Change. That word that is so dreaded in Lutheran circles, and I’m sure in other denominations as well. We get into our routines and into our habits, and they become so comfortable to us that we forget what we’re actually doing until someone else questions us. And it’s not just human beings, either. Anyone who owns a dog or even a cat will tell you that these beloved pets will get into a routine as well. My cat gets upset if I get into bed at night and don’t lie on my back to read for a while, because he likes to snuggle up on my chest and have me pet him while I read, before I go to sleep. I don’t even remember when or why the cat started doing that, but heaven forbid that I’m so tired I just go right to sleep, because he won’t know what to do. And anyone with a dog will tell you that animals don’t understand when we switch back and forth between Daylight Savings Time: their internal clocks know when it’s time to be fed and time to be walked, and it doesn’t matter what time our clocks say it is. So, when our routines get disrupted, and when what we believe gets called into question, we very often get defensive of the routine and the habits that we have gotten into. This is one reason why diets often don’t work in the long run: after we’ve gone on the special plans and lost all the weight, we think we’re home free and go back to our old ways of eating and put all the weight back on. It’s changing those habits and changing our way of thinking that’s the trick, and that is uncomfortable for us and can even be rather frightening, as we contemplate an unknown future that might not be as safe as we thought it would.
But sometimes, change is good, even when God needs to take a holy 2 x 4 and whack us over the head to get us to change. This is the story we get from the book of Acts today about the man named Saul. Author Flannery O’Connor once said of him, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” Well, the actual story says nothing about Saul riding a horse, but that’s a picture that I think many of us out here could probably identify with. And the other thing that’s interesting about this story was that Saul’s change was not complete with that bright light, the fall to the ground, and being blinded. Saul’s change was only complete when a member of the church named Ananias came to him, healed him, and baptized him. Today I’d like to focus a little bit more on Ananias, because with all the drama surrounding Saul, Ananias gets lost in the shuffle, and I think that we can learn just as much from Ananias as we can from Saul. Because, you see, this story isn’t just about the conversion of Saul and what great things Saul went on to do when he became known as the apostle Paul. This story is also about the conversion of Ananias, and through him, the conversion of the church.
Now, let’s picture this for a moment: here is Ananias, going about his daily routine and his usual habits, when suddenly he has a vision. And the Lord says to him, “You know that guy from Tarsus named Saul? Well, guess what? He’s been praying, and in his prayers I have told him that you’re the guy who’s going to go over and lay hands on him and heal him.” Here’s the first thing to note about Ananias: he doesn’t just blindly obey. Like many other characters in the Bible, he’s not afraid to question God. His response goes something like this: “Wait a minute, Lord. You’re talking about Saul of Tarsus? Are you sure about that? You do know this is the dude who’s been imprisoning your people and killing them, right? They say he was even there at Stephen’s murder, giving his approval to that! Surely you don’t mean that Saul, do you?” And here I picture Jesus just laughing and saying, “Yep, I mean that Saul. Oh, Ananias, you have no idea the good he’s going to do for my name. It’s going to be incredible. But it can’t start until you get over there and bring my healing to him. So, get a move on.”
And then, after this questioning of God and hearing God clearly tell him to go, Ananias goes. When he arrives, here’s the thing: he doesn’t just address this feared man as “Saul”. No, Ananias addresses him as “Brother Saul.” Ananias has just fully welcomed Saul, who once persecuted the Christians, into the Christian fold as one of their own. Saul’s eyes are opened, literally and metaphorically. Here’s a man who should have been afraid of him, welcoming him fully as a fellow disciple of Jesus. I think that Saul had to have been affected by Ananias’ welcome just as much as he was affected by the fact that the vision he’d had, had indeed come true.
So what can we take away from this extraordinary conversion story? Well, first, conversion is never something that’s just between you and God. There’s an upcoming movie on Hank Williams coming out soon, and I saw a portion of an interview between Stephen Colbert and Tom Hiddleston, who plays Hank Williams, about this movie. Stephen Colbert got Hiddleston to sing part of Hank Williams’ song, “I Saw the Light”. It’s a catchy tune, and now that I’ve mentioned it, I’m probably going to have it going through my head all day long. But as I looked at the lyrics more closely, I saw that the song was all about “I”. I saw the light. I wouldn’t let my dear Savior in. Then Jesus came and I saw the light. Now, no offense to Hank Williams or anyone who really likes this song, but that’s not really how conversion goes. In today’s story, yes, Saul saw the light—literally!—but his conversion wasn’t complete until a member of the church, Ananias, came and spoke Jesus’ words of grace and healing to him. So, too, when we are converted and brought to repentance by the Holy Spirit, that is not complete until the community of believers comes around us, welcomes us back in, and speaks God’s words of grace to us. It doesn’t matter how strong a believer we are, because even the strongest of believers will falter at times. We need a community full of people like Ananias to surround us, to support us, and to speak the words of Jesus’ forgiveness to us.
The second thing I want us to note is how quickly Ananias welcomed Saul, this murderer of God’s people, with the word “brother”. That was a huge risk that Ananias was taking, and even though he had the Lord’s word that it was going to be all right, I’m sure that he still had doubts as he walked over to Straight Street in Damascus. And yet, Ananias says, “Brother Saul.” Last summer, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a group of people took the risk of inviting a stranger in to their Bible study and calling him “Brother Dylann”. And they were killed. But because of who they were in Christ, they could not have not taken that risk. As Christians, we are called to take the risk of inviting strangers in to hear the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ, because we simply don’t know how the Lord is working in that person. Perhaps that person will become a giant of the faith like Paul, or perhaps that person will be another Ananias to another Paul. And, unfortunately, sometimes that person will hurt us. Nevertheless, we are called to take that risk of welcome and of hospitality so that we might become a community of Jesus here on earth.
The third and final thing that I want us to note about Ananias is that he was changed by his encounter with Saul. Ananias started out in the story thinking that Saul was a murderer, and doubted God’s word that he should go to Saul and heal him. In the end, he saw Saul converted, healed, and baptized. Although Luke doesn’t tell us this, I’m certain that Ananias was amazed and in awe over how the Lord can work in people, and it opened his mind to the new possibilities that the Lord had in store for his church. I imagine that years later, as Paul was making his missionary journeys and advocating for Gentiles (that is, non-Jewish people) to be included in this new movement known as The Way, that Ananias heard this news and praised God for the mysterious ways in which God worked. And I think that is God’s call to us, too: we who think we are right in our religious beliefs may not always be aware that God is working on the margins of those religious beliefs, calling people into the fold that we would never have expected, or even that we might outright reject because of our beliefs. God calls us, then, to examine what we believe, to discern if that is truly what the heart of God is, and when it is not, to repent and to be converted to God’s will. For conversion is never a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but a daily, or even hourly, experience of returning to God.
Today after worship we are marking and celebrating the 65 years that Hope Lutheran Church has been in existence. There are some who are still here today who were there when Hope was chartered, and there are many of us who have just come to this congregation recently. Much has changed during those 65 years, some of it for the better, and some things that we might miss. Change happens, and it is true that we are not always comfortable with it. But through those 65 years and into the next 65 years, God is calling us to the same things: to be a community of love and support for one another, to take risks in welcoming the stranger into our midst, and always to repent and be converted back to God when we are in the wrong. May we always be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Amen.