As we engage in our never ending societal quest to get as much information and gossip about celebrities and other noted public figures as we can, television shows and social media sites around the world are more than happy to feed the frenzy. As a result, we often get to see high school year book pictures of famous celebrities before they ever learned how to dress fashionably or use glamorous make-up or cut their hair. We see grainy homemade footage of famous athletes playing little league baseball and pee wee football games.
Oftentimes we’ll see movie and television stars in their earliest appearances before the camera. Back when they were doing commercials for the newest, plaque reducing toothpaste or the topical cream designed to eliminate localized itching and swelling. We smile knowingly as a particular star appears as a child in a local singing contest or wins the pageant at the town fair.
And if we are really lucky, we get to see an actor in their earliest stage role. Like the time they played the cow in the kindergarten class production of Old McDonald Had a Farm. Or when they were in elementary school and they played the role of the turkey in the Thanksgiving story.
Even the most famous, the wealthiest, the most successful people among us, at least by worldly standards, had to start somewhere. At the same time, you and I know all too well that most of us will never be great stars. Most of us wind up playing bit parts in an ongoing soap opera that will never make it off the cutting room floor and onto anyone’s reality tv show…
Yet the good thing is that none of that matters. Certainly not in the eyes of God who managed to fill an entire Bible with stories of small-time actors who were enlisted to play tiny parts in God’s much larger drama called “Salvation.” The Bible is filled with tales which remind us that God is busy taking back the world one baby step at a time…
This morning’s Scripture lesson is a prime example. By the time we reach Chapter nine in the Book of Acts, we are only a few verses removed from Paul’s incredible conversion story where Saul became Paul as a result of what happened on the road to Damascus.
Prior to that conversion, Saul of Tarsus was one of the church’s first and fiercest foes. As a devout Pharisee, Saul was convinced that the early Christians would irreparably damage Judaism in the name of the Jesus whom they proclaimed and followed. Accordingly, Saul went out of his way to target and persecute the early Christians. Until one day he fell on the road to Damascus, blinded by a great light, and he heard the voice of the risen Christ. Stunned, unable to see, and totally dependent on those around him, Saul instantly transformed from chief persecutor of the early Christians to humble, helpless, Christian servant.
If the road to Damascus was the place where it all started for Paul, he grew in fame and stature over the years, traveling to different churches in the ancient world and speaking boldly and passionately of the saving Christ whom he had once dismissed out of hand. The conversion from Saul to Paul is one of Christianity’s foundational narratives to this day.
But have you ever given even a passing thought to the bit player, the man who plays distant second fiddle, in Paul’s grand conversion story? His name is Ananias and he enters and exits the Biblical stage with all the staying power of a shooting star…buried somewhere deep down in the credits of the New Testament movie where Paul is the unquestioned leading man.
If we believe, however, that God often works through walk-ons to achieve God’s purposes one small step at a time, then Ananias is a name worth remembering…
When his friends carried Paul off the Damascus road, they had no idea what happened. They watched Paul stumble around. They made note of his inability to eat or drink. But they were generally confused and overwhelmed by the circumstances.
Meanwhile, God came to Ananias and said, “Get up and go.” “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. When you find him, welcome him warmly into the faith. And then let him know that I have chosen him to be my primary missionary to all the Gentiles…”
Dumbfounded by what he just heard, Ananias asked for clarification. “Excuse me, Lord, did you say ‘Saul?’ Church enemy number one? The man who makes his living destroying my innocent Christian brothers and sisters?”
God’s reply was short and unequivocal. “Go.” And Ananias went. All the way to Straight street where he encountered Saul just as God promised. And when the two men came face to face Ananias addressed Saul with an unexpected title. Not “murderer.” Not “terrorist.” Not “most wanted.” “Brother Saul,” were the words he used.
Whereupon Ananias laid hands on Saul’s head. And immediately Saul’s sight was restored along with his capacity to eat and drink. Soon thereafter Saul was baptized on the way to a full recovery. Thanks to Ananias, the conversion from Saul to Paul was nearly complete.
We’ll never know how Ananias really felt about all this. We never hear from him or about him again. Perhaps he went home content in the knowledge that he had done his part and played his role, however small. Or perhaps he never gave it a second thought.
If you think about it though, Paul’s conversion would not have happened without Ananias. A man who heard the voice of God and responded to God’s summons. Overcoming his fears and his doubts and his sheer animist and reaching out to his bitter enemy using the name “Brother…”
Could it be that the transformation of Ananias in today’s story was every bit as unlikely and dramatic and momentous as the one Paul himself experienced?
Ananias had a powerful conversion experience of his own. When you and I are converted to Christ, when we give our lives to following Christ and learning from Christ and listening for the voice of Christ in our lives, it comes with a certain responsibility. Yes, we are called to love Christ. But we are also called to love the people Christ loves.
None of which is easy. Ananias didn’t want any part of Saul. In fact Ananias likely would have relished watching Saul’s downfall with his own eyes. Instead, God called Ananias to lay hands on Saul, to bless him, and to call him “brother.”
Could you do what Ananias did? I’m not sure I could. But it might well be one of the litmus tests by which we judge other Christians around us. Can you and I love the same people Christ loves? Can we love the ones we talk about when we think no one is watching or listening? The ones who don’t meet our worldly expectations and standards. The ones we are afraid of, the ones who rub us the wrong way, the ones whom we consider our greatest enemies. Can we call “those” people brothers and sisters?
Ananias may or may not have been what we think of as a good Christian. We never get to hear him preach or teach or testify about the goodness of God in his life. He’s never considered among those closest to Jesus either before or after the resurrection. He’s just an ordinary person.
And that’s exactly the point. Jesus doesn’t hesitate to invite ordinary people to act like Christians. “Discipleship” is the word we use to describe it. Taking regular, everyday people and turning us into bold, courageous followers who are willing and able to relate to those around us with the same love and grace and compassion Jesus offers to us.
In the end we all have to start somewhere. By playing the role God gave to us as best as we are able…no matter what size it may be. Amen.