Getting Things Straight on Straight Street

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
April 15, 2018

Acts 9: 1-20 (CEB)
Meanwhile, Saul was still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest, 2seeking letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found persons who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, these letters would authorize him to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”
5Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. 6“Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.”
7Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. 8After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything.
10In Damascus there was a certain disciple named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
He answered, “Yes, Lord.”
11The Lord instructed him, “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. 12In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.”
13Ananias countered, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.”
15The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. 16I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
17Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. 19After eating, he regained his strength.
He stayed with the disciples in Damascus for several days. 20Right away, he began to preach about Jesus in the synagogues. “He is God’s Son,” he declared.

This week, I “Googled” the phrase, “persecuted Christians.” The very first “hit” that came back was a Newsweek article from early January. Here’s the title, “Christian Persecution and Genocide is Worse Now than ‘Any Time in History,’ Report Says.” The article was really more about persecution of Christians in modern times, but still, you all can feel the impact of that statement. A study was conducted by an organization called “Aid to the Church in Need,” and it looked at the plight of Christians in China, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Turkey. In the period lasting from 2015 to 2017, the report concluded that in these countries, “not only are Christians more persecuted than any other faith group, but ever-increasing numbers are experiencing the very worst forms of persecution.”

The report ended with the story of a Christian pastor in India. He had been terribly beaten in what was called a “planned” attack by Hindutva extremists. He was beaten so badly that he was left in a coma. But before slipping into unconsciousness, the pastor was able to share with police some details of this horrific attack. The men had screamed at him, “You must never come to our village to pray. You should never enter our village.” It was clear to everyone the attack was deliberate, and it was religiously motivated.

Almost 2,000 years ago, there was a disciple named Ananias, living in Damascus, in Syria. Everything we know about Ananias is contained in this passage we heard a few moments ago. He is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament. But to be named as a disciple, he must’ve been a faithful follower of Christ. He must have prayed and studied Scripture. He surely worshipped with fellow followers of The Way in some House Church in town. We don’t know if he was a Gentile or a convert from Judaism, but I’d imagine that detail is not shared because it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that he is a follower of the risen Christ, and God now has a task for him.

So God appears to Ananias in a vision, and he tells Ananias to go to the home of Judas on Straight Street. There, he will meet a man named Saul of Tarsus. Ananias is to lay hands on Saul so as to restore his sight. I think it’s fair to say that Ananias was appalled. A vision from the Lord would seem like a pretty clear-cut thing; not something you would really question. Yet, Acts tells us that Ananias “countered” God. “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.” Clearly, Saul’s reputation precedes him, and it is concerning enough to Ananias, that Ananias questions God’s desire that he go and pray over Saul. But God is clear, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen.”

Now, I want to pause here, because we need to process the shocking thing that is happening as Ananias receives this vision from God. Saul didn’t just have permission from the chief priests to arrest followers of the Way, Christians in Damascus. Saul had been persecuting Christians. He had even been a part of killing Christians, or at least rejoicing over their killing. Ananias is not just kidding when he says to the Lord, “…he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem.” And now, Saul of Tarsus is in town, with permission to round up and arrest followers of Christ. This is the kind of thing that would send people like Ananias into hiding, as far away from Saul as they can get. But instead, Ananias is instructed by God to go and find Saul, to lay hands upon him, and to pray for him.

Friends, I don’t think I can understate this. Saul of Tarsus had been arresting, persecuting, and even killing Christians. Now, Ananias is told he must pray over Saul because God has chosen Saul to preach the Gospel. As far as Ananias knew, showing up at Judas’ house on Straight Street would be like walking into a trap, with Saul waiting to arrest him and cart him off, the next victim of Saul’s anti-Christian sentiment. But the Lord is telling him to go there and pray over Saul so that this man can be a leader in the church. This is like God appearing to that Christian pastor in India and telling him to go and lay hands on the Hindutva extremists and pray for them because God plans to use them to spread the gospel. Can you just put yourself in that position for a minute?

