A sermon for the sixth Sunday of Easter
(Lectionary Year C)
5 May 2013
Church of the Good Shepherd,
Acts 16:9-15 (Lydia & household are converted & baptized by preaching of Paul & co. in Philippi)
Revelation 21:10,22 - 22:5
Gospel: John 14:23-29 (Farewell Discourse: “my peace I leave with you”)
In this Easter season, this Great 50 Days, we are called as the Church to think about what a life - what OUR lives, transformed by God’s grace, are to now look like. Given how we’ve been touched and moved by the light of the risen Christ, how are we, then, to live? To be more concrete, we might simply say: how are we, transformed by God’s love for us, to turn around and love the world? How are we to share with the world the mercy, compassion, forgiveness, peace, hospitality, solidarity, healing . . . I could go on! . . . how, when, and where are we to share with others these things God in Christ has poured out upon us?
Well, I hope you were listening carefully as we heard the appointed text today from the Acts of the Apostles. It’s a lovely and powerful story about just what can happen when we are willing to do a little bit of reflection on living as a Christians in the world, on our particular gifts to be given, and on what we might expect out there when we give them. Now, I’ve had the pleasure of reading Ellen’s excellent sermon from Good Shepherd Sunday two weeks ago, and I love the alternate title Ellen has given to the book of Acts: The Dangerous Book for Boys and Certain Women. Isn’t that so true?! Well, today’s snippet of the early Church's story is no exception. There is a dramatic vision; a sudden change of plans; another long journey by foot and by boat; an encounter with a rather special woman; and a conversion. Does that sound exciting and enough?!
Basically, today, we’re eavesdropping on a portion of what scholars now call Paul’s Second Missionary Journey, which we believe took place more or less between the years of 49 and 52 (two-digit years sound strange, eh?), so about 15 years after the stunning events at the end of Jesus’s earthly pilgrimage. Paul has left his homeland of Judea as a representative of the early Church, that is, of those Jesus-following Jews known then simply as ‘The Way.’ He has primarily traveled north, up the eastern Mediterranean coast. From there he has moved away from the coast toward the interior of Asia Minor - what we now know as Turkey - picking up Timothy along the way, then headed to the very center of that subcontinent, a locale called Galatia. Now, as best as we can tell, Paul and crew intended to carry the Good News further north into Asia-proper, not west. But all of this changed - abruptly - when Paul woke up from his vision, that vision of a Macedonian man pleading for help. “Immediately,” the text says, they crossed over to Macedonia “being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.” Ah! Dangerous Book, indeed. Plans - Paul’s AND OURS - do get up-ended when we’re open to the Spirit’s leading. Our visions - our ‘imaginings,’ if you will - of others, of their particular situations, their predicaments, their challenges, their needs - can lead us to risk a little more of ourselves than is comfortable.
When, do you think, was the last time you found yourself, unexpectedly, perhaps, following a vision or a hope that led you to a new encounter with others? These, my friends, are of the marks of an Easter people, that we are both ready to dream dreams of what COULD be; and that we are ready to sometimes follow those dreams into new encounters with God’s children.
Now, consider also that this sudden decision to go to Macedonia was a far bigger matter than walking down the road a little ways to the next city. It was, in a very real way, going further afield than Paul and co. had ever gone: their little sailing stint from Troas took them, that is, to an entirely...new...continent. Macedonia, you see, lay on the other side, the western side, of the Dardanelles, that narrow little stretch of water that separates, as we’ve understood the geography for centuries, the EAST from the WEST. Paul and his companions on The Way had traveled, for the first time, to the place we now know as EUROPE.
Even though they had not gone very far as the crow flies, they had jumped headfirst into the midst of a whole, new ‘level’ of civilization. Now stay with me, here. To us postmodern North Americans, Europe doesn’t sound very new, does it? Over here, in fact, we commonly refer to it as ‘the old country.’ If only from all that history and English lit we had to take in school, the idea of EUROPE feels familiar, even quaint, out-of-date, somewhat behind the North American curve. But consider the time; imagine the geography; remember that Paul was coming from far, far to the east, really from a tiny, ethnic ghetto of sorts. Know that in this massive empire that dominated the entire Mediterranean region, the prosperous Philippi had special status, status as a Roman colony, a city-state ruled directly from Rome. And since Philippi lay in Macedonia, on the other side of a particular, small body of water - a world away from tiny Judea in so many ways - we now consider Lydia, the leading character of today’s text, the first...Christian...convert...in Europe. Talk about the beginning of a long, long story! . . .
