May 1, 2016

6th Sunday of Easter
‘UNRESTRAINED GRACE’

BIBLE READINGS
Psalm 67
Acts 16:9-15

John 5:1-9

REFLECTION

Besides Nelson Mandela, one of the most well known faces of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa is the Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. He led the non-violent movement against Apartheid and became a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his effort to bring the regime down to its knees through non-violent means. In post-Apartheid South Africa, he chairs the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that tries to bring peaceful conclusion to unsolved murder cases committed during the Apartheid.

In one interview, he was asked about one “Aha!” moment that led him to become a person he is today. He told the story of a white South African priest, Father Trevor Huddleston, who one day politely greeted Tutu’s mother, a black South African woman, on the street. Huddleston would later visit Tutu when he almost died out of tuberculosis. The encounter with Huddleston taught Tutu “invaluable lessons about the human family; that it doesn’t matter how we look or where we come from, we are made for each other, for compassion, for support and for love”.[1]

I wonder what would have become of Tutu if Huddleston had never greeted his mother on the street? Would he become the person that he is today? Would South Africa ever learn about non-violent means to achieve political liberty? How many more lives would have been lost if that simple greeting had never occurred on that street?

I have the same question regarding Lydia in our reading today from the book of Acts. What would have happened if Paul had never spoken to her? Would the Gospel be spread throughout Europe or would it not?

Now we may think that there was nothing unusual about Paul and his companion approaching Lydia and her companions, but we need to remember that a woman did not have much of a status in those times. For example, in the passage in Mark and Matthew about Jesus feeding a large crowd, we are only told that there were around 5000 men in the field on that day.[2] We are told nothing about how many women and children who were present; it was as if their presence was not as important as the men’s. In another passage about a woman who washed Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume in Luke, we did not know about her name: she was anonymous.[3] It was as if her status as a woman was enough to identify her.

But Lydia and the women who gathered on the riverside to pray were not invisible to Paul and his companion. When Paul had a vision about a Macedonian who asked him to come across to Macedonia, the Macedonian that Paul saw was a man not a woman. This is clear from the Greek word used in the passage to describe the person: aner.[4] But still it didn’t stop Paul from approaching Lydia and the other women. Paul and his companion may have expected that they would meet a man or men, yet they were not disappointed when God led them to a group of women instead.

Even more, it was clear that Paul and his companion were looking for diaspora Jews. We are told that they were looking for a synagogue, the place “where Jews gathered to pray” (v. 13). Yet, instead of meeting a Jew, they met a Gentile instead. Lydia was a “worshiper of God”, a name given to a non-Jewish person who followed Jewish religious rites and worshipped Yahweh. Yet her status as a Gentile did not stop Paul and his companion to preach the Gospel to her.

Indeed Lydia was the first Christian convert in Europe. And I wonder what would have happened to the Gospel in the continent had Paul not spoken to her? Would it spread throughout the continent like it had, or would it not?

Indeed, Lydia must have played a big part in the spreading of the Gospel in her community. She was nothing like most other women at the time. She was a business woman who sold purple cloth, a luxurious item reserved only for the wealthy and royalty.[5] It goes without saying that she must have made a lot of money from her business.

And money, yesterday today and tomorrow, means power; and power means influence. Yes, Lydia must have been a powerful and influential figure in her community. She was the head of her household, which was unusual because in a patriarchal society where she lived, the father or husband was usually the head of the household. But not in Lydia’s household. She was a woman with resources and influence and I have no doubt that she played a big role in helping Paul in his mission to spread the Gospel.

Friends, God does not choose only a particular type of person or a particular type of people to receive His mercy and grace.

In our passage in John’s Gospel, the man the Jesus chose to be healed was not a particularly grateful man or a man with a strong faith. When Jesus asked him whether or not he wanted to be healed, instead of responding with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”, he replied with a complain.[6] He told Jesus that no one was there to take him to the pool when he needed to.

After he was healed, he did not even go back to Jesus to thank him. Later on, when the Jewish religious authorities enquired him, he did not even know who it was who healed him![7] And when he finally knew that it was Jesus who healed him, he dobbed Jesus in to the Jewish religious authorities for healing on a Sabbath, which was forbidden.[8]

So some of us may say that he did not deserve to be healed, yet Jesus chose him from the others. Yes, God’s grace is readily available to everyone, even to those people whom we may consider as underserving.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis broke away from tradition when he washed and kissed the feet of refugees in a center for asylum seekers outside of Rome. The event happened during Holy Thursday when Christians, all around the world, reenacted Jesus’ washing of the feet of his twelve disciples. Of those people whose feet were washed by the Pope, one was a Hindu, three were Muslims, four were Coptic Christians, and four were Catholics. Some of these people were women. A number of them had tears in their eyes as the Pontiff washed and kissed their feet.

Pope Francis did this in the wake of terror attacks by Islamist militants and the rise of anti-migrants sentiments in Europe. He wanted to offer the message of solidarity and love in the midst of the rising animosity between different people with different backgrounds. "You, we, all of us together, of different religions, different cultures, but children of the same Father,” he said.[9] Indeed his act clearly demonstrates that God extends His love to all people and God’s grace is available to everyone regardless.

In our Psalm reading this morning, all peoples and nations are to praise the Lord God. God blesses not only the people of Israel, but all nations and peoples on earth.

Psalms were originally songs and we can think of Psalm 67 as a pop song. And like a pop song, Psalm 67 also has the chorus/refrain: the most important part of the song that is repeated again and again as an emphasis. And the refrain of the Psalm is this: let all the peoples praise you, let all the peoples praise you, O God! It is repeated twice in the Psalm.

Indeed God is to be praised not by Israel alone, but by all peoples and nations. The God of Israel is indeed the God of all nations and all peoples. And Israel, God’s people, must be a blessing to other nations, just like their forefather, Abraham, was chosen by God to be a blessing for other nations (Genesis 12:1-3).

Friends God extends His mercy and love to all people, ALL people, whether they look like us or not, whether they worship God in the same way as we do or not, whether they share our values or ways of life or not, whether they are with us or against us. God’s grace has no boundary. Our role is not to judge other people, but to offer the grace that God has freely given to everyone regardless. Who knows, when we offer God’s grace to other, we may touch the heart of someone like Desmond Tutu who will one day change the world for the better, for the glory of God.

Amen.

Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Grant Schreiber, Desmond Tutu: “God Is Not A Christian. Nor a Jew, Muslim, Hindu…”, (posted on May 29 2015) on http://real-leaders.com/desmond-tutu-god-is-not-a-christian-nor-a-jew-muslim-hindu/

[2] Mark 6:30-44; Matthew 14:13-21

[3] Luke 7:36-50

[4] Mitzi J. Smith, Commentary on Acts 16:9-15, (May 1 2016) on https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2829

[5] Seasons of the SpiritTM SeasonsFusion - Lent.Easter 2016 (May 1 2016), p. 178

[6] Elisabeth Johnson, Commentary on John 5:1-9, (May 1 2016) on  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2839

[7] John 5:9-13

[8] John 5:14-16

[9] Elahe Izadi, Pope Francis washes the feet of Muslim migrants, says we are ‘children of the same God’, (March 25 2016) on https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/03/25/children-of-the-same-god-pope-francis-washes-the-feet-of-muslim-migrants/