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May 5, 2019

A Tale of Two Fanatics

Passage: Acts 9:1-20
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Let's review the resumes of the two main people today's scripture, starting with Saul. Saul was born in Tarsus to a Jewish family pious and scrupulous enough they could trace their lineage back to the original tribes of Israel. Saul received religious instruction from Rabbi Gamaliel, who served on the high council of the Jerusalem Temple, who held respect among ancient Jews and Christians alike, and whom Jewish Mishnah considers one of the greatest rabbis in history. Under Gamaliel, Saul gained a deep understanding of Hebrew scriptures, Biblical commentaries, and rabbinic theology, and Gamaliel also ensured Saul studied Greek and Roman philosophy so Saul could hold his own in the wider Roman empire. But unlike Gamaliel, young Saul was not so gracious to the followers of Jesus. Clearly Saul also held powerful connections in his resume, as here in chapter 9 despite his young age Saul obtained the high priest's authorization to hunt down members of this new Jewish sect going around claiming that Jesus who was crucified was not only alive again but the Messiah and God incarnate. Saul—with his lifelong faith, solid education, and deep ties to the religious leadership—saw Jesus' followers as heretics who blasphemed the Almighty Lord. Saul’s rich and well-informed faith… led him to conclude these Christians were heretics, blaspheming the holy name of God, and a danger to all of God’s people should the Romans crack down on the new cult emerging around Jesus. And so, Acts 8 says Saul begins “ravaging the church by entering house after house, dragging off both men and women, [and committing] them to prison.” Having now hunted down Christians around Jerusalem, Saul travels to the city of Damascus to round up more Christians there, and so we find him at the start of today's reading “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” From the get-go, we see Saul is a passionately faithful, deeply knowledgeable young man, with a furious zeal to do God's bidding and powerful connections. Quite the resume for Saul.

Ananias, meanwhile, was a Damascus local who somehow heard the teachings of Jesus and began following Christ's Way. So let's look at the resume of Ananias. First, the Apostle Paul later says that Ananias was devout and had a good reputation among local Jews and Christians. Second, the Bible tells us Ananias was... … … And third, Ananias... … … That's actually all we know. Other than the events of today's text, all we ever hear about Ananias in the Bible is that he was faithful and locally respected. There are a few Catholic and Orthodox legends surrounding Ananias, but as far as scripture is concerned, he vanishes into the mists of time just as quickly as he emerged. Compared to Saul's impressive pedigree, education, resume, and connections... Ananias is a relative nobody. No formal training that we know of. No grand endorsements. No authority. It's possible he's never even left his hometown. Ananias is just a faithful little guy, while Saul, who has come to Damascus to arrest believers like Ananias, has qualifications galore.

Yet despite his normalcy and ordinariness, Ananias receives a vision from God. Acts 9 reads, “The Lord said to Ananias 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 arrest all who invoke your name.'” Ananias knows who Saul his. Saul has powerful connections, so it's not like Ananias could pressure him into being nicer. Saul is well-educated and could out-debate Ananias any day of the week, so Ananias won't be able to convert Saul via argument. Saul has power to arrest poor Ananias, while he has nothing in his defense. Saul has come to harm Ananias, while the poor man just wants to hide. But still the Lord declares, “Go, for Saul is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles, kings, and the people of Israel.” Even in this commissioning, Ananias receives no accolades or powers: the focus even here is on how God will use Saul, with Ananias just a vehicle for it. Is it no wonder he balks at God's request? Compared to Saul the religious prodigy and chosen mouthpiece, what hope does Ananias have?

You and I... we are Ananias. We fear those who are different than us. People who look different, wear different clothes, listen to different music, talk different, live in different places. Just as Ananias feared the question mark was Saul's arrival, we fear and mistrust others when we can't understand them, when their potential power intimidates us, when we feel like nobodies just caught up in the stream of the world. And sometimes there are even good reasons to be afraid. It's not like Ananias was being irrational: Saul is responsible for the imprisonment and suffering of his friends, so Ananias has good reasons to be cautious around Saul. We likewise can have good reasons to mistrust and fear others. But whatever the reason, we, like Ananias, are often afraid, and our fear often holds us back from doing God's will. But faith in the Almighty ought to drive out fear, for if we truly believe God is for us, why worry about what might be against us?

