Onward and Home Again

The Sunday Sermon:  Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 24, 2020

Scripture:  Acts 16:9-15

Onward and Home Again

On the Sunday after Easter, so different this year than any other year in memory, we fell into step with Peter, John, and the other first century apostles, including Paul, traveling with them, joining them in prison cells, appearing before councils, meetings new converts, giving new life, facing suspicion, doubt, and fear, and most menacingly of all just last week, the Roman Empire and its local lackeys such as King Herod. Through it all, the journey has continued and this morning we take one last “figurative step.” But first, let’s pray …

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 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. We remained in this city for some days.

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.

It’s not a huge sea voyage, crossing the Aegean Sea from Troas to Neapolis, but it’s a huge step in the expansion of the Way and what would become the early church.

We have left Asia. We have arrived in Europe. From the east comes Paul, joined now by Silas and Timothy. So what happens? Who do they meet?

Read 16:12b-13 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.

Remember some of the stories of the weeks past: Before the Council, Saul’s conversion to Paul, Dorcas, and last week Herod. This stop on the way of the Way, seems to be a more leisurely visit, unhurried and tranquil. That the group 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 … to the women, setting 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:

Read 16:14 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 its 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 probably financially well off because she owns her own business that “deals in purple cloth,” the dress of the rich and royal in the Roman world. And, she would be politically important because she owns her own home, the first gathering places for followers of the Way. It is to this home that she invites the apostle’s.

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.

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 and freed their followers from the barriers that divided male and female or Jew from Gentile convert. Teachings that freed women like Lydia to feel they were an equal to men allowing them to open their homes. Teaching that freed the apostles themselves to welcome all as sisters and brothers in Christ.

Free … free … free … what a wonderful word.

Our journey this morning doesn’t end with verse fifteen, of course. Read on. 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 free and people who are bound. From Jerusalem to Galilee, Samaria, and Antioch, in Phillipi and later Athens and Corinth and Syria and Ephesus and far beyond, we hear the never-ending story of the personal and communal transformation that is at the heart of Christianity and the Christian life in the stories of the early church.

And now … we 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 start our own sharing of the Good News we recognize something profound. It’s happened already. The gospel has spread “to all the nations.” God in Christ is at work in the world wherever men and women live in love and with a courage that challenges the violence and competition of earthly pursuits. It’s happened and it’s happening already.

As we prepare to join in the sharing this year, know this: Our choice is not finally about whether or not we will take God “to all the nations” and “to the ends of the earth,” but whether are not we are 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 against our persistent temptation to make our God too small.

And so we will return “to Jerusalem” through this week, arriving next Sunday in Jerusalem. We will be using the sanctuary for our recorded worship then and will have the doors open for our drive-in and, weather permitting, lawn service.

See you soon. Amen.

Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor

Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / May 24, 2020