Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ananias v. Ananias (Acts 9:1-20)

So this is actually one of three guys named Ananias we run into in the book of Acts. There’s this fellow, there’s the guy who fudged on his record of giving and then there’s a high priest that has a running argument about who can preach what in the temple.

I want to pay attention to the first two. “Ananias” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name “H’nanya,” which is usually translated “Yahweh has been gracious.” Because their culture paid more attention to name meanings than ours often does, I imagine both men heard a lot about God’s graciousness when they were growing up.

We meet the problem Ananias first. He and his wife Sapphira had become believers and had sold some property. They gave part of the money to the church, which was no problem for anyone. But they made out like they donated it all.

Peter first called out Ananias on the discrepancy. Confronted with the reality that he had tried to deceive God, Ananias died. When Sapphira came looking for her husband, Peter gave her the same treatment, and she died too. Which is why I’m not scared of the IRS – all they can do is audit me.

The Ananias we read about in this passage is a believer in Damascus who has a vision one day. In the vision, God tells him to go to a certain house, where he will find a certain Saul of Tarsus. Saul has had a vision of his own, it seems, and it blinded him. God wants Ananias to heal Saul.

Ananias is not certain this is a good idea. He knows very well who Saul of Tarsus is, and he knows that as far as Christians are concerned, a blind Saul is a good Saul. Saul persecuted Christians in Jerusalem, and he’d been planning to take his act on the road, with Damascus as his first stop. At the very least, Ananias would like to not have Saul be able to identify his voice in court.

But God tells Ananias to go anyway. When he meets Saul, he welcomes him as a brother and touches his eyes, and Saul is healed. So what can we learn from this tale of two Ananiases? Ananiai? Whatever.

Two men, whose names were constant reminders that God is gracious. That fact seems to have had a different impact on them.

We could make a good argument that it had no impact at all on the problem Ananias. We don’t know his history, but I doubt the scheme of misreporting income was a new idea for him. He strikes me as a guy working all the angles, always trying to find a corner to cut or a new plan to shade a deal his way. If explained the phrase “looking out for number one” to him, I imagine he’d get it right away.

We don’t know why he kept part of the donation back, but it seems obvious he thought of what he had as what he had, and not what God had given to him. He didn’t yet understand that everything was God’s, given to him as a gift. He gave to God what he thought he could spare, and kept back some for himself.

The Ananias from this passage has the same chance to try to keep hold of what he has. Meeting with Saul of Tarsus could cost him his freedom or even his life. But he didn’t think like the other Ananias. His life and his freedom, like his possessions and everything else he had, weren’t his anymore. They belonged to God, and Ananias in becoming a follower of Christ had given them to God to be used however he saw fit.

Does this mean he wanted Saul to arrest or kill him? I doubt it.

I think it means he decided to act on the faith he’d talked about. I think it means he decided he would trust that God would stand with him no matter he might have to face when he met Saul. In fact, imprisonment is a worst-case situation anyway, because God has promised him Saul would be no threat to him. What has he to fear? Ananias acts on his faith and obeys God, even greeting Saul as “brother.”

To me, Ananias’ greatest act of faith was to say that word to the man who persecuted his friends. It was also his greatest act of grace. Saul had done nothing to deserve Ananias’ friendship but Ananias set that aside in order to treat Saul as he knew God had treated Ananias.

Ananias had heard the word, and come to believe. Why? Because, just as his name said, “Yahweh has been gracious.” Through grace, the message of life came from Christ and Ananias had the chance to follow it.

And if God had been that gracious to Ananias, how could Ananias be anything else towards someone else, even Saul of Tarsus?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Ready or Not (Luke 24:1-12)

Well, one thing’s for sure: Nobody was ready for Easter.

They weren’t ready for what happened in the days before; first the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and then the crash and burn of the arrest, mock “trial” and crucifixion.

People who thought he was a popular religious leader and teacher probably wondered why the religious leadership wanted him dead so badly. Those followers who thought he was the Messiah weren’t ready for an end like this to their hopes. The Messiah was to bring the restoration of the united Kingdom of Israel – not die on a Roman cross. Other followers, who had responded to his message of love and concern, weren’t ready to see the end of the man who had been the first, if not the only, person to treat them as people with dignity and value. He’d given their lives meaning, and they certainly didn’t want to see that end.

But the women – sensible in the face of the tragedy in a way women often seem to manage quite well – realized that like it or not, they had a dead body to deal with, and no one had the time to properly prepare it for burial in the cave tomb. Religious and cultural customs required certain things be done for a decent burial, and if no one else was going to do them, well, they’d just take care of it themselves.

Tomb burial was temporary – as soon as the body had decayed, the dry bones were sealed in an urn, often kept with other such urns in s family plot or cave. Certain spices and oils helped make the decay a little less unpleasant and a little cleaner. So the women had prepared these mixtures and were headed to the tomb Sunday morning to take care of this last act for their beloved teacher.

Of course the large stone would have to be moved, but there were soldiers guarding the tomb, and surely they could shift it so they could do what needed doing.

Perhaps they discussed their task as they walked along; pointing out who was good at this part of the burial, and who was better at another part. They might have prepared themselves for the odor they would likely encounter, or rehearsed how they might convince the soldiers to move the stone. They were about to do something necessary, but unpleasant, so they tried to make themselves ready for anything they might encounter.

But ain’t no way they were ready for what they found. No soldiers. No stone. And no body. That was incredible enough, but perhaps they’d heard of people so low they would desecrate the dead. Then things went completely beyond anything they could have imagined – two men in shining clothes appeared and said Jesus had risen, just as he had said he would.

