The Sunday Sermon: Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 13, 2018
Scripture: Acts 16:9-15
Have any of you ever set out on a round-trip journey, maybe just a morning hike or a day long bike ride, but set out to travel a certain distance knowing you’d be turning around at a certain point and heading back? Whenever I do that there is always a little part of me that keeps track of how far I’ve gone on the first leg because I know I have to make it back, and will I have the energy, will I be able to “get home.” It’s not so prominent at first, I suppose, but as the trip goes on, as the journey takes you further and further from your point of origin, this little “tracking device” gets to be a bigger part of your experience.
I’ve been thinking about that all week, this week, as I prepared for the last leg of the journey we’ve been on together since Easter Sunday. This coming week will find us returning to Jerusalem by next Sunday so that we may be empowered again by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday. We’ve been journeying beyond the city of crucifixion and ascension for the past six Sundays, the past 43 days and counting, with a message of love and promise and new life. We’ve come a long, long way from the empty tombs and locked doors of fear and uncertainty that crept into our lives again during Holy Week this year, that overwhelmed us on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and were even a part of the early hours of Easter morning. On that morning as we huddled in our own homes, something stirred in us. Many gathered here in the hours that followed, many more in sanctuaries like this around the world, we were responding to something almost indefinable: The experience of the Risen Christ and the unmistakable recognition that we must share this experience with others, with those who need to hear of life and love beyond the limitations our world puts on them. So we set out on the Sunday after Easter to do just that. And we’ve come a long way since Easter morning.
Our proclamations turned to explanations, as they do every year, and we fell into step with Peter, Philip, and the other first century apostles, including Paul; with Tabitha and Stephen, and just last week Cornelius, a “centurion of the Italian cohort.” We’ve been traveling with them, joining Peter in prison cells, appearing with the apostles before Gamaliel and the Jewish High Council, watching the movement grow as new leaders were selected among the believers, experiencing new life with Tabitha and the widows of Joppa, conversion with Paul, and the spread of the Good news to the Gentiles just last week. Through it all, the Word has continued to spread and this morning we take one last “figurative step” away from Jerusalem, toward our final destination before we return this week to be empowered in our lives of faith.
Pray with me …
Actually we don’t “take steps” this morning, as much as we set sail. As I read the scripture out loud try in some small way to feel the wind filling the sails of your journey, our common mission, our call. We go a great distance on this leg, tired as we are. And though the “tracking device” in our heads that is counting the steps of our return looms large, we cannot help but sail away for one more adventure. Listen for it …
Read Acts 16:9-12a.
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.
Did you hear it, see it, feel it? The creaking masts, white-capped waves, and the wind in your face? The excited conversations, distant shores, and sea mist? We have left terra firma and are retelling one of the most memorable events in the life of the young church, the bringing of the story to Europe.
Ancient readers of these journey’s, and perhaps some of you who are steeped in history, may find some irony in the gospel reaching Europe in this particular province. Four centuries earlier, when Alexander the Great was king of Macedonia, his armies slashed their way through the Persian Empire eastward from here. Octavius’ military victory here in the Aegean Sea began the Roman Empire just two centuries earlier, giving rise to the Roman Imperial Theology that Jesus and his followers would engage with their alternate vision of peace, not through victory and conquering, but through justice and righteousness.
Paul and his companions, we, are Alexander and Octavius in reverse. From the west, centuries earlier, they advanced with their military power. From the east now comes Paul and the first apostles, sailing forth with a much more dangerous opponent to any worldly empire. From the east we come, this morning, not with larger legions of soldiers but with ideas, not with a greater force but with an alternative faith. So what do we do? Who will we meet?
We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.
