In Praise of Ananias

Acts 9:1-19                                                                             May 15, 2022

Saul’s confrontation with Christ on the road to Damascus has one of the best plot lines- the bad guy gets humbled and becomes the good guy.  We love it when the villain has a change of heart and becomes a hero.  Scrooge and the Grinch discover the true meaning of Christmas.  Darth Vader turns from the Dark Side in The Return of the Jedi.  Saul, the persecutor of the church, becomes Paul, the great evangelist who writes half the New Testament.  These are “love wins” stories.  But each conversion needs a Bob Cratchet and Tiny Tim, Cindy Loo Who and Max the Dog, the unfailing belief of Luke Sky Walker, or a leader like Ananias who have the courage and power to hope.  Ananias deserves his due in this story.  We need brave heroes like Ananias who are willing to take a risk to make God’s love and justice real.

Our story starts back in Acts 7.  Saul is present at the execution of Steven.  Like Jesus’s show trial, Steven has a trial with the same results.  The crowd is so enraged by Steven’s words that they cover their ears, drag him out of the city and stone him to death.  The mob mentality takes over.  Notice that Saul did not throw a stone but watched over the cloaks of those who did the dirty work.  Does Saul have a deeper agenda than theological outrage?  Is he a man who is strategic and uses the rage of others to further his ambition?  Acts 8:3 reads:

But Saul ravaged the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.”

And in Acts 9:1-2, “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.”

What does it mean to breathe threats and murder?  In our Bible study, someone said, “This is something for which you live.”  Saul is all in on stamping out people who believe differently than he does.  There is no engaging in dialog, agreeing to disagree, or live and let live.  You are for or against Saul.  Conform or face the consequences.  It’s astonishing Paul later wrote all these letters to conflicted churches urging forbearance, who said love is patient and kind and that love bears all, believes all, hopes all.  But right now, he is “breathing threats and murder.”

The scene is set for Saul’s dramatic vision.  A flash of light blinds him, and he hears a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Not “why are you persecuting these people?” but “why are you persecuting me?”  The risen Christ is connected to human community.  In life, he said, whenever you give a cup of cold water, you do it to me.  Not you did a good deed, but you did this to me.  I wonder if this is why Paul later writes we are the body of Christ.  “You are persecuting me, Saul, my body.”  But on the road to Damascus, Saul says, “Who are you, Lord?  He doesn’t mean Lord and Savior, but rather the formal, “Who are you, sir?”

This encounter is only the first stage of conversion.  It is a divine confrontation.  Saul, you are on the wrong side of history.  You are doing evil in the name of God.  And what the voice wants to know is why.  Why are you doing this?  That is the big question that goes unanswered.  When people use violence to repress the religious beliefs of others, you must ask why.  You can bet it is probably not about God.  It’s about power. Maybe that is why Christ leaves Saul in this blinded, vulnerable state to wait and contemplate this why.  Saul must go through the process of being undone, the feeling of powerlessness, before he is restored and given a new mission.

So, stage one is confrontation.  Saul does not change without confrontation.  Does it follow that we must sometimes confront others with a “why?” for justice to prevail?  People often say, “Don’t preach politics.”  If it is a plea to not engage in hyperbole, partisanship, and divisiveness, to be respectful about differences of opinion, then I agree.  If it means don’t talk about injustice, don’t step into anything controversial or uncomfortable, that is not biblical preaching.  Bibles from the civil war era remove Exodus and the freeing of enslaved people.  That is not the Bible I preach. There is a time to reconcile and a time to confront.

While Paul is contemplating his “why,” the Spirit is talking to Ananias, the leader of the Damascus church.  The Lord calls his name “Ananias.” He replies, “Here I am, Lord.”  This is what the prophets Samuel and Isaiah answered when God called.  It’s one of our favorite hymns.  “Here I am, Lord. What do you want?”  The Lord gives precise directions to find and heal this man, Saul of Tarsus.  Ananias says wait a minute, Lord, I think your GPS is off.  Isn’t this the Saul who is doing evil, who is arresting us?  You want me to go to our enemy?

