I wish you all would give me three hours one Sunday, we could really do Acts right if we could talk about it in one big sitting. It would make it a lot easier because the story of Acts is a story that really works best without too many breaks in the action. Some stories are like that, right? Some stories are better told as one two-hour movie than twelve thirty minute episodes. Acts is like that, because while different events stand-alone they also still build and connect to what comes before and after, and our text this morning is like that.
If you haven’t been with us the last few weeks then you’re really being dropped into the middle of something here. We were first introduced to Saul two weeks ago. Now obviously if you’ve spent a lot of time in church you know who he is already, but if you were reading Acts without any knowledge of the story of Christianity then the first time we see him he is standing on the outskirts of an angry mob, holding people’s coats as they stone Stephen to death and giving his approval. He’s not doing it himself but he’s presented as the guy in charge, the one who is giving it the all clear. Then there’s a break in Saul’s direct story, but we see the aftermath of what he did. Christians start getting run out of Jerusalem and we were introduced last week to Phillip, whose story shows how those displaced Christians took advantage of their circumstances and found folks in need of the message of Christ. And then here we come back to Jerusalem and pick back up with Saul’s story. See, that would all have flowed so nicely in one big block.
Saul isn’t content about what he’s done so far. One thing we see throughout his life is he’s not one to rest on his laurels; when his focus becomes serving as a Christian missionary that is going to be a good thing but as a Pharisee bent on destroying the church it isn’t so good. He’s been successful in his quest to suppress and get rid of the early church in Jerusalem, they’re no longer in a position to be out in public, they can’t engage in debates at the temple, and for Saul, he has managed to become the face of this, we’d call it persecution, he’d probably call it cleansing. Side note on that just for a second: what side we’re on has more impact on what we call things than we’d probably like to admit. I took a class on the Middle East conflict in college and one of the things we talked about is that a lot of the tactics that Palestinians use today are tactics that Jews in Palestine used against the British after World War Two to get them to keep their promise to establish a Jewish State. Those tactics were actually taught to those Jewish residents of the area by the British during World War I for use against the Ottoman Empire. The British knew those tactics would be efficient because they were what the Irish had been using against them for years. And the Irish never considered themselves terrorists, they were freedom fighters trying to overthrow foreign opposition. Taking a minute to look at ourselves through the eyes of the other side can be an incredibly challenging thing but also a rewarding and enlightening thing and we’re going to see that in Saul’s story but regardless of whether we call what he’s doing persecution or cleansing there’s no question Saul is good at it. But despite his success Saul isn’t satisfied, he’s still angry. That’s what “breathing out murderous threats” means, Saul is still incredibly angry at these Christians, so much so that he isn’t content to stay in Jerusalem, he wants to go to Damascus, which is probably one of the places displaced Christians would have fled to, and finish the job. Saul’s escalating the conflict here, it isn’t enough to get them out of Jerusalem, now he wants to wipe these people out.
It’s ironic how much of this story revolves around sight and being able to see. Obviously deeper in to it we get literal blindness and then scales falling down and Saul, soon to be Paul, being able to see. And we hear in that the origins of those great words in Amazing Grace, “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” Blindness and being able to see is one of the main images for salvation we see in Scripture. Before we know Christ we might as well be blind because we cannot see the reality of our lives and our world and once “eyes are opened” so to speak we see the world and our place in it more clearly. It is ironic how much sight plays a role in this story because it is at the beginning of the story that Saul probably thought he saw the world and his place in it and his role most clearly. People usually don’t kill other people in God’s name if they aren’t confident that that’s God’s will. And Paul writes about that in his letters. In Philippians he lays out his Jewish credentials by saying that as far as zeal went he went so far as to persecute the church. In Galatians he says “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my ancestors.” Saul was passionate about what he was doing, he was certain that it was the right thing. Later God is going to declare that Saul will be an instrument or vessel for God, but in that moment Saul saw himself as a vessel of God, as an instrument of divine judgement. That belief that he knew what God wanted probably combined with a little bit of pride that he and he alone was the one to do what God needed led to this anger and that anger led him to murder. Chances are if the thing we believe we’re doing for God contributes to a murderous rage or is driven by our own anger or prejudice (don’t forget, most of Saul’s persecution had been directed toward people who weren’t ethnically Jewish but foreign converts up to this point) we aren’t doing God’s will. That’s true for someone who drives a truck into a crowd of people in the name of Allah or in the name of white supremacy. God is never going to call us to murder. Saul will go physically blind during his journey but we’re shown that he is as blind to who God is and what God is about as he could possibly be even before he sets out down the road.
