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Sunday, May 01, 2016

Ordinary Resurrections

John 14:23-29. Easter VI Year C May 1, 2016
The Episcopal Church of St. George, Harbeson, DE

The gospels in this Easter seasons always seem to work especially hard to “prove” the resurrection. See?  Jesus not only appeared to the disciples, Thomas actually put his hand into his wounds. See? Jesus is not just walking on the road to Emmaus, he’s on the beach, actually eating actual fish with his disciples. See?

Last week and this week find us back in the Upper Room with Jesus and his disciples, reliving some of what Jesus is reported to have said and done. This portion of John’s gospel ends with these words, “I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur you may believe.”

The lectionary readings from the Acts of the Apostles are a wonderful response to the Gospel readings in Easter season. Whether or not you believe in the actual, physical resurrection the disciples were so eager to prove, it’s hard to deny that something was happening – some spirit was on the move – in those early days and months and years after The Resurrection.

This morning, we meet Lydia, the merchant of purple cloth.  She had been sitting with a few other women, outside the gate of the Greek city of Philippi, down by the river, at a place of prayer.

She had been listening to Paul, Silas and Timothy talking about Jesus and, Paul says, “The Lord opened her heart.” 

She and her household were baptized right then and there – probably right in the waters of the river. After her baptism, she “prevailed” upon Paul and the other disciples to come and stay at her house.  Later, we hear she also gives them shelter after they are released from prison.

I want to stay for just a little bit on this image of Lydia from the Book of Acts because I think it “proves” more about the power of The Resurrection of Jesus than any physical evidence.

The first thing I want to point out is that this woman, Lydia, has a name. That ought not be a huge distinction but, well, how many women are actually named in Scripture – Hebrew or Christian? Not many.

After The Resurrection, women’s names pop up around every corner. The gospels name several women at the empty tomb: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Salome,  and Mary, the mother of James, as well as the unnamed “others who accompanied them" (Luke 24:10 - no doubt a few other 'Mary's' and probably Susanna) . All four gospels report that women were the first to discover the empty tomb.

In the Book of Acts and some of the Epistles, there’s Lydia, Phoebe, the deaconess, and Junia, a fellow prisoner with Paul. There’s Prisca (or Priscilla) and Aquila, Paul’s "helpers in Christ", and Tabitha, also called Dorcas, whom Peter raised from the dead.

There’s Sapphira who, with her husband Ananias, is not exactly a role model of Christian behavior. (Read about them in Acts 5:1-11) There’s also Rhoda, a young girl of the house of Mary, who was first to recognize Peter after his release from jail, Damaris (“a believer”), and Persis, an early Christian, much beloved of Paul, along with Julia, Olympas, Chloe, Lois, and Eunice.

That there are so many women named - by name and not just profession or social status – especially given the low estate of women in antiquity – says to my mind that something is happening – some Spirit is moving – something is changing hearts and minds and transforming lives.

As I reflect on John’s gospel, it is Lydia - this merchant of purple cloth, noted to be the first European convert to Christianity, who listened to and considered carefully what Paul and the disciples were saying about this Jesus and his Resurrection who -  captures my attention.

It is entirely possible that her name was not actually “Lydia”. Rather, she may be so named because she was from the province of Lydia. So “the woman from Lydia” became “Lydia”. It’s also not clear if she was a businesswoman or an simply an agent (a “buyer”) and whether or not she was a former slave, a widow or an independent woman.

No mater her social location, what is clear is that she was smart and accomplished. 

Which means she took some risks in choosing to be baptized and follow Jesus. 

Which begs the question: Why?

Why, when you are successful and fairly comfortable, would you risk all of that to follow the teachings of a Rabbi who got himself crucified?

Why, when you are a woman of precarious social standing in a patriarchal culture, would you give shelter in your own home to men like Paul, Silas and Timothy after they had been jailed?   

She was neither a Jew nor Roman. She had never met Jesus, much less heard before of his story.

What compelled a successful, intelligent, savvy businesswoman to believe, sight unseen?

What compels you, sight unseen, to believe in Jesus?

What, if not the power of The Resurrection? What, if not evidence, sight unseen, of the full and real presence of Jesus as made manifest in the Holy Spirit, moving and changing hearts and minds and transforming lives?   

Sometimes, it is the little, seemingly insignificant things that are most compelling.

I confess that it is the story of these women – witnesses to the Resurrection, some of them sight unseen – who strengthen my spirit and my faith in the power of The Resurrection. 

None of them really accomplished much - well, except, of course, that a woman actually getting named in ancient scripture is not exactly insignificant.

A few of them went to prison with Paul. Most of them are simply noted for their generosity and hospitality, their strong faith and willingness to risk – to speak out and tell the truth: 

Yes, I have seen the Lord. 

Yes, it IS Peter at the gate, back from prison. 

Yes, I will give you shelter after you have been released from prison.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t need hard, cold, physical evidence of The Resurrection to believe in the power of The Resurrection, the power of the spirit of Jesus to change and transform lives. 

It really doesn’t matter to me whether Jesus rose physically, bodily from the dead. I don’t need to put my hands in his side or eat fish with him on the beach.

Neither do I need grand acts of generosity or daring risk of life to believe that you believe. 

Sometimes, it is enough just to get up every morning and do what needs to be done and live into our lives despite all challenges that await us.

These are the “ordinary resurrections” of life. “Anastasis” is the Greek word for resurrection. It means, literally, “standing up again.” 

If you pay attention, you’ll find that life is filled with “ordinary resurrections”. 

There are times when just getting out of bed in the morning and standing up again is a miraculous ordinary resurrection. Anyone who has struggled with depression - or, financial difficulties, or unemployment, or chronic family illness, or death - can tell you that this is true.

Thomas Merton writes of the first chirps of the waking birds at dawn outside the widows of his hermitage. “They begin to speak,” he says, “not with a fluent song” but “with an awakening question” that is their state at dawn. 

They ask God “if it is time for them to ‘be.’” God, says Merton, answers, “yes.” Then, “one by one,” they wake up to be birds.”

Sometimes, our faith is like that: Just a few chirps in the early morning darkness of the day. Sometimes, our one act of faith is to ask God if it’s okay to be, if it’s okay to trust in the power of The Resurrection. 

And, then, trust that God will say “yes”. 

And then, it will be time for us to wake up and be all that we were created to be, trusting in the power of The Resurrection – sight unseen – to risk and dare our way through the challenges of this day and dream a dream of our way into the next.

Or, as Jesus said to his disciples, “I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur you may believe.”    


PS - I'm very grateful for the work done by Lindsay Hardin Freemen, whose study and writing on Women in Scripture grounds me even as it inspires my curiosity and delight.


Mark Harris said...

Very good stuff! I believe with you that the practice of resurrection is more powerful than the belief in this or that way of stating what the resurrection 'means.' The practice of resurrection is a matter of day to day engagement, not static or dogmatic propositions. Great sermon. OF course, I am not surprised. You always write spot-on sermons. Thanks.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Mark. That's high praise coming from one whose sermons I've loved for 30 years.