How Saul met Ananias
January 25, 2015
Saul of Tarsus. Just saying his name sent shivers down my spine. It was the same for all of us Christians in Damascus. When we met together to break to the bread and pray at someone’s house, we’d sit round the table and share the news that came to us from the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. So much good news: they were sharing what they had in common, and growing in number; we’d heard about this new servant leader Stephen, how he was full of love and the Holy Spirit, with a special gift for caring for others. Everything we heard about Stephen reminded us of Jesus. So perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise when we heard about the accusations, the trumped up charges. Blasphemy, supposedly. They’d dragged Stephen out of the city and stoned him to death. Brutal. And that’s when the name Saul of Tarsus first started to come up. He was the man in charge of this violent mob. Not throwing any stones, you understand – he didn’t actually get his hands dirty – but standing there, coolly watching, nodding his approval, encouraging them to do the job thoroughly.
And then after Stephen was killed, all hell seemed to let loose. This Saul of Tarsus became obsessed with wiping us out. It was a terrifying time for our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. They’d hear the knock on the door in the middle of the night and it would be Saul and his henchman, they’d batter their way in and drag them off and throw them into jail. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.
“It’ll be us next” someone said. “You watch. That Saul of Tarsus, he’s be down here in Damascus, and he’ll be after us too. “We looked at each other around the table. I could sense the fear in the room. “Shall we pray?” someone asked? We prayed silently for a while and then I felt moved to speak. “We are the people of the Way” I said. “Christ Jesus, whom God raised from the dead is with us by his Spirit. As we gather now, the Lord is here. His Spirit is with us. Not even Saul of Tarsus can kill the Spirit of the Risen Jesus.” We joined to pray the prayer that Jesus gave us and as we prayed “Deliver us from evil” I saw the face of Saul of Tarsus in my mind’s eye.
The next week there were rumours flying around, Saul was planning to travel to Damascus, he was secretly gathering intelligence on Christians here, he was here already undercover – we didn’t know what to believe. We gathered as usual at our house to break the bread together. I had thought our numbers might be down, but everyone was there. We knew we needed one another. There was a great sense of Jesus present with us. There was a knock at the door. It was my son. His face was white. “He’s here Dad, Saul of Tarsus, he’s here, but it’s not like you think.” The room went very quiet. Some people started praying quietly. Others hugged each other. A child started to cry and was comforted. “Tell us what you know” I said.
“He’s here, he’s on Straight Street in the house of Judas or someone, but it’s not like you think. He’s gone blind. Something happened as he was on the road from Jerusalem. There was some kind of incident – Saul fell over, says there was a light that blinded him, but no one else saw anything. They heard something, though, and Saul says it was the voice of Jesus, asking Saul why he was persecuting him. They led him down into the city – he can’t see a thing – and now he’s fasting and praying. Hasn’t eaten or drunk for three days.”
We registered this news. We knew of Judas on Straight Street. He was a friend of our people. We joined hands around the table and sat in silence for some time, praying silently together. At last I said,
“I’m going to see Saul”.
“Ananias, don’t do it!”
“It’s a trick, Ananias! Don’t fall for it.”
“He wants to trap us, that’s all. He knows we’ll take pity on a blind man. He’s setting us up.”
I stood up. “Do you remember the words of our Lord? Love your enemies. Bless those who persecute you.”
“You want to go and bless a murderer? A madman who wants to rid the world of the people of the Way?”
I felt very calm in this moment. I knew that God had spoken to me, with a clarity I had never experienced before.
“God is at work in these strange events. He has purposes for us beyond what we can know and he has a purpose even for Saul. I must go to him.”
As I got up to go someone called after me, “How can you betray us like this, Ananias? None of our lives are safe if you do this.”
