Year C Easter 6 (2007) RCL Principal
Today’s readings are interesting, and I am afraid that I have no funny story or witty introduction to begin with this week because, really, the readings speak for themselves. Our Gospel reading contains words of Jesus from John’s Gospel – the section of John’s Gospel known as the ‘farewell discourse’ where Jesus – before his crucifixion, offers encouragement and comfort to his disciples as he tells them that the Holy Spirit will come and be with them, and that he gives his own peace to them as a gift to keep them steadfast through what is to come.
For those of you intrigued as to why we are having this reading in the weeks following Holy Week and Easter, it is because in our Lectionary which runs over three years the Gospel of John is spread throughout the festival times of the year, such as the Easter Season, and therefore these words don’t necessarily fit with the Church year in a simple, chronological way, though we could argue that as we lead up to Pentecost, being reminded of the promise of God’s Holy Spirit is very appropriate.
Our other reading is part of our trek through Acts that always happens in the weeks after Easter, and that reading must always displace any other Old or New Testament lessons we have alongside our Gospel reading. And though it seems a relative straightforward reading there is, as is so often the case in Scripture, more than perhaps first meets the eye, and some encouragement or admonishment for each of us in this short, simple reading from the book of the Acts of the Apostles.
First of all we have a Paul following the prompting of a vision to go to Macedonia. Being Paul, he was eager to follow what he saw as God’s leading, and, we are told immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convince that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
Paul responds to God’s prompting immediately, there is no hanging about – and we are even given the intricacies of the route he follows in order to show the effort he makes in response to this divine call, sailing from Toras, to Samothrace, Neapolis and Philippi. Then ‘supposing there might be a place of prayer, near the river they encounter a woman called Lydia from Thyratira who was already, we are informed, a worshipper of God – but the Lord opened her heart to the message of Paul and she and her household were baptised. Then she ‘prevails upon’ Paul and his companion to stay at her home.
So what have we to learn from this? Plenty!
First of all we have Paul’s response, it wasn’t that he needed a vision to go and proclaim the Gospel, but that he was open to God’s prompting as to where to proclaim the Gospel. The Gospel was there, the good news of Christ, and Paul was already proclaiming in word and deed the truth of Jesus. He didn’t need to be nudged into action, but directed as to where God wished him to be.
Likewise in our life as Church we shouldn’t really be focussing on what we do – we are called to follow Christ, and to encourage others to do so. We are called to live lives of love and faithfulness, and to encourage others to do so. We are called to proclaim the truth of Christ, and to encourage others etc etc etc. The fact is that Christ is our foundation, and is our message, and is our hope. We are called to think about how we make that message a reality, rather than what that message is. How to bring hope, life, love, grace and forgiveness to a world which struggles with the very idea of those words. Not to debate the whys and wherefores, but to seek God’s vision of how put this into action.
Then we have the example of Lydia. A successful woman, a trader in purple cloth – this may not seem like much at first sight, but actually it was both a lucrative and responsible position. Purple was a very difficult colour to make, and the dyes which created purple cloth were hard to get hold of, hence it was the colour of royalty and of the emperor. It made Lydia a woman of status and substance.
And yet she does not rely on her own success, but is open to God and willing to listen to the message of the Gospel. Already a worshipper of God, we are told, her heart is opened by the Lord and she is baptised there and then.
The acknowledgement of and repentance from sin that is part of baptism, the submission to Christ which baptism represents doesn’t cause Lydia to baulk or state her own success, on the contrary the impression we have is that she eagerly embraced baptism, along with her whole household.
Also the very fact that she was a worshipper of God did not cause her to say ‘well this is the way I do things and I don’t need a new way of seeing God’ but she was open to Paul’s message and responded with enthusiasm and humility in being baptised. For many of us, especially those of us who have been Christians or part of the Church for some time, we do rather get settled in our ways. For Lydia, the idea of ‘going back to scratch’, as it were, didn’t cause her to retreat into her own way of doing things, but she was open to the prompting of the Spirit and willing to open herself to God’s way of doing things.
Now I know that by saying that many people will be concerned that this is an attempt to leave the Book of Common Prayer behind, or to bring in guitars and drumkits for all of our services, or to stop singing old fashioned hymns or whatever. I am not making a statement about our liturgy, or about our music, but about our attitudes to what God is doing. In some Churches learning to do things under the prompting of the Spirit does mean a change in services. In others it means a revitalisation of worship in traditional form and a rediscovery of the deep heritage we have in the Church.
I believe that God is more concerned about our faithfulness than the prayer books which we use, and I believe that the enthusiasm of Lydia is an example of how we should be, that the openness of heart, inspired by the Spirit of God, which comes from this simple, short passage is a shining example of what happens when we don’t always begin our thinking with ‘that is how we’ve always done it’ or ‘we’ve tried that before and it doesn’t work’. There is freshness, and an excitement about Lydia’s encounter with God which should inspire us to think again about how our own Church fellowship considers our calling to be Christ’s body in this village, and how as Christians we are called to serve this community.
Which leads on to the final point which I believe comes from this story. Lydia’s response was one of hospitality. After hearing the message and responding to the message of the good news, Lydia invites Paul to stay. More than that, our final line in the reading says ‘she prevailed’ upon the apostle.
Now much as I appreciate hospitality shown to me, and I do receive plenty, I think this little comment at then end of the passage is a reminder that we are called to be hospitable communities. Our Churches do have a reputation for the warmth of our welcome, I hear that as I go around our villages. I honestly don’t think anyone could accuse us of being unfriendly. But again we consider how we can extend the hospitality of Christ – which isn’t necessarily about inviting folk to stay, but offering compassion, warmth, love and support to our communities. Thinking of innovative ways in which to engage with our villages, and of ways in which we can encourage the folk of our villages to engage with one another, is part of our calling as Parish Churches.
So, a short, and seemingly simple passage becomes an encouragement, an admonishment, and a hope. And all of this comes back to the prompting of the Spirit of God, that Spirit promised by Christ in our Gospel reading today. It is his voice we are called to listen to, it is his voice that reassures, leads, guides and inspires, it is his voice that opens our hearts, and opens scripture to our hearts. May we be attentive and open to that voice. Amen.