Bible Readings : Acts 16:9-15, John 14: 23-29
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts open us to your guiding for each of us this day in Jesus name. Amen
In our liturgical year this is the last Saturday of the Easter season – next week is Ascension and the following Sunday Pentecost. So it seems timely to ask this of ourselves as we lead into Pentecost (and what is called Ordinary time – where the work of the church is done ) – what significant thing are we to do in response to such a transformative event as Easter Sunday – the empty tomb? Before we take down these banners around the church, what vision of being an Easter people do they inspire in us, what are we each and together going to take into our future of being church?
Many answers perhaps – but for me today, as we ponder the journey of Paul through to Philippi and his meeting with Lydia, it is this: that we are to be open to the possibilities of the Spirit – to those things beyond our control and not of our planning. Now that may sound to you either exciting or scary or perhaps a bit of both.
I’m going to cautiously venture back into that analogy of the garden - if we rigorously allow only that which we have chosen and planted to grow in well prepared places that we have defined, we lay ourselves open to missing some special moments – like the miracle of the wind blown seed flowering in impossible places, the absolute perfection of the camellia on that one day before the wind and rain get to it, the beauty and intricacy of the flower of that which we always determined to be a weed because it was more prolific than we were comfortable with.....
Let me try and explain how I see this connecting with the story of Lydia and Paul. Both of these transforming disciples of Christ had something in common – they were open to the Spirit in their lives. Let’s take Paul first. The few verses before today’s reading are important. In them we place Paul back in Lystra and Iconium where he connects with Timothy, and from there they go through Phrygia and Galatia –but, and here is the interesting part, they are forbidden by the Spirit to head either northeast into Mysia or southwest into Asia but instead they are encouraged by the Spirit to travel onto Troas and, as we heard, a man in a dream convinces them to travel across the waters to Macedonia and in the end to Philippi.
Paul was open to the guidance of the Spirit – he had his own plans but was convinced to head in different directions. And something happened that, in his own planning, would have been most unlikely. He ended up sitting down on a river bank in Philippi talking to a bunch of woman who met regularly for prayer – women seeking God - and one of them was the Gentile Lydia - identified particularly as a worshipper of God. What a journey to get to this unexpected and unlooked for encounter that was to have an enormous impact on the spreading of the Gospel message. For many people of the time, the strategic planners shall we say of the day, both Jewish and Gentile, this meeting of Paul and Lydia would be a weed in the garden experience – random and of dubious value, and certainly not the best use of their time and energy in spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For these were women, gentiles, outside the place of worship - and therefore the authority of worship we suspect – an unlikely patch of garden to be cultivated really.
What we find in fact is that Lydia proved to be a rich and fruitful source for the Gospel of Christ Jesus – she was already established as a strong and resourceful woman in her community, a seller of purple cloth indicating her dealings with the elite in society, she was head of her own household in a male dominated society. She was a strong woman and used to being in control and choosing what she might do and think.
But nothing would have happened that day on the river bank without Lydia’s heart being open to the possibilities of God – she was participating in worship, she was seeking answers and therefore she was open to the truth of the message that Paul brought – so ready and prepared that she responded immediately and generously with her heart and her hospitality. One person described the moment beautifully “Longing and Grace met on the banks of the river that day”.
What does this mean for us then – this being led by the Spirit? Well I will tell you what it definitely does not mean - it does not mean gardens full of weeds and long grass and choked stunted peas and beans as we sit waiting for a word from the Spirit to tell us what to do next. It is not a space of ‘do nothing’ until told otherwise. Rather more it is a continuing to actively live our faith as we best know how and, at the same time, being open to the nudgings of the Spirit into other possibilities as well, being open of mind and heart to things we might not have planned for or that occur in ways we might not have pictured.
I am reminded of a part of the Last Battle, the final book of the Narnia series by C S Lewis – where the transitory world of Narnia is imploding really, and the door of the stable is the opening into the eternal Narnia where all is reborn and beautiful – and the dwarves are so intent on seeing only what they expect to see, the inside of a manky old stable, that even the most delectable food and drink tasted like mouldy hay and dirty trough water, the most glorious sunshine was pokey darkness and the sweetest smelling violet was stable litter. They were not open to the possibilities of the new Narnia and were left behind snarling and arguing with each other.
Don’t let us be like that – surrounded by possibilities and seeing none of them because we refused to look up from our rigidly held perceptions of the right way, not allowing that there can be possibilities of life and grace outside our experiences.
For it is in this place of openness to the Spirit that great things can happen – we can only imagine how many heard the Good News of Jesus whilst gathered at Lydia’s home – how that improbable encounter became the catalyst for so much more.
But I would like to leave the final word today to Ronald Cole-Tuner as he describes his insight into the openness and seeking nature of Lydia.
Lydia is able to be so decisive at this moment of meeting with Paul – within minutes of being baptised she turns her house into base for the spread of Christianity into Europe – she can be so decisive because she is open to discerning the deeper workings of God’s Spirit. And she gains this perception, this seeking because of her worship – she has come to worship hungering for something more in her life, something bigger and more real than the commercial and social success that she enjoys. And in that hunger she is open to the restless Spirit, who is present in all of us before we even know it, open to the nudging of the one who sees ways that we cannot plan for and fruitful blessings in the most impossible places – is that how we might continue to be an Easter People into Pentecost and the year ahead do you think?
A sunflower growing at Terezin Concentration Camp
Photo copyright Tui Bevin 2013