The Bible is a book full of reversals, maybe this one most of all. If we don’t stop to soak in what’s happening as Ananias makes his way to Straight Street and lays his hands on Saul of Tarsus in prayer, then we cannot fully grasp or understand the unimaginable ways that God works in this world. I really want us to understand this. Imagine for a minute the person or group that to you seems most antagonistic to the Christian church today. Maybe it’s some other religious group like Judaism or Islam. Maybe it’s people who ascribe to no religion—atheists or agnostics. Maybe the problem is in politics—Planned Parenthood or the NRA; Donald Trump or Barack Obama. Or maybe the problem is a little closer to home—maybe the greatest threat to the church is within—hypocritical Christians, or Christians who only use the title to advance their own agendas. You get the idea. Without too much difficulty, I think each of us can conjure up at least one person or group that we feel is attacking or persecuting the church or Christian values right now.

Hold on to that for a minute. Bring the person or the group to mind, and as you do so, I want you to be aware of the emotions that fill you as you reflect on this antagonist. Are you angry? Are you stressed? Are you scared? Can you feel your heart pumping faster or your blood pressure going up? Now, with that in mind, imagine God speaking to you, maybe even appearing before you in some sort of vision. There’s no question it is the Lord, and God comes with a message. That person, that group that’s causing you so much angst and stress. Those people that are so antagonistic toward the church, God needs you to go seek them out, to lay your hands upon them, and to pray for them because God has appointed these people as the next evangelists, the future leaders of the Christian church.

Could you do it? Could you pray into leadership the very person you feel is attacking the church? Can you trust that God may be working in the lives of someone who at this moment is doing nothing but attacking the church? We have to consider the possibility that God may very well ask us to serve the church in this way, or maybe God already has. Are we willing to listen to God, to trust God, to follow God’s will even when it’s most unexpected and shocking? Ananias listened to the Lord. He went to Straight Street. He found Saul of Tarsus and laid his hands upon him. Ananias prayed; he prayed that Saul would be able to see again and that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit, and the scales fell from Saul’s eyes. Saul was converted. It was only a matter of days before he went out into the world as the apostle Paul, preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, and establishing churches. And, of course, we know that Paul was perhaps the most influential leader of the early Christian church. If not for Paul and his work in those earliest, formative years of Christianity, I think the church would look quite different today. Paul’s evangelism was vastly important, and he got his start because of the willingness of a disciple named Ananias to listen to God and to go and anoint as a new leader in the church someone who had been killing Christians and persecuting the early church.

I don’t want to downplay the significance of what Ananias did, nor the possibility that God may very well be urging us to anoint some unexpected new leader for the church today. But I also want us to realize all the implications of this passage. I must confess to you that in these days, I feel that some of the greatest threats to our church come from within—it feels to me like the church is threatened by greed, legalism, institutionalism, power-mongering, and corrupt leadership. It’s hard for me to believe that some of the leaders we have are our leaders, Christian leaders. Yet, there they are. So, here’s what I understand God to be telling me in this passage: “Clair, you need to pray for your fellow disciples and fellow leaders in the church. These are the people I have anointed to lead, to proclaim good news, to share the gospel. Pray for them. Pray with them. Pray that the Holy Spirit will fill the leaders of the church.”

God works in the most unexpected of ways. God did it when he called a stuttering man named Moses to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. God did it again when he chose a poor, unmarried teen from Nazareth to carry the Son of Man. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was the day that Christ rose from the dead, conquering death and the grave. But God’s work didn’t stop there, because as Christ’s church was established, it happened through the work of a man named Paul who had first been a persecutor of the followers of Christ.

As a disciple, Ananias had a tough job. But he followed God’s unexpected will. I have learned from Ananias that as a disciple and a leader of the church, I must be prepared to do the same. In the meantime, I’ll be praying for all of my fellow leaders, and fellow disciples, and each of you; praying that we all will follow wherever Christ may lead us.

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