“Please don’t have anything else to do with Muhammad,” his friend warned. “By his beard, by his mannerisms, he could mean us harm.”
But the man of God felt sure that the Lord was pressing him to continue on with Muhammad.
A little later, an email came with twenty-six questions, “I have been studying your Book and I have these questions. Can you answer them? Can we meet to talk?”
“It could be a trick,” said many from the community. “It surely is a trick. He can pretend to be one of us and then …You could lose your life.”
• 1.5 million people streaming into Europe from the unrest in the Middle East.
• 10,000 asylum seekers knocking on the door of the US.
• 63.5 million people currently displaced in our world.
• According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) statistics, in the 365 days of 2015 twenty-four people became displaced every minute of every hour of every day for the entire year.
For just a second, the statistics drown the flow of life-giving oxygen. You and I stand at a historical and religious crossroads for our generation. Historians will turn back the pages and point their boney fingers at us here on this timeline. “It may have started decades earlier,” they will say, “but this was the pivotal point when God called the Christians in North America and Europe into a new chapter that they did not understand, that they could not fully see, and they …’ We are writing the end of this sentence in these very days as a tidal wave of people cause us to wrestle with our identity as the Church.
We wrestle because this particular crossroad seems fraught with uncertainty and danger. To be the Body of Christ means that we are both in Christ and filled with Christ simultaneously. It also means that the Body is here in this place for this time and for these people. We are a sent body - sent to be broken and sent to be spilled out. Therefore, we wrestle as we write this chapter.
A Christian Arab who ministers in the midst of the refugee situation in the Middle East said this year, “We have never seen responses to Jesus like this. Something is happening.”
Something that feels a lot like the book of Acts. Something that feels a lot like the conversion story of Saul of Tarsus. This story of God wrapping his hands around the greatest persecutor the Church had ever known and turning him into the greatest missionary the church has ever known. It is a great missionary story. But, in the interest of self-preservation, we would be better off without these pages of our history. The miracle is awesome: the blinding light, the blinded eyes, the 3 days of waiting and then the healing. It is exactly what we hunger to hear, but when was the last time you heard someone point out the powerfully seditious message of Paul’s story in Acts 9 and 22?
Who we as the Church are meant to be is carved out for us here in these passages.
The delivery is embodied in a seemingly inconsequential Syrian named Ananias. Perhaps we miss it because it seems far removed from our reality. Here we encounter a Syrian from Damascus just as we often do in our morning news feed. Unnerving, is it not, to find the ancient and the breaking news wrapping themselves together in one story?
In fact, if a Nazarene refugee family from that bombed city is to be believed and if that particular country were not currently embroiled in war today, we could join a tourist group to visit the very Straight Street mentioned in this ancient passage. We would snap our photos and store them away for a memory to be revisited in the years to come.
Here in this odd mix of ancient and relevant, we encounter Ananias, a Middle Eastern man, a disciple, a follower of the Way, a man persecuted for his faith, who has a dream [vision] in which God speaks to him. The crux of this story is the tension between fear and obedience. A Syrian-Jewish Christian picks up his backpack, sets a path for Straight street, and delivers himself to the greatest persecutor known to the Church at that time. God’s request must have seemed illogical. It certainly required Ananias to be willingly broken.
The Christian message isn’t always filled with nice and neat lines of reasoning and logic. The truth we’ve been given is mysterious, but also paradoxical. Throughout the Gospel, we see Jesus teaching some radical lessons; in order to receive eternal life, you must give and do so generously; to truly live, one must be willing to die. These lessons are a part of the way that Jesus reveals how we, his people, his flock, are meant to dwell in this world. Finding our identity, our call, as well as the form and function of who we are as the Body of Christ is somehow rooted here in the mystery of God dwelling in the heart of humanity and empowering us to lean into these paradoxes. This is our crossroad in Paul’s story because this is where we hear a call to leave behind our safety nets, our place of comfort, and our very natural and strong impetus for self-preservation in order to step into synergistic partnership with God for the love of the redemption and the reconciliation of the world.
Perhaps God is asking something of us that we are not ready to give. Certainly, we find the resonance of our fear here in the words of Ananias, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm that he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name” (Acts 9:13-14, NIV). When Ananias, the Syrian Jew set his feet towards the house of Judas, he became a living example of the sent-ness that is missions. This is the kind of missions that has us nose to nose with the stench and the sweat and the excruciating choice of what it means to be a visible image of God’s promised kingdom redemptively breaking into our world. It is a difficult road to walk.
What happens when the missionary story of our ancient text becomes the headlines of our own day and time? When a tidal wave of people from Straight Street flood our village, our neighborhood, and our backyard, is God’s ‘Go’ to Ananias also God’s word to us?
If we could turn the pages of our timeline forward to that boney-fingered historian reading the letter that we are now writing with our lives to a future generation, what will our story say about who we were as the Body of Christ here in this place, for this time, to these people?
How does today’s little story in a tiny chapter of an epic tale about thousands of people journeying from war-torn Straight Street into the heart of Europe end?
Well, this man of God … shall we call him Ananias? (Though that is not his real name) Ananias was obedient to God’s voice. He met with Muhammad. He answered his questions. He discipled him - though, in truth, God had already been long at work in this man’s heart as he traveled from Syria. One day, not very long ago, spitting and sputtering and drowned in grace, Muhammad crossed a river that is bigger and mightier than the Mediterranean. On the other side, he changed his name - not metaphorically but he actually changed his name. He changed his name from Muhammad to Paul.
Field Strategy Coordinator team for Central Europe, Church of the Nazarene