I've Heard Things

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.”
—Acts 9:13
Introduction A: ‘Come & Dine’

I allowed for the reading of two lessons from the New Testament this morning, not only because they both told such compelling stories, but also because there’s such a strong connection between the two. The story from John helps us concentrate on Peter. Before Easter Sunday, our last glimpse of him was warning himself by a fire outside where Jesus was being held prisoner. The last words we hear before the cock crowed on Friday morning were words of denial. Three times, as Jesus predicted, Peter denied he even knew who Jesus was.

Which brings us to today on the lakeshore. As our hymn put it:

The disciples came to land, thus obeying Christ’s command,
for the Master called unto them, ‘Come and dine.’
There they found their hearts’ desire: bread and fish upon the fire… [1]

And as they were seated there, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And by the end of this exchange, Peter seems hurt, but we remember the triple denial on Good Friday, and we realize that redemption has just occurred: Three denials, three chances to proclaim his undying love. And for every proclamation of love a mission to care for God’s people.

Introduction B: Saul on the Road to Damascus

Which brings us to a story from the very next book of the Bible about two people who never met Jesus before the resurrection. The first one is somebody we’d met before. And if the last time we’d seen Peter, we’d heard words of denial, then how much more memorable was our last glimpse of Saul. For he, as Luke tells us in Acts 9, was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”

Since “breathing threats and murder” and planning put Christians on trial is, on the surface at least, a bit more extreme than saying you don’t know Jesus, then the redemption offered to Saul might well come in a much more noteworthy form. Sitting down and having a heart-to-heart talk about whether he loves Jesus or not might’ve worked with Peter. But I’m pretty sure Saul needed something more.

I suppose it’s possible that while he was on a business trip (that business being to arrest Christians), he heard a voice whispering in his ear, saying, “Saul, do you love me?” But if he did, he’d probably have ignored it. And so instead of a loving conversation held over a fire on the beach, Saul got the blinding light treatment. The flash of light was so bright that he fell to his knees right there on the Road to Damascus. And in his sudden onset blindness, he heard a voice over the white noise saying, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

“But who are you, Lord?” he asked—for certainly any being that could cause this was either God, or at least someone to whom he owed his allegiance—and the answer came: “I am Jesus, the One you’re persecuting.”

Far from denying or betraying or persecuting him, the very One Saul had said was a fraud, whose followers he wanted to see wiped from the face of the earth, was the One he just called Lord. And without rancor, Jesus—leaving him blind—told him what he needed to do.

I. Enter Ananias

Remember a minute ago I said the Road to Damascus story was about two people? The first one was Saul (whom we know as Paul). The other one is somebody we don’t know nearly as well. In fact, if I were to ask everybody here to make a list of New Testament heroes, most of us probably wouldn’t even include him in our lists. His name is Ananias, which apparently was a rather popular name. This is the second time we’ve encountered an Ananias in the Acts of the Apostles. The first one didn’t turn out so good.*

But this Ananias, I promise, is a very good guy. For at the same time as Saul, while still breathing threats and murder against Christians, was confronted by Christ on the Road to Damascus, Christ also came to a Damascus disciple in a vision. The disciple’s name was Ananias, and his response to Jesus was, “Here I am, Lord”—even though he didn’t know why he was needed.

In the vision, he was told to go to a house on Straight Street and look for a guy from Tarsus—a guy named Saul, who was praying at that very moment for Ananias to show up. “But, Lord, I’ve heard things. He hates people like me—people who follow you. And he’s got backers who let him get away with some pretty bad stuff.”

If this happened to me, I’d want the next words out of Jesus’ mouth (whether in the flesh or in a vision) to be, “Don’t worry, he won’t hurt you.” But that’s not what Jesus said to Ananias. Instead of assuring him of his personal safety, he said, in essence, “Go anyway, for he’s going to carry my Name to the world.”

Please note that this promise didn’t preclude Saul killing Ananias in a fit of rage, and only then realizing that he shouldn’t be persecuting Christians. We’ve already seen that Saul had it in him to hurt his Christian rescuer. And nothing Jesus promised Ananias was going to profit Ananias directly—at least not according to the traditional understanding of profit. And yet Ananias’s initial “Here I am, Lord” didn’t change. He was still ready and willing.

II. Saul’s Epiphany

Saul’s Road to Damascus experience has become almost synonymous with conversion experiences caused by sudden epiphanies. And so when we hear the actual story, it’s probably normal to concentrate on the supernatural aspects: The bright light, the sudden blindness, the voice of Christ. Though perhaps not as fantastic, the supernatural aspects of Ananias’s side of the story are (to me, at least) just as interesting. The two sides of the story are like puzzle pieces that fit together perfectly. Saul needs somebody, and Ananias is sent. Saul is praying for help, and Ananias is empowered to provide it.

But if you took out all the supernatural stuff, it’s still a great story, told from two different points of view. In fact, if we want to extract the real message out of this passage of the Bible, I think maybe it’s ok to ignore the blinding light and the visions and the voices altogether. I’m not saying they never happened. I’m just saying that there’s an important message in there with or without them, and that the inexplicable phenomena grab our attention away from something we might need to hear.

Let’s imagine that instead of being blinded by the light and brought to his knees by Christ asking, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” his epiphany was more along the lines of a realization that it was wrong to persecute anyone because of their faith. There are a lot of people alive in the world today who are can’t handle the existence of other religions. And some of them are so sure about the rightness of their own cause that they’re willing to do anything to rid themselves of the impurity of false religion. But just imagine if some of the worst offenders suddenly realized that maybe their religion wasn’t the only one, or that their own interpretation of their religion was the wrong interpretation.

