Acts 16.9-15 & John 5.1-9
Today's two readings are essentially about being open to God. And it's easy, when we talk about our Vocation as Christians to concentrate on our gifts and skills and overlook the obvious - that first and foremost we're called to be people of faith. And in our two readings today we see two people encountering God in a way that invites faith: there is the un-named man at the pool of Beth-zatha and there is the 'it-girl', Lydia.
Let's start with Lydia, because she's quite a girl. In just a few words, we get quite a good picture about her. She is, we're told, in verse 14, a 'dealer in purple cloth'. That means she was a businesswoman in an age when business was a man's world and women didn't usually even own their own property. The fact that she did almost certainly means she was a widow, who had inherited her husband's money and was sufficiently well to do that she didn't have to marry again. And purple cloth was the top end of the market. The dyes necessary to create these rich fabrics were very expensive and the very height of fashion. She would have been the Stella McCartney of Philippi. So you can imagine her, can't you? a pretty independent, resourceful girl, well-off and no need to take nonsense from anyone.
But the disciples, Paul and Silas have been open to God and they are sent to Macedonia at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. And when Paul and Silas begin to talk to her about Jesus, she listens and her heart opens to God too. And that phrase 'God opened her heart' is the way the Bible describes the birth of faith in someone - the opening of our heart to God. And the result is that she and her whole household are baptised.
Now Lydia is given to us as an example of the difference between Christianity on the one hand and paganism or secularism on the other. She is initially described as a practising Pagan. And as a successful businesswoman she was also rich and had everything this world could offer. Yet it seems that in Jesus she found something she was missing. Paganism worshipped the world, but simply took it as it was - worshipping its beauty and ignoring its suffering. Christianity spoke about a transformed world - a new creation brought about by Jesus dying to take its sufferings on himself, to destroy our sins and coming alive again to inaugurate a whole new, transformed way of living. For all that Lydia had in material possessions and consumer choice, the thing that was missing deep in her soul was supplied by the living, resurrected Jesus, so opens her heart to God and is transformed.
And the effect this has on Lydia's community is very startling. She and her household become a little community of prayer in the midst of a pretty violent and dysfunctional city. If you read on a few verses, you'll see that her open-ness to God begins to transform her community too. She lived in a city where people could make their own choices, set their own moral code, but their choices were not making a happy society. Exploitation, slavery, extortion and occult practices were everywhere. But when Lydia and her household start praying, these things get exposed and the victims also turn to Jesus in faith and are liberated - in every sense: physically, emotionally and spiritually. And that community, in turn, forms one of the most important churches in the early days of Christianity and is the church to which of Paul's letter to the Philippians is addressed and through its inclusion in the New Testament it continues to shape the church today. So Lydia's prayers have transformed her household, her community and the entire world.
And that leads us to the second point about our vocation of faith. If faith begins with the opening of the heart to God, it lives through prayer. Indeed its part of the same process because prayer, too, is the opening of the heart to God. So if, in our vocations project so far, we've thought about our vocation as hearing God's call to service and his call to be our true selves and his call to worship, then today's vocational project is to hear God's call to faith and prayer. Like Lydia and her household, we are called to be a community of prayer within our households and communities. And praying communities like that are communities God can really work miracles with. Lydia's story is one I have seen again and again in my own experience - Christians move into a difficult area and start praying and extraordinary things start happening around them. This is central to my own vocation and I've seen many examples of it working. And that's why the Archbishops' call to prayer in the week leading up to Pentecost is so right. If the national church gets praying, transformation will happen in the nation. And if the local church gets praying, transformation will happen in the local community. So things like the prayer walk at Great Strickland in Pentecost week and our prayer meetings and prayer triplets and our individual prayers all have a powerful transformative effect on our communities. Because prayer opens the heart to God and releases the power of God.
