God comes to us in the midst of our life. God comes to us whether like Lydia we are in full flight and successful or like the unnamed ill man waiting beside the pool filled with despair. (RCL Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10-14, 21:22-22:5; and John 5:1-9.) God comes to us in our real and particular life just as we are.
This snippet of a story about Lydia is a tantalising one. Firstly she is one of the relatively few named women in the early church. Secondly she is a women who sells purple cloth so a person of significance, wealth and influence. Thirdly she, like most of the early apostles and church leaders was already a person of faith, Jewish faith, who was in the habit of coming to the place of prayer on the day of Sabbath. We know all of this in very general terms because to be a seller of purple cloth was to be a person of wealth and position; for the seller to be named as a woman rather than a man was unusual; and it seems to have been her decision to convert and with her the whole household – an incredible amount of influence for that time. But despite all her success Paul’s words reveal to her that there is more to life than what she already has.
Many of us would identify with her to a large extent. We are at a time in our life when many of us can look back on a life of relative success and we are currently enjoying the fruits of those labours; we have lived lives full of faith and been leaders and benefactors of the church and the church’s mission; we are in short people of influence who have and do put some of our wealth to the mission of the church. Rightfully we should feel some satisfaction in this.
Maybe a little less comfortable and comforting most of us also identify in some ways with the ill man waiting by the waters for the healing movement of the spirit. Whether that is where we are now as we struggle with some affliction, or we hold in our hearts the afflictions of those we love and our beleaguered world, or whether it is some dark sad part of us that hides away from polite company we too have much in common with the ill man by the pool. Many of us may feel that we have been waiting longer than 38 years for the healing we desire. We may by now even feel some part of us to be beyond hope. This story smacks of defeat and stuckness, of reluctant acceptance of a thwarted life. And yet even here new life erupts.
Most of us know both of these stories as being ours – sometimes in different phases of life at different times, and sometimes in different aspects of our life at the same time. Certainly as community we hold both.
Now you might think we should aspire to be like Lydia, or as she seems to have been, all the time – successful, generous, in charge of her business, her household and probably a leader in the church. She has it all and then finds that there is even more to life.
But the complicated truth of our real lives and the paradoxical nature of spiritual truth maybe suggests that by holding both realities we come to a deeper truth. That truth being that the very nature of our relationship with the divine is always both as beloved sons and daughter of God – greatly loved, forgiven and included as heirs of the kingdom, and somehow we are also beggars with nothing but our begging bowl in the presence of the almighty!
God comes to us in the midst of our life, our real and messy and wonderful and crazy right-now ready-or-not life. But the paradoxical nature of spiritual truth is that God comes to us – does all the work - and yet we must turn toward God – or do our share; we are utterly dependent on grace which is gift and yet are also called into righteous or holy living – which is our response to grace; we are called to a life of prayer for the world and one another and we are called to act justly and walk humbly.
Maybe another way of saying this, as Richard Rohr does, is that we must undergo God. “Yes, God is pure and free gift, but there is a necessary undergoing to surrender to this momentous encounter ... to fully understand is always to stand under and let things have their way with you.” (page 54 Richard Rohr “Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps” St Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinatti, Ohio 2011) We might imagine this as the difference between taking a cup of pure water from the river of life and having a nice quiet sip at our pace and choosing and standing under the waterfall and being completely cleansed and invigorated even though at times we thought we might lose our footing and get washed away!
Our dilemma is that we are always giving ourselves to God and then wanting to take back control. We acknowledge that God is on the throne of grace and then we find our ego, or our will, wanting to subtlety or not so subtlety take over. Which is why I suggest that we must remember that we are both beloved sons and daughters and beggars.
I tell you most every week that you are beloved and that is because I think that is what Scripture is full of and most of us need to hear it regularly. And sometimes I think we need to be reminded that we are beggars too and that is not all bad. Indeed the early Franciscans and other religious orders, and on the other side of the world the Buddhist monks, were barefoot beggars as part of their spiritual discipline. Now religious folk can rather enjoy self punishment a bit too much sometimes and self imposed suffering can be another devious form of control.
But let us reclaim a healthy and life giving truth in the image of us as beggars. Often it is only when we like the ill man by the pool are beyond any hope of our own control and healing that we are truly ready to hand ourselves over to the movement of the spirit, which may or may not lead to the type of healing that we want. It is sometimes only when we come before God with our hands outstretched in humble access that we are still and open enough to receive what is not of our own manufacture but of God’s good and generous desire for us.
If faith is to be faith, rather than merely religious belief, then we must give ourselves over to being empty handed some of the time, being overwhelmed by the waterfall of grace, being surprised by joy and peace even in the midst of life, ordinary life as we find ourselves.
For God comes to us in the midst of our life. God comes to us whether like Lydia we are in the full flight of success needing to discover there is more than success, or like the unnamed ill man waiting beside the healing water filled with despair who needs to discover hope and healing. God comes to us in our real and particular life, with the good news of healing love, restoration and life’s purpose for us.
God reveals god’s own self in our midst as the true presence making unnecessary the temple in that final city of God.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come.
You may wish to hear a reflection on John 14:23-29 You can find this on a podcast at Australian Women Preach a great resource.