It’s curious to note here that beginning back in verse ten there was a shift from a third person plural to a first person plural narration. Did you hear it? From “They went through / They came opposite / They went down,” to “We tried to cross over / We set sail / We remained, went outside, sat and spoke.” Perhaps Luke himself has joined the journey at this point and he includes himself in the story. In any case, it seems to be a more leisurely visit, unhurried and tranquil and you and I, part of this “we,” feel more like a part of this mission. That the group, that we, must go “outside the gate by the river” to a “place of prayer” seems to suggest that there was no organized synagogue in Philippi as of yet. The city seems to lack the quorum of ten Jewish males that would gather an assembly for worship. Nonetheless, Paul and his companions sit and speak. This “posture,” sets Paul up as a guest liturgist and rabbi in the gathering. The first worship service, the first recorded Christian sermon in Europe, is being delivered and we are there! And so was another:
A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.
Lydia is Greek, rather than Jewish. She is named after an ancient city, well known for the fabrics she sells. She is most likely a “God-fearing Gentile,” that is, one who believed in Jewish monotheism and it moral law, but did not submit to all of its ritual law and social customs. Neither full Jew or pure pagan these men and women were probably among the most theologically accepting, economically helpful, and politically important to the early church movement. Lydia certainly fits this description. She is theologically accepting: Her heart is open to all that is being said (God’s work, not Paul’s, Luke is clear to point out). She could be economically helpful: She is rich! To begin with, she owns her own business. Purple clothing, you know, is the dress of the rich and royal in the Roman world, where it symbolizes power and influence. A merchant who “deals in it” is one who rubs shoulders daily with society’s rich and famous. And, she would be politically important because she owns her own home, the first gathering places of The Way:
Read Acts 16:15
When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.
It is to this home that she invites the apostle’s. We can imagine that among the wisdom Lydia and the other women heard as they sat “listening eagerly” were the barrier-breaking teachings of this new church. Teachings that challenged the barriers that divided male and female or Jew from Gentile convert. With the new confidence of an equal, Lydia is now free to be hospitable and open her home to us. And with open humility Paul and the others are now free to welcome her as sister in Christ.
Our journey this morning doesn’t end with verse fifteen, though our reading does. None of our stories has ended with the verses we’ve limited ourselves to reading. The rest of chapter 16, true to the entire book of the Acts of the Apostles, tells stories about people who were bound and about people who were made free. From Jerusalem to Galilee, Samaria, and Antioch, in Philippi and later Athens and Corinth and Syria and Ephesus and far beyond, we have heard stories of the personal and communal transformations that are at the heart of Christianity and the Christian life. And now it’s time to turn around and look back … toward Jerusalem.
We have the advantage of some foresight, we disciples of the 21st century. As we look back, as we prepare to return to where it all began next week, to engage Pentecost, the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the movement first called the Way, we recognize something. It’s happened already. The gospel has spread “to all the nations” and God in Christ is at work in the world wherever men and women, young and old, live in love and with a courage that challenges the violence and competition of so many other earthly pursuits. It’s happened already. But it’s not over.
We have our own personal and communal choices to make, once again. Choices for our individual lives and choices in our life as a congregation in Pewee Valley or wherever we gather to worship and learn, about who we will be and what message we will share with any and all who come to join in the journey. God is already “out” and Christ is alive in the world. Our choice is not about whether or not we will take God “to all the nations” and “to the ends of the earth,” but whether or not we will be willing to meet God there. We have been reminded again in our journey together, across the continents this morning, that God’s love is cosmic in scope. We have been warned again, week after week, against our persistent temptation to make God too small, to try to fit God into our lives, rather than fitting our lives into God’s. We have been reminded for six weeks that God is always bigger than we think, always more forgiving than we allow, and always calling us to worlds larger than our own. We have been reminded … and next week, we will be renewed.
We will take this next week to turn around and return, arriving next Sunday, back in Jerusalem where it all ended and where it all begins. We will wait with the apostles for the arrival of the promised one. We will listen as the tongues of the world sing to the glory of God and the vision of Christ. And as we gather next Sunday, we will pray with all our heart that God “judges us, too, to be faithful” to the Gospel word and that we, too, will open our hearts that God may “come to stay in our homes” for many years ahead.
May it be so. So be it. (See you next Sunday.) Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / May 13, 2018