Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 20 August 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Our first lesson, from 2 Kings, introduces a powerful story from the life of Elisha. Let a prophet into your life and it will never be the same again. The full story develops a nice twist. Not only is the life of this lady from Shunem turned upside down, at first in a good way, as a result of providing hospitality to Elisha, but later Elisha’s status as a prophet is turned upside down too. The woman gives birth to a son as Elisha foretells, but the boy soon dies and she rushes to the prophet and begs for help. Elisha sends his servant Gehazi with his staff to raise the child but it doesn’t work. It seems that Elisha has botched the job, taking the prophetic charism for granted; it is a gift and God gives it to whomever he chooses and whenever he chooses. So the woman is herself revealed as a prophet, the one who knows the score. Elisha is obliged to follow her and return to her house in order to resuscitate her son. It is a measure of Israel’s realistic attitude to its tradition that it could tell so critical a story about one of its greatest figures.
Last Sunday evening we left Paul en route to Derbe from Lystra, bruised and battered after being mistaken for a god, then stoned by Jewish zealots. This evening, two chapters later, he’s tempting fate by going back to Lystra. I want to pick up where I left off last week as well, because this evening’s episodes from Paul’s missionary work further illustrate my point. The link with the Old Testament lesson is fairly obvious – hospitality. The ancient tradition of hospitality is a core value of Christian culture which we need to rekindle.
This time, rather than cold-calling, Paul goes to Lystra because he has someone to stay with, Timothy, a Jewish convert who will become a significant fellow-missionary, a person we know from Paul’s letters, including two addressed to him. The two men are now visiting existing churches, building relationships and sharing with them the decisions of the Council of Jerusalem, which had laid down some basic rules of life for gentile converts.
After the Holy Spirit forbade them to speak the word in Asia, and the ‘spirit of Jesus’ told them not to go to Bithynia (we are not informed, tantalisingly, how or why), we have Paul’s dream or vision of a ‘man of Macedonia’ inviting him to visit. This takes them to Philippi, soon to be a significant centre of Christian growth as we know from Paul’s letter to the church there. Here we see more hospitality at work. Paul meets a sympathetic Jewish woman, Lydia, who is baptized together with her whole household and invites him and his companions to stay at her house. There follows a period of engagement with the wider community in Philippi, during which heated arguments, and yet another imprisonment and release, ensue.
Lydia is a dealer in ‘purple goods’, among the most prized luxury items of the day, cloth dyed with the secretions of the murex shellfish. In a world where clothing was mostly drab, this was such a valued commodity that sumptuary laws were passed limiting its use. In its most refined form it became the imperial colour, passing into Byzantine court ritual and church colour schemes. So Lydia is a rich and successful businesswoman, who can deliver a whole household of converts and provide accommodation for an extended stay.
Here we see some effective evangelisation at work: Paul accepts hospitality, stays in a local household and engages with a community. Last week I mentioned that my father’s missionary work was based on this model. He travelled to Szechuan in West China, spent two years learning Mandarin in situ, dressing as a Chinese man and seeing no westerners. Then he enrolled in the ancient University of West China (which is older than Oxford or Cambridge) to study anthropology and there built a small Christian community which became a church. I have a Prayer Book in which he recorded inside the back cover his progress from curacy in Sydney to the foundation of this little church in Chengdu. The last note reads ‘The New Church, Hua Si Pa Community Congregation, Chengdu. First Anglican Service, 20th August 1950’ – serendipitously 67 years ago today. I am told that this church still exists; he is no doubt forgotten, which is as he would have wished. One day I hope to visit and see for myself. I notice that from leaving Sydney to that first Anglican service took up four years of his life.
He had concluded that community engagement was the only true evangelism. But like many missionaries, including Paul, his work was interrupted by events. In his case the arrival of the Red Army in West China in 1952 necessitated a quick exit. I also have a rosary given to him by a Jesuit fellow missionary during their slightly hair-raising journey home.
You see my simple point. The gospel is about relationship and engagement, not telling people they are wrong or complaining that they don’t see things our way. One of Paul’s mistakes in Lystra last week was just asserting that he was right and the local pagans were wrong. In Philippi, with Lydia’s help, he formed a community. Forming a community does not give us the buzz of a mass rally; it requires long-term commitment and unglamorous hard work. It is the opposite of the quick-fix social media route (where the word ‘social’ is quickly being emptied of meaning). These media tools are valuable, but there is no substitute for getting to know real people.
I also have a bible given to my father by his Sydney parish youth group before he left for China, signed by all the members, with the following note added by him opposite the title page:
‘By the love of the Father, the Grace of the Son and the power of the Spirit, God shall have all there is of Roderick W. Bowie. 12th July 1946.’
Later in life he would shrug off this youthful romanticism as pious nonsense (he used a stronger word). But I’m not so sure he wasn’t right the first time, in 1946: without that sense of his dearly held personal dedication, would his Chinese friends have wanted to know what he had to say?