Written by Pastor Ed
Now Look What You’ve Done!
May 1, 2016
Acts 16: 9-15
Rev. 21: 22 – 22:5
It’s an argument as old probably as arguments go. If we allow this to happen, what will it lead to? It’s sometimes called the domino effect. I’m sure there were those in the early church who used that argument with Peter, and as the reports from Paul’s travels started to come in I’m almost sure there were those who went to Peter and said, “Now look what you’ve done. It’s just like we were afraid of. First it’s you and Cornelius, now Paul is off in Macedonia baptizing women! What will it be next?”
Up to this point, as far as we know, this new sect called Christians was primarily located throughout the Middle East and Asia Minor, and was made up primarily of Jews who had come to accept Jesus as the promised messiah. It was a fairly tight knit group in many ways that understood each other’s language, knew the traditional customs, and spoke a common language.
But Peter and his vision had opened the doors to outsiders. And now, here was Paul, the church planter/missionary taking the bold step of crossing that little bit of sea and going into Europe, a new continent. According to Luke’s account, Paul had a vision one night of a man from Macedonia saying, “Come over and help us.” And that’s what they had done, heading straight for the principle city of Philippi, a colony of Rome.
And there we have the little story about what happened one Sabbath as they went out to the river where they thought there might be a place for prayer. And sure enough, there were people gathered there, women we are told. Now it’s interesting that it doesn’t say this was actually a gathering for prayer, although we might assume that. In any case, they talked and Lydia, a business woman heard the good news, was baptized and then invited the party to stay with her, which they did. In fact, after Paul and Silas had their experience in prison in Philippi and were released, they went back to Lydia’s house before leaving town. (16: 40)
“After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.”
It’s a fairly brief account, yet the conversion of Lydia becomes a turning point in the story of the early church as it marks the beginning of the spread of the gospel “to the ends of the earth.” It’s also interesting in thinking about the mission of the church and some of the things that Stuart Murray talked about on Monday evening.
One of the things we have heard about for some time now is the increasing secularization of society, the fact that many people have no clue about the Bible or Christianity. But Stuart pointed out that in fact, society hasn’t become completely secular, but in fact is fairly spiritual, with all kinds of religions and spirituality flourishing. In many ways we are going back to a 1st century kind of situation.
The world in the first century was not a world in which there was no religion until Christianity came along; it was rather a world of myriad religions and beliefs. There was emperor worship, animism or worship of nature, as well as the more formal religions of the day, including Judaism. People have always had a spiritual component to their lives. And people still do.
Stuart told an interesting story about a friend of his who was a fervent evangelist and would often turn to people sitting next to him on the train or plane and ask something like, “Can I tell you about Jesus?” And most people would bury their nose in a book or pretend they were asleep, or somehow avoid him. So he changed his question and began asking them to tell him about a recent spiritual experience. And almost everyone began responding!
People are interested in spiritual things, even if they don’t know much about Christianity, or perhaps have only negative images of Christians. So what might we learn from this brief encounter of Paul with Lydia that might help us in our time and place.
Well, perhaps the first thing to note is just the fact that because of the society we live in, we need to be involved in mission, or that word we don’t like, evangelism. And I’m not talking about somewhere far away. Next Sunday we will hear about work in Thailand from Tom & Christine Poovong, but we have our own mission field right here at home. We can no longer just assume that our community, the people who speak the same language, know our customs, etc. will be our base. We have to hear the call to reach out to people who may be different than us.
Secondly, we could note what Paul and his companions did when they got to Philippi. Let’s see, they rented a hall and on Sunday put out a sign that said, “First Church of Philippi – Everyone welcome” and then waited for the people to show up. No actually, that’s not what they did; they went where people gathered, in this case down by the river, and talked with people there. It’s also interesting that while in many other situations Luke records a sermon that Paul gave, in this case he just says, “we sat down and talked to the women who had gathered there.”
In a society that is increasingly secular or diverse spiritually, we can no longer expect people to simply show up and walk in the door. Fortunately, some still do that, and we are glad for that and welcome them. But more and more we will need to go where people gather, and then rather than preach at them, simply talk with them, listen first before we speak. Someone asked Stuart how his friend moves from asking another person about their spiritual experience to talking about Jesus. And he noted that after someone has told you their experience, for most people it is common courtesy to turn the question around and ask you about your spiritual experience.
And for that you don’t need a canned speech, or four spiritual laws. You simply need to be able to talk about your walk with Jesus and what it means to you. So where might those places be where people gather? Just for a minute turn to the person next to you and brainstorm about that. Where would be good places to engage people in conversation?
I know of one church that began holding their committee meetings in the bar across the street from the church. Perhaps it’s at a soccer game, a neighbourhood picnic. And notice the passage we read contains two invitations; the invitation Paul received in his vision to come over to Macedonia, and then the invitation from Lydia to come stay at her house. In both cases it was accepting the hospitality of strangers, what Pat Keifert calls the definition of a missional church, meeting people on their turf, rather than on ours.
And if we begin to do that then I am convinced we will begin to look more and more like the vision of the new Jerusalem portrayed in John’s vision that we read in Revelation. Another thing that Stuart talked about on Monday evening was that one of our most powerful messages is a message of hope. Not just in some future hope that we will escape all this turmoil, but a present day hope for a better way of living. And one of the ways of doing that is to begin to live out what the future may look like for us as Christians. And I think that’s part of what John’s vision is all about as well; not just a future dream but a vision for a current reality.
And what does that look like. Well, it is a very diverse place; a place where the nations walk in the light and where kings of the earth bring their treasures. The interesting thing about that picture is that earlier in Revelation, those were two groups that were seen as evil. There is abundance, fruit, water and light. There is healing and nothing unclean or evil will be there. And what would it look like if the church already began to look like that, where all are welcome who seek after God, where there is enough for everyone, and where the presence of God was clearly shown, where everyone could feel safe and secure.
If that were the image of the church that people had when they thought about the church, what a difference it would make. That would indeed be good news to many. And it is what following Jesus calls us to be. Not a place with all the answers, but a community seeking to live out that vision of a new heaven and new earth, already present among us.
That’s what Peter’s vision of the animals and Paul’s vision of the man from Macedonia got started. And just look what they did. Here we are, maybe not all that diverse yet, but getting there. And I suspect that if we are open to it, the Spirit will invite us to meet all kinds of people wherever they are and if we listen carefully enough, we too will become that foretaste of the kingdom.
And then we too can say to Peter and to Paul, “Now look what you’ve done.” Isn’t it glorious! Praise the Lord.