Acts: Growing Together
July 5, 2020 Pastor: Series: The Book of Acts
Topic: Together in Christ Scripture: Isaiah 43:15–19, Acts 9:1–19
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Florida Keys. I had never been to a place even remotely tropical, so this was the closest I had come to experiencing that in nature. It was amazing. I love the ocean. It is my absolute favorite place to vacation, but - as I said, I had never been anywhere tropical. I’d never been further than the coasts of the Northeast. And so, the first thing I noticed at the Keys was how clear and blue the water was. It was incredible. I had a chance to snorkel some and see barracuda and moray eels and even a sea turtle. My love for the ocean grew so much with that trip.
I did learn a few things as well. First, I learned that I love the ocean shores a lot more than I love the open sea. It took about 18 minutes into a 4-hour fishing trip when I learned I get seasick. The sea is fickle, my friends. But I also learned that the ecosystems around the shorelines are a lot more complex than my summer vacations to Ocean City, MD had led me to believe. On a shoreline kayaking trip, I saw something for the first time that captured my curiosity. Mangroves.
Maybe some of you have seen these unassuming botanical marvels. They look like floating forests on the coasts and near swampy areas. Our guide on that kayak trip told us how these mangrove forests are one of the undersold treasures of the area. He shared how the mangroves foster complex and vital ecosystems, how these forests support many species of animals battling endangerment, and even how the mangroves help to protect the local shoreline communities of erosion and strong storm surges. He said it’s not uncommon at all for fishermen and others to hitch their boats to large concentrations of mangroves to prevent their boats from being destroyed or washed away in anticipated powerful storms.
When you see the mangrove forests, there is certainly something interesting about them, but they don’t appear to be one of the natural wonders that would draw out crowds. A single mangrove is even less impressive of a sight. But by Growing Together these trees create a tightly woven root system that fosters and protects the delicate ecosystem they call home.
For the last few weeks of our journey through the book of Acts, we have traveled with a man named Philip. This morning we encounter one of the most well-known and renowned figures within the New Testament. We meet him as man named Saul, but he goes on to take the name Paul and to author a majority of the New Testament as well as countless stories of faith in the lives of many. But Paul’s story begins first with an encounter with Jesus and then with his story becoming entwined with that of another. And by Growing Together, these two foster something powerful and impactful. We’re in Acts 9:1-19.
Ok, so we come to easily one of the most important moments, not only in the books of Acts, but in the larger story of our faith. Aside from Christ Himself, Paul might just be the single most important figure when it comes to the growth and the mission of those who follow Jesus. Not only did Paul go on to compose a majority of the New Testament, he also personally played a part in forming and fostering the spread of the Gospel in numerous cities and regions during the genesis of what has become Christianity. Sometimes, from behind the walls of a prison and sometimes amidst friends and other disciples, Paul became a pillar for both understanding the scope and reach of the Gospel and for revealing to others how they can more faithfully live like Jesus. But before he wrote any letters or founded any churches, Paul was Saul and he was a very different man.
Saul is a man with a dark mission. It is his labor to find and silence those who identify as followers of Jesus. In previous portions of Acts, we learn that sometimes this means throwing Christ followers in prison and other times it means more violent action. And even now, at the beginning of our text, Saul is “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” and is heading to another city where he can silence more voices. And then Jesus appeared.
Saul’s might be one of the more common conversion stories we hear but it certainly is not traditional by any means. I’m sure there are many of us who can think back to a moment with our parents or in a pew or at a camp where we can mark the beginning of our journey with Christ. For Saul, that journey began with a blinding light and a loud voice, and it continued with his own blindness and a complete need for the assistance of others. But by verse 18, Saul is filled with the Holy Spirit, his sight is restored, and he is baptized. But none of that would have been possible without the other figure in this account: Ananias.
In truth, this is the only account in all of Scripture that we have of Ananias. Some of you might recall a story with an Ananias in Acts 5. Believe it or not, more than one person had that name back then, but the Ananias of Acts 5 was a very different person, one who actually died in that account. This Ananias, the one who comes alongside Saul, doesn’t appear anywhere else in Acts in the rest of the New Testament. But that’s ok. N.T. Wright remarks on Ananias by saying, “We never hear from Ananias again. We don’t know how he became a follower of Jesus. We know nothing about him except this passage, and it’s enough: that he was a believer, that he knew how to listen for the voice of Jesus, that he was prepared to obey it even though it seemed ridiculously dangerous that he went where he was sent and did what he was told. And he did it with love and grace and wisdom. You can’t ask for more.” F.F. Bruce even goes a step further and connects our own stories to Ananias. “Ananias has an honored place in sacred history, and a special claim on the gratitude of all who in one way or another have entered into the blessing that stems from the life and work of [Paul].”
So, you have Saul. Essentially, a bounty hunter that attempted to track down and eliminate any and every follower of Jesus. And you have Ananias. A seemingly ordinary lover of Christ with an extraordinary willingness to listen to the voice of his Savior. And it is that Savior that binds these two dramatically different stories together into one narrative of redemption. Something truly remarkable and world-altering is accomplished, and it is all because these two individuals fostered the trying but beautiful work of Growing Together.
It is easy to see why Saul had to grow in this text. Not only was he a murderous bounty hunter, he eventually got an entirely new name. We see obvious change and growth in Saul. But Ananias grew as well and in a significant way. When Ananias was first presented with his work of discipling Saul, Ananias thought to educate God on the type of person Saul was. It might be something of a stretch to say Ananias believed Saul was beyond saving, but I believe it’s fair to say that Ananias was scared of Saul and wanted nothing to do with him. But God makes it crystal clear to Ananias that Saul has been chosen to be God’s instrument to share the good news of Christ with those who had never heard it before. And so, Ananias goes from scared and reluctant to willing and present. Ananias goes to Saul and lays his hands upon him. Not only do the scales fall from Saul’s eyes, but so do all the trappings of his old life. Saul is given new life and new purpose and Ananias has played a critical part.
This account offers us a powerful reminder, one that I believe is quite timely. We need each other. Saul needed Ananias, yes, but Ananias also needed Saul. In order for both to grow in their identities as Christ followers, they needed each other. They needed to be Growing Together. And that’s what we need. As a family of faith, we need each other. I don’t think there has ever been a season in recent history where that has been more apparent to us than the last several months.
Friends, I want to encourage you: Reach out to one of your brothers or sisters from your church family. Have a conversation. Send a letter. Schedule a Facetime or Zoom call. Make an effort of reconnection. If you’re comfortable with it, sign up to be a part of a House Church. Our faith can be strengthened by tuning into these live streaming worship services. Our staff and volunteers have made every effort to make these virtual services as meaningful and connectional as possible. Hearing God’s word, praying together, taking communion…we have found ways to do all those things virtually. But we also need connection, we need community. It is one of the traits that defines us as the people of God. So, reach out to someone in your church family and find that connection. We have book studies going and a new one starting soon. There are ZOOM Bible study groups for both men and women. Ann and Juliette are working hard to create opportunities for our kids and students. When we intentionally entwine our stories with other followers of Christ, remarkable and meaningful things can occur. There really is nothing quite like the experience of Growing Together.