Acts 16: 9-15 & John 14:23-29 | Mystery & Discovery
A reflection by Dan Spragg
Lydia became the first Christian in Europe. Her decision seems quite decisive. Her first act as a person of faith after being baptised was to invite people into her home in service to the gospel. Her heart, opened by the love of God, could not do anything else but bear witness to her new found life. Her heart was opened and out poured hospitality, she began living her faith immediately. This was the beginnings of the Philippian church, just one part of the spreading of this dynamic movement that was early Christianity. More often than not it seems as if these stories begin with a sense that God was the one who was leading them to new places and indeed to new hearts and lives. God is the one who leads them to know and trust God’s love and grace as real and present. In the book of Acts there is an overwhelming sense that God is the one leading out in front and all those early Christians are doing is scrambling to keep up with what is going on!
It seems quite a foreign scene to us mostly. I think I’m safe to say that the majority of our experience hasn’t been full of conversations with strangers that lead to riverside baptisms and the fresh experience of God’s love and grace in a stranger’s heart. It certainly hasn’t been mine. There are many wonderings that this provokes. Perhaps it is because not that long ago we didn’t need to go looking for strangers, we just built a new church building in a new housing area, called a Minister, and the next Sunday the place was full. Perhaps because of this there wasn’t any urgency to go out and find any strangers. Perhaps, we were told that polite people keep things like their opinions of faith to themselves. Or perhaps we have been afraid of what we would say if the opportunity did arise. Perhaps we believed so much in the providence of God that we felt we didn’t need to do anything, God controls it all anyway. Perhaps we have lacked a conviction towards mission, that we have been given the work of teaching others about God’s love. Perhaps this church thing has really just been a nice social occasion and the religion part of it is there, but you know, one just puts up with it. Perhaps we just weren’t taught how to talk about our faith, or taught why we needed to. Who knows?! Perhaps it is none of these… although I do suspect it may be some of these… we could waste a lot of time and energy going around in circles trying to find something to blame for the lack of new Christians in our midst. Anyway, as I said earlier, in the book of Acts it is fairly obvious that the main player is the movement of God named as the Holy Spirit at work. Perhaps we should direct our questions at God. If God is the one who causes people to see and come to know God, then God, why isn’t this our experience?
The question of who sees the real grace and love of God, of who responds to the stirring of the Spirit in their lives and who doesn’t isn’t a new question. Judas, apparently not Judas Iscariot but another Judas, asks this very question immediately before our John reading for today. “Lord, why are you about to reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” he asks Jesus the verse before this passage (John 14:22). And as so often is the case, Jesus answers the question in a way that isn’t entirely straight forward. There isn’t a clear answer in what comes from Jesus mouth. Just as there isn’t a clear answer to the same question as we ask it today. This isn’t a new question, neither is it an easy question. We would be being dishonest if we didn’t acknowledge the tension it creates. If we are to offer any lament to God in our prayers, this would be a good place to start. We all have family members, or friends who we would love to see experience the love and grace of God in their lives, don’t we? So perhaps in a moment of honesty we might pray this: ‘God, we remember your faithfulness and trust in your living presence in our lives. How long before our families, our friends come to know you like we do? How long?’
Jesus does provide an answer to the question. Of course he does so in a way that is underlining a deeper reality but in this he offers a starting place that serves as a response to the sometimes painful mystery of where God seems to lead or not. “Keep my word” he says. If the disciples (and therefore us) wish to know the reality of God, Jesus insists that they (we) live out what he has been telling them. Live this life of love that Jesus shows us, and just as we know that Jesus is the one who shows us what God is like, as we live out the kind of faith that Jesus taught, we will come to know God just as he did. In another place, not long before this conversation, Jesus said, “I am the way…” (John 14:6). ‘The Way.’ In other words, this faith thing is highly practical. A favourite Irish Theologian / Philosopher of mine, Pete Rollins is known to say, ‘I don’t care what you believe, what I’m interested in is ‘how’ you believe.’
