A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
May 5, 2013
The Book of Acts continues the story began in the Gospel of Luke. The Good News of the Gospel is being taken to the ends of the Earth, because the Spirit is on the loose!
From being a movement of people who knew Jesus, and people who had heard him teach and speak, it grows. Exponentially.
To the rest of Israel.
To what is today Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt.
And then to Europe with Greece and Rome. Spain.
Within a relatively short time, the news of Jesus of Nazareth had spread to India.
And we celebrate this as Good News!
Because we are not Jews from Jerusalem. We are gentiles in Idaho. And the Good News was even for us.
Yet there were people who were opposed to this movement of the Spirit.
Every time an uncircumcised Gentile showed up and started eating non-kosher, some people would get upset.
Every time a woman wanted to teach and pray, some people would claim the church had completely given in to secular culture.
Every time an Ethiopian Eunuch became a believer, some people would claim the church had abandoned Scripture. They might have even wanted to leave the denomination…
We’re all like that, to one degree or another.
We want to move in the direction God calls us to move. But we also rightly value our traditions, our teachings, our scripture. It is how we uphold the traditions that have made us who we are.
We live in the tension of listening for the Spirit. And listening to Tradition. And then figuring out the faithful response.
But part of our reluctance to welcome the new is our cultural conditioning.
When you grow up thinking one group or one characteristic is “other”, is “bad”, or is “sinful”, it is hard to just let that go.
If gentiles have been harassing and persecuting you your entire life, one could understand how it could be difficult to welcome them to your church.
If you grow up being taught that God wants women to be silent in church, it might be difficult for you to listen to me preach.
Part of this is just a human tendency to distrust what we don’t know.
I got to travel to the Middle East while I was in seminary. And as much excitement as I had for what I was going to learn, I confess I was afraid too. Flying into Damascus was not a normal thing for me. I didn’t know any Syrians. I had only seen them on the news.
But I had a great time in Syria. I am heartbroken over the violence and civil war being played out there today, because the people I met there were kind, and welcoming, and hospitable. They were a lot like us. But I had to push past a lot of stereotypes and cultural conditioning to discover that.
Even the people who were in favor of the changes Luke chronicles in the Book of Acts, who had seen the Spirit at work, had a threshold for where the welcome ended.
Because there is just a point when it is too much.
Sure, I’ll welcome people, but them?
There is a story, sadly true, about a congregation 100 years ago now, who sent money, aid, and other assistance to Native Americans on the reservations of Northern Arizona. And when those Native Americans, who had been the recipients of the generosity of this mainly white congregation moved to the city to seek jobs, and when they left the reservation, they came to worship at this church that had so graciously cared for them from afar.
Only to discover they weren’t actually welcome to worship with them in a segregated society.
And so the white, city church built a mission church for the Native Americans.
While the beginning of this story saddens me, it is not the end of the story.
This Native American mission church that was created to keep the people comfortable and racially segregated, is today a vibrant congregation with a strong history of social justice, ministry to the least of these, and work in their own community and in the country for racial integration. For over 100 years, they have been a powerful witness in their community.
The Spirit was working both through those people who wanted to maintain segregation, and despite those people who wanted segregation. Because the Spirit will work as it will.
And we can get on board with it.
Or we can get left behind.
But if the Spirit wants to invite people to join the party, they will be invited, no matter what we think about the plan.
I’m sure those people in the Arizona church felt good about their mission support and aid to the Native Americans. But I’m sure they also thought there were limits. “Well sure, I’ll send them my old clothes that I’m not wearing any more, but you want me to worship with them and eat a meal with them? You don’t really expect me to do that?”
But when the Spirit of God is at work, those limits are not ours to determine.
The problem with the Spirit being on the loose, of course, is that you cant control it very well. How do you catch a wind and pin it down, as the song says.
The writer of the books of Luke and Acts was generally one of those people in favor of the movement of the Spirit in the early church. He documents the inclusion of every imaginable kind of person, even as he had to push past his own limits and preconceptions.