They weren’t ready for what they ran into. They were ready for something, but not what actually happened. The remaining disciples weren’t ready for this either, disbelieving what the women told them.

I’ve yet to live a half-century, but I’ve picked up on a couple of things so far. One of them is that people never really seem to be ready for an Easter. Sure, it jumps around on the calendar so we don’t always know when it will be, but that’s not exactly what I mean.

It seems we make ourselves ready for the worst that can happen, if for no other reason than to be able to say, “I told you so” when it does happen. And when the worst does happen, then we seem to think that’s the end of the situation. A disease is terminal. A friendship is broken. A job is lost. A life is ended. And that’s it, game over.

But we’re never ready for the Easter. Well, “never” is too strong. Some people are. Some people seem to be ready for the transformation of what looks like a dead end. And probably most of us have, one time or another, found ourselves still hoping in a situation where hope has no reason to exist.

It takes faith to look for an Easter to follow whatever Good Friday we might experience. Faith that even if we can’t really see all of what’s going on, God can, and God’s sight includes possibilities as far beyond what we imagine as resurrection was beyond what Jesus’ followers looked for.

I don’t mean na├»ve optimism. Christianity deals with hard realism. Jesus, after all, died an awful death, and that death was real. I mean the kind of faith that accepts reality but doesn’t stop there. It says, “This is real, but it isn’t all there is.”

It’s not necessarily easy, which is probably why most of us fail sometimes. The disciples had Jesus himself spell it out for them and Good Friday devastated them so much they couldn’t accept his teaching. We live in the same kind of Good Friday world and we don’t even have Jesus in the flesh teaching us who he was and what he was here to do.

But at least one day, every year, we can remind ourselves that Sunday’s coming. We identify ourselves with that claim. Yes, it’s a Good Friday world for sure. But Sunday’s coming. Easter’s coming.

Are you ready for some good news?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Case of Worthiness (John 13:1-17; 31-35)

This is from our Holy Thursday service:

What was he thinking?

Jesus chose this final Passover meal with his disciples as the time to offer them his most meaningful teachings and perform two of the greatest acts of love of his earthly ministry. He transformed part of the Passover meal to become communion, a ritual Christians have shared ever since his day. He demonstrated the true greatness of his love and leadership by washing his disciples’ feet – surely one of the least pleasant pre-meal activities I can imagine.

That’s all well and good, but he did these things when all 12 were there, which means he did them for Judas as well. He told Judas, “This is my body, this is my blood.” He washed Judas’ feet.

And honestly, even if we leave Judas out of the picture, I’m still not sure I can figure out what he was thinking. He did these things with the men who would scatter when the Roman soldiers came, who would show up again only at the end.

He did these things with Peter, whose public denial of even knowing Jesus could almost be seen as a worse betrayal than Judas’, since Peter had been so close to him for so long. The same man who said, “You are the Christ, the Son of God,” would also say (paraphrased), “Dammit, I don’t know the guy!”

Surely Jesus could have chosen better folks for this. People more worthy of these great acts of love. The women, for example, who stayed around the cross for so long. Joseph of Arimathea, who risked public standing by giving a condemned blasphemer a place in his family tomb. Or Nicodemus, no longer so scared of what people thought that he would only talk at night and who now joins Joseph in helping to bury Jesus. Mary Magdalene, the only one who would go out in public and visit the tomb.

There were probably others who risked condemnation and imprisonment of their own by standing by Jesus as best as they could. Instead of any of them, though, Jesus shared these amazing gifts with this group of squabbling egotists who wouldn’t even stoop to washing the feet of the one they called Master.

What was he thinking?

Maybe he thought not of who deserved the honor of these gifts the most. Maybe he thought of who needed them the most. It’s not hard to say that Jesus had already worked a transformation in people like Joseph and Nicodemus and Mary. Their lives were changed. But the Doltish Dozen still need some work.

I have to wonder how I would reflect later on that night if I’d been one of the disciples. The idea that I’d abandoned my teacher in the hour of his greatest need would absolutely overwhelm me. I might not even feel like I could live with the knowledge of what I’d done.

His living presence, felt through the Holy Spirit, might or might not be much help. It might be only a reminder that I’d abandoned not just a teacher and friend, but the Son of God himself.

Oh, and forget communion. Just hearing someone say, “In remembrance of him” would remind me all too well of that night, that last night when I’d done my best to forget who he was and have everyone else forget, too. Or at least forget I was ever anywhere near him.

I’d have to feel like the worst person, the least worthy person, the foulest sinner in the entire world. Other people might have sinned against God, but I'd sinned against God when he was right in front of me.

Until I remembered what he’d done for me before any of that happened. He’d washed my feet. He’d offered himself for me as a sacrifice. He knew I’d let him down, but he included me anyway. He knew I’d later foul myself with betrayal, but he cleaned me anyway. He knew I’d forget him, but he reminded me of his self-giving anyway.

As you may have gathered, I don’t really have to imagine how the disciples might have felt, not when I look at my own life and see how much of it parallels theirs. Your life might be different – and I know my life is different today than it has been before.

To take of his body and blood this evening is to be reminded of two things – that our Lord gave us his greatest gift, himself, when we were far from worthy of receiving it. And that his love for us is so great that he not only gave it to us then, but he saw in us the worthiness he would create in us all.

We may not be all clean. But the Lord who gives his body and blood in the bread and the cup will wash us – again and again – until we are. By his grace, the worthiness he saw is, every day, becoming more and more the actual reality by which we live.

Sounds like good news to me.