If we are called, above all in Eastertide, my sisters and brothers, to pay attention to the visions we encounter . . . to pay attention to the dreams being dreamed - whether ours personally or those of the Church as a whole - dreams of a world restored to wholeness by the reign, the kingdom, of God . . . are we not also called to consider traveling to new and unfamiliar places, to moving out into the world beyond our familiar environs as we seek to share the Good News, beyond our everyday orbit of home, school, office, grocery store, dance studio, country club, Wal-Mart, and the cozy living rooms of our friends and extended family? Paul & co.’s journey was long, arduous, and far-afield: in taking them to Europe it took them ‘a world away.’ I ask you: when you think of sharing with others the joy of Easter, the good news of God’s love for the world and the wholeness it can bring to people’s lives, what is YOUR Europe? Where is your ‘world away?’
Let me quickly add: this place does not have to be physically very far away. There is plenty of unfamiliar, plenty of strange, plenty of discomforting need for Easter joy right here in Covington, right around us in north Georgia, and spread around our own country, our own part of the globe. And for some of us, even, our ‘world away,’ may not be a place at all, but rather a section of our own hearts that we need to revisit; a chamber that’s been damaged or fallen into disuse, or even that we’ve closed off, over time, out of fear. Maybe that’s where the Gospel journey leads for some of us . . . the full opening-up of our own hearts to the world out there, before we’ve even put one foot in front of another.
Finally, consider the apostles’ encounter with Lydia, that first Christian convert in Europe. We learn some fascinating things about her - about the one most receptive, in the end - to the Good News of the Gospel - in the course of this short passage. We learn that she was probably quite well-to-do, namely because she was a “dealer in purple cloth,” that is, in a luxury item that had to be imported and that only the city’s elite were allowed to wear. The fact that it she could also comfortably host Paul’s entire group - remember how “she prevailed upon us,” the author writes, to stay at her home? - this is another clue of her high status in that society. And perhaps the most fascinating part: we learn that while Lydia was one of those who regularly gathered there by the river to pray, she was largely an outsider in that group: though a Gentile (meaning, simply, not Jewish), she still gathered with Jews just outside her city’s walls because of the attraction she felt to their God: she had begun to worship and pray to the Jewish God some time ago but had not yet fully converted.
My friends, I am here to tell you what you already know: there are similar ‘God worshippers’ all around us who could benefit from our travels, from our journeys into the unfamiliar, uncomfortable places where the Easter imperative takes us. Many of them, like Lydia, are professional people: that is, traveling in the same circles as most of us. We encounter them in our work lives and our play lives. We encounter them in school settings and civic settings. In so many ways they don’t seem very different from us, but if we’re attentive, we may have a chance one day to ask them about their own spiritual life, their own sense of yearning and longing and desire for something more, something bigger, something beyond themselves. And it may be, as it was for Lydia, apparently, that God, through the Holy Spirit is already working in that person’s life, already building a receptivity: “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said...,”...remember? The Holy Spirit - the very presence of the Creator-God, we have to understand, is already active out there in the hearts and minds of folks, not just of those sitting in Church.
It may just as easily be that one of these friends or acquaintances is curious about something they see in us, a particular attitude or generosity or sense of peace and well-being that strikes them as peculiar - peculiar because it’s not something the world, in all it’s striving and getting and competition, typically gives. And then suddenly it is our time to answer to that curious person, to give an account of “the hope that is in us.”
And, mainly at the cost of our attentiveness, and a certain willingness to deal in the unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable world of places, geographical and spiritual, beyond ourselves, we may find ourselves on a true, exciting journey. A journey of sharing with the world, with the people, around us, those things which we know to have been poured out on us: the mercy, compassion, forgiveness, peace, hospitality, solidarity, healing, and hope conferred by a crucified and risen Savior. It will not be comfortable and easy. It will, indeed, look more like The Dangerous Book for Boys and Certain Women than it will look like a Boy Scout meeting. Why? Because to make the journey we will have to risk our hearts, our time, our money: that is, risk our WHOLE SELVES. And I think what we will find, oftentimes, is plenty of Lydias. Plenty of folks who were all but ready to join in the Easter chorus, just needing a little invitation from us, just needing a little sliver of our hearts.
Paul, Silas, Timothy, and friends found themselves unexpectedly crossing new boundaries, into Europe, of all places; far, far afield from their original intent. But God through the Spirit had prepared the way for them - had prepared Lydia’s heart - and ultimately her home & her hospitality birthed a new instance of the Church. May we also find the way prepared, and our hearts and minds open to the journey into the new and unknown, lying just across the border, there.
© M. Edwin Beckham, 2013