We can be blind, and think we see. We can get so used to the darkness that we assume we’re seeing clearly. Its amazing how well we see in the dark right? Our eyes adjust remarkably well and remarkably quickly to being in darkness. And if we stayed in the dark long enough our eyes continue to adjust, we’d continue to get used to it, and we’d eventually forget what seeing in the light looks like. We get way too comfortable in darkness. We accept way to quickly that what we’re seeing is all there is. We settle for blindness, for life that’s just a shadow of what it should be. Some of you have heard me reference this CS Lewis quote before, its one of my favorites: “It would seem our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us. Like child who is content to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea, we are far too easily pleased.” We are far too easily pleased. We are way too comfortable in darkness. We embrace our blindness and convince ourselves that we see clearly, that we’ve figured out how to really live this life. We walk around in the darkness and we bump in to things and we tell ourselves that that’s just the way things have to be, never imagining that if we could really see we could avoid those things. We need our eyes to be opened.
The rest of the story is pretty straightforward: Saul is struck blind, he hears the voice of Jesus speaking to him and eventually realizes his mistake, makes the choice to follow Christ, and his sight returns, but all that doesn’t happen in a vacuum and honestly, Saul doesn’t have a lot to do with it. Ananias, a different Ananias than the first one we see in Acts obviously, is also a part of the story, and I think you could make the argument that he plays just as big if not a bigger role in what happens than Saul does.
One more aside, this one of the reasons that I believe the Bible is true and not the product of some vast conspiracy to make up stories years later, if any of were writing the Bible we wouldn’t have nearly as many people with the same names. There is no reason other than reality for there to be two Ananiases within four chapters of each other. Also, later in this chapter is someone named Aeneas. Same chapter! You would fail a creative writing class for doing that. So next time you have doubts creep in keep that in mind. End of rant.
Ananias is only around for eight verses of scripture. We don’t get any information about his life before this or his life after it. We can make some educated guesses but the bottom line is this is all we know about him. Chances are if we started naming important figures from the Bible we’d be at it for hours before he came up. He might not even be the most famous Ananias. But he’s the one who baptized Paul. He’s the one who led Paul through his early days of faith. Missionaries and church planters talk about exponential discipleship, the process by which one person leads another to Christ who leads another who leads another and that’s how expansion happens. By that logic, Ananias might be the most important person in the history of Christianity. But he doesn’t get any credit. I’m going to come back to that idea in a minute, tuck that away.
Ananias does three significant things in his brief time on the scene, three things that allow for Paul’s baptism and all that comes as a result of it, and three things that we all should take note of. First, he dared to believe that transformation was possible. Remember for a second why Saul went to Damascus: he wanted to round up Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem to be killed. Ananias is Christian in Damascus. And God tells him to go where Saul is. You don’t do that unless you believe in people’s ability to change. Actually that’s giving people too much credit, you don’t do that unless you believe in God’s ability to change people. We have become a very jaded society. In a lot of cases that’s for good reason, some of us have been wronged too many times and have committed ourselves to not being fooled again. We’ll never see the kingdom of God grow if we dismiss the amazing ability that God has to transform people’s lives. Our faith is built on the fact that God offers us a chance at transformation, at going from blindness to sight, from lost to found, from captivity to freedom. Ananias realized something: if we claim that transformation in our own lives we can’t reject the possibility in others.
Ananias dared to believe transformation was possible, he also overcame his own personal fears. We mentioned this already, Saul was there to kill people like Ananias. As far as we know Saul’s posse that went with him from Jerusalem was still with him. Just because Saul changed doesn’t mean they did. Serving the kingdom means being willing to take a risk on faith. We may not be called to risk our safety but chances are good at some point we’ll be called to risk our comfort or our status or our money, and the testimony of people like Ananias and countless others in the last 2000 years is that the Kingdom of God is worth the risks we take.
Ananias overcame his fears, he also, the last of these three things, overcomes his prejudice. Why would anyone trust someone like Saul? Why would anyone want him around? Why would anyone forgive him for the things he did? There’s a decent chance that Ananias was in Damascus as a direct result of Saul’s persecutions. Who would want someone like that in their church? Years later Paul would write to the church at Corinth that if “anyone is in Christ he is a new creation, the old is gone and the new has come.” I think he learned that lesson from Ananias’ willingness to see newness in him, to look past what he had done and what Ananias might have believed about him and welcome him anyway. Our prejudices and preconceived notions will only ever serve stand in the way of what God is trying to do in us and in our world.
Ananias is only around for 8 verses of scripture, but 2000 years later we’re still seeing the results of what he was willing to do. It is natural to want to be Paul, to want to be remembered and praised for what we do. It isn’t as much fun to Ananias, to be the one who isn’t celebrated and whose name doesn’t go down in the annals of history. But progress is made by the Ananias-es. The church is kept alive by Ananias-es. We may want to be Paul but the chance we’ll see those big opportunities in our lives are small. We all have opportunities every day to be Ananias, to be willing to do the small but incredibly important tasks of the kingdom. Who is God calling us to go and help see? Where is God calling us to serve the kingdom? The history of faith if full of Ananias-es who take opportunities to serve when they appear, where are we seeing those opportunities in our own lives?