Commentary on Acts 9:1-19a
There is no story in Acts more important than Saul/Paul’s call, his encounter with the risen Christ.
Not only does the narrator tell the story of Saul’s transformation from persecutor to apostle in Acts 9, Saul himself re-tells the story twice when defending himself before persecutors (before the tribune in Jerusalem, Acts 22:1-21; and before Agrippa, Acts 26:1-23). Preachers working through the narrative lectionary with their congregations, then, will do well to explore this passage in detail in order to establish the character of Paul well for the second half of Acts (Acts 13-28; see how this role is foreshadowed in 9:15), which shifts the focus from the ministry of the Twelve in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria to his role in taking the gospel throughout Asia Minor, Greece, and even to Rome (see Acts 1:8).
There are two primary options for preaching from this text. Both are call stories. The first is to ask the congregation to identify with Saul himself. In this approach, preachers will offer their congregations a chance to relate to Saul’s epiphany as a way of meeting Christ in the midst of our lives and being transformed by that encounter. The second option is to invite the congregation to identify with Ananias (who shows up in verse 10). In this approach, preachers are offering their congregation a chance to relate to Ananias’ dream that leads him to overcome his preconception of Saul (a correct but now outdated preconception), come to see Saul as someone God has called, and respond faithfully. For the remainder of this essay, I will pursue the second option.
To establish the congregation’s identity with Ananias, the preacher might want to begin in the middle of the passage which actually looks back to Acts 8:1-3 (and 9:1). In other words a beginning point for narrating Acts 9:1-19 could be with Ananias’ knowledge of Saul as a persecutor, which he expresses in verse 13. The church in Damascus has been talking about Saul and its members rightfully afraid of him — he has, after all, been dragging Christians out of house after house, throwing them into prison, and desiring their deaths.
With this backdrop in place, the preacher can now focus on two movements of Ananias’ part of this story: his vision and conversation with “the Lord” (verses 10-16) and his laying hands on Saul leading to Saul’s baptism (verses 17-19). Preachers can narrate verses 10-14, and then basically say, “You see, Ananias didn’t know what had just happened. He didn’t know that the risen Christ had confronted Saul on the road to Damascus just as Christ is now confronting him…” This sets up a flashback to verses 1-9. But then the preacher can continue that even though Ananias didn’t know about Saul’s epiphany, he did as the Lord told him anyway. He trusted that Christ had a future purpose for Saul (verse 15) even though Saul’s past as he knew it seemed to point toward a different future.
In the end, then, Ananias’ decision to go to the house of Judas on Straight Street (verse 11) to lay hands on Saul was a decision to risk his life to do the will of God. The result of that reluctant leap of faith is that Saul’s eyes are opened and he is baptized, becoming part of (and eventually a leader in) the very church he sought to wipe out.
Paul’s conversion is one of the great stories of the early church, and it has rightfully inspired Christians from every generation. But hidden in its shadows is another inspiring story, and one to which most people in the pew may more easily relate. We know nothing of Ananias beyond this story in the shadows. Acts does not tell us that he goes on to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles, found churches in urban centers across the Roman Empire, stand true to the gospel while on trial for his faith over and again, and end up under house arrest in Rome awaiting a trial before Caesar. No, Ananias did not do any of these things so far as the author of Luke-Acts is concerned. All Ananias did was to obey Christ’s command to go pray with Saul so that Saul could do all those things. Without Ananias’ prayer, Saul spends the rest of his life as a blind man wondering what his life might have been.
Not all Christians are equipped to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, or teachers (Ephesians 4:11). But everyone can pray for and with those who have scorned the church and are scorned by the church. Not everyone can be Paul, but we all can and should be Ananias. In different contexts, preachers might want to draw specific analogies concerning those for whom the congregation should be praying even though it cuts against our grain to do so. A man once confessed to his pastor that even though he didn’t think of himself as hating people, there was one person he really hated for the way the person had wronged him. The pastor advised him to pray for the person every day for two weeks — pray for the person not about the person. When the man asked why he should do this, the pastor said, “I don’t believe anyone can continue hating someone when they have consistently prayed for that person to be blessed by God. And, who knows, God may even answer those prayers and the person’s life be blessed and changed in ways we cannot even imagine.”
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God who calls us into service,
Transform us as you transformed Paul. Shape us into children who rejoice in knowing and proclaiming you to the world. Amen.
Unexpected and mysterious ELW 258
All are welcome ELW 641
The Call, Ralph Vaughan Williams
April 15, 2018