Reading(s): Acts 16:9-15. Revelation 21:10,22-22.5 John 14:23-29. This sermon was given by Sally Kerson at St. Mark and All Saints.
Now I love the colour purple especially purple cloth and can well remember a dress I made in the rich vibrant colour when I was in my teens, it was quite a complicated dress pattern, and it had a roll collar which was very fashionable in the 1960s. The colour purple is also the title of a book written by Alice Walker and was also made into a film, you may have read the book or seen the film. It is a story set in the deep American south in the 1930s and talks about racial discrimination, plus physical and sexual abuse that black women endured, and is told through the main character Celie. It is a book that also shifts from a belief in God and moves to another way of viewing spirituality. I can’t do it justice in a few sentences it is much more involved. However, at one point in the story when Celie and another character called Shug walk through a field of purple flowers. Shug points out to Celie that there are beautiful things all around and that they need to be recognised as being already there. She is saying that sometimes we forget the beauty that surrounds us all. Likewise, Celie needs to find her own beauty - she needs to look for the colour purple. The reading from the book of Acts this morning talks about Lydia a woman that sells purple cloth, an expensive commodity, as the dye was made from thousands of shellfish. Purple therefore was worn by the rich and those who had influence at that time it was associated with royalty and the soldiers mockingly gave Jesus a robe of purple to wear at his crucifixion proclaiming him to be the King of the Jews. During Advent and Lent the colour purple is used on robes and altar frontals in church as a sign of penitence. In this passage we are told that Paul is on his second missionary journey and has a vision of a man from Macedonia calling him to work there and so he and his companions set out immediately. But ironically there is no one to preach to but some woman by a riverside having a prayer meeting where he meets Lydia. Lydia was a self-sufficient woman, who evidently possessed an independent spirit, but she listened to Pauls teaching and was baptised along with the rest of her family. Lydia teaches us, that by staying close to a community of faith, we can inspire others with our inspiration and wisdom, it’s not easy being a Christian by yourself, you do need the support of others who are also on their own journey of faith. The other thing Lydia can teach us is openness to the stirring winds of God’s spirit as she listened eagerly to what was new to her, even though she was already a worshiper of God, she was humble, eager to listen for the new things God was calling her to do.
I am not sure we are always that eager to listen and learn to find out what God is saying to us especially in this fast-changing and often challenging world. Many of us want everything, especially in church, to remain the same as it ever was, we feel comfortable that way. But as we heard in the passage God opened Lydia’s heart. And that’s the main message of the story, it is a moment of intersection between human obedience and divine initiative, longing and grace meet there on the banks of the river.
It’s not always easy to recall the times when God has inspired us to look at things differently, sometimes we even change our minds about certain issues and that transition can be a slow progress not an instant revelation. But I do hope like Lydia we are astonished when, looking back, we can not only say that our steps were guided, but also our hearts were opened by our faithful walk with God. Lydia is open to God, but also, she is ready to respond. After the baptism of herself and her family she invites Paul and his companions back to her home with these words. “Come, and stay, if you have judged me to be faithful.”
Lydia, for all her fine garments and confidence and leadership ability, is humble in spirit, and out of this humility offers a heart of hospitality. To ask Paul and his friends to stay in her home is her way of asking God to do the same. Keeping to the subject of home we hear the word mentioned in our Gospel reading and so I wonder what you think of when you hear the word home, perhaps your mind goes back to your own house or the home you were bought up in? A home is where we should feel safe, but sadly we know this is not often the case. And because so many people live by themselves now, there can often be a feeling of loneliness and fear, whilst others who live on their own value their independence.
Tragically when there is war or conflict, we know that many people lose their homes, often never to return, the pictures on our television screens from Ukraine show this in horrifying detail. What then does St. John mean when he talks about home in this morning’s gospel reading? This is part of Jesus’s farewell discourse at the last supper as he attempts to prepare the disciples for the time when he will no longer be with them in the flesh. At the beginning of the chapter 14 we read these words of comfort that are often used for funerals. “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. In my father’s house are many rooms” but further on in verse 23 which we heard read this morning the intimacy is very different “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them” Jesus makes this promise to the church, the community of faith, to us that he is totally with us, he knows us and loves us and wants our spiritual home to include him. And then Jesus gives the disciples the comforting words that really sets the scene for the Thursday, which is Ascension Day, he promises them the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Acts of the Apostles which we have followed in part during this time since Easter gives us a glimpse of the great works of the Holy Spirit in the life of the early Church. In the Book of Revelation (our second reading this morning) the Apostle John recounts how the Spirit led him into seeing deep truths about the faith. This is John’s vision of hope and healing for the world. He sees God and Jesus form the Temple in the new Jerusalem, and they are the light of the world. John sees the water of life flowing clear and bright like crystal, and the tree of life bearing fruit that will bring healing to all nations. Together the tree, water and light give life to all things – a hopeful picture of the future for all humanity and all God’s creation. Written for Christians facing extreme persecution, the powerful imagery encouraged them to hang on to the promise that, in the end, light will triumph over darkness, hope over despair, and all people, nations – and indeed all of creation – will be healed and made whole: truly ‘All shall be well’.
While this may seem far removed from our own world, there is much in our lives and in the world where God’s hope and healing are needed. Today we learnt how God might use us as agents of hope and healing for others by following some great examples such as Paul who went through a massive conversion to follow Christ and went on to preach in many countries. Then there is Lydia a woman in a world and a time where women’s voices were generally discounted, a woman who was rich and independent and had everything in the worldly sense but wanted to do more to further the kingdom of God. I am sure you can think of many such examples of men and women who have made a massive difference to this world as followers of Christ. But it is not just up to them we also play a part. Our mission in this benefice of Ampfield, Chilworth and North Baddesley is to make God known to others in what often must seem a small and humble way but at the same time we are inviting God into our home and into the homes of others.