Sunday, April 26, 2015
Acts 16:11-15 and verse 40
So here’s the story before the story.
In the weeks just after Christmas, until Easter we were camping out in the book of Luke to learn who this Jesus was who was born and lived and died and came back to life again. For the past few weeks we have been meandering through the book of Acts and we are getting a picture of the very early Christian Church, a few years after Jesus died. Today we’re going to be skipping over several chapters and several years, and we’re going to be going with Paul and his companions as they meet a woman named Lydia in the city of Philippi in what’s now Greece.
Paul and Silas had started out in Jerusalem, and they traveled by ship up the coast to Antioch and then overland to several places in what’s now Turkey. They walked, or if they were very lucky, they rode horses for about a thousand miles all over Turkey. A young man named Timothy joined them Lystra.
In our story for today, Paul is going to be coming by ship from Troas (which we talked about last week) to Philippi in Greece. A doctor named Luke joined them in Troas, and the words that we are about to read are probably from Luke’s diary of the trip and their experiences together. Now you remember that Luke is the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke that we have been reading for several weeks and he also wrote the book of Acts which is the sequel to the book of Luke. Paul and the other three with him are leaving what we would call the Middle East, or Asia, and coming into Europe for the first time. The gospel is spreading into a whole new continent!
You know by now that when I read the scripture I always have to know what things looked like. I have to be able to see it all in my mind.
So here’s what it looked like in Philippi. We’re pretty sure that Paul and Silas and Timothy and Luke were in Philippi in about 51 A.D. - or about twenty years after Jesus had died. It was probably summer time because they couldn’t have made the trip on the seas in the winter. They arrived early in the week, and by Saturday they had scoped out the city fairly well. The city of Philippi was a hodgepodge of people from other places, and all of them had brought their own worship practices with them. They worshipped various Greek and Roman and Egyptian gods and goddesses: Athena, and Mars and Jupiter and Isis, among others.
Now it was the normal pattern for Paul and Silas when they came to a new place, to find the synagogue where the other Jews in that city were worshiping and meet with them there for worship. But in this case, they had discovered that there was not a synagogue in the city, but they had heard that there were a group of people who worshipped God outside the city, on the banks of the Gangetes River. The four went there, and found a group of women worshipping God there – no men, apparently, with Lydia as their leader. She was from the city of Thyatira, back in Turkey, and she was a successful business woman. She dyed and sold exquisite, very expensive purple cloth and she was very wealthy indeed. Somehow - I can’t begin to guess how - Lydia had heard about the Jewish God, and she and the women with her worshipped our God – in a city where all kinds of people were worshipping all kinds of gods. But they had not yet heard about Jesus. They hadn’t heard about his life and his death and his resurrection – living there as they did all the way in Greece. So Paul sat with them as he had a way of doing, and told them about Jesus, his life and his deeds and his death and his resurrection, and Lydia believed it all, and she was baptized and so was everybody in her household. Now we’re not told who was in her household, but she may have had a husband, who is not mentioned, and children. And it is very likely that some of Lydia’s employees in her business lived with her as well, because that was very common in those days. And certainly whatever household servants or slaves she had. And all of them were baptized.
And in her enthusiasm for her new-found faith and in gratitude to Paul and the others for introducing her to Jesus, she invited them all to stay at her home with her. Paul and Silas and Luke and Timothy. Four extra people. It surely must have been a large home.
And the next thing we know, a few days later (and I’m skipping over a lot here) Paul and Silas were in prison and being tortured in prison for helping a young girl escape from her slave masters. The next morning they were released from prison, (and I’m skipping a lot here, too.) But it was clearly too dangerous for Paul and his companions to stay in Philippi. So they said a quick goodbye to Lydia and her household, and they were on their way again – another twenty-five miles down the road to the next city. All told, I suppose, they were in Philippi about ten days or maybe a couple of weeks. But they had started something. They had started a wealthy woman named Lydia and all of her family and all of her employees and all of her slaves. And maybe Lydia’s women friends had also come to believe in Jesus. We aren’t told about that. Paul and Silas and Timothy and Luke had started a church there in Philippi.
