Sermon: I Have Heard About…

May 1, 2022

Acts 9:1-20
John 21:1-19

by Eric Anderson

To the first Christians – these events in the ninth chapter of Acts took place before anyone was even calling them “Christians” – to the first Christians, the figure of Saul of Tarsus must have been intimidating. Scary. Threatening. Perhaps even terrifying.

According to Acts, he had been present at the stoning of Stephen, one of the first deacons of the Church, and approved of his execution. He had gone from being an interested observer to a dedicated opponent to an active investigator. He looked for followers of Jesus. He identified them. He arranged to have them arrested and tried for blasphemy. As a result, the community of Jesus-followers in Jerusalem was scattered as people fled, and the church struggled for leadership as the apostles had to hide.

“Saul,” writes Amy G. Oden at Working Preacher, “is the classic example of the devout person who is so determined to do good that they are blinded (literally!) to the destructive consequences of their purity campaign. He does much harm as he is trying to do good.”

God save us from people who think they are doing good who are trying so thoroughly to do… good.

It’s also worth remembering that in the first days of the Church, we were not respectable people doing respectable things. We were blasphemers, heretics, and criminals. Following Jesus was against the law in many places in those early years.

Cheryl Lindsay writes at UCC.org, “I like the stories of biblical characters outside of their best moments. I like the tales the lectionary often shies away from, the actions that make us uncomfortable, and the choices that make us cringe. They remind us that these characters were profoundly human; there are no super saints coming in to save the day. These are not perfect people who live above the struggle to do and be what God calls them to do and to be. The common denominator is that when invited to follow God–to come or to go in the name and the way of the Holy One–they said yes.”

That brings me to the principal person on whom I propose to preach – Saul of… No. Not him, actually. It’s…

Ananias.

Like Saul of Tarsus, Ananias was, according to a brief additional description of him in Acts 22, “a devout man according to the law and well spoken of by all the Jews living there” in Damascus. Regrettably, that’s all we know about him. “Ananias” appears to have been a reasonably common name at the time; two other men with the same name appear in Acts of the Apostles and one of them was high priest at the time.

Other than his somewhat popular name, what do we know of him? He was a Jesus-follower, and probably not one of those who had fled Jerusalem. He seems to have been well established in Damascus to be well spoken of by his neighbors.

Strikingly, he didn’t have any difficulties recognizing God’s voice in a vision. That is a remarkable thing. Such noteworthy people of faith as Moses, Samuel, Elijah, and pretty much all of Jesus’ disciples, struggled to recognize God at significant times. Not Ananias. He quickly responded with the expected phrase: “Here I am.” That is impressive.

Now comes the moment that makes Ananias the real hero of this story. God gave him instructions. “There’s this man from Tarsus named Saul. Go heal him.” And Ananias said…

“Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem…” Or in other words: “Lord, this is a bad idea. Don’t make me do it.”

I have heard about… and no. I don’t want to do it.

With Dr. Lindsay, I find I really appreciate the people of the Bible when it’s not one of their best moments – and I think we have to say that this isn’t Ananias’ best moment.

But we get it, don’t we?

As Eric Barreto writes at Working Preacher, “Even being in Saul’s presence could be a death sentence! But the Lord is unrelenting and reveals to Ananias in one brief sentence the nature of Saul’s call: He will bring the gospel to kings and Gentiles alike. And he will suffer for the sake of the gospel.”

Luke – the person who wrote the Gospel of Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles – didn’t tell us what argument persuaded Ananias to go visit Saul. We just know that Ananias went, and that when he got there, the first words out of his mouth were: “Brother Saul.” Ananias greeted the one who had been breathing threats and murder against Jesus’ followers as if Saul were already a person of the Way.

At this point, I look to turn from reflecting on Ananias to reflecting about us. We have here a beautiful example of grace and healing being extended to someone who had been on the outside of the Church. It’s a story of reconciliation and rejoicing. It’s a story of healing that touches the heart.

But we need to be careful how we bring this into our own lives, and how we use it to advise other peoples’ decisions. It’s astonishing how often people demand that victims of abuse take the lead in healing relationships. We praise the crime victims who extend forgiveness to those who injured them, but – and this is a very important “but” – we rarely commend those who confess their misdeeds and offer to make it right. The forgiveness that we praise is frequently hollow. It doesn’t expect change of the person who did the harm – and if there’s to be any real healing, that person has to make changes.

Just for reference, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” is not an apology and indicates no real change in the person who says it.

Person or persons. Nations do a lot of harm. Governments of cities and counties and towns do harm. Clubs and clans and companies do harm. It is stunning how often groups of people demand that they suffer no consequences for the harm they’ve caused – and that their demands get met.

We must not insist that victims bear the sole cost. There has to be repentance.

Saul, let us note, had repented, at least to God’s satisfaction. Ananias could extend the greeting of “brother” because Saul had taken his first steps – assisted by others – toward that relationship.

There is another significant factor in the story of Ananias. He’d heard what to do directly from God. That was, I’m sure, a big element of his decision to visit Saul.

He did argue, and I think that arguing with God is both good theology and good spirituality. If you’d like examples of faithful people arguing with God, I offer you Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Simon Peter, and if you include the prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus of Nazareth. God seems to like people who ask questions. Spiritually, argument is important because it turns a monologue into a conversation. Prayer all too frequently consists of me talking and God listening (and probably wondering if there will be a chance to get a word in edgewise). Argument goes back and forth. It also confirms God’s direction. Questions can bring clarity. What is it, in fact, that God is asking you to do?

Mind you, arguing with God is rarely, if ever, successful. Ananias’ argument got him an explanation, which is nice, but not a reprieve. He still had to go where his safety could not be guaranteed.

As you’re considering your invitations to promote healing, you’ve got to ask: what is the summons of God?

For Ananias, the summons was clear, and the result was astonishing. We know Saul of Tarsus well, but we know him not by his Hebrew name, but by the one he used when writing in Greek. Saul of Tarsus was that famous letter-writer we know as Paul. For hundreds of years we have read his words as Scripture – this one who persecuted, who repented, who found healing, and who took up a new Way.

 “I have heard about…” We could say that about a lot of people, couldn’t we? “I have heard about…” – but what is our call, having heard? Have they determined to make changes in their lives? Have we been asked to help them do that? What is our call from God?

“I have heard about” a follower of Jesus who overcame his fears and brought healing to a person who needed it. May the same be said of us.

Amen.

Watch the Recorded Sermon

Did Pastor Eric make changes because of the direction of God? Probably not, to be honest, but at the time they seemed like good ideas.

The image is Ananias Restoring the Sight of St Paul by Jean II Restout (1719) – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15397350.

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on May 1, 2022

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