“Keep my words” Jesus said, “…and we will come to them and make our home with them.” ‘We’ being God in the fullest sense. The Divine, making their home… this speaks of the relational aspect of faith. Again there comes the idea of knowing. Jesus encourages us in this way because the life of faith is animated by a God who wants to be familiar to us. All throughout scripture we see this God who longs to walk with us, to be the one who we are in partnership with. Yes, the divine may be mysterious, the divine may indeed be beyond our understanding, but this divine is to be discovered and known and interacted with and so, Jesus says ‘keep my words’, follow me, live the life of love made concrete and real with yourself and those around you, those you know and those you don’t. In this, you will discover more and more the source of love. It is a practice this life of faith. Very much so in the same sense that one practices the playing of a musical instrument. We learn and put it into practice, and our understanding grows, and our experience grows, our skills develop, we learn some more, and we find ourselves in an ever expanding vast, wide, and deep river of life giving love. We are invited to live a very practical faith grounded in practices of love.
I have noticed that my last few reflections seem to have had this sort of edge to them. This Easter season we have been invited to consider where we might see the risen Christ. Well, we find Christ in the ordinary people and situations we find ourselves in, like having breakfast on the beach or walking along a road. We come to know and understand our faith through actions far more than words. We throw our nets on the other side of the boat, we run and tell people when we’ve met the risen Christ, and through our actions we remember the faithfulness of God; and we remember to love one another where we come to deeper experiences of life and love itself which bears witness to the truth of God open to all. Today, into this encouragement to live faith, to make faith a practice, comes the promise that it is in the faithfulness of our human actions that the divine will come to us and reside, present, making a home in us. Jesus promises that an ‘advocate,’ other translations say, a ‘companion’ will come and be this divine presence with us on the road. The Holy Spirit will be with us in our living our faith. This Companion will teach us. This Companion will remind us. It’s nice to have a reminder isn’t it? It’s kind of like being helped to remember. Remember when Jesus told that story… remember when Jesus said these words… remember that God is faithful… remember that Jesus spread God’s good news, and indeed taught that God’s good news is for everyone, not just some people… remember that we were told to go and tell this same good news… it is nice to be reminded. Remember Jesus promised that we would never be alone in all this. Remember that the Spirit would be with us, leading us, guiding us, teaching us. And because of this peace, ‘shalom,’ will be given to us. We need not be afraid or troubled. We need not be distressed for all we need for the road ahead we have already been given. Yes, we may not understand the complex nature of why some people come to faith easier than others, or why some prefer to engage with faith in ways that are different from our own, but, we need not be troubled because in the midst of it all, God is with us.
Of course, it isn’t as simple as ‘simply living out our faith.’ Practically what that looks like for us in our own lives, and in our communities will and does take careful consideration. The message of Jesus is simple, but hard. Loving one another, loving our neighbours, these are simple concepts that are hard to put into practice. Most often they are hard because they require us to give up something. We may need to give up some creature comforts; we may need to give up our pride; we may need to give away our resources; we may need to give up personal preference of worship style or who we spend our time with; we may need to engage with things like prayer more even if that is uncomfortable or unusual or something that we struggle with. The life of faith is a confronting one but it is the life we are called to and it is in living the life of faith where we will discover all we need. It is in living the life of faith where we will wake up more and more to the very love of God that we are seeking to live.
Lydia became the first Christian in Europe. If we were looking for a starting point for this living out of our faith so that others may come to know the love and grace of God then we might learn something from her story. It started with a conversation. One of the crucial components of a genuine conversation is listening. Most of the time we’d do better to listen more and talk less. Listening is an act of love because it is making room for the other person, and it is fairly practical; a lot can get achieved through truly listening to the voice of another. ‘God, where are you leading us?’ Well, we might do well to go and have some conversations, to listen well, and to invite someone to join in on a living and present love. We never know what it may lead to…