(Acts 9:1-6 & 7-20, John 21:12-17)
There’s something that dwells in the human heart that makes us inclined to find a scapegoat. Kids do it, adults do it, it happens in small towns, it happens in big cities, it happens in various cultures, it happens in various religions – I hope it’s not universal, I hope there are peaceable cultures who aren’t inclined this way, and please educate me if you know about this, but as far as we’re concerned, there is something in the human heart that makes us inclined we look for someone or for a group of people to put all of our problems on. It’s usually someone who is easy to pick on, who we can gang up on. It’s ‘cause of them we’ve got the problems we do, it’s ‘cause of them we’ve got troubles – smudge them out and we won’t have any more violence, we won’t have any more crime, we won’t have any more poverty or any more fear or anxiety or insecurity or impurity or sin. So we just gotta gang up and kill them off – war or genicide – or scare them into submission – lynching and crucifying terrorizing, harassing, threatening – or you gotta separate them or deport them or lock them all up. Make them go away, then everything will be okay, better than okay, it’ll be like the glory days again way back when everything was great and we somehow magically didn’t have any of the troubles we do now.
This is a delusion, a dangerous delusion.
It’s a delusion that dwells in our hearts, and it is our hearts, it’s not just them over there who’re doing the scapegoating. It’s like in the schoolyard: there are a couple bullies, and then their little crew of followers who like the contact high of power, and there’s the couple-few kids who have the misfortune of getting picked out as the scapegoats, and then there’s everyone else, who turns a blind eye. That’s the majority, the majority of us: not cruel, but cowardly.
So it’s easy, there’s something that inclines us to keep the eyes of our hearts closed. Closed to what? Closed to the light of the truth: the truth that each of us, all of us are made in the image of God, we are each and all children of the living God, children who are created to receive love and to give love, and who get hurt and twisted up when we’re deprived of that.
The eyes of our hearts can open to the light of this truth. Opening the eye of the heart: that’s what Jesus was about, in his living and in his teaching and his dying and his transformation beyond death and in the movement of awakened hearts who followed his Way.
In the course of opening the eye of the heart, Jesus himself became a scapegoat. And his early followers all became scapegoats. They suffered the cruelty and the cowardice of closed human hearts. But through that suffering, the light of the truth shone, it survived and thrived and began to awaken more and more hearts, who then awakened even more hearts.
One of the inspired leaders in the movement of the Way of Jesus had a heart that was closed like a fist. He hated the Jews who were following Jesus, these heretics who were running around saying that this pathetic loser who got himself humiliated and lynched, that this Jesus was somehow the One Anointed by the Almighty God. These people represent everything that’s wrong with this country, everything that’s keeping us back. So this guy, Saul who was later called Paul, he set about stamping them out. He helped persecute Christians –before they were called that. We’re talking about harassment and arrests and executions.
But the force of the light that Saul was blind to and he was trying to stamp out, it was too strong. And one day that light blasted him so hard it knocked him over, and it knocked his eyes open and his heart knew the true nature of the people he was scapegoating, he knew suddenly the true nature of this Jesus and the true nature of Jesus’ Way and the true nature of the children of God who were living according to this Way.
Saul, who became Paul after this experience, woke up to the lie that drove his scapegoating. And he woke up to the truth that drove his new commitment to spreading grace in the name of Jesus. He would go onto say, “In Christ we are all one: There is no slave nor free, no Jew nor Gentile, no male nor female.” All divisions are gone.
So Paul was someone whose heart woke up after a life of cruetly. What about someone who was cowardly in the face of scapegoating?
Peter was a disciple of Jesus who is famous for denying three times that he knew Jesus, when the authorities were out arresting Jesus and his followers. We can imagine how wretched he felt afterwards for not sticking up for the truth. He was forced to become aware that his heart was closed, not like a fist that strikes out, but like a fist that is clutching something.
When the resurrected Jesus appeared to Peter, the light of that grace gave Peter the opportunity to open his heart. For every time that Peter had denied Jesus he had the opportunity to affirm his love for Jesus. “Do you love me?” “Yes, I love you.” “Do you love me?” “Yes, I love you.”
And what does Jesus then say? “Feed my sheep.”
A great love overcame the fear that had driven Peter’s cowardice was overcome by a love. That love then drove Peter to serve the movement of people who were trying to live with awakened hearts, to live according to the Way of light and truth that Jesus revealed.
Now, when it comes to scapegoating and violence, I think we each have a part in us that sees its reflection in Paul – an inclination to have a heart closed by cruelty – and we all have a part in us that sees its reflection in Peter – an inclination to have a heart closed by cowardice … But we also have a part of us that sees its reflection in Jesus when he was a scapegoat, and the experience of being scapegoating can definitely close the heart.
Wherever you are in all that, these old testimonies about the resurrected Jesus have the power to awaken our hearts. Now. The light of the truth of a God of love survives and endures and abides and beacons to us. Sometimes this Christ-light is polite, sometimes it blasts us and knocks us down to get us to wake up to the truth of love and grace.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered April 10, 2016, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)