Homily, January 30

Our Scripture drama today was based on Acts 9:1-21. 

We may know the main character of the story we just heard better by another name:  Paul. Saul was probably his Hebrew name – like Israel’s first king. Paul or Paulus was probably the name he used in Greco-Roman contexts – which was most of his ministry. So, Saul to Paul was probably not a name change, but a change in what he went by.

Saul or Paul was an incredibly important figure in early Christianity! He indeed ends up suffering a lot for his faith in Jesus, too – and eventually dies for it. But first: He spends thirty years founding churches, traveling around preaching and teaching, and writing letters to remind those young churches how they’re supposed to be acting. At least seven of the Epistles – the letters of the early church – that are included in the Bible were written by Paul, including some that are really important for our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. 

That stuff about how the church is like a body?… That’s Paul! That stuff you hear at weddings about how true, holy love, is patient, and kind, and so on? That’s Paul! That passage about how neither death, or life, nor things present, nor things to come, etcetera, can separate us from the love of God in Christ? That’s Paul! I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me? That’s Paul!  Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, … think about these things? That’s Paul! Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind? That’s Paul! There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus? That’s Paul! I could go on, but you get the idea! 

Paul is so, so important for the growth and spread and identity of early Christianity. So this story of how Paul became a Christian is important, too.  As Paul himself says in his first letter to the church in Corinth, “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace towards me has not been in vain.” (1 Cor 15)

This month’s Skill for Faithful Living is Friendship. In StoryChurch, we’ve been reading some books about friends and friendship. Last Sunday we read two books about people who help their friends see things in a new way. 

A very hungry lion accepts a rabbit’s invitation to lunch, planning to eat the rabbit, and then discovers that he really likes carrot stew. Much to the relief of all the animals in the neighborhood! There’s a hint in the story that what the lion likes isn’t just the stew, but also having friends that welcome him… instead of running away from him! 

In another book, Michael Bird Boy teaches Boss Lady to use bees to make real honey in her factory and get rid of pollution that was hurting the countryside. 

There are lots of ways friendship can be a holy gift. One of them is that sometimes our friends help us change – in ways we need to change. They help us see things in a new light, or try a new way of being, that’s better for us and for those around us. Or sometimes we might be given the opportunity to help a friend change – lovingly, wisely, carefully. People can change. Even people we don’t expect – like Paul. 

When I look at this story through the lens of friendship, I really notice Ananias. Look: Presumably Jesus could have healed Paul’s blindness without help. But that’s not what happened. Instead Jesus asked Ananias to help complete the miracle. 

Does Ananias want to do that?… 

Ananias’ reluctance is very real. There are people we don’t want to help. People who have hurt us personally; or people who stand for things we hate or fear. Jesus was asking a lot, in asking Ananias to be kind to Paul. Ananias does it – not because he wants the best for Paul, but because he loves Jesus. 

The miracle that happens to Paul – 5hat makes him a Christian, and then such an important leader for the early church – that miracle really has two parts. First there’s the Road to Damascus moment – the blinding light and the voice. And then there’s the moment when Ananias lays his hands on Paul and prays over him, and his temporary blindness is healed. 

There were several days between those two events, and we don’t know exactly when Paul’s heart was really turned towards Jesus. But it could be that it was Ananias’ willingness to extend friendship that really fulfilled what was happening inside of Paul. Like the rabbits welcoming that lion into their home! 

Today I give thanks for the ministry of the apostle Paul. But I also give thanks for Ananias, who appears so briefly in the story, but who has such an important role, and who shows us the power and potential of holy friendship.

God, help us be holy friends, too. Amen.