Who doesn’t want to go on an adventure? The way you answer the question might depend on the nature of the adventure. My little adventure on the way home from the Regional Assembly yesterday isn’t one I’d choose. You see, I hit something that tore up my tire. I made it home safe, but my journey took much longer than I anticipated!
Now, as for the grand adventure Bilbo Baggins takes in The Hobbit, together with Gandolf and his band of Dwarfs, that’s a different situation. Bilbo initially didn’t want to go with Gandolf on the wizard’s grand adventure, but after thinking about it for a while, he decided that going was better than staying. That’s the choice – despite possible challenges and dangers, will you go or will you stay?
There’s a reason why we enjoy adventure stories like The Hobbit, Homer’s Odyssey, or Star Trek. Adventure stories allow us to vicariously experience the exploits of the participants in these adventures. Whether we read them or watch them on the big screen or small screen, if we’re willing to free up our imaginations, for a moment at least, these stories transport us into a different realm.
In many ways the Book of Acts is an adventure story. It’s full of challenges and dangers. For instance, Paul faces shipwrecks, gets bitten by snakes, and ends up in jail several times – just to name a few exploits. But he also sees the world, crossing boundaries along the way. He could’ve stayed home, but he didn’t.
Instead of Gandolf, Odysseus, or Captain Kirk being our guide, in the Book of Acts it’s the Holy Spirit who serves as the guide for these adventures. But not only does the Holy Spirit free up our imagination so we can have vicarious spiritual experiences, the Spirit also leads us on our own spiritual adventures.
Our Adventure began on Easter Sunday with the discovery that the Tomb was empty. But not only was the Tomb empty, the Risen Christ appeared to his disciples, beginning with Mary. In these resurrection appearances, Jesus reveals to us that death has met its match; life reigns victoriously. What begins on Easter Sunday continues on until today. In the Book of Acts the Holy Spirit reveals the presence of Jesus, calling and empowering the people of God to join together on a new adventure in the Spirit. Because of these encounters, lives are transformed.
For the past several weeks we’ve been hearing the stories of these transformative encounters with the Risen Christ. This morning we once again meet up with Paul. When we last visited with him, he was out preaching in the synagogues of Damascus, not so long after the Risen Christ had appeared to him on the road!
Between that event and the moment described in this morning’s text, Paul has finished his first missionary journey, returned to Jerusalem for a Council to deal with the challenges of integrating Gentiles into what was a predominantly Jewish sect, and then he’d headed out once again on a new adventure with God. This time he’s accompanied by Silas rather than Barnabas, and they’re trying to reach out to new areas of Asia Minor. For some reason the Spirit is impeding their progress. We’re not told how this happens, but something’s up.
In my imagination, I can see Paul and his companions, praying for guidance. I can see them, perhaps a bit frustrated, wondering where they should go. Every time they attempt to go one place or another, doors close. Then, in the night, as Paul is sleeping, he has a vision. In this vision he gets a new set of directions. A man from Macedonia appears and pleads with Paul to come to Macedonia and preach the gospel. When Paul wakes up, he tells his companions about the dream, and together they decide to follow what must be the Spirit’s lead, heading across the Aegean Sea into Macedonia. With this crossing of the sea, the gospel moves into Europe. A new barrier is crossed and a new adventure begins.
This adventure with God, which Paul and his companions undertake, begins back on the day of his Ascension. On that day, Jesus commissions the disciples to head out on a journey that would take them from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. But, the Risen Christ also tells them to wait until the Spirit had come upon them to give the power and the direction they’d need to fulfill their calling to be a missional people.
That commission and the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit remain in force to this day. That adventure, which begins in Acts continues on with us. And even as they crossed boundaries, so do we.
There are seas and there are mountains to cross, and at each stop along the way we get to share the blessings of God with those we meet – just as Paul and his companions got to do back in the earliest days of the church. They could’ve stayed home, but they didn’t. We can stay home, but will we?
As the story continues, Paul and his companions reach Philippi, a Roman colony in the region of Macedonia. Since it’s the Sabbath, they go down to the river to pray. Maybe they expected to find a group of Jews praying down by the river, and what they found was a group of women at this place of prayer. One of them was named Lydia. She was, a Gentile God-worshiper and a merchant of sorts. A conversation begins, and the Spirit enables Lydia to embrace Paul’s message.
There and then, she’s baptized. No questions asked, no long sessions; just a new beginning in the waters of baptism. Some commentators point out that Paul disappears from the story, which is a good reminder that it’s the Spirit who enables us to follow Jesus. That’s good news for us, because it means we’re not responsible for the success of our witness. Of course, even if we leave it to the Spirit, that’s no excuse to be obnoxious. That could be an impediment. But if we trust the message to the hands of God, then blessings will flow.
Of course this isn’t the end of the story. Lydia steps out in faith and invites this group of travelers to stay at her home. This is her way of giving thanks for the gift of grace. She responds to the Spirit’s blessing with a gift of hospitality.
When we go out on our adventures with the Spirit, we may have opportunity to receive hospitality. Yes, it’s not only good to offer hospitality, but it’s also good to graciously receive it. That is part of the ancient world’s understanding of life. We give and receive blessings, and in the course of welcoming the stranger and being welcomed as a stranger, new relationships get built.
Hospitality is – as Lonni Collins Pratt and Fr. Daniel Homan put it – “born in us when we are well loved by God and by others. Hospitality is the overflowing of a heart that has to share what it has received” (Radical Hospitality) That’s what happened with Lydia. It’s what can happen to us when we let our selves be blessed by the hospitality of others. Then our hearts can overflow towards the stranger. When we go on these adventures with the Spirit in the lead, we needn’t fear the stranger. Instead, we can embrace them so that the love of God revealed in the Risen Christ might be experienced by the world. And in a world of increasing hostility, this healing act of hospitality is needed now more than ever.
In our adventures with the Spirit, we too will meet our own Lydias. And when we let mutual love flow from us, lives will be transformed.
And just a warning – you never know in whom the Spirit will meet you. Remember the story of Abraham and Sarah’s three visitors? When they welcome these strangers into their tent, they’re given the promise of a child in fulfillment of God’s covenant promises. That’s why the author of Hebrews writes:
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it (Heb. 13:1-2).
And The Rule of St. Benedict states:
All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: “I as a stranger and you welcomed me.” (53:1)
Friday evening, I attended a lecture by Richard Kearney, a professor of Philosophy at Boston College, who writes about the transforming power of hospitality. He pointed to the relationship of hostility and hospitality – what the Spirit is doing is transforming hostility into hospitality.
As we continue our adventure with God, where there is hostility, God can create hospitality. So, what grand adventure in the Spirit awaits? Who will we meet? And how will we be transformed, as we meet the Risen Christ in the stranger?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
May 5, 2013
6th Sunday of Easter