by Julia Seymour—
In Damascus there was a certain disciple named Ananias.
The Lord spoke to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
He answered, “Yes, Lord.”
The Lord instructed him, “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.”
Ananias countered, “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.”
The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
Ananias 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.”
Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. After eating, he regained his strength. He stayed with the disciples in Damascus for several days. (Acts 9:10-19, Common English Bible)
If your experience of Christianity is anything like mine, you have likely been taught to think about Saul/Paul as the follower of Jesus with the ultimate conversion story. Even if you’ve been led to understand that he remained Jewish (in ethnic practices), Saul’s faith in Christ and Christ’s salvific purposes gave his life a very specific direction following his experience on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9).
I’ve always accepted this. Over the years, I’ve thought about this story to discuss the significance of other vocations, since Paul wasn’t making his own clothes or planting and tending crops. While Paul’s work mattered for the spread of the gospel, the work of other believers’ daily lives also made that evangelism possible.
Lately, however, I have been rethinking that story. Was Saul’s change of heart really the greatest change in Acts 9? Was the road-to-Damascus experience really the conversion experience to which all new Christians (or all Christians, period) are meant to aspire?
A STRANGER IN DAMASCUS
As I look at the book of Acts afresh, I am struck by what is required of Ananias. He believes in Jesus, but now Jesus asks him to welcome a man into his home. Ananias knew this man to be a threat to his family, his friends and himself. This man had harmed or witnessed the killing of people Ananias knew, maybe even loved. Prior to Jesus’ request, at best Ananias would have crossed to the other side of the market if he saw Saul there, if not actually hide away until Saul left town.
Now Jesus is expecting something of Ananias, for Saul. Ananias does not want to do it. He would like to say no. He tries to explain to Jesus what’s happening. But Jesus doesn’t change his tune. So Ananias must experience his own conversion, his own continued growth in faith, a further step in sanctification, a greater yielding to the Holy Spirit. He must prepare to welcome Saul into his home, and he’s going to have to tell other people that he’s doing it.
It’s not like he’s going to be able to keep Saul a secret. It seems likely that Ananias has a household. How will they respond to his revelation: “Jesus told me we need to bring that guy we were all just panicking about into the house”?
If conversion represents a change of heart, a change of behavior, a change of attitude, an application of ethics amid stress and strain, then Ananias is the conversion story we should have been paying attention to all along.
Most Christians, especially those of us who are life-long Christians, may have a hard time identifying with Saul of Tarsus, but we have a lot in common with Ananias. Instead of assuming or expecting a road-to-Damascus experience, we are called to be on the lookout for a stranger-in- Damascus experience. And we are meant to be the ones to welcome that stranger for Christ’s own sake. We are meant to open our homes to someone whose life experience is not like ours.
The Rev. Julia Seymour serves Big Timber Lutheran Church in Big Timber, Montana. She enjoys her flannel-and-denim-clad life with her husband, Rob, and their two children, Daniel and Victoria, plus a dog and a rabbit.