A turn of events along Straight Street
The 25th January is the feast day of the conversion of St. Paul. Paul was the great herald of the Gospel to those then known as ‘Gentiles’ – those who were outside the Jewish community of faith.
Paul’s life and heritage is rightly remembered and celebrated; but the person whose courage helped to bring about Paul’s change of heart – Ananias – is largely overlooked.
So I will tell his story here.
I don’t suppose Ananias’ life was ever straightforward; whose life ever is? At the time we meet him [Acts 9: 1-21] Ananias was living in Damascus. He was, as Paul later described him, ‘a devout man according to the law and well spoken of by all the Jews living there’ [Acts 22.12]. As a disciple of ‘The Way’, the name first given to those who followed the teaching of Jesus, his life was under constant threat. Saul of Tarsus - as Paul was then known - had received letters from the high priest in Jerusalem authorising him to arrest any of the Galilean’s followers he found in Damascus. Saul was ‘breathing threats and murder against the disciples’.
Then the ‘vision’ came. Was it a dream, or a sense of God speaking while Ananias was in a place of prayer? Whatever the form of the revelation, the content was devastating. Ananias was to go to Straight Street and ‘look for a man of Tarsus called Saul’. Saul – the most dangerous of men – was the last person Ananias wanted to go looking for. ‘Here I am Lord’, Ananias said, but much of him must have wanted to be anywhere but ‘here’. The vision continued to unfold: Saul had been blinded and he too had received a message:
‘At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man called Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’
All very good for Saul; but what about Ananias? His objections quickly rose to the surface:
‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority to bind all who invoke your name.’
What was the larger feeling in Ananias: fear or anger? Fear because he was being asked to put his life at risk; anger for what this man had done - why should he now be forgiven? Why should he be trusted to the least degree?
How long did Ananias sit with his feelings? How lengthy and tortured was his conversation – or was it argument – with God? Somehow his feet took him through the city to Straight Street. How long did he pace up and down its length before approaching the door? And when he made himself known and saw the stricken Saul before him, did he feel love or loathing? However it was, Ananias found it within himself to let go. His first words to his enemy were ‘Brother Saul’. His first action was to lay his hands upon the man who stated intent has been to bind his own in captivity. Scales fell from Saul’s eyes and he saw once more...or was it for the first time? Here was a man - with every reason to hate him - who called him ‘brother’ and touched him with his hands.
Saul was to become Paul, the greatest of all heralds of the Gospel; the one who could write about forgiveness that knew no bounds and love beyond all measuring. But it was Ananias’ capacity to reach beyond violence and fear that enabled Saul to open his eyes to these truths. It was in Ananias that the Gospel became real for the one who would be its messenger.
Ananias disappears from the pages of the Bible. We know no more. But we know enough to applaud the generosity of this moment, and to recognise that the street is rarely straight.