Leading like Ananias: Prominence vs Significance in Pastoral Ministry by James Petticrew
“Prominence does not equal significance in the Kingdom of God.” I am not sure who said that first, but whenever I hear it my mind always goes to the book of Acts and Ananias. No, not Ananias who with his wife Sapphira lied to the Apostles and tried to defraud God and met an unfortunate end, but the simple believer we only hear of in a couple of verses in Acts 9. My fellow Scottish minister William Barclay called him one of the great forgotten heroes of the Bible and I want to do a little bit to help us remember his significance for our leadership.
You know the background; Saul has been on a violent crusade to stamp out the fledgling Church. He is now on his way to Damascus to carry out the next stage of this literally murderous campaign. Then he meets Jesus and everything changes. Saul is told to go to Damascus. Luke tells us this is what happens next.
“In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, ‘Ananias!’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he answered. The Lord told him, ‘Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.’
‘Lord,’ Ananias answered, ‘I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm 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.’ But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptised, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” (Acts 9:10-19)
Tom Wright makes this comment about our unsung hero: “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.” (N.T. Wright, Acts For Everyone) Wright’s words capture why Ananias is my unsung hero. Although we have few recorded words from his lips, his life speaks loud and clear about what it means to follow Jesus. He reminds us that being a disciple is about openness and obedience to Jesus. Ananias was a simple believer who was open to hearing the voice of Jesus and then was prepared to obey it wherever it led and whatever it cost. His life is a reminder to us that openness and obedience to Jesus are the essence of following Jesus.
We see this willingness to hear and obey Jesus in his encounter with Saul. To understand the full significance of what happened on Straight Street, remember that Saul had been carrying out a terror campaign against Christians. There is every chance that Ananias knew people whose death Saul had been responsible for. In all likelihood, Ananias himself was on Saul’s hit list for Damascus. Jesus tells Ananias to go and meet the man responsible for the death and torture of some of his friends and fellow believers and who was out to harm him personally.
I wonder what I would have done in that situation?
I wonder what my first words would have been to Saul?
The first thing Ananias did was to go to where Saul was. He obeyed Jesus. He obeyed despite the fact he seems to have had worries that it might be a suicide mission. Once he heard Jesus’ words, Ananias was willing to obey whatever the personal cost to himself. Now there is an example that the contemporary church could do with embracing.
I never fail to be deeply moved by what Ananias does and says when he finally encounters Saul. “Placing his hands on Saul, he said, ‘Brother Saul…’” I find that nothing short of incredible. Ananias embraced Saul, the arch-enemy of believers. The first words that Saul heard from a fellow believer following his conversion was not “killer,” but “brother.”
The only explanation I have for what happened in Judas’ house is that at some point, Ananias had heard Jesus say that his disciples had to love their enemies, so that is what he did. No questions asked. Saul couldn’t see Ananias but, in his words and embrace, I suspect he felt the grace and acceptance of Jesus through his fellow believer’s hands.
As a leader, I wonder whether Ananias’ example suggests I have been guilty of making being a disciple way more complicated than it is? This last year I’ve been caught up in theologizing and strategizing about discipleship, as our church tries to get serious about being and making disciples. But Ananias reminds me that fundamentally, I need to challenge people (and myself) to simply make time to hear Jesus’ voice and then do what he says. (I said it was simple, not easy.)
We are a congregation of ex-pats here in Switzerland; many of our people have stressful jobs that consume time voraciously. It’s a familiar challenge – I think our enemy successfully pulls us into a cycle of busyness which leaves us with little room to be open to hearing Jesus. I have been contemplating whether or not we are obeying Jesus – not because of stubborn disobedience, but because we are not making the time to hear what he is saying. After the Covid restrictions are rolled back and church life goes back to “normal” will that “normal” have enough space built in to allow us time discerning the voice of Jesus?
Does your life? Have you regularly cut out a chunk of time to be open to Jesus? Recently, a powerful revival has broken out at Longhollow Baptist Church in Tennessee. Its pastor, Robbie Galatay, has spoken about how this revival can be traced back to him finally scheduling time to simply be with and be open to Jesus. There is a lesson there for all of us in leadership.
I am in the final phase of my ministry now. In all likelihood, I am never going to be a megachurch pastor whose sermons attract millions of views on YouTube. Nothing I write will knock My Utmost for His Highest or The Purpose Driven Life off the Christian bestsellers list. A few years after my retirement, I doubt if many people will remember my second name. But as I contemplate that, I come back to my original thought: prominence doesn’t equal significance in the Kingdom of God.
Was Ananias prominent in the early Church? No. But did his ministry have significance? Of course it did! Ananias’ ministry of love and prayer to Saul unleashed into the world a spiritual tornado whose impact is still very much with us. I wonder if Ananias lived to see the impact that Saul-turned-Paul would have? I wonder how many other people Ananias loved, embraced, forgave, and prayed for in his ministry? I wonder what impact they made? His ministry reminds me that my ministry may not have prominence, but in the Kingdom of God it can have a significance I cannot even begin to imagine.
Can I remind you? That’s true for you too, wherever and whomever you minister to.
Featured image courtesy Jon Tyson via Unsplash.