A destratified community

Sermon for the sixth Sunday in Eastertide
Acts 16:9-15

A note from Jamie Howison: The text for this week’s sermon is differs from the recorded audio, and for very good reason. We ended up worshiping in the midst of a power failure, and so it was all but impossible to see these printed words in the semi-darkness enveloping the front of the church!

All through this fifty-day season of Eastertide, our lectionary has us reading from the book of Acts. As most of you will be aware, Acts is really the second volume of the Gospel according to Luke, with the hinge between the two being the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Luke’s gospel is set in Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem, and tells of the life of Jesus. Acts narrates the story of Jesus’ people—of the church—as it moves out of home territory, through a much bigger world, and into the political centre of the known world. All of this is made possible through the ongoing presence of God’s Holy Spirit; the One called in the Gospel according to John “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, [who] will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26)

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Easter isn’t just a day marking the resurrection of Christ, but is a whole season in which we are challenged to consider just how far that resurrection light is cast. This light illuminates those women who discover that the tomb is empty, and then it awakens the hearts of that little band of disciples hiding from the soldiers in Jerusalem. That light inspires Philip to baptize an Ethiopian traveler and Peter to do the same for the household of a Roman centurion named Cornelius. It shines so brightly on the face of Saul on the Damascus road that is blinds him for a time, and as the story unfolds it will be him more than any of the others who will recognize that the resurrection light is shining well beyond the familiar borders of Judea. With his name changed from Saul to Paul, he will go wherever he suspects the light has begun to shine, and he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to help people embrace a life lived within that resurrection light.

And so we read from Acts during this Easter season, because it really is from beginning to end a resurrection book. Now to be honest, when I first looked at the passage selected for today, I wondered a bit at why this one was chosen. On first reading, it appears that not all that much that happens in this passage, and of the seven verses two are given over to the description of their travels: “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.”

Now I know what happens for me when a Sunday reading includes a lot of place names… they all sort of jumble together, and all I can think of is how much I hope that the reader took a really good look at this passage before arriving at the lectern… Samothrace… Neapolis… and a few verses later, Thyatira.

But then I looked again at the passage and leafed through my commentaries, and it began to dawn on me just how much is tucked into these verses. Our reading opened with the statement that “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.’” I’ve been reading the bible long enough to know that when someone has a vision or a dream you need to sit up and pay attention; modern psychology might write off such things as hallucinations, wishful thinking, or even as just the random brain activity experienced at certain depth of sleep, but the ancients had never read Sigmund Freud and so were quite able to take such things very seriously. In Paul’s vision he sees a man of Macedonia who pleads with him and says, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Come to this territory which is very much outside of the old borders…

But there’s more at work here than that. Paul is a pretty single-minded guy, and it is easy to imagine that his mission work must have come with a mission statement, carefully articulated goals, and a solid strategic plan. By God, Paul is going to build God’s Kingdom and extend God’s reign… right? But back up three verses from where today’s reading started, and you find a rather different picture.

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. (16:6-8)

“[F]orbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia,” and prevented by “the Spirit of Jesus… to go into Bithynia.” Paul isn’t in charge, in other words. It isn’t his light that is being spread, it isn’t incumbent on him to extend God’s reign or to bring Jesus to the Gentiles. His job is to go where the resurrection light is already beginning to be cast; in some real sense, to speak of the presence of Jesus in places where Jesus has already arrived. This isn’t Paul’s mission; it is God’s.

“[And so] convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them… We set sail from Troas… to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.” In response to Paul’s nighttime vision, they go straight to Macedonia… and then Luke tells us that they “remained in this city for some days.” Hurry up and wait, in other words… and just where is that man Paul had seen in his vision anyways?

Here’s the great curve ball that is thrown at Paul and his companions, and at us as readers. I’ve read this passage any number of times, but until this past week I’d never actually noticed that while Paul’s vision had been of a man, the person who actually responds to what he has to say is a woman.

It is the Sabbath day, and Paul finds himself speaking to a group of women; apparently the only people interested in what he has to say. One of them is Lydia, a merchant of purple cloth, who is also identified as “a worshiper of God,” which probably means that she was a Gentile convert to Judaism. “The Lord opened her heart,” Luke tells us, “to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” Again, for all that Paul is the instrument, it is God who really does the work. Here’s one more interesting little detail: Lydia is from Thyatira, which is in Asia; the territory Paul had been prevented from venturing into by the Spirit. As the biblical scholar Brian Peterson observes, “From beginning to end, this text stresses that it is God who is in charge of the mission, God who sets its direction, and God who determines its results.”

In his book The First Urban Christians, Wayne Meeks makes the point that while the Jesus movement pictured in the gospels is a rural one, in short order it became very much centered in cities. Where the gospels speak largely of a world occupied by landowners and tenant farmers—of a stratified society with a property owning class and a peasant class—the cities around the Mediterranean basin had a good many people who fit in neither class. Merchants and traders, freed slaves, retired military people, women who had a source of income; none of these “fit” well in a more traditional agrarian culture, and in the case of freed slaves and of women they were never really given the full status enjoyed by men. Yet in these cities even the formerly status-less ones could find a kind of place and cut a path of relative independence. It is into such a context that Paul spoke, with his extraordinary words about how in Christ there was no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile; about how old dividing lines had been transcended; about how there was room at the table for someone like Lydia—a woman running her own business, and clearly in charge of her own household—and for the freed slave… in fact for the not yet freed slave. Where once people had been so categorically divided along lines of class, status, gender, religion, and ethnicity, new light was shining. Resurrection light.

I’d love to be able to tell you that the light so penetrated those ancient communities that they never struggled with any of these issues again, but that’s not the case. One of my seminary professors once observed that while the Jew/Gentile distinction was the one most addressed in the first century, it took until the 18th and 19th centuries for the churches of Europe and North America to actually take on the issue of slavery, and it was only in the latter half of the 20th century that issues of male and female began to really be talked about in a serious way. It appears that it can take us a good long while to catch up to all that is made possible in the resurrection light.

Not so with Lydia. Along with her household, she is immediately baptized, and her first action as a baptized believer is an act of hospitality. Luke says, “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.” She prevailed upon us, which is way of saying not simply that she was insistent, but that her insistence was born of a conviction that this was the right thing to do. Never mind what the neighbours might say about these male travelers with their unusual religious faith, she would open the doors of her home to Paul and his companions. And though he’d been expecting to be received by a “man of Macedonia,” thankfully Paul was enough on the ball to accept her invitation with gratitude.

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