Facing reality gets the job done
READING: Acts 9:1–19
“Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.”
I have to say, though I’m sure you won’t all agree with me, that I think you are very fortunate to have me here this morning!
I’ve recently had one of life’s traumatic experiences. Well, it was a few weeks ago now, but it remains starkly vivid in my memory.
It began when I quite innocently visited one of those photo-booths because the time had come to renew my passport. You know the procedure. You pull aside the curtain and settle on the rotary seat. You close the curtain to give you the privacy you need at such intimate moments, and you read the instructions. You put in your money. You adjust your seat height by spinning this way and that. You try leaning forward and backward, until at last your chin and the crown of your head fits neatly between the red lines. Finally, you ensure that your face is not showing even a hint of a smile and that your arms and your eyes are uncrossed, and then you fire the button that takes your picture.
Alighting from the booth you then stand and wait somewhat sheepishly, for your photos to clunk into the tray outside.
I should, of course have remembered from previous occasions, but nothing quite prepares you for what happens when you pick up those photos and take a look. Aaaaagh! That can’t be me, you think, as you examine the full horror of this so-called “likeness”. But Margaret, my wife, who dutifully accompanies me on such challenging occasions to lend moral support – rather too quickly for my liking, tells me that it is true. I DO in fact look like that!
So I’m already mentally planning my escape to some remote mountain monastery where I can live out the balance of my miserable life in the privacy and solitude that now appears essential if I’m to spare the world the trauma of catching sight of such a nightmare.
But knees wobbling from the onset of shock, and steered along by Margaret, I make my way to the Post Office counter, clutching my photos to begin the “Check and Send” passport process.
I feel obliged to warn the ill-fated and unfortunate girl whose job it is to handle my passport application form, of the spectacle she is about to endure as she begins the checking process. But she, having had to endure countless such experiences, like a casualty nurse, is now completely desensitised to all such appalling moments and just gets on with the job - like it was nothing at all.
This girl, I instantly realise, is used to facing realities, ugly realities, and just getting on with the task in hand. She is, in fact, the perfect model for the approach we all, I want to suggest, should take as we come face to face with our own SPIRITUAL short-comings.
There is a real danger I think for many of us as Christians that we simply drift through our lives and never really face up to our issues. We just accept somehow that that is how things are. Occasionally though, our frustrations may SO get to us, that we may come to God with what amounts to almost an angry prayer or outburst. Or, is that only me?
As I was doing some preparation for this message I actually came across something I had put into words on one of those occasions some time ago. Addressed to God, this is what I wrote:
“Question: What makes your power flow through us? What is the switch that when turned on allows the power of God to energise and equip us to do the job that we are intended to be doing . . . which is to live the life you want us to live? To live out your purpose for and through us – the only purpose that will genuinely bless and support others as part of the body of Christ? What is that switch?”
Now that question was followed by some written thoughts about aspects of a possible answer. But interestingly, I now realise that my message this morning actually focusses on a key aspect of the answer to that question. So do your best to follow along with me this morning, because it might just mean that in facing up to the ugly reality of any spiritual deficiencies in our lives, we may find the solution, so that we, like the girl in the post office, learn to BRACE ourselves and get on with the job we have been given.
The book of Acts is a startling book. We sometimes refer to it as the Acts of the Apostles and it is true that it does have quite a strong focus on certain key players like Peter, John, James, Barnabas and, of course, in the latter half particularly, it has a focus on the great Apostle Paul.
Now, I’ve obviously led quite a sheltered spiritual life because it was only recently that I heard the view that Luke’s narrative, first of Christ’s ministry in his Gospel, and then of the birth and early days of the church in what we often refer to the Acts of the Apostles, both written to a mystery man called Theophilus, may have been what amounts to case documents for use in preparing the legal defence of Paul in the courts of Rome, and was providing the background information to demonstrate Paul’s story, his character and his motivation. But, whatever the truth of that, which I’ll have to leave to the academics, it is clear that Acts is NOT just about the Apostles.
I mentioned, for example, in a recent message that in Acts 11:20-21 we read of “men from Cyprus and Cyrene” who quote: “went to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.”. These were ordinary, newly born again Christian men, about whom the Scripture records: “The Lord’s hand was with them, and a GREAT NUMBER OF PEOPLE believed and turned to the Lord.” So clearly a Holy Spirit anointed ministry was NOT confined just to Apostles like Paul or even to deacons like Stephen or Philip in the early days of the church.
So could it be, that we are wrong to think that fruitful, Holy Spirit led and prompted, evangelism and healing is confined in TODAY’S church to just those favoured few with one or more of the five-fold ministry gifts that Paul describes in Ephesians 4:11?