My heart was racing as I walked the short distance to Straight Street. Yet the conviction that God was calling me to do this was ever clearer. Judas let me in, and showed me to an upstairs room where a figure was hunched in a corner. He turned towards me as he heard me enter and shuffled in my direction, arms outstretched, eyes closed. I had imagined Saul as a big physical presence, and was surprised by this thin, unshaven man. Love your enemies, Jesus was saying to me in my heart. Bless those who persecute you.
Saul, I said, my name is Ananias. The Lord Jesus – he who met you on the road – has sent me to you. Saul lifted his face toward me and reached out for my arm. Here I was, face to face with the man whom I feared most in all the world.
I laid my hands on Saul’s head and he gripped me by the shoulders and for some time we stood there praying quietly together. At last I said aloud, Saul, be filled with the Holy Spirit. At that he opened his eyes. I smiled at him, he blinked and his eyes filled with tears, and we gave each other a rather awkward hug.
“Baptise me” he said.
There was some water in a cup on the table so I used that to baptise Saul.
“Saul, my brother”, I said. “I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit.” That was the beginning.
Tomorrow, 26th January is the day that the church celebrates the conversion of St. Paul: this extraordinary turnaround by which Saul, Christianity’s most zealous opponent becomes Paul, its most zealous advocate. Paul the Apostle is the single most important shaper of the Jesus movement – the church – throughout its history. Alongside the four Gospels, his letters tower over the New Testament. His missionary energy in planting new churches has proved a lasting model and inspiration. Paul gives us the great insight that Jesus puts us right with God through grace, not our own efforts. Paul believes his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road to be a resurrection appearance of Jesus, or its equivalent, and the great surge of missionary energy that follows it reads in acts almost like a new Pentecost, a second wave of spiritual outpouring.
Yet before any of that could happen – before Saul could become a preacher and missionary in Christ’s church, before he could become a pastor, nurturing and growing the church, before he could become the church’s theologian and teacher and leader – before any of that, he simply needed to join the church. He needed to become part of the family, to belong, to be baptised. And how could that happen? How was it possible? How could he possibly be trusted and accepted by the fragile gatherings of Christian people who he had been persecuting with such violent and murderous intent? It was one thing for Saul to have an overwhelming personal experience of Jesus Christ. It was quite another thing for him to cross the threshold into the community of believer. For that he needed an outstretched hand of welcome. He was wholly dependent. He needed another human being, another Christian. He needed someone to be Christ to him. He needed someone with the courage to set aside his well-founded fear of this terrifying man who had done so much wrong. He needed Ananias.
This morning I want to celebrate Ananias: his courage, his obedience to God’s call on his life, to be in the right place at the right time, his willingness to take a real risk. What Ananias did might seem small– he blessed and baptised a stranger – but its consequences for history were infinitely huge. Without Ananias, no Paul.
As I pondered with this story, I asked myself where I put myself in it. I can’t put myself in Saul’s place, this man of extremes, this religious genius. He’s out of my league. I can’t easily identify with Paul, but maybe I can identify with Ananias. Would I have Ananias’s courage under threat of persecution? I pray I would, but I don’t know. But like Ananias, I can listen to God’s call to me, to reach out a hand of welcome to someone I hardly know. I can pray with someone who needs me to pray with them. I can do something small, that could lead by God’s grace to something big.
Our reader Steve Ellis who preached for us last week told me that a decade or four ago, he was co-leading a Christian youth weekend for a group of teenagers. Among the young people who were deeply moved by what they experienced that weekend was a young lad called Steve Croft, whom we now know better as Bishop Steven- our Diocesan bishop, and one of the leading Christian thinkers and writers in the U. K. Maybe our Steve thought what he was doing that weekend was only something small. But it was something small that led to something big.
You can be Ananias too. This week, you can take time to listen to God. You can make someone welcome, you can pray with someone, you can share your faith with a few simple words, you can be Christ to the person next to you on the bus or in the supermarket queue. This is how God’s kingdom grows. This is how the world is changed.
Frances Eccleston, Feast of St. Paul, January 2015.