We’re coming to the end of this series. Next week Jeremy Zach will share with us from Revelation Chapter 21, where John saw a vision of a new heaven and new earth. That’s the ultimate goal toward which we are working as we seek to love our neighbors – to bring about that new heaven and new earth. It’s that’s for which we pray every week: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The week after next, Pentecost Sunday, we’ll read from Acts Chapter 2 about the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that empowers us to strive for that goal of ushering in God’s Kingdom on earth.
But first, this week we turn to a passage in Acts where we find ourselves on a road to Damascus. If you’ve ever heard people talk about having a “Damascus Road” experience in their faith, this is the passage from which that phrase comes. A man named Saul had been persecuting Christians, that is, those who belonged to the Way. In our text today, Saul was taking letters to the synagogues in Damascus, letters which would permit him to arrest Christians. On the way to Damascus, he encountered Jesus.
This passage is typically referred to as the conversion of Saul, later to be named Paul. It’s a dramatic scene, and so, for understandable reasons, Saul is typically the focal point in this passage. Yet there’s another man named in the passage on whom I want us to focus this morning. Listen to the story of Saul from Acts 9:1-9 and in verses 10-19 the story of a man named Ananias.
Read Acts 9:1-19.
The way this worship series came together was through one of our elders and our study of the book The Post-Quarantine Church by Thom Rainer. The elder asked if I had considered a worship series on change. The idea intrigued me, so much so that I posted on Facebook asking people to comment with biblical characters who had experienced a change in their lives by God. One friend suggested, without any explanation or commentary, Acts 9:1-19. She could have chosen to end her suggested text at verse 9. Just verses 1-9 alone would have made for an outstanding example of change, as Saul certainly experienced a change in his life when he went from being a persecutor of Christians to one of the most well-known leaders of the Church. Instead, she chose to suggest continuing through verse 19. I love that she included, not just Saul’s encounter with Jesus, but also Ananias’ encounter with Jesus, for both men experienced a conversion.
Imagine being in Ananias’ shoes. He was just minding his own business at home in Damascus when suddenly Jesus appeared to him in a vision. Jesus called his name, and Ananias responded, “Here I am, Lord.” Then Jesus said, “You know that man Saul who’s been persecuting you and all my followers? I want you to go and visit him.”
In our Wednesday night Bible study on the Book of Acts, we’ve said many times that the disciples had seen some pretty wild and crazy stuff the past couple of months. Let’s start with the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. Pretty wild and crazy. Then he ascended into the sky right before their very eyes. Then they saw what was like – I mean, Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, can’t even describe it; he can only use similes – a sound like the rush of a violent wind and divided tongues as of fire (Acts 2:2-3). The people were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to speak in other languages, yet they all understood each other. And 3,000 people came to faith that day (Acts 2:41). Wild and crazy stuff.
Then Jesus appeared to Ananias and told him to go visit Saul. I imagine Ananias was thinking, “OK, rising from the dead and ascending to heaven? That’s pretty wild and crazy. This Spirit showing up and causing this revival among the people? That’s pretty crazy also. But now you want me to go visit my worst enemy, the man who has orders to have me arrested and – let’s face it – then likely killed? Jesus, you’ve really done and gone crazy this time!”
Yet, as crazy as it was, just as quickly as Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” and started praying, so Ananias got up, went to Saul’s house, laid hands on him, and called him brother.
Both men had experienced a change of heart, a conversion. Saul experienced a change of heart toward Jesus, which led to a change of heart toward Christians. Ananias had already experienced that change of heart toward Jesus. Now Jesus was calling him to go through another conversion – a change of heart toward his enemies.
Which is the greater conversion?
This past year we haven’t had much of a choice in terms of the people with whom we’ve hung out. We’ve been quarantined at home. We’ve had no choice but to be with our families. As we said a couple of months ago, depending on the week, the day, the hour, the minute, sometimes we’ve said with a loving tone, “It’s been so great to be able to spend so much quality time with my family.” Other times we’ve said with a more sarcastic tone, “It’s been so great to be able to spend so much quality time with my family.”
This coming Thursday my husband James and I will celebrate fifteen years of marriage. If you’re married to a road warrior like I am, a husband who is normally away on business trips two to three nights per week, we’ve realized we’ve been together more this past year than we have in all fifteen years of our marriage combined – and we’ve survived! Dare I say, we’ve even enjoyed it for the most past!
This past year we haven’t had much of a choice in terms of the people with whom we hung out – and yet we have. This past year many of us have grown in our appreciation for our family and loved ones. We got to choose to be with the ones we love.
As things began to open up, we continued to make choices about those with whom we were willing to hang out. Often those choices were based on whether others had made the same choices we had during the pandemic. If people made different choices, we chose not to hang out with them – and those choices go far beyond just a pandemic.