Or, are we in fact just making an excuse for ourselves so that we can opt out of Jesus’s great commission in Matthew 28:18–20 where we read:”18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and MAKE DISCIPLES of all nations, BAPTIZING THEM in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and TEACHING THEM TO OBEY EVERYTHING I HAVE COMMANDED YOU. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
But if we feel we can ignore this apparently UNIVERSAL injunction on ALL Christians given in the Great Commission, perhaps we should look to the gospels for further guidance.
In Luke 9:1–2 we read “When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out TO PREACH THE KINGDOM OF GOD and to HEAL THE SICK.” So ALL these DISCIPLES - and that’s what they were at the time, went out and preached and healed the sick suggesting perhaps that THIS in fact is a model for all of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus. Perhaps we too should be going out to preach the gospel and to heal the sick?
Now okay, most of these guys went on to be Apostles, so perhaps the passage doesn’t prove conclusively that this applies to all of US today.
But, and here’s the killer blow, look what we read in Luke 10:1–3, (NIV84) “After this the Lord appointed SEVENTY-TWO OTHERS and sent THEM two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” And in verse 10 he then commands them: “HEAL THE SICK who are there and tell them, ‘THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS NEAR YOU.’”
So here then were 72 guys. They were DISCIPLES, yes, but it is pretty certain that they did not ALL go on to be Apostles. And these 72 went out and they preached the gospel and they healed the sick. So maybe HERE we ARE seeing the model for ALL disciples. Maybe we are ALL meant to be doing this – GOING WITH THE GOSPEL and HEALING THE SICK.
But for the moment, let’s just return to our reading – Acts 9, verses 1-19, where we read amazing events in Paul’s life as he was called and commissioned to an unsurpassed ministry among the fledgling church.
But I want us to focus NOT on the familiar Saul or Paul, but on the brief appearance of a man called Ananias.
So who is this man? Remember first of all, that here we are NOT looking at an Apostle. We read nothing elsewhere about other exploits of this man in planting or leading churches or indeed, doing anything else. He was NOT the man we read of in Acts 5:1-11 that Peter had rebuked along with his wife Sapphira for deceptively withholding part of a gift to the church, and as a consequence was carried out from Peter’s presence to keep an appointment with a funeral director. And, he was certainly NOT the rather unpleasant High Priest, of the same name, who described Paul as a troublemaker and ordered him to be slapped across his mouth when facing the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.
We know that this Ananias was a “DISCIPLE”, because that is how he is described in Acts 9, verse 10. We know too from Paul’s description of him in a later testimony recorded in Acts 22:12 that “He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living“ in Damascus.
Now there are some later unconfirmed traditions that suggest that Ananias may have been one of the 72 sent out by Jesus, that he may in fact have gone on to become the Bishop of Damascus, and even that he died a martyr’s death, but from the Biblical record itself, as far as we know, he was at the time of his ministry to Saul, just a disciple. There is nothing in Scripture to tell us that at this point he was a pastor, an elder, a deacon, or even a church secretary. He was a disciple – the descriptor we give to everyone who, like you and I, are saved and are choosing to follow Christ.
And look again at our Acts 9 passage and notice some key things about the testimony of this ordinary Christian brother of ours.
First, this ordinary disciple had a VISION from God, because verse 10 tells us, “The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
Second, this ordinary disciple received some detailed instructions from God in that vision because verses 11 and 12 tell us, 11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
Third, this ordinary disciple was obviously sold out in OBEDIENCE to his Saviour because even though he instantly felt fear at the commission God was giving him and clearly fully understood the possible implications and dangers of the task being asked of him, because we hear him say in verse 13 and 14: “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” Yet Ananias readily chose not to flee from the will of God, like Old Testament Jonah, but to submit in faith to God’s challenging request.
But best of all, notice what this ordinary disciple of Jesus does next in the words of verses 17 and 18. “Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptised,”
Notice incidentally, that Ananias seems NOT to have “prayed” over Saul, but exactly as the vision had directed, he seems just to have declared God’s intention and purpose over him, and instantaneously Saul’s eyesight was restored.
So here we see an ordinary disciple - not an apostle, not a prophet, not an evangelist, not a pastor nor a teacher, not only exercising a HEALING ministry without any other credential than that he was, like us, a DISCIPLE of Christ, but he then went on to minister to Saul the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and, we presume, he was the one who baptised him in water.
So Ananias, an ordinary disciple, had a vision, heard the voice of God, responded with faith despite his fear, chose deliberately to OBEY God’s instructions, and “stepped-up” to operate in the ministry of healing, and led Paul into the baptism of the Holy Spirit and through the waters of baptism to confirm his new birth and discipleship.
Our passage then is recording how a “bog standard” disciple like you and I, was used by God in an amazing supernatural sequence of events to contribute to the purposes of God in a way that effectively launched the ministry of the pre-eminent Early Church apostle. Imagine having that on your spiritual CV!
But here’s my real point today. What was it that allowed Ananias to be used by God in such a significant way – even though at the time he was just an ordinary disciple?