Such a realization would be humbling if all a person had done was harbor hatred and resentment in their hearts. But if the person in question had actually acted on their hatred; if they’d been given authority to imprison people they disagreed with; if they’d been responsible for the deaths of people of other faiths—or who had corrupted the correct faith with incorrect beliefs or practices—then the realization that they themselves could possibly be wrong might, in fact, be crippling.

Even if Saul’s Road to Damascus experience was simply a crisis of faith and a sudden epiphany that he wasn’t always right, it’s still a pretty good story. In his mind’s eye, perhaps he saw the faces of those who’d been hurt by his hatred. Perhaps he spared a thought for what arrest and torture, imprisonment and execution really were. Instead of being physically debilitated, he might have had a mental breakdown and was emotionally unable to go forward. People have had breakdowns for less.

Those who were with him probably didn’t know what was up. They just knew they couldn’t leave this VIP sniveling in the middle of the Road to Damascus, and so they helped him to the house on Straight Street where he was supposed to stay that night.

III. Ananias’s Prayer

Which brings us to another part of Damascus, to an humble and little known disciple named Ananias. Instead of having a vision of Jesus telling him that the guy who was well known as a persecutor of Christians was waiting for him, let’s imagine that Ananias was simply praying for Saul. He’d heard he was coming to town. He even knew where he was supposed to be staying while he was in Damascus.

Who knows why Ananias responded to Saul’s persecution with concern for his persecutor. Maybe he saw something in Saul that wasn’t hatred—in other words he saw potential. Who knows what possessed Ananias to think he could change Saul. Maybe it was desperation on his part because a member of his own family had been put in prison.

But the main thing about Ananias’s story was the part where he felt called, and his response was, “Here I am, Lord.” Even if he didn’t see a vision and hear a voice telling him that a man named Saul was waiting for him on Straight Street—even if he just had a feeling that he should try to talk to Saul—the next thought to come into most people’s head would’ve been exactly what Ananias said: “I’ve heard things. This is probably a very bad idea.”

Perhaps the Lord told him out loud that Saul was going to be the instrument he used to reach the world. But even if you can’t believe that part, believe this: Ananias had heard things. He knew who Saul was. And he knew that if he took the risk he thought he should take, and he knew that if it paid off, it would change the world for the better.

Vision or inspiration, voice or common sense, Ananias did what he thought he needed to do: He went to Straight Street, he entered the house where his enemy was in agony, and he spoke the words Saul needed to hear: “Brother Saul, I’ve been praying for you, and I’m here to help.” And Saul listened. And Saul held still while Ananias laid hands on him. And Saul became Paul. And Paul changed the world.

Conclusion: A Rainbow in the Clouds
The first half of Acts 9 is almost always remembered because of Saul’s Road to Damascus experience. But I think most of us would profit a lot more from paying closer attention to Ananias’s part of the story. Most of us probably will never become an Apostle Paul. But just about any of us can become an Ananias. Maya Angelou would’ve called him a rainbow, I think. Here’s what she said in a video I saw a few weeks ago—she’s not talking about Ananias, but she is talking about rainbows:

I’ve had so many rainbows in my clouds. I’ve had a lot of clouds, but I have had so many rainbows. And one of the things I do when I step up on the stage, when I stand up to translate, when I go to teach my classes, when I go to direct a movie, I bring everyone who has ever been kind to me with me... so I don’t ever feel I have no help. I’ve had rainbows in my clouds. And the thing to do, it seems to me, is to prepare yourself to be a rainbow in somebody else’s cloud—somebody who may not look like you, may not call God the same Name you call God, if they call God at all.

That Ananias was a rainbow that appeared in Saul’s cloud is obvious—it’s a big part of the story. But how did it happen? How did Ananias become the rainbow in Saul’s cloud? Yes, it happened when the Lord appeared to him in a vision and he said, “Here I am, Lord.” But on a much more basic level, it happened because he kept the lines of communication open between him and God. We may not have visions of the Lord, but we can keep those lines of communication open.

Ananias kept his relationship with God alive, and so can we. And just as he said, “Here I am, Lord,” there’s nobody who cannot say the same thing. And when he felt the Spirit leading him to create peace where there was conflict, to be an agent of healing in a very unhealthy situation, he did what he was led to do. Yes, he’d heard things. He knew that his chances of success weren’t all that high. But he went where he felt he needed to go. He helped Saul to see what he had been blind to. He shared his faith. “He had heard evil about this man,” but he showed him kindness.

And the result… well, we are the result. If the Apostle Paul brought Ananias with him on all his missionary journeys because he’d been a rainbow in his cloud, then most of us probably should bring Ananias wherever we go, too. Because Ananias said those two things—“Here I am, Lord,” and, “Here I am, Brother Saul”—Ananias’s faith was spread to the Gentiles. If we think about Maya Angelou’s words and how she took her rainbows with her to remind her of people’s goodness, then perhaps we should remember Ananias, the unsung hero, a rainbow in Saul’s cloud, and a rainbow in ours.
—©2016 Sam L. Greening, Jr.
  1. Words & music by Charles Widmeyer (1906). 
  2. See Acts 5:1-11, when Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, become the only people the New Testament says were struck dead by God.