Saturday, 8 May 2010

Sixth Sunday of Easter - Easter people


Acts 16:9-15
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.

The Conversion of Lydia
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. 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. 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. 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.

John 14:23-end

Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way.


Forget the election for a moment. The really big news is that a new scientific study has found that something like 4% of our human genome is derived from the now extinct Neanderthals. Governments will come and go, but that 4% will remain in our genome. Mind you, having heard some of the political views expressed by some of the candidates, one might question whether it’s always limited to just 4%!

As we approach the end of the Easter season the reading from Acts is quite timely because it gives us a chance to draw together many of the strands about which I’ve been preaching these last few weeks. So today I want to think about the two main characters in this reading and how together they summarize much of the teaching this Easter season before we move on to Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity as the gateways into the rest of the year.

So let’s look into the story from Acts and I’ll try and fill out some detail for us before we look at what it teaches us as a church.

A few weeks ago we looked at the calling of St. Paul and his conversion on the Damascus road. We noted how he was a Pharisee; someone for whom adherence to the Jewish Law, or Torah, was the way to salvation. You may remember that I explained that his strong initial reaction against the early Christians was because they proclaimed that Jesus was the way to salvation, which, for a Pharisee, was outrageous and blasphemous.

That will be important in a moment, but we must note that although we’re only six chapters on in the Book of Acts, some considerable time has passed, probably at least ten years, and St. Paul has changed a great deal as he has travelled on his spiritual journey. We pick his story up now on his second missionary voyage.

Earlier on in the chapter he has been trying to discern where they should go next, and note that the writer, Luke, has started using ‘we’ here, suggesting we are firmly in eye-witness territory now. The Holy Spirit had forbidden them from going into Asia at that time, and when they attempted to go into a place called Bithynia they were again stopped by direct intervention from Christ.

Our reading then picks up the story with Paul’s vision of a man from Macedonia pleading with them to come and help them. So, here’s our first point: far from remaining bound by interpreting the law, St. Paul has now become dependent on direct revelation from the Lord as to what he should be doing and where he should be going. Take note of that. This is an Easter change. In the light of he resurrection, if Jesus is alive we can and should be asking for his direction.

That’s what St. Paul and his group did and they then obediently went where they were called. And so they arrive at Philippi, a city that had become home to Roman war veterans some seventy years earlier.

What takes place next marks a second way in which St. Paul has changed in the years since we last met him. When St. Paul entered a city it was often his practice to find the Jewish Synagogue and begin there. It seems that there was no synagogue at Philippi which suggests a very limited Jewish presence since a synagogue needed only ten men in order to be founded. Instead they appear to have been given directions to a place of prayer outside the city, down by the river.

It is there that they encounter a group of woman. They way Luke describes the meeting makes it seem so everyday to us: ‘...and we sat down and spoke to the women gathered there.’ It doesn’t seem like much really does it. St. Paul and his companions sitting down for a friendly chat seems exactly what we would imagine a group of evangelists would do. But we are placing our 21st century cultural values on to the story.

We must remember that St. Paul had been a Pharisee. Paul Walaskay, one of the commentators on this passage, quotes from some Pharisaic writings that said this, ‘Talk not much with a woman... Everyone that talks much with a woman causes evil to himself, and desists from the words of Torah, and his end is he inherits hell.’ (Pirke Aboth 1:5)

A few years earlier there is no way that St. Paul would have done this, yet by sitting down with them he was adopting the typical rabbinical approach, of sitting down to teach, and treating them as equals. A couple of weeks back I mentioned how like Jesus St. Peter was in the way he behaved at the raising of Tabitha, and now here we find we can say the same thing to be true of St. Paul as he meets Lydia for the first time.

Jesus, defying the prevailing culture of the time, had counted women amongst his companions and there are a number of occasions when he sat and spoke with them. You might remember the astonishment of the disciples when they came and found him talking alone to the woman at the well, a local woman with a poor reputation.

So on his spiritual journey St. Paul has become more like Jesus and appears to have put aside what he had formerly believed. In this second way St. Paul is now treating all people as equal under God with none of the Jewish male-dominated theology of his era. So there are two main changes in St. Paul over the years since he acknowledged Jesus as Lord.

Firstly he sought guidance directly from the Lord because he knows Jesus is alive and can therefore lead him. Secondly he believed the Gospel was for all people and that he was being called by the Lord to go directly to the gentiles.

