Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
In the face of the rash of killings in places of worship, it is tempting to believe the harm people do in the name of God is somehow worse in our present day. But, unfortunately, religious zealotry has been used for centuries to justify torture, killing and war. The crusades, inquisitions, the protestant reformation, jihads, and white supremacist (too name a few) have all shared Saul’s conviction and certainty. When people believe they are acting in the name of God, almost anything goes. Certainly in his early career, Saul is the epitome of a man whose conviction has passed into self righteousness.
Saul is first identified by name as a participant in the stoning of Stephen—he watched over the cloaks of the people throwing the stones (Acts 7:58). Then, in this passage, Saul has upped the ante. Saul has made it his mission to root out Christians from the synagogues. Christians were seen as pollutants to the purity of the faith. They needed to be eradicated. Saul was not an isolated malcontent. He was educated, devout and he followed the rules. He sought and received official approval for his crusade. And, apparently, he was pretty good at it. His reputation preceded him in Damascus. Ananias is quite concerned about the command to seek our Saul—“Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.”
Saul begins as an enemy of the people and becomes its most prolific advocate. Saul’s story is told three different times in Acts and it the most important line item on Paul’s resume. His dramatic conversion changed the course of Christian history. However, when we only focus upon Saul’s conversion, it is easy to lose sight of the ordinariness of his error.
Certainty is very seductive. It gives us permission not to listen, then disparage and ultimately seek to destroy those who believe differently. These are the attitudes that literally lead to death. They allow us to think of others as ‘less than.’ If you ever visit the Holocaust museum in Israel, the take home message is the banality of the forces that lead to genocide. It is how Saul could justify imprisonment and death—those people (Christians) were different. Those people questioned the authorities. Those people were stereotyped as subversive cannibals. Anyone who reads Facebook and the political posturing can see plenty of current real life parallels to this process.
Certainty without humility leads away from love and, all too often, toward persecution. It is true politically, religiously and in our individual relationships. Think how often you have dismissed someone you love with the words ‘That’s not what you said’ instead of asking ‘What do you mean?’ or ’I don’t understand.’ Our diagnostic pronouncements limit and dismiss. We can’t listen when we have decided what someone else means.
Both Saul and Ananias had to be confronted in order for them to follow God. They had different certainties about the world but they were both locked into their own view. Saul needed to be literally blinded so he could learn to see. He was so hell bent on his version of the world, and his position in it, he had to be stopped cold in order to realize his way was not God’s way. And for those of us who wish God would be so direct in our lives, please notice that Saul—the man in charge—the righteous one—not only could not see, he became completely dependent. The man who needed no one, needed to be guided to the bathroom. Whatever illusions he had about being self sufficient evaporated. Learning that the world is not as we think it should be is a hard lesson. It rarely comes easily.
Aging will teach it to you. Conflict in a family will do the same. Walking to church through a garden filled with the homeless will and should challenge us. We may never know what we should do—but whatever we do should be done in humility. Choosing to submit to Jesus’s way requires we give up our own.
Ananias also had to give up the way he saw the world. He had reason to afraid and he had reason to feel he was not up to the task. As one FIRL member pointed out, God’s expectation of Ananias was roughly equivalent to one of us being told to go minister to Osama bin Laden. Ananias belongs to a long line of unlikely servants. Moses, the prophets, David, Solomon and many others had had plenty of disqualifying characteristics. They were required to give up their ‘I’m not enough—I don’t fit the profile’ way of viewing themselves in order to answer God’s call.
Sometimes we need to be confronted and sometimes we need to be encouraged but in either case, we have to give up our own way in order to follow Jesus. That is the heart of conversion. Both arrogance and self deprecation interfere with our following Jesus. They are opposite sides of the same coin and both are sinful. God wants us to realize that we not self sufficient and that ultimately we can only depend on him. That same God wants us to stretch and use who he has created us to be—often in a dangerous and unforgiving world.
We will be called up short in our lives and we will be called to move forward in our lives. Real life is lived in the ambiguous middle. Choosing that middle requires that we recognize our limitations at the same time we claim our God given gifts.
The only certainty we will have is God’s steadfast love and his promise to be with us always. Let it be so.