“What does it mean to be famous?”
Sunday 26 May 2019
Some of you may remember back a few years when the Australian ex pat television personality, Clive James, produced a series of TV programs on “Fame in the Twentieth Century”. My lasting memory of that series is that Clive James exposed the driving ambition amongst those of us living in western culture to achieve “fame”. In the process, he was able to demonstrate what a fleeting and deceiving creature fame is. He revealed the shallowness of people who had become famous simply for being famous.
Social media has only exacerbated this appearance of people determined to become famous for being famous and so engaging in endless self-promotion using the various platforms now available to them. We even have the social concept of “fifteen minutes of fame”.
I have introduced the modern notion of fame because, in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we met someone who really should be famous, but who is probably unknown by all but a very few. She is famous not only because of what she did, but because of what she represents.
Who am I talking about? Lydia of Thyatira, a successful businesswoman, a dealer in purple cloth who hailed from Asia Minor, but who successfully launched her business overseas and established herself in Philippi. And why is Lydia famous and why should she be better known amongst Christians?
Lydia was the first-known person, in Europe. to accept the gospel and be baptized. Last week, we read the text from the Acts of the Apostles in which Peter explained his actions in preaching to and baptizing a gentile. This action by Peter paved the way for the gospel to be taken to the gentiles.
Up until this incident with Paul and Lydia, the gentiles that were baptized lived in the Middle East and Asia Minor. Today, Paul took the next step in preaching to the gentiles in response to a vision. Paul crossed over into Europe and went down by the river near Philippi where the Jews gathered for prayer as they apparently had no synagogue in the city. Along with the Jews was Lydia, a “worshipper of God”, a gentile who was attracted to Judaism.
And so, Lydia was the first of the many millions of people in Europe who subsequently came to believe in the risen Christ and accept baptism down through the centuries.
I suppose that we could say that Lydia’s fame is really a result of Saint Paul’s willingness to leave familiar territory and follow his calling as an evangelist into an unknown world to him.
I thought that we might reflect on that willingness to step out of the comfort zone today. I suppose the historical fact of the matter is that, with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312AD, Christianity became comfortable. It went from being the persecuted religion to the socially acceptable religion.
Down through the centuries, that sense of existing comfortably within the mainstream of European society has become a characteristic of Christianity.
This has continued down to our own age – well almost. I think that anyone aged 40 or over has lived through a time when Christianity has gone from a position of comfort within society to one of discomfort brought about by society’s apparent disregard for the need to believe in God and the saving love of Christ. And that is probably not a bad thing in the sense that Christendom was not the same as saying that every citizen lived the Christian life to the full. There was a lot of lip service to Christian commitment in the centuries of Christendom in Western Europe.
I think we can say today that we find ourselves in the same sort of discomfort that Saint Paul experienced when he ventured into the unknown world of Europe to preach the gospel. Perhaps it is healthier for us as Christians to live in this sort of discomfort with our own society.
The reason that I suggest that is that, if we attempt to gain a place of comfort in our society, we are unlikely to be witnessing in our lives to the values of the Christian way of life which are so much at odds with the consumerist values of our society. If we are constantly seeking to be comfortable amongst the people we meet in our daily lives, we are unlikely to be presenting to them through our words and actions a credible face of Christ – the challenge of being his disciple. Being a Christian does not mean being comfortable. It is more a matter of being convinced of the privilege that one has to understand and to participate in the way of Christ and being prepared to seem “out of place” at times to our fellow citizens.
Of course, walking in this zone of discomfort is terribly challenging and not able to be done without the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. The more time we spend in silent prayer, listening for the movement of the Holy Spirit within us, the more we will be able to access that power that will enable us to enjoy that healthy “discomfort” of being a follower Christ actively evangelizing those we meet in our circle of influence. Just as Saint Paul was prepared to engage discomfort and cross the waters from Asia to Europe to further spread the gospel of Christ.
As we read in the Second Letter to Timothy: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. May we rekindle the gift of God within us (2 Tim 1.6-7). Let’s embrace any discomfort we feel as Christians in our society as a challenge to be overcome, not as an impediment to defeat us.
Father Allan Paulsen