I wonder what kind of turmoil he must have gone through to shed years of learning that Torah, the Law, was the way to God. I wonder how many people he had to talk through along his journey to realise the Lord loves them all. And psychologically, I wonder how many guilt trips he had to go on as he set aside his old beliefs for something new.

Those of you who heard me preach about St. Peter’s vision last week will have heard me use the phrase, ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ which is a process we go through when something we once believed to be true seems to be challenged by new evidence, challenging us to explore a new and deeper truth.

St. Peter went through it in last week’s reading as he accepted the Gospel should go to the Gentiles, and clearly St. Paul must have gone through it as he left behind the strict laws on which he had built his entire life. Paul put aside his old ways, and completely changed, he sat down with women to teach them.

Now let’s briefly turn to the women. Amongst them is one named Lydia. Although she is not a Jew herself she is worshipping as one. Reading between the lines we sense that she was a quite powerful businesswoman. Purple cloth would only be worn by the city’s upper class so she dealt with those who were rich and socially important. Yet here she was quite at home alongside a group of ordinary women.

We can also see that she is the head of her household because after she is baptised, the whole household is also baptised. The language suggests she may have been a widow with children although we can’t be sure about that. But she was certainly a woman of influence who prevailed upon St. Paul and his companions until they agreed to stay with her, and it seems likely that her house became the meeting place for Christians in the city.

We don’t know what Lydia was like beforehand, but we can see that even before accepting the Gospel she was already a godly woman who was happy to mix with people of all social classes without any apparent need to be a social climber. But, inspired by Christ, she puts what she has at his disposal and invites the apostles in to her house.

Now let’s put this all together and see what we have: There is St. Paul, a man who has been changed by the Holy Spirit. He seeks guidance from the risen Jesus and is obedient when he is told what to do. He is willing to go on a long and difficult spiritual journey from one understanding to a deeper one, walking perhaps through the spiritual desert from time to time as he allows God to change him.

And we have Lydia, someone with power and influence who has not let it corrupt her, and who, on becoming a believer, throws open her doors and welcomes people into her house. In these two people we can see so many aspects of church life that could resonate with us. These are two people who have been changed in the light of the resurrection by the news that Jesus is alive.

How are we changed by that news? There is huge hope here. Jesus is alive. That means our beliefs should be dynamic and active. We don’t follow some image of a distant deity with whom we can never communicate. We follow one who is alive and has experienced life as one of us. What effect should this have on us?

Are we being changed like St. Paul? Are we willing to put aside what we used to believe and go on a spiritual journey with the risen Lord Jesus? Are we Easter people who are willing to go beyond the written word into the direct experience of God’s presence, seeking out God for guidance as to where we should go next?

Are we willing for the changes that he might bring about in us and what that might mean to us in terms of sometimes being in uncomfortable spiritual places? I know, because many of you have told me, that in recent years God has challenged you and opened up new spiritual vistas. If that is you, and if you are still on those journeys, tell others here and invite them onward to.

Like Lydia, many of us are in positions of influence and power. Do we still mix easily with those who have no power, or have we become like moths drawn to the flames of other people carrying power? And how about hospitality? Have we been so changed by the Lord that we will fling open our doors and invite people to come in? Or are there strings attached?

One of the compelling aspects of this particular story is I see so much of us as a church in the two main characters, St. Paul and Lydia. There is so much about us that is full of the seeds of hospitality, the desire to seek God out and ask what we should do next, and even the quiet realisation that sometimes God takes us out into the desert to be changed by him.

There are so many possibilities here. For each of us we need to think about taking the next step forward in our own journeys. At work, if we’re important do we always seek out other important people to become recognised as one of them, or are we prepared to be like Lydia and spend our time amongst ordinary people?

In caring for our homes and families, do we recognise that in Christ we are a part of a wider family who should also be welcomed into our homes? In all that we do, are we willing to seek out guidance from the risen Lord as to what we should do next? Are we seeking for direction?

These are all facets of people living the post-Easter resurrection life. This is the resurrection life that we have inherited. Jesus is alive and that changes everything, if we’ll let it. Amen

Some sermons almost seem to fall into one’s lap inspiration-wise, but others require quite a lot of background reading to find the ideas one needs. This sermon falls into the latter category and I owe many thoughts to the following:
E. Barreto, URL:
W. Brueggemann,
K. Huey,
J. R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts, IVP, 1990.
P. W. Walaskay, Acts, Westminster John Knox, 1998

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