No matter how many times I hear the story of Saul’s conversion, I still find myself marveling at how little attention is paid to the real hero of the story.
as interpreted by Deborah
Saul, who pursued the disciples of the Lord relentlessly, asked the high priest for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way — men or women — he could bring them to Jerusalem for trial.
While he was on his way to Damascus suddenly a light from heaven burst upon him. As he collapsed onto the ground a voice said, “Saul! Saul, why do you persecute me?"
Covering his face, he cried out, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came to him, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. Arise and go into the city; there you will be told what to do.”
The men who were traveling with him stood back, speechless. They heard a voice but didn’t see anyone.
Saul got up off of the ground, and though his eyes were open, he couldn’t see anything; so they took him by the hand and led him into Damascus.
For three days he was blind, and would neither eat nor drink.
There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
The Lord said, “Go to Judas’ house on Broadway and find the man from Tarsus named Saul. Right now 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 will regain his sight.”
Ananias replied, “Lord, I know about this guy. He has done evil things to your saints in Jerusalem, and he’s been given authority from the chief priests to imprison everyone who believes in you.”
But the Lord said, “Go, for I have chosen to make him an instrument to bring my name to the Gentiles and kings, and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must endure for the sake of my name.”
So Ananias did as the Lord said. Entering 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.”
Immediately — as if scales had fallen from his eyes — Saul’s sight was restored. He got out of bed and was baptized, and after eating a meal, he regained his strength. He spent several days with the disciples in Damascus, and started proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues right away, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
No matter how many times I hear the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, I still find myself marveling. Not at what happened on the road — but about what happened afterward.
And I continue to be astonished at how little attention is paid to the real star of the story: the faithful disciple Ananias.
Here is a guy who is called to face a sworn enemy of Jesus’ followers: a man who has made it his life’s work to search out and destroy Christians. Ananias knows all about this Saul, and tells God about “the evil he has done” in Jerusalem and his plans to do the same in Damascus.
It isn’t the sort of job anyone would want. To a follower of Jesus’ Way, going before Saul must have seemed like a suicide mission. Yet when God says “go” — Ananias goes.
And I wonder how Ananias prepared for the meeting with his sworn enemy. Did he go home and kiss his wife and children good-bye, did he spend several hours in fervent prayer, did he run his fingers through the sandy soil that had been brought back from Jesus’ tomb? Did he hesitate, did his courage falter, did he think about running away?
Or did our hero immediately set off on his mission? Did he boldly go where no Christian had gone before, striding confidently and purposefully into Judas’ house and demanding to be admitted to Saul’s room?
We do not know for certain. What we do know is that this otherwise-anonymous early Christian went forth to do as the Holy One had asked him to do. And we know that in doing so he risked arrest, imprisonment, torture, and very possibly death.
Arriving at the house where Saul was staying, Ananias must have faced one of the greatest temptations of his life. There before him lay the great Persecutor: the zealous hunter of Christians who sought to eradicate the good news, to silence the testimonies of Jesus’ grace and power, the one who brought evil to those who followed the Lord’s Way.
God had delivered Saul into his hands. Blind, weak from hunger, helpless ... it would have been the work of a moment to crush his skull with the pitcher that sat on the table next to the bed or to wrap the cord of his belt around his throat and stop his vicious attacks forever.
In that moment, anything might have happened.
But Ananias, devoted follower of Jesus’ Way, chose to do as his Lord had done. He chose to bless and not to curse; to heal, not to harm. He chose to do the most loving thing for his neighbor, and for his God. By his words and his deeds Ananias proved that the Gospel was not a fantasy, not a fairy tale, but the saving truth of God’s love and mercy. And in that moment Saul was converted.
Until he reached Damascus, Saul’s knowledge of the followers of Jesus had been based on rumors, slander, and gossip. According to what he’d heard, these Christians were not just wrong, but a terrible, dangerous and deluded group. Driven by blind fear and suspicion, Saul struck out against all those who believed that the Messiah had come.
And then he met Ananias — the Faithful, the courageous, the true Christ-follower — who offered him kindness and forgiveness; a compassionate soul who welcomed him and healed him in the name of Jesus.
Because of Ananias, Saul could see what it meant to follow the Way. It was a Path of Grace; Christians believed that the Kingdom of God was already here — and lived their lives accordingly. Because of Ananias, Saul learned that Christian faith was fearless and unshakeable, for they were utterly certain that nothing could separate them from the love of God.
Hopefully by now I’ve convinced you that Ananias is “the man” .... But so what? What does his story — impressive as it is — have to do with us? We don’t have to worry about anybody like Saul roaming the streets and breathing fiery threats against our Way, do we?
It would be nice to be able to identify with Ananias, the courageous, faithful follower of the Lord Christ. But, if we are honest, we may find far too many traces of the yet-unconverted Saul in ourselves.
Unwittingly, for the most part, we have fallen prey to the temptation to judge, condemn, and hate those with whom we disagree. It seems as if everyone has chosen a side to which he clings, devoutly — and a side which he despises with equal zeal. Antagonism and suspicion rule the day.
Republicans/Democrats, blue states/red states, liberals/ conservatives, meat-eaters/vegetarians, cat owners/dog owners, Mac/PC ... The list could fill volumes. Our willingness to divide and despise one another appears to be inexhaustible.
We eagerly believe the worst allegations about the “others,” and attribute their behaviors and beliefs to the most reprehensible motives. We cheer when “we” win and gloat when “they” suffer. We imagine a perfect world in which these “enemies” are no more — just as Saul imagined his world would be, if all those who followed the Way were gone.
It would be nice to be able to identify with Ananias. If only we could.
It is right and fitting that we ask ourselves: What would a true follower of Jesus’ Way do in this time and age? How would she live, speak, and act; what would she work for and desire?
We might begin by drawing on Ananias’ powerfully effective example of Christian faithfulness. Like him we would be courageous and kind; we would not hide, hissing and spitting in fear of those who hate us, but go forth to meet them — even on their own turf, and offer them Christ’s peace. We would show ourselves — by our conduct and our language, to be no one’s enemy, but followers of the Way of forgiveness, compassion, and healing love. We would bless and not curse.
Does such behavior sound impossibly naive and idealistic — even dangerous? Won’t we just be setting ourselves up for ridicule and abuse, hatred and hostility of every sort? Very likely. Yet, as an earlier witness to such Christian heroism testified: in these things we are more than conquerors through the One who loves us.
If Christ is for us — who can be against us? (And who gives a hoot, if they are?)
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
“Follow me.” ~ Jesus of Nazareth