To be a Jesus follower is to allow Jesus to put us into relationship and community with people we might not have chosen for ourselves. Baptism and table fellowship are not places where we wield great power to include and exclude as we choose. They are places where we submit to the infinitely expansive love of God. And nowhere does this infinitely expansive love of God challenge us more than in Acts 9. The murderer Saul, a rising star in the Jerusalem scene and taking his talents to the north, has a blinding encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. Saul is headed there to see how many Christians he can round up to arrest and put on trial (and possibly, like Stephen, execute) for their crimes against the Jewish religion. His vision of Jesus tells him that he’ll continue on to Damascus, but what happens there will be the total opposite of what Saul is expecting.
In Damascus, Jesus also appears to a disciple named Ananias. Ananias is to go find Saul, lay hands on him, and heal him of his temporary blindness. Ananias objects, as would we all. This guy is too dangerous! Ananias responds. I’m exactly the kind of person he’s here in town to persecute! Jesus won’t take no for an answer and Ananias submits. And when he arrives and meets Saul, he says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Ananias meets a murderer and the first word out of his mouth is – brother.
Saul’s sight is restored. He’s baptized and immediately welcomed to the table for a meal (remember, God always moves us from the water to the table). While still in Damascus, Saul begins preaching that Jesus is Lord and Son of God, which makes enemies out of his fellow Jews. They plot to kill him, so he must escape the city with the help of his new brothers and sisters. He then goes to Jerusalem, where many of the Christians don’t yet trust him (who could blame them?). Can someone that violent, and with that much hatred in his heart, really change? Can his baptism really be legitimate? Is it really wise to trust him? Fortunately, there’s a Jesus follower here in Jerusalem with all the courage of love of Ananias named Barnabas, who becomes Saul’s advocate (and, as we learn when we keep reading, dear friend and ministry partner) to the Jerusalem apostles. Such a transformation shouldn’t be possible. But then again, the book of Acts exists to rearrange our assumptions and redefine “possible” for us.
In baptism, there are no enemies. There are only brothers and sisters. Of course this is difficult to accept. We’ve been hurt. We have people that frighten us. But Ananias shows us it’s possible. Brotherhood, kinship, forgiveness, it’s possible! It begins in the water, the water that washes away sins, both ours and that of those who have hurt us. The water is making of us people who can look at those who have hurt us and see something different: people washed clean by the water, or people who just haven’t been washed by the water yet.