Monday, 6 May 2013

Eat, Pray Love- Acts 16





What do you do if you want to find Truth?... People say it in different ways. Sometimes people want to “find themselves”. Or, they say they want to find “meaning”, or “purpose”. Some people travel across the world to meet a guru or medicine man. Some get on a motorbike and ride along the hi-ways. Some retreat to a cabin in the woods. … Sometimes we feel the need to search when we graduate high school or university and we’re trying to figure out how we’ll spend the rest of our lives. … Sometimes it’s after a tragedy and we’re trying to find out how we will go on living. … Sometimes we search after the end of a relationship, or when we retire. At some point, most human beings, hopefully, begin to search for what really matters.  
I recently watched the movie “Eat, Pray, Love”. (It was a book first). It is about a woman named Elizabeth Gilbert who finds herself frustrated in the life she is living. She notices an emptiness in her life where meaning and purpose should be. Desperate and fighting back tears she prays for what seems like the very first time in her life. Here are the words of her prayer, “Hello, God? … Nice to finally meet you. … I’m sorry I’ve never spoken directly to you before, but I hope I’ve expressed my ample gratitude for all the blessings you’ve given to me in my life. … I’m in serious trouble… I don’t know what to do … I need an answer. … Please tell me what to do. … God help me please… Tell me what to do and I’ll do it…“. It is a desperate prayer. It is a prayer most of us have prayed. It is a prayer agnostics and atheists have sometimes prayed. It is a profoundly human prayer. This is the kind of prayer that begins the search.
Elizabeth feels like she has to do something extreme. She divorces her husband and she goes on a journey. She travels to Italy, and then to India where she is hoping to meet a particular spiritual teacher she had heard about. Her story manifests in many people’s lives. People look for gurus on mountain tops. They retreat into caves. They travel in search of that special something that makes life worth living. People will risk everything to find the truth they are looking for. They will risk their safety, and they will spend a fortune.  
In our reading from Acts we meet a woman Elizabeth could probably relate to. Her name is Lydia. Lydia was a unique woman in many ways. She lived in the city of Philippi (in modern day Greece) and sold cloth to the upper class. She was a business woman. She did not have a husband and was the head of her household. In a male-dominated world she held an unusual place in her culture. There was something else that made her unusual. Somehow, even though she was in a thoroughly Pagan society she became drawn to the Jewish God. I think Lydia and Elizabeth would understand each other. They are both strong women who were willing to take risks for the sake of truth.
There is a difference in their story, though. Elizabeth went on a journey- an expensive and risky journey- She climbed the mountain to find the guru at the top to ask about the meaning of life. In Lydia’s story the expense and risk wasn’t hers.
             Paul writes to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11) that he did not ask money from those he taught the Gospel. He prides himself in not being a burden to them, as opposed to other charlatans, who charge for their teaching. He says, “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (1 Cor 11:23-28). Paul, the guru, the spiritual teacher is the one who endures the cost and the danger for the sake of his students. He follows the example of his God who humbled himself to show His love to humanity.
God came to find Lydia. God sent the guru off the mountain to endure danger in order to find Lydia. God sent Paul to find Lydia, though travel was costly and dangerous. God came to Lydia, He didn’t stay on top of a mountain waiting for Lydia to scramble up the mountain risking life and limb. He crosses oceans. He crossed cultures.
Paul came to Europe because of a dream he had of a man asking for help. Paul changed his original plans, and headed to Greece. When he came to the city of Philippi he followed his normal pattern. First, he looked for a synagogue. After he told the Jewish population about Christ he would then turn and tell the non-Jewish population. When Paul arrives he finds no synagogue, so he looks outside the city for a place in nature where people have gathered for prayer. By a river Paul and his friends find a group of women. Paul sat down with them- something a good Pharisee wouldn’t do. Paul’s words set Lydia’s heart on fire. In that moment God came to meet Lydia in a profound way.
Lydia and her household are baptized. She became the first convert to Christianity in Europe. Lydia welcomed Paul and his friends into her home and her home likely became a house church, of which she would have been the head.  God came to meet Lydia and transformed her life.  
          That is what Baptism is about. It is about God coming to meet you. It is not you reaching out to God- climbing the mountain and crossing the ocean. Baptism is God reaching out to you.  God is the one who crosses the boundaries. He climbs the mountains, and crosses the oceans, and crosses the culture and gender barriers. It is primarily God’s journey, not our journey.
          Paul will later write a letter to the church In Phillippi, a church that probably met in Lydia’s house. He wrote about God’s journey- “[Jesus Christ] Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:6-8). God wanted to crosses any and all boundaries to show us his love. John’s Gospel says it this way “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). Another translation says it this way, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (The Message).
          Lydia’s longing was met by God, not because of her scrambling up a mountain, or crossing a sea. Her longing was met by God’s love. One commentator says it this way- “Here is the center of the story, the moment of intersection between human obedience and divine initiative. Longing and grace meet there on the bank of the river. The longing heart of a faithful woman is opened by the gracious impulse of a faith-giving God in an action that, like the incarnation itself, is at once fully human and fully divine. Like Lydia we are astonished when, looking back, we can say only that our steps were guided and our hearts opened” (Ronald Cole-Turner, Feasting on the Word). Lydia longs to hear what Paul is saying, and even her longing is evidence of God’s presence with her.
          The journey comes later in the Christian life. We are always encountered by God at His initiative. God meets us. But once we meet God we are called to respond. Like Lydia, we encounter God and our household is baptized. Like Paul, God meets us and then we respond by going on a journey to help others meet him. We find those whose hearts are yearning for God like Lydia’s and God works through us to deliver his love.
          For Christians the journey and risk begins at baptism. The Christian way is not to hide away and wait for the Lydias of our city to try to find us. The Christian way is to find Lydia wherever she is- no matter the cost- no matter the danger- so that God can show Lydia his love. When we are baptized we are agreeing to be a part of that mission. We don’t join the guru up on a mountain somewhere waiting for people to find us. The Christian way is to go and find those whose hearts are open and ready to hear more about the God who is already working in their lives. We don’t ram this message down people’s throats. That would hardly give an accurate image of the God we know. We find those whose hearts are open- who have already turned themselves to God in some small way- and who are ready to hear.
                  When we are baptized we state that we believe in a God who comes to us and washes us free from all our sin and guilt so that we can take on a new life. It is a life of searching love. It is a life where we find the Elizabeth’s and Lydia’s around us and open our lives to them.   When we do that, amazingly, it will be as if God met them through us.  



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