One of Shakespeare’s more famous speeches is given to Portia in The Merchant of Venice:
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
If you take those words and feed them into one of the website which translates into a foreign language for you, you can translate them into French. If you then take that French translation, and translate that back into English, this is what you get:
The quality of mercy is not tense.
He falls like the rain of the sky
In the square below. It’s twice blessed:
This blesses the one who gives and the one who takes.
While you can still make some sense of it, the beauty and the poetry is lost. Lost in translation.
The whole of the Bible tends to this, because the Greek and Hebrew texts are full of subtle word plays which simply don’t work in English or any other language.
In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, there’s a slightly different kind of lost in translation. We read a dramatic, a life-changing story, but there’s a great danger it gets lost in the translation into our lives. After the blinding light and booming voice from above, there’s a radical message for us that’s often overlooked. I’m not surprised it gets lost, because I’ve often lost it, and been very pleased to lose it. The message often lost in this text confirms my fears about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, the level of discipleship to which we’re challenged.
What is this message that troubles me, and I think many others? It’s found in the vision from God to Ananias, which I can only describe as a vexing vision. Yes, I did say Ananias. Sometimes we might forget that he’s in this passage, too. He often gets ignored or pushed aside, but I think that Ananias is the real hero of this story. He’s fallen into a deep, comfortable sleep, and all of a sudden he sees a vision and hears a voice say, “Ananias, I want you to go to Saul of Tarsus and lay your hands on him so that he can regain his sight.” Maybe Ananias thought, “God wants me to do what? Please tell me this is a nightmare.” But after Ananias complains and questions, God simply says, “Go! Just go. This man Saul is to be one of my most powerful workers.”
I don’t know about you, but I think I’d feel pretty shocked, confused, angry, if I heard that God wanted me to recruit the person who takes great pride in torturing and murdering Christians as the missionary. It’s not so difficult to imagine, though. Whenever one thinks of the holocaust, for instance, and the horrible ways that people were tortured and killed, and ask themselves, “what kind of person could do that to another human?” When one read Act 9, one meets the kind of person who could do such a thing, Saul. And he’s the person being called by God to be a missionary of Jesus Christ. How ridiculous is that?!? This is why I think this vision is vexing indeed.
I suggest to you that what is so dramatic about this story is not the blinding light that stopped Saul in his tracks. The incredible miracle is that Ananias ended up following what appeared to be such a ridiculous, even outlandish, instruction. That instruction was less flashy, but far more risky.
So this vexing vision of Ananias stares us in the face, and the obvious question arises: are we willing to do the same? Dare follow Jesus when it seems illogical, unreasonable, and irrational?
This vision of Ananias is so vexing because it leaves us in no doubt that if we follow Jesus we’re going to be called to think outside the box and to travel outside our comfort zone.
I always find easy to love the people that I like, the people like me, and I think that many of us probably find that, but the challenge is to love the unlovable. Many of us are glad to receive the unconditional love of Christ, but many of us also struggle to accept that for us because we know our own faults so well. Yet, if we follow Jesus that may mean going to places we find difficult, whether that’s loving the people we find it hard to love, or loving ourselves, which is hardest of all for some.
And today we hear the story of a hero, Ananias, who went way beyond anything that might remotely be called a comfort zone, who went where every fibre of his being didn’t want to go, who went despite the risk of appearing foolish, despite the risk of losing his life. Ananias walked into what ought to have been his worst nightmare. How on earth was he able to do that?
When Ananias entered the house, and he saw Paul there the first word he said to him was brother. Brother. The one he hated, the one he feared, and his first word was brother. This is the Jew in the concentration camp saying brother to the Nazi guard. This is the LGBT person saying brother to the Brunei executioner. I can only account for this by recognising that Ananias didn’t see Saul the persecutor, he saw Paul, the one who had been changed by God.
Picasso painted a portrait of Gertrude Stein in 1906, which is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. What is so interesting about this painting is how long Picasso took to complete it. It’s said that Stein sat for Picasso more than ninety separate times. However, what was even worse was that when his friends looked at the finished portrait, they complained that it looked nothing like Gertrude Stein. Picasso responded to the criticism by saying, “everybody thinks she is not at all like her portrait, but never mind; in the end she will manage to look just like it.” Picasso had portrayed Stein’s inner essence, not her facial characteristics. More importantly, he portrayed Stein, not as she had been, or as others saw her in the present, but as she would become in the future.
Looking at the same idea from a slightly different perspective, Dostoyevsky said, “to love a person means to see him as God intended him to be.” That, I believe, was what Ananias was able to do when he looked at Paul.
What a challenge for us! To look upon others as God sees them. To look upon ourselves as God sees us.
It’s my conviction that if we can manage to look at others and ourselves as God does, then we would see that even our most evil enemy was destined to be a child of God. We would realise that love really is stronger than hate, reconciliation is more powerful than resentment, acceptance is more transforming than prejudice, and the goodness of God is planted more deeply than all that is wrong.
What’s often lost in the translation of the story of Paul on the road to Damascus is the understanding that two people were changed, not just one. Paul, of course, was changed, but Ananias was also changed. Ananias managed to see his enemy as a brother, as an equal, as a co-worker for Jesus Christ, and hate dissolved into love.
Most of us don’t experience what Paul did, nor receive messages from god like Ananias, yet we’re still called to play our part in working with God to break down the walls that exist between us and our enemies and us, allowing love to tear down the walls of hatred and build a pathway to our enemies. We need to start this in our own community. Eight months after we united as one church, one part of the body of Christ, it’s time to stop talking about ours and yours. It’s time to stop saying our building and your buildings. It’s our building and our other building. It’s time to stop saying our people and your people, we’re all one people. It’s only a form of words, but it’s time to work harder on our language. Our Bible Study Group, your Café, our Explorers, your House Group. An end to them and us.
That, of course, is in some ways a small thing because it’s only a matter of framing our words carefully, but it matters because it’s what will enable us to share our love of the risen Lord with the community around us, which is why we are here.