In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs, “Love your enemies.” It’s a hard teaching, so the Bible shows us how it’s done. The story of Ananias and Saul after the Damascus Road experience (Acts 9) beautifully illustrates it.
It cannot have been a comfortable experience for either one of them. In their own ways, both men had to face and conquer fear. In both cases, it meant acting contrary to closely held beliefs.
Saul, the enemy of the church
When we think of the road to Damascus, we associate it with Paul’s conversion. There, he was knocked to the ground and groped around blindly wondering what hit him. If that’s conversion, maybe we don’t need evangelists or preachers. After all, that condition at least figuratively describes most of us at one time or another.
Conversion can result. It did for Paul. It doesn’t necessarily happen for everyone.
Paul was born as a Roman citizen in Tarsus. So his Roman name would have been [Something] Paulus. It would have been comparable to the Roman consul Sergius Paulus in Acts 13. Apparently, God doesn’t think we need to know our Paul’s full Roman name. His Jewish name was Saul. I wonder if, in his aspiration to become a top Jewish leader, he wasn’t ashamed to be Roman.
When we first meet him, as Saul, he violently persecuted followers of The Way, as Christians were known at first. Not content to imprison and kill them in Jerusalem, he received a commission from the High Priest to go to Damascus and forcibly bring Christians back to Jerusalem.
On the way there, he had his encounter with Jesus. It left him blind, anxious, and confused. His companions led him into town, where he fasted for three days. Paul’s conversion happened after that fast when Ananias came to pray for him.
We owe so much of the Bible and nearly all of our basic theological understanding to Paul. Before Saul the persecutor could become Paul the apostle, someone had to pay him a dangerous call. Jesus chose Ananias for the task. Of course, the assignment was not as dangerous as it seemed. Jesus had already blinded Saul and prepared his heart to receive Ananias. I suppose more often than not, what Jesus asks anyone else to do is not as dangerous as it seems, either.
Ananias, the reluctant witness
Jesus instructed Ananias to go to a certain house and ask for Saul of Tarsus. He told him that Saul was waiting for a man named Ananias to restore his sight. That detail added some pressure!
Ananias informed Jesus that this man was a dangerous enemy. Jesus informed Ananias that Saul was his chosen instrument to proclaim his name to Gentiles. So Ananias did as he was told.
We really don’t know much about Ananias. Was he young or old? Rich or poor? Healthy or frail? Married or single? Educated or not? A leader in the church or a new convert? But we can discern his heart:
- He had a vision. People in the Bible who had visions of God (such as Isaiah, Daniel, or Cornelius) were devout people of prayer. They knew how to worship.
- He was not looking for a vision. Nor was he focused on the details of his own life and troubles. He must have consistently obeyed whatever guidance he received.
- God found him usable. The Bible doesn’t say he sought to be usable, but he clearly loved God. God’s calling is grace at work, not dependent on anything Ananias did.
- Jesus didn’t appear to Ananias to reward him for faithful service or bless him with personal guidance. He put him to work for a purpose Ananas could never have anticipated. Ananias had listened and obeyed before in small things, so he was fit for obeying in something of historic significance.
- In the NIV, Ananias said, “Yes, Lord.” The King James Version and translations in that tradition have “Here I am.” How many times does God call someone who isn’t there? God appeared to Ananias knowing he would be fully present to him.
And here’s something extraordinary: God actually explained himself to Ananias. Most often Christians must obey God’s difficult commands with no understanding of why and barely enough light to see the next step.
The relationship of Ananias and Saul
So Ananias went to the address Jesus had told him and addressed this fierce enemy as Brother Saul. In other words, he showed complete and unhesitant love and acceptance to someone who had come to town to seize him violently. Placing his hands on Saul, Ananias prayed. God’s grace accomplished the rest.
Luke doesn’t tell us who baptized Saul, who fed him, or how his companions responded to these strange events. Ananias and Saul must have had a more extended conversation than Luke records. Saul proclaimed the gospel in the same synagogues in Damascus where he had intended to instruct them to identify Christians for arrest.
Saul must have continued to associate with Ananias during that time. But then he returned to Jerusalem. Ananias disappears from history.
Paul’s missionary journeys, where he became known by his Roman name, started more than 10 years later. It would be longer after that, if ever, before Ananias heard any news of what his convert accomplished. That raises a couple of questions:
- Did Ananias ever learn that the great apostle Paul was the same person as the confused and frightened young Saul he had prayed for?
- If asked, at the end of his life, what he thought his greatest experiences were, would he remember this prayer?
Ananias and us
What about loving that annoying neighbor, that back-stabber at work, that abusive parent or spouse, and others who do us real damage?
Ananias showed love for his enemy when he visited Saul. It was not enough to add Saul to his prayer list and mention him every day. It was not enough request prayer for him at a prayer meeting.
Let’s imagine Jesus telling a Hatfield to make a social call on a McCoy or a Capulet to go knock on a Montague’s door.
Or to make it even more personal, let’s suppose we learn that armed gang intends to raid our church and drag everyone off to face some kind of gang justice. Then Jesus tells you where the leader of the gang is holing up and wants you to go there and lay hands on him in loving prayer.
Ananias was afraid. Like many other Biblical characters–and probably like many if not all of us–he told Jesus that it was not a good idea. Before long, though, he got up and obeyed the call.
Jesus didn’t issue that commandment to the whole church at Damascus. He singled out Ananias. For most of us, loving our enemies might not require anything more challenging than refraining from wrath. But sometimes, he might command a more active display of love.
When Jesus called Ananias, Ananias answered, “Here I am.” Then, when Jesus told him to visit Saul, he obeyed.
So here’s how to love our enemies: be present to God’s presence and then set aside fear and revulsion when he tells us to do something uncomfortable.