Vicar’s Sermon – 1 May 2022

Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 9.1-20

As far as I’m aware there isn’t a saint’s day for Ananias. You can look through the red letter days of the Book of Common Prayer and not find him. You can scan the new Common Worship provision for saint’s days and commemorations and he is not there. If you’re Simon or Jude you may well be obscure but there’s a day for you. If you are Josephine Butler or William Wilberforce there is a commemoration set aside with your name on it. …but Ananias, no, nada!

This doesn’t seem fair. The companions of St Paul – Timothy, Titus – they get a day (it’s in January). St Luke, who wrote the gospel and our Book of Acts, he gets his own day in October,: Ananias though just draws a blank.

And yet where would we be without him?  I’m put in mind of the Oscars when, if the actors aren’t hitting each other, they list all the people they want to thank: ‘ My parents, my teacher, the producer who gave me my first break, my wonderful co stars and the other nominees (who, though they haven’t won the prize have pushed me to being the wonderful person that I am). Everybody gets a mention…but Ananias is tucked away in Acts chapter 9 where it is his cameo appearance that enables so…so much else to happen.

What if he’d said no? He gave that a go didn’t he? ‘Let’s row this back Lord. You want me to go and see Saul, the man that has come to Damascus to lock me up, drag me and my friends to Jerusalem and see us killed just as he had Stephen? Surely this is a mistake?’  He has his questions, but he is staggeringly, remarkably courageous and obedient. No Ananias and Paul’s ministry grinds to a halt before it has even started. No Ananias and there are no missionary journeys, no letters (that we still read!) no planting of churches across Asia Minor. No Ananias and there’s no wrestling with Jesus’ place in the sweep of God’s dealings with His people Israel, no intellectual engagement with the brightest and best thinkers of the Roman Empire. None of this can happen until Ananias steps up to do his bit and knocks on the front door of a house in Straight Street Damascus asking for Saul.

Ananias’ story is our story. Not many of us will ever see our name up in lights. Our names aren’t going to appear in the history books (at least Ananias got into Luke’s writing). The best we might hope is the Teesdale Mercury but even then the pictures tend to be of Vicar’s or church leaders, not the regular (just ‘getting on with being a disciple’) Christian. Because that is what Ananias was. His parents had given him a name freighted with courage and bravery: Hananias was one of Daniel’s companions thrown into the fiery furnace – maybe mum and dad had intuited something of their son’s nature or future because he will need to summon up all his courage to go and meet with Paul. But for all he had the right name Ananias is described as ‘a disciple’. What does it say? ‘Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias.’ That’s it. He wasn’t the leader of the church in Damascus – at least we’re not told that. He wasn’t a priest – either of the old Jewish faith of the new Christian faith. No. He was just ‘a Christian’, someone trying to follow Jesus’ teaching, a disciple or follower.

He deserves his own special day…but actually that might undermine the point of the story. Putting him too far up on a pedestal might set him apart from us, lead us to think that we can’t be like him, that he was ‘special’: specially gifted, exceptionally holy. But no. He is described as being ‘a disciple’ who lived in a particular place at a particular time and who was open to working with God to further His purposes. That’s you. That’s me. We’re not Peters or Andrews, James or Johns. We’re not John Wesley’s or St. Ambrose’s. We are disciples living in Barnard Castle called to serve Christ as best we’re able in 2022. What might that mean?

For Ananias it meant being a person of prayer who didn’t let his fear of Paul overwhelm or prevent his obedience to what he thought God wanted of Him. Sometimes the way these stories are written makes them seem so utterly different to my own experience that it’s hard to relate to them.

Here (for example) we have Ananias having a two way conversation with the Lord that is absolutely clear cut in what is required of him. My guess is that most of us don’t have that – I don’t. A lot of the time my prayers are wonderings and ponderings directed towards God. Sometimes these find their way into words but I’m not sure what I’m asking for…and yet, over time a conviction can grow that a particular course of action is what is required of me, or us. Perhaps the difference lies in culture and cultural expression of faith. Ananias’ culture was more open to dreams and visions than our own – that’s no better or worse than how we experience prayer – just different. Saul is described in our passage as having a vision of Christ but then also a vision of Ananias visiting him. In his writings he speaks of other visions – that doesn’t mean that we should or must have them too…or that he should not.  I can’t tell you what this was like but, across the world, people meet with Christ in a variety of ways that make sense in their time and their culture: Jesus speaks in ways we can understand not in ways that we cannot.

Ananias listened to God ad he was aware of what was going on around him: he had his ear to the ground. That wasn’t difficult. He had heard of Saul. He had heard of the part he had played in the death of the first martyr, Stephen. Saul was known. There’s no magic or spiritual gift required to know if someone is coming to arrest you. Ananias knew of Saul before he got to Damascus. Saul knew there were people who followed Jesus in Damascus even if he did not know their names – but hey, does no one speak to anyone else in these stories? How difficult would it have been for Ananias to know where Saul was staying? How hard would it have been for him to learn that something remarkable had taken place with this feared Jewish leader on the road to Damascus, to hear of him being incapacitated…and to know where he was staying. Christians wanting to lie low would make sure they knew where their persecutor was, surely?

Ananias prays…and ponders. He prays and he tries to make sense of what is happening around him of what God might be up to with Saul who he knows (from what he says in verse 17) has met with Christ.

If (a big if)… If this has happened then someone (me?) needs to embrace Saul sooner rather than later. And it’s at that point that Ananias’s faith shoots off any chart you might want to produce for him. Because his private, personal prayer turns into public Christian witness. It’s easy to be a private Christian…for our faith to be wholly for us, wholly about me and my relationship with God. Ananias’ faith comes alive, it means something beyond himself,  when he turns up at Saul’s front door and offers to pray for him.

That offer of prayer seems to me to seal Saul’s conversion. Yes, Saul had been granted the vision on the Damascus Road but he was stuck, unable to move on from a sense that his whole life has been facing the wrong direction – opposing God’s Christ. Ananias turned up bringing forgiveness…and reconciliation with the Christian community that Saul had been persecuting. Ananias’ prayer looks beyond what he (Ananias) can do and makes real for Saul the presence of God in his life as Ananias prays for the Holy Spirit to fill him. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift, not ours. Ananias shows faith in trusting God to do His work in Saul. Ananias knows that Saul’s conversion does not rest on him but on the God who calls us all to follow and serve Him. But it would be a different story if Ananias did not play his part.

Ananias is you. We all have a part to play and who knows whose life might be forever transformed by you doing your bit…or not! Ananias’ prayer had to step out of his head and his heart onto Straight Street and up to Sail’s front door. His faith in God had to be lived, it had to take flesh and be seen: that, after all is a central part of our faith – that God’s presence is seen in our humanity.  As the apostle James puts it: ’Show me your faith without works and I by my works will show you my faith.’  Faith must be enacted…be practical, seen. ‘By their fruits you will know them’ said Jesus. Is it so hard to be a ‘public Christian’, what’s the worst that can happen?

Ananias played his part and through him Paul’s ministry was launched. Paul would go on to make Christ’s name known across the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean…and even in Rome, the heart of the Empire.  Who’s to know what difference your faith might make in heaven’s economy? I can’t offer you a saints’ day but your reward will be great in the kingdom of God.

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