Acts 16:9–15; Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5; John 5:1–9
A funny thing happened on the way to self–discovery: I discovered the power of Christ’s light and love and was transformed. How many times in our lives have we been on the way to do something and suddenly we realize we were here for something else? Kinda like I come downstairs to find my cell phone, forget that is what I am looking for, and then find or remember something else instead. Jesus’ disciples had this experience. They signed up for the Jesus enterprise thinking they might learn something and be part of a new order, the overthrow of the Romans, etc. What they discovered was the true Messiah, the Savior of the world, the Son of God and Lord of life who would take away the sins of the world. They did not set out to change the world in this way, it simply happened as a result of their proximity to Jesus. But they took what Jesus gave them and, ultimately, grew into the people that Christ had intended for them to be. And it took time. A funny thing happens when we go out looking to help folks or discover some truth about ourselves, etc. Sometimes God finds us in the midst of what we thought we were doing instead.
I really love this story of Paul in Acts 16. He sets off for Macedonia across the Aegean Sea because of a vision he has of a man who needs help. So, come he does. He travels all the way from Troas, setting sail, and traveling a great distance to find and heal a man who implored him to come … nothing crazy sounding about that, is there? And once he gets to Macedonia, we have to assume he was still trying to find the mysterious man, but he comes outside the gate, probably wondering what God had gotten him into with this “vision,” and suddenly finds himself in the company of a faithful group of women who want to hear more about Jesus of Nazareth and the power of His grace. Paul is more than happy to oblige and the women are, ultimately, baptized and Paul is invited back to their house. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the grace of God’s putting us into situations we did not intend (maybe He did) and showing us a deeper grace, an unknown love, a hope that takes us to a new place in our faith. If Paul had been unimpressed with the women he encountered (because they were not the man he had come to see) and had kept on moving, what would have become of his ministry? What would have become of the women he encountered?
C.S. Lewis famously told the story of his conversion from atheism to Christianity in his autobiography Surprised by Joy. As a young C.S. Lewis, a new lecturer at Oxford, in his late 20’s, found himself drawn closer and closer to the Christian life, he resisted, he bargained, and he avoided. He felt that he was meant for something else, not only teaching, but deeper intellectual pursuits; Christianity certainly was not part of the plan. But with his eyes wide open, seeing it coming from a mile away, he was still surprised by the joy he found in seeing Christ suddenly coming to the center of his life. When Tracey and I made the decision to become Episcopalians, in a new town and expecting a new baby (Olivia), I was surprised by the overwhelming sense that God was calling me, as God had in my early twenties, to ordained life; not as a Roman Catholic priest, but an Episcopal one. I was receptive – I think that is what Acts is telling us: not that we are to be any particular thing in God’s kingdom but when God calls us, we should not be surprised when it takes us in unexpected directions that can – in fact will – make a huge difference in our lives.
The sacraments have that kind of power. We see them coming, we know what they are capable of and yet, even when we are sometimes not open or available to them, they surprise and change us with their power. Revelation is filled with images of water, light and Baptism. Revelation reminds us that in the place where God is found there is no night there (which is repeated again later in the passage). They (we) will see God’s face and His name will be on our foreheads … sounds a lot like Baptism, doesn’t it? We are marked, even against our will, by the goodness of God, as we receive the gift of Baptism and try to live into the full measure of the stature of Christ. We are, likewise, surprised by the power of the Eucharist to transform and transmit the reality of God’s grace in Christ to us. We come up expecting to take a wafer and wine into our bodies but what we often find, instead, is the incarnated, fleshy, real body of Jesus who can make all things in our lives new and alive again.
We are like the paralytic man in the Temple portico, in John’s Gospel today. He comes to the Temple each day, waiting to move into the water of the pool “while it is stirred up.” The belief for some 1st century Jews was that an angel “occasionally” stirred up the water in the pool so that the healing properties were only truly present when the water was turbulent; stirred up. That old Afro spiritual sings, “Wade in the water, wade in the water, children, wade in the water, God gonna stir up the water.” We don’t come to the water of baptism expecting to be healed, revitalized, or made new but that is what God has in store for us. The paralyzed man might have expected a hand out but what he truly desired was transformation – His encounter with Jesus is not what he expected; he was surprised by it. He wanted to be lifted into the water but what he got was to stand up on his own, two healed legs and walk away, into a new future.
How might we open our lives up so that we might be, more often, surprised by God? Life throws us an awful lot of curve balls and I was never good at hitting those anyway. But how can we become better batters when life throws us curves, specifically in the arena of seeing more and more things with the hand of God in them. We may go looking for something but sometimes, by God’s grace and providence, we find something else. Are we open to God’s “something else”? The sacraments are meant for us to consciously invite God’s presence into our lives, to be reminded that God is with us. How can we look at our whole life more sacramentally; as new pathways for God’s love and life to be made real to us in situations where we did not expect it to be so? Not necessarily an earth–shattering revelation but God’s light shines in the darkness, too. We are often in the darkness yet we may find, if we are open to it, God’s light can shine into our personal darkness, too, allowing new, God–inspired possibilities where we only expected something else.