There’ve been many lines that have divided us this year, haven’t there? Maskers and anti-maskers. Vaxers and anti-vaxers. We judged one another based on whether we chose to stay at home or go out. We judged people based on whether they chose to participate in a mass public protest or whether they stayed socially distanced and sought less pubic ways to fight for racial justice. We judged people based on the person for whom they voted. Back in November, there was no shortage of social media posts that said something like, “If you don’t vote the way I do, I will never forgive you.”
One of the more frequent conversations I’ve had the past year is with people who found themselves struggling more than ever with Jesus’ command to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44). Choosing to love Jesus is one thing. Choosing to love our enemy is another thing.
Yet Jesus says: They are one and the same thing. Jesus says, when you choose to love me, you choose to love your enemy.
I referenced a few weeks ago a devotional by my friend Allen Hilton. I became acquainted with Allen a few months ago when I took an online seminary class he taught. The class was titled, “Being Christian and a Leader in an Election Year.” Allen is a pastor who travels around the nation leading seminars for congregations and communities about how to navigate their differences. One of his favorite exercises is to invite people to pair up with someone who is different from them. They may be different in terms of race, ethnicity, economic or social background, political views, or other demographic. The two take turns sharing their story with one another. When they come back together as a larger group, each of the two introduces the other to the larger group by sharing that person’s story – in the first person. Allen said, when you share someone’s story in the first person, as if it were your story, three things happen. There are a lot of tears, there are a lot of hugs, and, most importantly, empathy happens.
Allen concluded, “What we the Church most needs to understand is how to see our differences, not as liabilities, but as assets.”
In our quest to be the future Clairmont Christ is calling us to be, we might see some unexpected people come to know Christ. We might have to let go of our assumptions, our presuppositions, and judgments about some people and be open to God’s work in their lives – and even be open to God’s raising them up to lead us.
It’s been said that, when we get to heaven, we may be surprised at who’s there. Who knows – some may even be surprised you and I are there. But God won’t be surprised. God doesn’t call the equipped. God equips the called – and God often calls the least likely.
God’s never chosen perfect people. Since the first day of creation, God’s only chosen imperfect people to carry out God’s mission. Jacob lied. Moses was a murderer. Rahab was a prostitute. David was an adulterer. The Samaritan woman was divorced – more than once. Peter denied Christ. Lazarus was dead – and still God found a way to use him!
Saul persecuted and even murdered Christians, and God found a way to use him. Ananias was scared to love his enemy, and God found a way to use him, too.
God used each of them, and God can use each of us, if we are open to God’s call – if we remember that saying “yes” to loving Jesus also means saying “yes” to loving our enemy.
That leads us to our questions and applications for this week. First, who’s someone with whom you disagree that you can reach out to this week? Someone who thinks differently than you, who is different from you? Who’s someone not like you that you can reach out to this week?
Try having a conversation with them with the goal, not of being understood, but of understanding. So often we enter into a conversation with the opposite goal, don’t we – that of being understood, not of understanding? We enter into it listening to respond, not listening to understand. We may think we’re thinking about what the other person is saying when really what we’re thinking about is what we’re going to say next in response.
When we enter into conversation with someone who differs from us, often we aren’t looking for a dialogue. We’re looking for a debate. We’re looking to prove who’s right and who’s wrong.
I did a sermon series on marriage a few years back. As part of the series, I interviewed a few marriage counselors. In talking about marital arguments, one counselor wisely asked, “If someone has to be right and someone else has to be wrong, then who gets to be loved?” I think that question applies to more relationships than just marriage.
If someone has to be right and someone else has to be wrong, then who gets to be loved?
Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
Who’s someone who’s different from you that you can reach out to and have a conversation with this week?
Question two: When you can’t get past your differences, what can you do? You can pray. Jesus said it himself: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. Pray asking, “God, help me to love this person. Until I can, will you love them for me? Would you help me to remember that I will never meet someone who is not loved by you?”
“God, help me to love this person. Until I can, will you love them for me? And will you help me to see them as my brother?””
That leads to our third and final question: What if you were to see that person with whom you disagree as your brother? The word that struck me most in our passage this week is that Ananias called Saul “Brother Saul” (Acts 9:17).
When Jesus told Ananias to go and meet Saul, Ananias thought he couldn’t. He wouldn’t. Saul saw Ananias as his enemy, and therefore Ananias saw Saul as his enemy.
Yet when Jesus convinced him to go, Ananias didn’t call him his enemy. He called him his brother.
I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to see someone as my enemy when I call them my brother. My sister.
What if this week every time you encountered someone with whom you disagree, before you said a word, you were to pray, “Jesus, this is my brother; Jesus, this is my sister”?
Both Saul and Ananias experienced a change of heart, a conversion. Saul experienced a change of heart toward Jesus. Ananias experienced a change of heart towards his enemy.
Which was the greater conversion?
May this week you and I experience both.
God, it’s been said no one can claim to worship you and yet also hate his brother. Lord, we confess we do both all the time. Help our hypocrisy. Jesus, help us to remember that, when asked, what’s the greatest commandment, you said “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). Holy Spirit, teach us to love as you have loved us. In the strong name of Jesus we pray, Amen.