And at the same time, we are Saul. Saul has done horrible things in the Bible up to this point, arresting women and men for their faith, persecuting the Church, and through that persecuting God himself. But Saul does all this thinking he is serving the Lord's cause, does all this in the name of his God, does all this with years of Biblical study guiding his steps. You know as well as I the long history of misguided Christians harming others in the name of God, of believers who sincerely thought they were doing the Lord's will but who in reality only caused misery. Well-meaning Christians, like Saul in our scriptures, often harass others over faith in hopes of guilting them into heaven and so morph Christ's Good News into a source of fear and shame. Well-meaning Christians at funerals often give tired cliches to grieving families that do more harm than good and have more to do with Chicken Soup for the Soul than with sacred scripture. Every Christian faces the temptation to baptize personal opinion with a religious veneer to claim God is truly on their side, to contort scripture to justify what they really want all along, whether it be a matter of politics or of whether the Bible lets churches use video projectors in worship. Last Saturday there was a mass shooting at a synagogue in California, and the alleged shooter is a young Presbyterian from a respected church family, who claims his terror attack on those Jewish people was done in the name of God. While his denomination is much more fundamentalist than ours and even then renounced the shooter's ideas, this man was a Presbyterian even so, cited—however perversely and twisted—the same scriptures and thinkers we might, claims he acted in God's name just as we so claim when we feed the hungry and care for the needy. The crimes of that young Presbyterian should give us all pause to wonder where we too, like him or like Saul of old, in our hatred, our fear, our zealotry... betray our faith by doing evil to others while claiming it is God's will... whether it be a mass atrocity like his or the everyday harms of spiritual blindness we wreck on each other.

Saul hates Ananias as a blasphemer who desecrates the holy name of God. Ananias fears Saul as a powerful, brilliant, dangerous man who has come to arrest Christians like him. But after God strikes Saul with blindness—which finally allows Saul to see the truth about Jesus Christ—God sends to Saul a man whom he had hated and who feared him in turn. Acts 9 reads, “So Ananias went [as God commanded] and entered the house [where Saul was]. 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 Saul's eyes, and his sight was restored.” In that very moment, Ananias and Saul must have both held their breath. “Will Saul at last arrest me like he said he would?” “Will Ananias now call down another miracle to smite me?” “Despite his healing, will Saul truly repent and turn to Jesus, or is this the end for me?” “After all I've done, how could Ananias and his fellow Christians ever forgive me, let alone take me in?” Ananias took a leap of faith, trusting in God and acting in the love of Christ. This story is often called the conversion of Saul, but I think the greatest leap of faith here comes from Ananias, who overcame fear and danger to share the good news with another.

Our lectionary text of Acts 9 reveals the final result: “Then Saul got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days Saul was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, 'He is the Son of God.'” Healed by a man he came to harm, baptized by the believers he came to arrest, preaching the gospel he came to snuff out... Saul's life was changed forever by Ananias' humble act of faith. As the Biblical story continues, this Saul—a paragon of Old Testament education and training—becomes a missionary to the non-Jewish nations. Those foreign missions are why we today better know Saul by the Greek variant of his name: Paul... the Apostle. Paul: the man who wrote somewhere between a quarter to half of the New Testament. Paul: whose letters have gone on to inspire Christians for millennia since. Paul: whose experience of God's grace here in the power of Christ and humble faith of Ananias led him to write some of the greatest expositions of God's love. We never hear of Ananias again in the Bible. Like a tug-boat next to a great battleship, compared to Saul-better-known-as-Paul... Ananias may seem small. But just as a tug-boat is what's required to guide a battleship into harbor, Ananias was there in this key moment in Saul's life... to offer the little push of humble faith that changed the world for Saul. Ananias—though just an ordinary, regular believer—in his simple act of faith, hope, love, and trust... changes the life of Saul and, through him, the world.

Later today we will celebrate a baptism, a sign and seal of the inner workings of God's grace. As you ponder the conversion story of Saul, who in a great burst of light was struck blind in his eyes as his heart at last could see God... I invite you to also remember Ananias, who guided the great Apostle Paul in those first steps of faith and healing. The exchange between those two men is a reminder that the Lord can do extraordinary things through ordinary people. The Bible says nothing of Ananias' education, skills, or ability. We're just told that he had faith and that when God sent him out, despite his fears and worries, Ananias said “Yes.” We're reminded that faith must overcome fear and hate, just as it did between the two men of our scripture today, for faith knows that God is our protector and guide, that in the end we need not fear mortal men compared to the immortal God who saves us all. We are reminded in the life of Saul that religious zeal can blind itself when we arrogantly presume that our ways must be God's ways, that our thoughts must be God's thoughts... and so we are reminded to humble ourselves before the Lord, constantly seeking his wisdom, grace, and love to guide our lives rather than our own understanding. And most of all, in the conversion of Saul... we are reminded that nobody is beyond redemption. For it was Saul—who hunted and hurt the Church—that God selected to share the gospel with the wider nations of the world. It was Saul, this violent fanatic, whom God turned into an apostle of peace, an example of grace and mercy, a beacon of faith. And it was Ananias, a humble fanatic of mercy and peace, whom God used to change Saul's life and thus the world. So may may we in our own lives imitate the humble faith of Ananias, embrace the hope of redemption displayed in Saul's life, and walk our days in humility knowing that the Lord who called both those men of old to his service still calls each of us today to love, live, and serve in the same way. Amen.

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