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.”
Pastor Marc's sermon on Third Sunday of Easter (May 5, 2019) on Acts 9:1-20. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
So I’m going to begin today with a bit of a pop quiz and I’d like you to shout out the answers to my questions. How many books are in what we call the New Testament? 27. How many of those books are considered to be epistles - i.e. letters? 21. Of those letters, how many were attributed to a guy named Paul? 13. And what was Paul’s original name? Saul. If you counted up all the words in the New Testament, roughly â…“ of them are attributed to a guy who began his career trying to stop people from following Jesus. In the book of Acts, we first meet Saul, aka Paul, briefly in chapter eight. He’s there, in the background, when a crowd killed Stephen, an early follower of Jesus who wouldn’t stop sharing his faith with those around him. Saul then became more active, trying to stop the people who followed the Way, who followed Jesus, from practicing their faith. In the words of Amy Oden, Saul saw Jesus’ followers “as [people] within his own faith [tradition that needed] rescue from their error.” Saul loved God and he wanted to stamp out anything that, in his view, dishonored God. Saul began going house to house, throwing into prison anyone he found practicing the Way. Jesus’ friends responded to this and other acts of violence by fleeing from their homes, becoming refugees searching for safety. Saul chose to follow them, leaving the land of ancient Israel behind as he headed towards Syria and Damascus. He carried with him letters giving him the authority to not only interrogate the religious beliefs of the people he met. But he could also arrest them and bring them back to Jerusalem. As he neared the city, a bright light suddenly surrounded him. Saul fell to the ground, met Jesus, and found himself to be blind. For three days, he neither ate nor drank. He was a vulnerable visitor in a city that wasn’t his home and the letters of authority he held in his hands were ones he could no longer read. His mission was now in jeopardy. His status as a defender of the faith was almost gone. He was in the exact opposition position than where he was at the very start of today’s text. And it’s then when we meet Ananias, a follower of Jesus who Saul, just a few days before, would have arrested and taken to Jerusalem.
Which is why, I think, Ananias response to Jesus is a pretty good one. After falling asleep, Jesus sent Ananias a vision, telling him to visit Saul. Now, Saul’s reputation had preceded him. Ananias not only knew what Saul had done but he was also aware of Saul’s mission in the city of Damascus. Even though Saul couldn’t necessarily read the letters of authority he carried, the people around him could. It’s safe to assume that Judas, the owner of the house Saul was saying in, knew who Saul was and what kind of authority he had. If Ananias’ visited Saul, it would be as if he was walking into a trap. Any attempt to heal Saul through the laying on of hands would require Ananias to say the name of Jesus out loud. Saul, at that point, would only need to say a word to have Ananias arrested. Ananias knew the kind of trouble a visit to Saul would bring. So, in an act of deep faithfulness, he laid out all his concerns to the Lord. Ananias tried to negotiate with the Lord but Jesus wouldn’t back down. His command to Ananias remained the same. Ananias’ visit to Saul who be part of a mission to spread Jesus to the Gentiles, to the non-Jews. But Jesus also chose to not let Ananias’ anxiety get the best of him. Jesus kept talking. And as depending on which words we chose to emphasize in verse 16, we can change what Jesus’ call to Ananias actually means.
On one level, I think we are drawn to the second half of verse 16, where Jesus said that Saul must suffer because of Jesus’ name. As we saw, the author of Acts wanted us to see how Saul caused so many others to suffer because they dared to utter the name of Jesus. If they had to suffer than it only seems fair that Saul, a person who caused suffering, should also suffer as well. When we put our emphasis on the second half of verse 16, we end up making God into some kind of balance act. If a follower of Jesus ends up suffering, than the one who caused that suffering should experience some kind of suffering too. This idea of balance, while not protecting us from being hurt, at least makes us feel a bit more comfortable because we know, in the end, that a cosmic balance of suffering will even out. We tend to not spend too much time thinking about this balancing act when we, ourselves, cause others to suffer. Rather, when we are hurt or are in pain or even when we just don’t get our way, we want, at a minimum, for our feelings and our experiences to be balanced out on those who hurt us. A Saul who caused suffering ends up becoming that Saul who suffers.
Yet, that’s not the only part of verse 16 that we can emphasize. We can, instead, go to that verse’s very first word: I. Jesus makes a very specific claim about what God will do in this moment. God will not ignore what Saul had done nor will God fail to listen to the concerns Ananias has. God will be faithful to everyone in this moment - including those who follow Jesus, those who don’t, and everyone else who’s in-between. God promises to be involved in the nitty gritty details of our everyday lives which means God knows our fears, our struggles, and our sufferings. God promises to be with us, no matter what, and that, in the end, will carry us through. It’s not our responsibility, when it comes to God, to decide who has and who hasn’t suffered enough. Our call isn’t to enhance or increase the suffering in the world but, instead, to heal it. So Ananias, after hearing what God promises, responded by doing the only thing he could do: he went and visited Saul. And after laying his hands on him, he stayed with him - feeding his body, his soul, and his faith while connecting him to a wider community so that Saul would know he wasn’t alone.
The call of the baptized, the call of those who have encountered Jesus, and the call of those who have even a tiny bit of faith is to always let God be God while, at the same time, inviting us to live into the promises God has made. Through the waters of baptism, we are claimed as God’s own not because we know how to perfectly emphasize every sentence in the Bible. No, we belong to God because the body of Christ, the church, and this community of faith couldn’t be what it’s supposed to be without you. Your past is not a summation of your future and your sufferings are not the limit to what God has in mind for you. You belong with Jesus, not because you are perfect or because you’ve never tried to negotiate with God. You belong because, through baptism and faith, God has made a promise to never give up on you.
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