Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 16
9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district[a] of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.
13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.

I’ve never done a sermon series, but if I did…

Seven Sundays on the seven deadly sins? Unless the first Sunday is sloth, then the whole thing falls apart.
Four Sundays on the four cardinal virtues? How would I approach temperance?
Twelve Sundays on the twelve disciples? Imagine 12 minutes of golden silence on the Sunday dedicated to St. James the Less, of whom we know absolutely nothing.
Forty Sundays on temptation, rain, and desert wandering? Imagine Manna Sunday, Quail Sunday, or The Lord Sends Poisonous Snakes on those who Complain Sunday.

This is week two of our look at the Book of Acts, with week three just around the corner. You will recall that Dr. Skinner of Luther Seminary gave us the overall theme for these sermons, namely, “what becomes possible in a post-Easter world.” I ended last week with “strangers become friends, outsiders become members of the household of God, and anyone who calls on the name of the Lord can be saved.”

So we continue to explore this post-Easter world, a world described by St. Luke, who wrote the Acts of the Apostles. Think of it as our foundational document: part history, part theology, and part biography, if the subject of the biography is the Holy Spirit. It describes the movement toward a universal church, and the early characteristics of that nascent church. Finally, it gives context to the letters of Paul, describing the kinds of people and situations that Paul seeks to address.

It’s a lot to take in. And so, we adopt an approach that’s found in the name itself, looking at the book one act at a time. Today’s act, the journey to Macedonia, is much more than a travelogue filled with vexing Greek place names, ably read by Sylvia. It’s a bit of a sign of what’s to come: movement into Europe, movement into Gentile territory, and movement closer to the heart of the Roman empire. You hear it in a note that Luke shares—”we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district”—a detail that will be even more important next week.

For today, it’s one step at a time. Another vision, another voice urging action, and a journey to follow. Paul and Silas put out to sea, and follow the Spirit’s bidding to Phillipi. Like the old spiritual, they head down to the river to pray, and they spoke with some of the women who gathered there. Among them was Lydia, a dealer in fine cloth, and a woman of faith. She responded to Paul’s message of new life in Christ, accepted baptism, opening her home to Paul and Silas.

It’s a simple story, and like all simple stories, we need to look again to find meaning. On one level, the action is in the verbs: begging Paul, putting out to sea, finding a place of prayer, Lydia listening, the Lord opening her heart, she and the members of her household baptized, and inviting the apostles to her home. The Spirit moves, the Spirit is all about movement, and the movement is always toward new life.

But what about the understory, the smaller details that can reveal some of what the Spirit is doing? So to begin, it has been suggested that Philippi had no synagogue, so a spot near the river became the gathering place for the Jewish people of the town.* Paul is recognized as a visiting rabbi, and given the opportunity to speak. The Word falls first on the women of the community, led by Lydia, described with some intriguing clues.

First of all, her name is a place name, Lydia being a nearby province, which may suggest that she is a former slave. She has a trade, or business as a successful trader (the text is unclear) and she is the head of a household. She has control over her home (based on her ability to invite these men to stay with her) and doesn’t need anyone’s permission to do so. She may be a widow, but the text is silent on this. We can say with certainty that she is a leader in her community and the head of a household.

This might be the moment to unpack this idea of the household, and the extent to which it defines life in this time and place. For this, I’m leaning on the work of Richard Ascough, who teaches at a good school. (I can’t actually name the school, because I would then be obligated to sing to you in Gaelic and move about. There is no time for this.) Dr. Ascough wants us to see and understand Lydia as a collectivist rather than an individualist, and the bearing this has on the moment described.

So what’s the difference? Maybe I’ll start with the individualist column, which we already know, since we live it every day. You know, then, that you’re part of an individualist society when:

You look out for yourself first, and your family
You are defined by your personal attributes and your choices
You have numerous friends, and different styles of friendship
You teach your children to be independent and think for themselves.
You assume you are equal to others

Now we can turn to a collectivist society, the society of Lydia, and Paul, and his companions:

You are loyal to an extended group: clan, village, or other source of identity
You are defined by group attributes, and conformity to group norms is paramount
You have fewer friends, but the few you have are longer lasting and include more obligations.
You teach your children to adhere to the group, learning "communal sensitivity and cooperation."
You know where you rank in the group, and you value the stability of hierarchy

As you digest all this, we can summarize by saying that without knowing a lot about Lydia, we can know a lot about Lydia. She is a loyal member of her community: synagogue, guild, and household. She adheres to the norms of her group, but she has a role in setting these norms, as a leader. She is part of a tight knit group, co-religionists, fellow merchants, those who live and work in her household. Her role would be to foster cooperation and remind others of their obligation to the success of the group. She is a high-ranking member of her particular hierarchy, again, in the synagogue, guild and household.

It is hardly surprizing, then, that Paul finds Lydia. This is not a chance encounter on the beach: this is an itinerant rabbi finding an important member of the community, the person God has decided Paul will engage. The narrative is shy on details—Lydia was a worshiper of God and the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message—but it opens a small world of meaning where a leading woman becomes the first to accept the Good News of Jesus.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to highlight a related issue that is a much longer sermon. Dr. Ascough is quick to note that if you said to Lydia “hey, I’m so happy you have accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and saviour,” she would stare at you and be dumbfounded. In collectivist societies, there is no such thing as a personal Lord and Saviour. There is salvation in the group finding new life in Christ, later described as “the church,” but there is nothing personal about faith—it is always collective. Loving your neighbour, reaching out to others to draw them into fellowship with Christ and his church, tending to the faith of our children—these are collectivist endeavors in the individualist society where we find ourselves.

Permit me to rant for a moment, because the events unfolding at the top of Mount Everest right now symbolize the tragedy of individualism. People are literally stepping over the dead bodies of fellow climbers to reach the top. And there is a traffic jam, leading to more deaths, but people persist—because of this meaningless and highly individualist pursuit. It is the perfect storm of wealth, achievement and personal fulfilment, and people are giving their lives for it. It is an extremely far cry from what we’re trying to do: Loving our neighbour, reaching out to others to draw them into fellowship with Christ and his church, tending to the faith of our children. These climbers need help, not to reach the top, but to see that they are beloved children of God and their lives have meaning far away from the summit.

Back to St. Lydia, first convert on European soil, leader in her church and community, dedicated follower of Jesus Christ. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited her new friends into her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And Paul needed no convincing. Her household expands to include these travelers because her heart and home were open to a message of new life: that Jesus lived and died for them and lives again in the lives of the faithful.

So I guess we’re in the middle of a three-part series on the Book of Acts. Next week we will see Paul and Silas land in jail, and learn about all the trouble that follows. And we will meet Lydia one last time, welcoming a couple of former jailbirds back into her home, because that’s the kind of thing she does. Amen.

*Texts for Preaching


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