You see, God has given us freewill and he won't override that gift. Like Lydia's community we can make our own choices and spend a lifetime working out that they don't make a happy society. Or like Lydia herself, we can choose to open our hearts to God and allow the full power and love of God to transform us. But he will only work in us if we choose to open our hearts to him. And the more open we are to him, the more powerfully he will work.
You know, even Jesus only performed miracles by being open to the Holy Spirit. He didn't perform miracles by simply zapping us with his divine power. He didn't do it by pulling the 'Son of God' card. That's what all the temptations in the desert were about. He had to be open to God just as we do, living by faith and prayer. The Gospels tell us there were times when the Spirit was with him to heal and times when he could do no acts of power 'because of their unbelief', because they were closed to God. But Jesus was open - fully open to God. He healed not because he was God incarnate, but because he was a human being who truly lived by faith and prayer.
And that brings me to the un-named man at the pool of Beth-zatha. We know quite a lot about the pool of Beth-zatha. Not only has it recently been excavated by archaeologists, but it appears in literature outside of the Gospels. Both Jews and Pagans believed it to have healing powers. It appears that every now and then, the spring would bubble up, disturbing the waters and the superstition was that the first person into the pool after the bubbles would be healed.
But this poor unnamed fellow was too lame ever to get into the water first. So he lay there, all his life, waiting for the day that would never arrive, clinging to an irrational superstition, even though it was just an illusion. And then he meets Jesus. Jesus actually does what the pool only pretends to do - he actually heals. But when Jesus asks him if he would like to be healed, the man just recounts his self-pitying sob-story: "I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me."
I'm sure we've all met people like that - people who enjoy poor health. But do we recognise it in ourselves? The times when we would rather cling to superstition or fashionable cynicism, or some flimsy crutch we've created to comfort ourselves - rather than open our hearts to the real thing, to Jesus, and be transformed?
Now Jesus just heals the man anyway, whether he wants it or not. And this is where all my Greek lessons pay off, because the word Jesus uses to tell the man to 'get up' is the same word we use for 'resurrection'. 'Be resurrected!' is what Jesus really says to him. And that leaves the man with a challenge. Is he going to open his heart to God and come fully alive in the way Jesus means, or is he going to cling to his self-pity and his superstition? Now the fact that this man isn't named is a fair clue that he doesn't choose to follow Jesus. Those that are named in the Gospels are usually ones who became known because they joined the disciples. This man doesn't. He actually experienced the healing power of Jesus and yet he still didn't believe in him.
So that poses a challenge to us. What are the objections we've mounted to letting God into our lives? How have we closed ourselves to God? Is it, like the man at the pool, some brooding sense of hurt that we cling to, as though God has some explaining to do and perhaps should apologise for treating us so unfairly? Is it some superstition, whether it's empty Godless Anglicanism or some pagan superstition like horoscopes or touching wood? Is it that we've fallen prey to the lie of secularism and won't believe until we have proof? Is it that we've been drawn into the fashion for cool cynicism and fear we would look ridiculous if we opened ourselves to God? Or is it just that we're addicted to our material comforts and are afraid of what surrender to God might cost us?
Well, our two characters today challenge us all. The eternally un-named man had the best proof in the world. The evidence that his superstition was fake, that his self-pity was making him miserable, and that God did indeed exist was staring him in the face, but he still didn't believe. He was closed to God and that prejudiced this thinking and blinded him to the evidence before his face.
And then there's Lydia, who knew worldly wealth, but recognised true riches when she encountered the real thing. Lydia who was fashionable and sophisticated, but never let cynicism blind her. Lydia, who opened her heart to God and transformed herself, her household and her community.
Whoever we are, Jesus is calling us. He is saying "be resurrected! Open your heart to me and come alive with my life. Be a person of faith. Be a person of prayer. And through your openness to me, through you living out your vocation to be my people of prayer, I will transform you, and your household, and your community, and the whole of creation." Amen.
Preached: Morland, Great Strickland 1st May 2016