Reflection: Holding Fast to Our “Enemies” April 15, 2018
I began my week on Monday by watching a couple of the episodes of a PBS series called Ancient Roads: From Christ to Constantine. I like to check that kind of thing out to see if it would be useful for a study group. The presenter visits the Holy Land, Turkey, Greece and Italy to trace the birth of Christianity. The first episode covers the period from Jesus to Paul; the second continues with Paul’s missionary journeys, with a shout-out to a few other apostles. The presenter definitely underlines the theory that without Paul, there would be no Christianity as we know it.
But for there to be Paul, first there had to be Ananias. In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul himself credits Ananias with being his first teacher of the Way (as Christianity was then called). It would have taken an enormous amount of courage for Ananias to approach Paul. Paul was one of the main enemies of Christianity – so zealous that he got permission to chase the followers of the Way all the way to Damascus from Jerusalem, where they had fled from persecution. This is several days’ journey, but Paul was eager to show his zeal for the Law of Moses. He was a Pharisee, and a devout one, and he saw this strange sect as a threat to the teachings he followed.
So now, Paul the persecutor is vulnerable; but Ananias can’t trust that. Paul still has his guards and assistants with him. Ananias could be walking into a very dangerous situation; but following God’s command he goes to Paul, heals him of his blindness, and begins to teach him in the Way of Jesus. The rest is history. Paul became one of the greatest missionaries of this new faith; his letters to the churches he founded and encouraged make up a third of the New Testament, and another third is made up of letters that are disputed, with most scholars thinking they were written in his name by his followers, to continue his teachings to a new generation of Christians. The Acts of the Apostles is mostly taken up with telling stories of Paul: Peter and James and the other disciples quickly fade into the background as Paul emerges as the focus of the book.
Paul’s mission was remarkable. He made three missionary journeys, travelling as far northwest as Malta and Rome, and covering large parts of what is now Turkey and Greece as well as Palestine. He travelled on foot and by boat, usually with a companion: Timothy, Luke, Barnabas, Silas. He established house churches led by women, men, couples and committees, usually starting with the Jewish community and then inviting gentiles as well. He was beaten, flogged, imprisoned, tortured, shipwrecked; and finally, he was beheaded in Rome as an enemy of the state. He took what was a small Jewish renewal movement and made it international. He wasn’t the only apostle who did so: Peter, Andrew, Thomas and others also travelled abroad with the word of Jesus. But Paul’s is the strongest stamp on the Christianity we know today.
The letter to the Ephesians says, “Not all Christians are equipped to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, or teachers (Ephesians 4:11)” – all of which are critical roles in the life of the contemporary church. But there is something we all can do – and in fact, it’s something Jesus asked not just Ananias to do, but asks us to do too: we can pray for and with those who have rejected the church or who are rejected by the church. Not everyone can be Paul, but we can be Ananias.
There are good reasons why many people want nothing to do with the Way of Jesus or those who follow it. We all know the checkered history we have as an institution. We all know the many ways the church has got it wrong: heresy trials, the Crusades, the Inquisition, wars of the Reformation, forced conversions, residential schools, anti-Semitism, anti-homosexuality… We also know the scepticism which many people feel toward any institution that is as old and presumably set in its ways as the church, and the added scepticism about things that cannot be explained by science or mathematics. We also know that there are people – good people – who have been turned away by the church or hurt by the church because of Christianity’s long-held beliefs and teachings that just don’t hold up under present scholarship and in present society.
No, there isn’t anyone at the moment breathing “threats and murder” about the United Church of Canada. But there are lots of people who don’t want anything to do with us. It would be easy to turn aside their criticism or their pain in defensiveness and anger, but that’s not what Jesus asks us to do. Jesus asks us to love those who are against us, and to pray for those who attack us. Even more, Jesus asks us to be reconciled with those who have hurt us or those whom we have hurt. That’s for all of us – not just the one or two heroes or martyrs or saints that make it into history. Most people wouldn’t know who Ananias was if you asked; but his work of healing and reconciliation with a man who would have been willing to kill him a few days earlier is a model for all of us.
I’ve told many of you about the fellow I call “my friend the atheist”. He’s a really good guy, who was hurt very badly by the church he attended throughout his childhood and early adulthood. In response, he read everything he could critiquing the Bible, the teachings of Christianity, the practices of the church, and so on, eventually becoming a pronounced skeptic and a very strong atheist. As you can imagine, he and I have some pretty interesting discussions on Facebook! One of the things I really respect about him, though, is that he doesn’t try to tar all Christians with the same brush. He understands that Christianity is as diverse as any philosophy, and he frequently posts positive articles about some of the more progressive actions and teachings of churches, as well as articles about some of the more narrow versions of Christianity that are so strong in our world right now. I know he has nothing but good will toward me and toward my faith community, and I know that if he believed in prayer, he’d be praying for me regularly.
Surely, we can return that same good will to those who see the world differently from us? Surely, we can pray for those who do not share our faith, even those who see nothing good in it at all! Last week I talked about “holding fast to each other” as we go through the ups and downs of our faith journey. Now I want to encourage us to hold fast to those who are not part of the faith community too – even those who are hostile to the Way! Ananias did this for Paul, and the result was awesome, in the truest sense of that word.
In my experience, most people who are hostile toward the church either don’t know it at all, or know it too well! They have no true experience with the church, or they’ve had experiences with the church that are hurtful and negative. This deserves compassion and prayer; this deserves coming alongside and listening to what the other has to say; this deserves sharing our own stories – not to “one up” them or to contradict their own feelings or beliefs, but to let them know that it’s possible to have a different experience. Listen and pray first, though. Always listen and pray first! Prayer is essential, because God knows the deepest longings of every heart, and God knows what that individual needs much better than we do. Listen to the other, honour their experience, and then listen for the prompting of the Spirit for the time to share your own story. We can learn from each other, see each other and our church differently, grow together through the sharing of our experiences. This is of huge value for building up our faith!
Later on in the book of Acts, we see a run-in between James and Peter and the Jerusalem church, and the apostle Paul, over Paul’s insistence that Christians didn’t need to follow Jewish law to be good followers of Jesus. The conclusion that was reached after Paul shared his stories of the growth of the church in Gentile communities, was that certain non-negotiable rules would still apply (rules about not eating meat sacrificed to idols or otherwise considered unclean) but that the really tough ones – like circumcision – could be set aside. If the Jerusalem church had not been willing to compromise with the growing Gentile church, Christianity likely would not have become the movement it is today. The growth of the church came out of the willingness to meet across strong dividing lines, to listen and to compromise – not on essentials – but on things that got in the way of sharing faith.
Hold fast to those who hold opposing views. Listen, pray and share your experiences, and see what comes of this reconciling and renewing practice. You might not be a Paul, but you can be an Ananias. Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church. Amen.