t need to ask, “Who are you?” The voice is a familiar one, and he responds as a friend my call out to another: “Here I am.” Unlike Saul, Ananias is not struck speechless, sightless and appetite-less. This is familiar to him. His relationship with the Lord is conversational. In fact, Ananias talks back.
The Lord tells Ananias to get up and go to a street called Straight, to the house of a particular person and find the man named Saul. Ananias says. “You’ve got to be kidding, Lord. Everyone knows what kind of man that Saul is. He is evil. He says terrible things about you and wants to destroy your followers.”
Ananias – for perfectly sound reasons –has his own bigoted certainty about who Saul is, and what he thinks and what he will do. His legitimate fear of Saul and his own religious faith tell him he doesn’t want to have anything to do with this man.
But when the Lord insists, saying there is a good reason for this mission, Ananias goes. He enters the house where the now-blind Saul is languishing. Laying his hands on this terrifying man who could not see, Ananias says, “Brother Saul, I have been sent by Jesus so you can regain your sight and receive the Holy Spirit.”
Ananias has called this archenemy of the Christian community “brother.”
Have you noticed how often those words keep emerging in the story of the resurrection in the story of Jesus? Brother. Sister. How powerful they are. They signal that the other is seen in the light of God – revealed as a child of God. Bigotry falls away
Saul’s conversion story is dramatic, no doubt about it. But the ongoing conversion of Ananias is equally profound. One man accepts another who was filled with hate and – only by shedding his own bigotry at the command of Jesus – reveals, against all odds, a chosen instrument of God.
This story of change – the power of shedding the scales of bigotry and finding a brother – is still occurring. It occurred in the lives of the Michael and Julie Weissner and Larry Trapp.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Larry Trapp was the Grand Dragon of the Nebraska Ku Klux Klan. Trapp harrassed people of the Jewish faith, people of color and immigrants. He made threatening calls, sent out hate mail and used considerable time and money convincing Klan followers to commit acts of violence against Jews and people of color.
Michael and Julie Weissner moved to of Lincoln, NE where Michael was the new cantor of the local synagogue. Trapp immediately let loose on the Weissner. He began with a string of nasty phone calls. “You’ll be sorry you ever moved into that house, Jew boy. The KKK is watching you, scum.” He sent packages of anti-black, anti-Semitic pamphlets, including a card that read, “The KKK is watching you, scum.”
At first, the Weissners installed security systems and tried to manage their fear. But, one day, they realized that worry about the escalating threats was consuming them. So they decided to try a dramatically different tactic.
Michael began calling Trapp’s home once a week. 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. Michael remembers, “I would say things like: ‘Larry, there’s a lot of love out there. You’re not getting any of it. Don’t you want some?’ And hang up,” I said, ‘Larry, why do you love the Nazis so much? They’d have killed you first because you’re disabled.’
Larry Trapp was disabled. Trapp 42, was nearly blind and used a wheelchair to get around. Both of his legs had been amputated because of diabetes. So, one day – when Larry actually answered the phone – Michael Weissner offered to take Larry to buy groceries if he needed help. Larry hung up.
Then, one night, Rabbi Weisser’s phone rang again. It was Larry Trapp. Michael recalls the dramatic moment. “He said, quote-unquote — I’ll never forget it, it was like a chilling moment, in a good way — he said, ‘I want to get out of what I’m doing, and I don’t know how.’
Michael and Julie Weissner drove to Larry Trapp’s apartment that night. The shook hands and tears fell from all their eyes as the bigotry fell away. The three talked for hours, and a close friendship formed. When Larry’s health deteriorated further, the couple took him into their own home. They were his caretakers and confidants.
Larry eventually renounced the Klan. And even more than that he apologized to many of those he had threatened
Ten months after moving in with the Weissners, Larry Trapp died. Some of the Jewish and 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.”
Ananias was changed by his own encounter with the risen Lord Jesus. The scales fell from his eyes, even before they fell from the eyes of Saul. Ananias put aside his own bigotry and went and ministered to a threat breathing, crippled man. “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus …has sent me so you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Brother Saul. Those are two of the most powerful words ever recorded in the New Testament. Those powerful words or any variation of them are words you and I can speak, letting love and relationship by the first thing our enemies receive from us.
Undoubtedly, Paul is a superhero of our faith. And so is Ananias, though we never hear of him again. There are countless superheroes of Christianity, who have never donned a cape, never been in battle or traversed the world. Yet, they allowed Jesus to show them others in the light of God. They have called the most unexpected of people – brother, sister. A fellow child of God. And the superpower of love has changed the world
We will not all be stopped on the road by a brilliant light. We will not all hear a voice calling us by name. But, without a doubt, every single one of us is sent to some street, some house, angry, fearful, fuming, dangerous, incapacitated person, who is very different than us is waiting to be revealed as a child of God. Even now Jesus is calling us to go, with love and the light that enables us to see our brothers and our sisters. Answering that call will transform us.