The lesson appointed for today from the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of two men in very different circumstances whose lives are about to intersect in a way neither of them could have expected. It’s a common literary trope, and reads like the blurb on the back of a novel. And as is often the case with these kinds of stories, the two characters are faced with very different challenges and lessons to learn.
The first character we’re introduced to is Saul. At the moment we come to him in the reading, he is the great antagonist of of the book, a man who is inciting violence against the nascent Christian community. He has been successful in doing this in Judea and is now setting his sights on Syria, writing ahead to the synagogues in Damascus to root out the Christians in their communities in preparation for his arrival. But while on the road to Damascus, he is suddenly struck blind by a great light and hears the voice of Jesus: “Saul, Saul. Why are you persecuting me?” The voice instructs him to continue into the city to await further instruction. This is a famous moment in the New Testament, and as Christians who know how Saul’s story ends we’re supposed to cheer. This is the moment when Saul’s life changes, and the history of the Church changes with it. For we know that Saul will take the same zeal with which he’s been hunting down Christians and become Paul, the evangelist who will not only bring the message of Jesus throughout the Mediterranean world, but who will be the primary driver for opening up the doors of the Church beyond the Jewish community.
But at this moment, Saul doesn’t know that. He’s afraid. In an instant he’s gone from being a powerful man on a righteous mission to quash a dangerous heresy, to being helpless and lost, needing to be led by hand into the city where he must face a reckoning from the very people he’s been trying to destroy. I don’t think Saul gets enough credit for continuing into the city. A lot of us probably would just cut our losses and head back home.
The second character is Ananias, a Christian living in Damascus. He too receives an unwelcome prophetic word from Jesus: “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment 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 might regain his sight.” If the message Saul received took courage to receive, Ananias’ message is downright terrifying. Saul’s reputation precedes him and he is the last person Ananias wants to see. He objects, but Jesus responds: “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Ananias bravely goes and finds Saul, and when he lays hands on him, scales fall from Saul’s eyes and Saul is baptized. And the rest is history.
And so we have two men, each with a dangerous mission requiring a lot of courage and vulnerability. Saul must rely on the mercy of the people he’s been persecuting; Ananias must not only come face to face with the persecutor of his friends and allies, but must also be prepared to extend mercy to him. In the process, both men are surprised by God. Both men have their expectations upended. Saul’s real reckoning isn’t from the Christians he’s been persecuting, but the realization that he’s been wrong about them and that God has done something in Jesus he never would have expected. Ananias for his part must learn not to give up on anyone — that no one, even his worst enemy, is beyond the reach of God’s love.
There’s a message here for us. God is a God of surprises. God works in ways beyond our expectation and understanding. And because of this, we can never give up, not on ourselves, not on God, and not on anyone else. This isn’t easy. It takes strength, courage, and a lot of vulnerability. But with God’s help, we can like Saul and Ananias, respond with grace and generosity, and answer that call to be surprised with the words, “O Lord, I am ready. My soul is ready.”