SPIRITUAL - PART 2
Sunday, May 5, 2019
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.
Our culture greatly values strength. We put a lot of stock in power, control, and victory. The weak often find themselves on the margins and if someone finds themselves in a low place, the most common advice people will give is to toughen up or grow a thicker skin.
Spirituality, for many people, is a source of strength. There is something empowering when we tap into sources of power and strength beyond our own understanding. The first few steps of any 12 Step recovery program involve admitting that we are powerless and that we need rely on a higher power for the strength to overcome whatever addiction we may be trying to break through.
Yet in our text today, we find two very strong individuals brought to their knees by an encounter with the Holy Spirit. A genuine “spiritual experience” with God may indeed give us strength, but that spiritual strength comes first through vulnerability and humility.
Saul is a great religious leader feared by anyone who would challenge his authority or teach against his understanding of God. He stood over Stephen with approval as the people stoned him for blasphemy because of his faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. He was on his way to Damascus to destroy the Jesus movement in that community. He was indeed a strong and powerful man.
Ananias was also a strong man. In spite of such great persecution from people like Saul, he continued faithfully proclaiming the Gospel and following the way of Christ. His understanding of the Spirit’s voice indicates a strong prayer life and a strong faith.
Two strong men with completely opposite beliefs about God and about the nature of Jesus and neither are willing to back down. An unlikely pairing to say the least. The thought of a friendly meeting between Saul and Ananias so soon after the stoning of Stephen might be comparable to Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush sitting down for tea the week after 9/11.
Yet when each encountered the Holy Spirit, they were humbled. Saul was blinded before the Lord and became physically weak and dependent on his servants and even on his Jesus-following enemies. Ananias was challenged in his desire for self-preservation and in his understanding of who could truly be saved by God’s grace. Could there be mercy and forgiveness for one as evil and opposed to Christ as Saul, who even now was on his way to Damascus to kill Ananias and all of the believers?
Both had to admit that they were wrong about Jesus and about God’s will. Both had to admit that they had something to learn from each other and that God’s love was far greater than the hatred and fear that stood as an unbreakable barrier between religious leaders like Saul and the followers of “the Way” of Jesus.
The spiritual strength granted to both Saul and Ananias to humble themselves, set aside their fear and animosity, and sit down at the table together resulted in unprecedented church growth among the Gentiles across the known world along with the writing of nearly half of our New Testament Scriptures. This simple act of spiritual strength, of listening to God and listening to one another’s stories, quite literally changed the history of the world.
Spiritual strength is always about the strength to love… especially the unimaginable strength of loving our enemies. This kind of love demands the strength of humility, vulnerability and risk. At the bottom of this post, you will find a link to one of my favorite books, “Tea with Hezbollah.” While none of the stories in this tale involve the kind of radical conversion that Saul experienced, they do teach us a lot about what it means to sit at the table with our enemies, to humble ourselves and to risk everything just to listen to each other. And out of these humble and vulnerable conversations, the strength of the Holy Spirit shines through.
A modern day reflection on sitting at the table with our enemies…