Well, I think it was two things in particular. And in reference to that earlier question I put to God, these two things represent that switch. The switch that we need “to energise and equip us to do the job that we are intended to be doing . . . which is to live the life God intends us to live? The first, of course, is FAITH. Ananias TRUSTED GOD IMPLICITLY, even when being really challenged and tested by what he was being asked to do in making a house call on this powerful enemy of the infant church.
But second, he was OBEDIENT. Here, in Ananias, Jesus clearly had a disciple who had taken seriously and personally that inescapable demand of all would-be disciples given in the Great Commission. He had heard, accepted, and was fully prepared to act on Jesus’s injunction “TO OBEY EVERYTHING I HAVE COMMANDED YOU”.
In a nutshell, Ananias’ faith was such that he was prepared to take the risk that God would be as good as His word and he was therefore ready to step out in obedience even though he couldn’t KNOW how things would turn out.
It’s also interesting to note that last sentence in the Great Commission where Jesus declares: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Now that’s a very comforting promise, and one that can sustain and encourage us whatever the context in which we may seek to claim it. But when Jesus spoke those words it was very definitely in the context of us “making disciples”, “baptizing them” and being obedient to all that Jesus COMMANDS.
And for many of us, I think, that’s an interpretation that could be aptly described by Al Gore’s famous words in connection with global warming. It is for many of us “an inconvenient truth”.
“Inconvenient”, because while we like and take comfort from the concept of Jesus promising to always be with us, we are perhaps less happy to see making disciples, baptising them, and being obedient to the Saviour, as the individual obligation of each one of us, preferring rather to delegate these things to those we think have more talent, or more time than ourselves, or those we feel we are paying to do those tasks on our behalf.
And worse, when it comes to “being OBEDIENT to all that Jesus commands”, there is a tendency these days, I think, to excuse ourselves and “claim the grace card” to side-step our calling, and so effectively abdicate any such personal responsibility.
But grace of course, sweet and perfect and wonderful as it is, was never meant to be an excuse for willfully opting, or even just settling, for a life of unfettered disobedience. If anything, it is intended to provoke in us such a love for Jesus, whose sacrifice at so great a cost, has rescued and redeemed us, that we do all we can out of our love for Him, to fulfil every detail of His call on our lives.
So our call to “make disciples”, “baptise them” and to be obedient to all that Jesus commands may be inconvenient, even ugly in our eyes, but nevertheless, we do all need to FACE UP to its REALITY.
Since I retired, I have on a fairly regular basis enjoyed going for lengthy country walks with two ex-colleagues. One of them, Adrian, is brilliant at investigating and planning the walks and they are so meticulously prepared that I have often suggested that he should publish them. Both Adrian, and Brian, my other colleague, are absolutely amazing at knowing exactly where we are and where we should be going at each stage in these walks.
I don’t know who is the more impressive; Adrian because of his incredibly detailed preparation so that the minutiae of the route are all logged clearly in his head and he knows at any moment of time both where we are and where we will be heading next; or Brian, who without any prior knowledge of the route appears to have a brain with built in GPS so that he unerringly knows both where we are and what we must do to get to the prescribed finishing point. He is also incidentally, particularly good at regularly suggesting possible shortcuts!
I, on the other hand, am generally content just to listen to the banter, contribute occasionally, and trust that the other two will get us safely to our destination. Sometimes though I have had the unnerving thought, “what on earth would I do if for any reason the others were incapacitated or I was somehow separated from them?” Having no clue at all about where we are or where to go next, I would inevitably be completely lost.
And I think perhaps, when it comes to making progress spiritually, many are a bit like me in my approach to these country walks. We are very often quite happy for someone else to do our thinking for us while we spend our time in idle daydreams without a thought for where we are right now in relation to where we want to be at the end of our spiritual journey.
Whether it is the Post Office girl dealing with a passport application and grotesque personal photos; Ananias facing up to his fears in meeting Saul the arch persecutor of the church; or ourselves, as 21st Century Christians, realising that WE are personally included in the call to preach the gospel, heal the sick, and walk in obedience, we need to face reality, sometimes ugly reality, if we are ever to get OUR job done.
For sure, it seems that today “The harvest is (still) plentiful” and while it seems also to be the case that “the workers are few.” perhaps the numbers are unnecessarily depleted because many of us who COULD and SHOULD be working in those fields, have either failed to hear the call to preach the gospel, heal the sick and walk in obedience, or we are simply failing to face the reality that this is not JUST the job of the apostles and the pastor, but rather that it is the commission and call that Jesus has given to every one of us.
But the exciting truth that Ananias teaches us is surely that if we will be obedient and push aside our fears and go and preach the gospel and heal the sick, we too can confidently trust that Jesus WILL be right there WITH US because, as we have read, we have His word on it. And when Jesus is with us we are sure to see both the miraculous and the life-transforming.