And the next thing we hear about Philippi is that Paul is in prison, again, maybe in Rome, though we don’t know that for sure. It’s about ten years later, maybe in the year 61 or a little earlier, and Paul is writing a beautiful, affectionate letter to an entire church in Philippi. A lot has happened since Paul was in Philippi the first time. It’s no longer a few women worshipping God beside the river. Now there’s a thriving congregation of people who know and love Jesus. There are deacons and even Bishops. And over the years they have been sending generous gifts to Paul. So Paul writes them a letter, as he is sitting there in some prison. And among other things, he thanks them for the very generous financial gifts that church has sent to him over the years.
So think with me about this. What if there had not been a woman named Lydia in Philippi? What if she had not been worshipping at the river? What if she had not believed what Paul told her about Jesus, and what if she had not been baptized? Along with all those who lived with her. What if Lydia had not welcomed Paul and Silas and Luke and Timothy into her home? What if an entire church, with bishops no less, had not developed from Lydia’s small group beside the river? And specifically for all of us: What if the news of Jesus had never come to Europe? My ancestors are all from Europe and I would guess that most of yours are too. So what if the news of Jesus had never come to Europe?
And I am thinking of our first story for the day. What if a Hebrew slave woman named Jochebed had not devised a plan to save her son Moses from being discovered and killed? And what if Moses’ sister Miriam - that little slave girl - had been too shy to speak up to the Princess when the time came? And what if Moses had never grown up to be the companion of God? And freed God’s people from slavery in Egypt? And helped them cross through the Red Sea? And brought them the Ten Commandments and led them through the dessert back to the land that God had given them?
It was maybe a day or so in the life of Jochebed. She made a water proof basket and lined it with a warm, soft blanket. Maybe it was an hour or two in the life of Miriam. She stood in the cattails and watched her brother floating in that basket by the Nile River. And maybe it was ten days or so in the life of Lydia. She offered a bed and some meals to some visiting preachers. And yet these women changed the course of our faith. I think it’s not too strong to say that because of these women we know God, and have the a rich, blessed lives with God. And I am very grateful to know their names and celebrate their bravery and their hospitality today.
And this morning I am looking at a sanctuary full of faithful, courageous women and men. You go about offering hospitality, and making a place for others in your lives. You offer meals and support. And a safe haven against what the rest of the world may dump on them. You offer the equivalent of a warm, dry, safe basket and a watching eye in the cattails. In this church you encourage young children in faith and tell them about Jesus. You men and women whom I’m looking at this morning offer a place where faith can be born, and be nurtured.
I suppose you think it’s a small thing. You might think that a meal offered and a sympathetic ear and a card of encouragement sent are pretty insignificant, in the total scheme of things. You might think that a few moments with some children on a Sunday morning really couldn’t amount to much. Or some grandparent here might think that it’s not that all that important to bring a child to worship. Or some church member here might think that it can’t matter so very much to welcome a child to worship, and speak a few kind words to her.
And who can possibly know the final effect of what we say and do at work – or in our families or among our neighbors – things that seem perfectly simple to us, or quite routine, that have stunning consequences that we may never know about.
So here’s your assignment. (I haven’t given you an assignment recently.) This afternoon, or this evening, or in the coming week, thank God for the women and men in your life. Their small, almost insignificant actions have brought you faith. Or have enlarged your faith. And showed you God. And if you still can, find a way to thank those people whose simple, gentle actions, sometimes bold actions have enriched your life with God.
And here’s your second assignment: imagine to yourself how you can be a person like Lydia, or Jochebed or Miriam. How can you, simply, in your own home, or at your work, or in this community, how can you graciously, kindly, easily – bravely - open doors to faith for others? I don’t imagine that any of us will be talking with princesses this week. But how can your words and your actions change the course of a person’s life? Pray and ponder about for a few days, please.