Michael Chan: In a New Light

Beloved in the Lord, I pray that this day you will know deep in your innermost soul that the Lord Jesus Christ is not only the Lord of love, life, and goodness but that he is also your Lord and your creator. The God whose presence, praise, and attention spans this entire cosmos is concerned with galaxies and worlds and your life. He is the crucified one who wields his power not to dominate but to free, not to dictate but to instruct, not to patch up but to heal, not to obscure but to illuminate. My prayer today is that you will encounter this very God as we study scripture together, and in particular Acts 9. We will find in the holy word of God bread and water for your long journey through this unfriendly world. In the name of the Triune God, Amen.

This story in Acts 9 is most frequently remembered as the “conversion” of St. Paul. It’s the story of when Saul the Persecutor became Paul the Apostle. But Saul isn’t the only one who changes in this account. The other character, Ananias, goes on a journey of his own. As Professor Matthew Skinner writes in his book, Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel, “each of the men’s experiences lends the story an expanded vision of what is real and what is possible.”

In fact, this whole story is about sight - better yet, perception. It begins with a flashing light that Saul alone can see. That visionary, apocalyptic experience - Saul encounters in it the risen Jesus Christ and finally understands that by attacking the followers of Jesus, he is attacking the Messiah himself. This experience so overloads Saul’s senses that he could not see for three days. Around the same time a follower of Jesus, a certain Ananias, also has a vision, where he is told to heal Saul’s impaired sight. Scales fall from Saul’s eyes, he is baptized, filled with the Spirit, and almost immediately begins preaching the gospel.

Understandably, Saul is the focus of this story. After all, he wrote more New Testament books than any other author; his epistles fundamentally shape how Christians think about the work of Jesus, and much of what remains of the book of Acts will revolve around his ministry. But Paul’s outsized reputation has the potential to obscure the apostolic journey that Ananias is also on. So, let’s spend some time reflecting on his side of the story.

Very little is known about Ananias. In Saul’s vision, he learns that Ananias is a “disciple” and has received a parallel vision about Saul. Much later in Acts (Chapter 22), we learn that he is a pious follower of the Torah - the Mosaic law - and that he was respected among his fellow Jews. Both Paul and Ananias saw themselves as faithful Jews, devout adherents to the law of God.

Ananias experienced something that his Israelite predecessors also encountered: a call to act and to speak on behalf of the living God. Like the prophets Isaiah and Samuel, Ananias responds to Jesus’ summons with the words, “Here I am.” He then receives specific instructions for how to find a certain man named Saul.

But like his ancient forerunners, Ananias also has an objection to offer: “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”

So, Saul is a man with a reputation, feared across the early Christian community. He was spewing out “murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (v. 1), unjustly incarcerating Christians (8:3), and was even present at Stephen’s stoning, where he silently and approvingly looked on as terror rained down on Jesus’ disciples. Saul may not have thrown a stone at Stephen, but he certainly didn’t object. And in fact, he silently offered his approval.

Ananias’ fear was justified. He was being asked to minister to a terrorist. Like a first century Jonah, Ananias was called by Jesus to offer the light of God’s love to a person who was set on extinguishing it. But that’s exactly what Jesus does. He draws us out of ourselves, out of our fear, out of our self-constructed prison cells and takes us into the world for the sake of others.

That journey is not safe or placid. It is disruptive; it’s intrusive; it places us into positions of vulnerability before others, where we’re required to trust radically in the power and goodness of God. To follow the Master is to go where he goes and to take up his cross.

Sometimes, like Ananias and Saul, we need something dramatic and disruptive to occur in order to help us perceive the world - and especially one another - differently, to see ourselves as we truly are. Whereas Ananias saw only a murderer, God saw an apostle. Whereas Saul saw the early Christians as deviants to be silenced, Christ saw them as members of his own body. Whereas Ananias saw a clear and present threat, Christ perceived a beloved son of God.

A story like this makes clear that in far too many cases, we do not see one another as Christ sees us. As a result, we cower when we are called to embrace; we dismiss when we are called to listen; and we cancel when we are called to engage.

But the ability to see one another as Christ does is not something we can conjure up in ourselves. It’s not just a “yes” in the mind. The kind of perception we see in Acts 9 is a gift that comes from above - a fruit of the Spirit. Sometimes that gift comes wrapped in a vision, and sometimes it appears in the form of an unexpected person. Sometimes it appears in a set of circumstances that put us in places and among people we would never have imagined. However that gift appears, it comes from elsewhere, from outside of ourselves.

In the end, this text has good news and bad news for us. The bad news is that we are all like Ananias and Saul - struggling to perceive the gift of God in one another. None of us see this world or one another as we ought. Our ancient flaws mean that we are in profound need of transformation, so that we can comprehend one another through the tender mercies of God’s love.

The good news is that Jesus is committed to restoring our hardened, scaled-over hearts. He’s relentless in helping us to see one another as he does.

And now my friends, may the Holy Spirit open our senses to the world around us, allow us to act beyond our instincts, and help us to find the friendly love of Christ in our neighbors. Amen.