“That’s right. I have plans for him.”

Ananias’s bravery and compassion move me.  He not only does what God asks, but when he meets Saul, he puts his hands upon him and calls him Brother Saul.  Imagine Saul sitting blind for three days, wondering what will happen to him.  The first words he hears are “Brother Saul.”  God could have had this one-on-one confrontation with Saul, gotten his agreement, forgiven him, and charged him with a new path.  Instead, he sent Ananias from the community Saul was victimizing and invited Saul to a new life in the community.  Think of the importance of the act of Ananias in the history of the early church.  He is here for nine verses for one great action.  Without it, would there be letters to Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians?

This text asks us to do two tough things.  Sometimes we must confront injustice, and other times we go to our enemy and heal them and call them Brother or Sister.  Can’t we just stay in our camps and only talk to people who agree with us? This week, how does this text speak to us?  I can’t help but think of our polarization and the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade.

I come to this moral dilemma with a pastor’s heart as I remember all the situations I have been asked to offer support and counsel.

  • I had prayed with a family when pregnancy threatened the mother’s life, and the parents tearfully decided on abortion rather than risk their other two children not having a mother.
  • I sat with a family after their daughter was raped, and they went to the nearest hospital, which was Roman Catholic. They could not get a morning-after pill. The experience was humiliating for the daughter as she sat alone, answered police questions, and was lectured on the sanctity of life and the evil of abortion.
  • I have been in the doctor’s office with my first wife when we received the news that the fetus in her womb likely had Trisomy 19, a chromosome abnormality that leads to either stillbirth or a very short and painful life. Should she have carried that pregnancy to term?
  • I think of all the women who have come to me and said they had an abortion five years ago, or 10 or 20 years ago. They didn’t see how they could have managed a baby at that time in their life.  While they thought they made the right decision, it was still painful.  Shame and guilt endured over time.  The guilt comes when they hear political slogans like “Abortion equals murder.”  I honor the grief in each of their struggles.  And my response has been, “You did your best.  Life presents us with many hard choices where it is not black and white.  And you are not a murderer.”

I didn’t always think this way.  As a student in a Baptist college, most of my friends were against abortion.  I wanted to be faithful and prove that I had the courage of my convictions.  So, I joined a protest at a Planned Parenthood clinic.  The organizers told me to get a sign.  Did I want the picture of a dead baby or “Abortion is Murder?”  I opted for Stop Planned Parenthood.  When a pregnant woman came to the clinic, the small pack pounced at her, shouting, “Save your baby.  Choose life.  Don’t murder your child.”  She might have been there for prenatal care.  Another woman, not so pregnant, might have been there for a pap smear.  I quickly knew this was not how I wanted to live my faith.

This led me to soul-searching and hearing more about women’s experiences as I have shared.  You have often heard me say in sermons to embrace complexity.  A recent article titled, “As a Pastor, I Can’t Define Life’s Edges.  Neither can Lawmakers.”   Melissa Flores-Baxter writes:

Pastoral ministry often involves walking people through the margins of life’s beginning and end. These moments are awe-filled and holy.

Anti-abortion laws, like the law most recently passed in Texas, attempt to turn the holy gray of life’s beginning into a searing black and white. But even the politicians behind these laws cannot escape the complication of defining the legal status of prenatal life. In Alabama, an embryo in a lab is not considered a person, while an embryo implanted in a uterus at the same point in development is.

I posted on my Facebook page and to you this morning that I am prayerfully Pro-choice. It is not enough for me to quietly support women who ask for guidance. I want it known that if you or your daughters or granddaughters are wrestling with challenging decisions about their lives and reproductive health, I will support them with care and without judgment. I embrace the holy gray spaces at the margins of life’s beginning and ending with awe and humility.

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