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Paul's Conversion

Easter 2018  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Saul or Ananias?

When I read this story, I’m struck by the fact that we so often focus solely on Saul/Paul. Of course, he later becomes very important to the life of the church, and that might be why we focus so much on him, but there’s another character in this story that without his actions, without his faith, without his willingness to hear the Good News of God in a different way, we wouldn’t have this story — or the Paul the apostle at all. Of course, that character is Ananias.
So, my question to you today is: do you see yourself more as Saul in this story, or as Ananias?
Let’s look at Saul first:

Saul

Saul starts out life as the most unlikely character to become a promoter of the Good News of Jesus.
The New Revised Standard Version Saul Persecutes the Church

That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

Hardly the ideal candidate for the position of Apostle.

Ananias

There are three different Ananias characters in the New Testament. They really shouldn’t be confused with each other though. The first is a man who, with his wife Sapphira conspired to keep a portion of the sale of a piece of property for himself. When challenged by Peter, he died immediately. The second is the man in the story we read today. The third is the High Priest who Paul appears before much later in Acts.
It may simply be a coincidence that these three men happened to have the same name, however there’s some additional information for us, in this story, if we look briefly at what the name Ananias means:

ANANIAS [an uh NYE us] (the Lord is gracious) — the name of three New Testament men:

“The Lord is gracious” — I can’t think of a more appropriate name for someone who is about to be called to do the work that God wants him to do in this story.
The New Revised Standard Version The Conversion of Saul

11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”

Ananias had every right to fear for his life. This was not something to just quickly run off and do.
Yet true to his name — he is gracious — he goes off and heals Saul.

New understandings

What ties both of these men together, is their willingness to receive new understandings of how God works. Saul becomes Paul, and gains a new understanding of the message of Jesus. Ananias gains a new understanding of what it means to be gracious in God’s eyes.
I’m then left with the question:

What new understandings do we need?

The church — and I don’t mean just Holy Cross — but the church universal — is an organization that needs to adapt (reform) to the context it finds itself in and yet tries to do so in a way that is consistent with thousands of years of teachings.
Someone asked me the other day what I thought of Pope Francis’ declaration that there is no Hell. (Which seems like a new understanding of the way that God created the world.)
In another interview with his longtime atheist friend, Eugenio Scalfari, Pope Francis claims that Hell does not exist and that condemned souls just "disappear." This is a denial of the 2,000-year-old teaching of the Catholic Church about the reality of Hell and the eternal existence of the soul. The interview between Scalfari and the Pope was published March 28, 2018 in La Repubblica. The relevant section on Hell was translated by the highly respected web log, Rorate Caeli. The interview is headlined, "The Pope: It is an honor to be called revolutionary." (Il Papa: “È un onore essere chiamato rivoluzionario.") Scalfari says to the Pope, "Your Holiness, in our previous meeting you told me that our species will disappear in a certain moment and that God, still out of his creative force, will create new species. You have never spoken to me about the souls who died in sin and will go to hell to suffer it for eternity. You have however spoken to me of good souls, admitted to the contemplation of God. But what about bad souls? Where are they punished?"Pope Francis says, "They are not punished, those who repent obtain the forgiveness of God and enter the rank of souls who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls." https://www.cnsnews.com/blog/michael-w-chapman/pope-francis-there-no-hell
The Vatican has since denied that those words are a true reflection of what the pope said. Yet John Paul II said something very similar:
In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world and we exist. In this he is applying the philosophical categories used by the Church in her theology and saying what St. Thomas Aquinas said long before him. https://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP2HEAVN.HTM
Whether Hell exists or not will be up for debate until the end of the days. (And quite frankly I hope none of us ever finds out that it exists.) For me, the important thing is to see how the church is trying to explain an ancient teaching in a new way. That is, how do we reconcile what happens to sinful people who do not repent, with our understanding *today* of a loving God?
As the world changes — we are left with the need to interpret the church’s mission in new ways — that is we are to gain new understandings of God’s work in the world.
So … what are the new understandings that Holy Cross is called to?

New understandings for Holy Cross

Are we called to see God’s mission with new eyes of faith?
Are we called to hear God’s word to take blessings to those we believe are beyond God’s reach?
Are we called to reach the unreachable?
Are we called to forget our own past and move boldly into the world as agents of God’s grace?
In short, are we called to be Saul or Ananias?
Are we willing to have a new understanding of ministry? One that replaces our faithful ministry that once was correct, and today might be outdated.
My hope and prayer for each of us, is that we are open as Saul and Ananias were to hear God’s message to a new calling — for the goal of each of our lives should be to live faithfully — even if God calls us to things we though we would never do.
For that calling, we give thanks. Amen.
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