Luke, in this passage, is relating a story about Paul. Paul had been trying to head to Asia, but it wasn’t working out. We’re told the Spirit didn’t allow them to go the direction Paul wanted to head. So Paul had a vision of a man in Macedonia. So mysterious sounding.
And they head to Macedonia.
I don’t know how strong your Mediterranean geography is, but I’ll guess you heard a lot of those names when Billie read the Scripture, and nothing specific came to mind.
But at this point, Paul is being pushed away from Asia, or Turkey, which is where he was from, and where he was comfortable, and where, one could imagine, he would have been excited to take the Good News.
And he is being sent to Macedonia, which is North of Greece, in Europe.
And Alexander the Great, who you might remember as the star quarterback of Macedonia High School, had been dead 350 years or so.
But prejudices and rivalries can last a long time.
Paul kept trying to go East, toward home, toward more familiar and friendly.
And the Spirit kept setting limits and sending him to Europe. To those people.
Who this man in Macedonia is, I have no idea. Luke doesn’t report an encounter with him on this trip through the region. But Paul and his team make it to Macedonia and head to the river on the Sabbath to see if they can find some people worshiping. And they do.
They find a group of women worshiping.
Had there been both men and women worshiping, Luke would most likely have recorded the story like this:
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 men who had gathered there.
(Because women didn’t always get a mention when they were in a crowd).
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 men and women who had gathered there.
The fact that only women are mentioned suggests that only women are present. So not only does Paul encounter a group of Europeans gathered to pray and worship. But a group of European women.
Well played, Holy Spirit.
Lydia is one of the women there. We don’t know everything about her. But we know her name, which is of course a rare thing in the Scriptural record for a woman. She sold purple cloth, which was spendy and favored by the elite, so she was likely wealthy. It would be like saying she had a high end boutique on Madison Avenue, perhaps.
And she and her household are baptized by Paul. Now, if she had a husband, the story would likely have mentioned that his household was baptized. So it appears Lydia was not married at this time.
And she becomes an important patron of Paul’s missionary works.
Today, in our circles at least, wealthy single women who have successful careers aren’t really noteworthy. But in Acts, in first century culture, the inclusion of the story of Lydia reminds us of how the Spirit kept breaking down preconceptions about who was invited to join God’s family. Men, women, married, single, rich, poor, Jew, Gentile, Turkish, Greek.
And the church will continue to struggle with this push toward inclusion. We see that struggle recorded in the Biblical text. In Galatians, Paul declares that in Christ there is no male and female, no slave or free. And yet there are also instructions elsewhere in writings, attributed to Paul, for slaves to be obedient to their masters and for women to be both obedient and silent.
2,000 years of church history show that struggle playing out as well.
Even this week, when a journeyman basketball player announced his sexual orientation, we saw commentators on ESPN making religious judgment about his sinfulness. We keep struggling to find that balance between Tradition and where the Spirit is leading the church.
We want to listen to the Spirit and welcome those who God calls us to invite, because we recognize our own welcome into God’s family.
But we are reminded that we are not the ones who get to set the agenda for the movement of the Spirit. We have to be careful not to assume the Spirit is always on our side of the argument.
Have there been times for you when you thought you were headed one direction and then, as happened to Paul, the Spirit didn’t allow it? Things just didn’t line up and fall into place?
I hope we, in our work together, and in our lives at home, will notice those moments, and then start looking around, as Paul did, for the direction the Spirit wants us to head. Paul recognized it in the man from Macedonia vision. And because he responded, Lydia and her household were baptized and joined in the work of the Spirit in her community.
In a few moments, we will gather together at God’s Table, his children invited from East and West, from North and South, to join together at the abundant feast of God.
We are here today, with all of our differences, from all of our different experiences, because the Spirit of God has brought us together, because we were willing to overcome what we thought we knew in order to come together and be the community the Holy Spirit wants us to be. I’m thankful for the Spirit, who keeps pushing us past our comfort zones and into new relationships. I’m thankful for people like Paul, willing to go where they didn’t really want to go. And I’m thankful we’ve been brought together to discern together where the Spirit is moving among us in these days.
Thanks be to God. Amen