What stands out to me as I read Paul’s words before the tribunal, is how in his experience of the risen Christ, Christ tells Paul that it is He, the living Christ, whom Paul is persecuting as he persecutes Christians.
I believe there is a sense in which Christ is ever saying this to all of us. If we had the ears to hear it, when our Christian ancestors persecuted other believers in the early Christian era of the Roman empire whom they deemed “heretics”, they could hear the voice of Christ saying “Why do you persecute me?” When later, the Inquisition persecuted and tortured Jews and Muslims in Spain and elsewhere, if we had but listened right we could have heard Christ whispering to us, “Why do you persecute me?” When my ancestors were complicit in the kidnapping of human beings from Africa, selling them into slavery, and keeping them enslaved across the United States – and almost every white family that dates its arrival back that far is somewhat complicit due to how entrenched slavery was into our American economy – I would have heard the voice of Christ saying “Why do you enslave me? Why do you whip me? Why do you take my children away from me and sell them up river?”
In truth the cry Paul hears is one made by the living Christ on behalf of all who face persecution in our world. Christ appears in our midst if we have eyes to see and ears to hear saying “Why did you do this to me, or not do what is right to me”, for whatever we do or fail to do on behalf of the cast down, forgotten, and oppressed in our midst we do to Christ.
In my life, I can say there have been times I heard this call – such as when I sat with a man who told me “here’s the thing preacher, I am gay” and by listening to his voice I began to hear the cry of Christ “Why do you persecute me? Why do you kick me out of my church and stand by why people kick me out of their families? Why do you not embrace me in love?” a cry found in the voice of countless gay and lesbian people.
I also began to hear it far too late, in the voice of people around me of other faiths, as I began to see the living presence I know as the living Christ in them, who began to say “why do you persecute me? Why do you speak of me as if God does not live in me and through me, though I call God by other names?” as I began to realize the subtle ways my way of living my faith put down people of other faiths by speaking as if only my own path, Christianity, had truth.
But also I have to confess times I look back and see I didn’t listen. Or heard but found myself uncertain as to how to respond. Even these occasions — these moments of conversion to the living voice of Christ — came after already walking down paths that unknowingly caused me to be a persecutor of the living Christ who was to be found in others different than myself.
I think we must listen, learn to look, pray to have our eyes, like Paul’s, opened more clearly, that we may see the living Christ in our midst, in each person be they outcast, friend, family, neighbor, stranger, exile, or seeming enemy. In each we encounter Christ lives. In each we meet we have a call to recognize the living Christ in our midst, and respond in love.
Let’s work together to do that today and all our days.
Your progressive redneck preacher,