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“With Former Persecutors”
May 5, 2019
The post-Easter story of Saul’s dramatic conversion can be explored from many different perspectives.
Today, I would like for us to consider the story from the perspective of Ananias.
Ananias was an early leader in the church. We do not know much about him.
We do know that he is called a “disciple” in our text,
which means that he was in danger from a man like Saul.
Saul held official letters in his hands from the high priest at the Temple in Jerusalem;
these letters gave Saul the power to arrest, bind, and return to Jerusalem for trial
any persons, like Ananias, that he found who belonged to the Way,
the name for the earliest expressions of the Church.
We often hear this story from the perspective of Saul: “I once was blind, but now I see…”
but as you listen to the narrative today, consider what this encounter must have been like for Ananias…
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 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. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 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. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 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, 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.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 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; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 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.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
Ananias receives a vision, a realization, perhaps it was a dream.
In his vision, he “hears” the Lord call his name. His reply: “Here I am, Lord”.
This response signals that we are about to hear a call story.
Throughout Scripture, when we hear someone say, “Here I am, Lord,”
we know that their life is about to change in a dramatic fashion.
When Moses turned aside in the wilderness to see the bush that appeared as if it were on fire…
When young Samuel, attending to the old priest Eli in the temple, kept hearing his name being called
in the middle of the night…
When Isaiah was worshiping in the temple, caught a vision was of the hem of the Lord’s robe
filling the entire temple, and then a seraph flew towards him with a live coal from the alter…
When the Lord told Jeremiah that he had been chosen even before he was born
to be a prophet to the nations, and Jeremiah responded, O Lord, I am too young;
I don’t even know how to speak…
When young Mary was called by name by Gabriel at the well in Nazareth…
And, of course, when Saul of Tarsus, breathing threats and murder, was struck blind
on the road to Damascus, and for three days neither ate nor drank…
All were called by God to do something extraordinary;
and their lives, and the direction of the people of faith, would never be the same.
All are remembered by name for posterity because of the call they received,
and their risky response to that call.
But Ananias may not be a name that you remember.
He is not the most well-known of the early disciples.
He is only known because he is the one who responded to a call to go visit Saul.
Saul would become arguably the greatest among all the apostles,
the one whose missionary journeys would spread the gospel throughout the known world.
Saul, whose name was changed to Paul, would become the instigator and nurturer
of dozens of early congregations.
Paul’s letters would be passed around the churches and eventually became part of the canon,
the agreed upon holy writings, Holy Scripture.
Paul, next to Peter, would become probably the best known New Testament character after Jesus.
But if not for Ananias’ response to his, we do not know what might have happened with Saul,
nor do we know how the Church might have fared in those early decades.
Ananias had a vision, a dream, a realization, perhaps, that the Lord was calling him by name.
“Ananias, Get up and go…”
And, as often happens in Scripture, he was called to do something unexpected,
something beyond his comfort zone, something potentially dangerous.
Like Moses called to go back to Egypt to demand that Pharaoh free the Hebrew slaves,
like Jeremiah called to preach a very uncomfortable message to a very comfortable people,
Ananias was called to go to the aid of the very person who had been sent to arrest
and perhaps even kill people like himself.
I get the sense that this congregation is being called – both as individuals and as a body.
We are being called to overcome our fears and misconceptions.
We are being called to move beyond our comfort zone,
We are being called to act beyond what is reasonable, perhaps, to do a new thing, a risky thing,
for the sake of the mission of the church in this place.
One thing has become abundantly clear over the past months.
There is a tremendous gap in the living situation between most of us who sit in these pews
and many of those we find sitting on the benches in the Terrace Garden.
You have probably met some of our new friends, individuals who are down on their luck,
who may have burnt bridges behind them,
who are dealing with daily challenges and stress that we cannot even imagine.
There may be some of them even, like Saul, who have breathed threats against the Church and its people.
There is no doubt that some of them are struggling with mental illness;
there is no doubt that others among them are dealing with addictions of various kinds.
My encouragement this morning is to be careful with our presuppositions,
to be careful with our “certainty” about who someone is or what their potential might be.
Vernon wrote about certainty in his blog this week.
“Certainty is very seductive. It gives us permission not to listen, (it gives us permission to)
then disparage and ultimately seek to (remove) those who believe differently.
These are the attitudes that literally lead to death. They allow us to think of others as ‘less than’…
(Certainty) is how Saul could justify imprisonment and death (for) those (Christians) who were different,
the ones who questioned the authorities, the ones who were stereotyped as subversive cannibals…
Certainty without (some measure of) humility leads away from love and, all too often,
toward persecution. This is true politically, religiously and in our individual relationships.”
Vernon continues: “Walking to church through a garden filled with persons who are homeless
will and should challenge us. We may never know what we should do—
but whatever we do should be done in humility.”
As we so often find in Scripture, God calls us by name and commands us to get up and go,
go to the unexpected one, go help fulfill what God intends.
One of the most challenging aspects of being a disciple of Jesus Christ is that God will stretch us
and God will use us for God’s larger purposes in the world—
even when the world can be dangerous and unforgiving. (Vernon Gramling, blog 5/2/19)
One of my favorite scenes ever in a movie comes from an old film with Sally Field
called “Places in the Heart.”
The movie ends with a communion scene in an old white plat board church.
The scene not only reminds us of how this table of communion transcends time,
the scene also reminds us of God’s amazing grace,
of how the least expected are also welcomed to sit at table in God’s kingdom.
In the movie, Sally Field is sheriff’s widow who is trying to keep her farm and raise two children.
A young black teenager has accidentally shot her husband, the sheriff,
and there are local KKK members who end up lynching the young man.
Later, they threaten another black man, a local sharecropper,
who is trying to help the widow make a go of her farm.
In the movie, Sally Field has a friend who is beautician; this beautician’s husband has an affair
with the local schoolteacher, and then the teacher is ultimately forced out of town
due to their indiscretions.
“The closing scene takes place in a church.
As the camera slowly pans the congregation (sitting in the pews) receiving communion,
(you) recognize all the characters in the movie are now present—
those living and dead and departed for other places.
It is an image in which the lambs and the wolves, the wronged and the wrongdoers,
the betrayers and the betrayed, are all together as one (receiving grace from the Table).
It is an unforgettable cinematic statement about hope.”
Only through the saving death of Jesus Christ on the cross and the power of his resurrection
does the world discover such hope and forgiveness.
Dare we not forget that the sharing of the good news of the gospel throughout the world
by the Apostle Paul was made possible through one little known Ananias.
Ananias responded to God’s call and brought to faith perhaps the most unexpected person of all.
“Yes, Lord, here I am.”
“Get up and go!”
“Get up and go where?”
“Get up and go to that one breathing threats and murder against you and your people.”
“Go, Ananias…this is the one whom I have chosen as an instrument for good.
Trust me, Ananias, and do as I command…”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church