Apostles act, and it’s generally not in the temple, but out in the world.
You know I’m not one of those preachers who begins every sermon with a joke, but I’ve got one for you this morning that some of you have heard me tell before.
Someone who goes door to door but doesn’t know what to say.
I don’t remember where I heard that one, but I’m sure I know the reason it stuck. Kerry, my partner who most of you know, was for many years a Jehovah’s Witness who went door to door. And he knew what to say. Generally speaking, he’s not at a loss for words. But when we started dating and he came here to St. Luke’s it was a bit of culture shock, because we Lutherans often don’t know what to say, or how to say it. Instead we talk about being proud of our worship, our distinct theological voice, our strong network of charities and advocacy organizations. Basically, we think that if you can find your way to us, you’ll like what you find.
Not so with the Witnesses. They do a wonderful job of equipping their community with a vision of this world and the next, and sending them out to share their vision with people they’ve never met. And while I can’t say that I agree with a lot of how they understand scripture, in particular how they understand passages like the one we read this morning from the book of Revelation with its vision of the new Jerusalem, I have tremendous respect for the faithful discipline its members show in reaching out to connect with those they’ve never met. It takes courage, it takes practice, it takes commitment. It requires them to have something to say about their faith and to be willing to say it, and we could use a whole lot more of that in the Lutheran church today.
All that said, I think this morning’s story from Acts — which is the story we’ve been following most closely during these fifty days of Easter — has something to teach us about the unpredictability of ministry outside the walls of the church, and might even give us some clues about what to expect when our ministry follows the acts of the Apostles, who left Jerusalem and spread out to share their story with people far from home.
You can tell that our passage begins in the middle of a longer story. “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.’” Paul was on the western coast of what we now call Turkey, in Troas. He’d worked his way north from Jerusalem and met up with his companion Timothy in Lystra, in south central Turkey. As they went from town to town they would meet with the Jews in those places to share with them the story of what had happened in Jerusalem. That Jesus, the messiah, had entered human history and that the world was changing; that the end of what had been had begun, and that the whole world was being drawn into the transformation. So the churches throughout that region were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily (Acts 16:5).
And it all seems to be going so well for Paul and Timothy. They’re being well received outside of Jerusalem. So they make plans to expand their ministry. They head north, through Phrygia and Galatia in central Turkey, because the scriptures say they’d “been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia” (Acts 16:6b). I think that’s a really interesting idea. It suggests to me that Paul and Timothy actually wanted to head east, toward the parts of the world we now call Armenia and Azerbaijan, but that something turned them north toward the Black Sea instead.
I wonder what kind of strategic planning process these apostles had that made room for the Holy Spirit to let them know that the plans they were making just weren’t going to work out. Do we suppose they were praying together and just felt strongly that their hopes to head east weren’t God’s hopes? Do we think that they started heading down that road, but hit one roadblock after another and took that as a sign that they should make a new plan? We don’t know. We only know that something in the way Paul and Timothy made their plans allowed for the spirit of God to be a part of their decision-making.
So they turn north and begin heading for what we now call Istanbul (not Constantinople, for you They Might be Giants fans), but again it says that “Spirit of Jesus” wouldn’t allow them to go any farther in the direction they wanted to go.
We don’t focus on this part of the story, opting instead to get right to the sweet story of Paul and Timothy encountering Lydia in Philippi, which is a wonderful story that we’ll get to in just a minute, but I think that story is all the sweeter when we understand the awkward attempts at collaboration with God that Paul and Timothy, not to mention you and I, go through when we set out to follow God’s call to get out of the Temple and into the world.
Our interns, who are ending their time as interns with us this morning, know something about what I’m saying. Sarah, along with all the other 2nd year students at LSTC, were waiting for months to hear where they’d be placed on internship this coming year. They filled out forms indicating their preferences. They interviewed in person and by phone with prospective internship supervisors. Then, one day not too long ago, they were handed an envelope with the name of a congregation somewhere far away and told to get ready to pack their bags. They were being sent out. Sarah is headed to Florida, near Tampa. Tina, our Administrative Assistant who is also a 2nd year student at the seminary, is headed to St. Louis later this summer. They’d imagined, perhaps, other futures and other paths, but they are being led by the Spirit of Jesus to these places instead where they will have to find words and actions to share their faith with people who are like them, and not like them, in a variety of ways.
Like Sarah and Tina, who are leaving the state; like Jessica Palys, who is leaving the country this summer for two months in a Spanish language immersion program in Guatemala; Paul and Timothy set off for distant and unknown places. They set sail from Troas to Samothrace, a small Greek island in the Mediterranean. From there they sailed to the southern shores of Greece and made their way inland to Philippi, looking for the man who’d come to Paul in his vision, asking for help.
They’d been in Philippi for a few days before the sabbath, but still had not found the man they were looking for. So, on the day of worship they left the city proper and gathered at the river (the beautiful, the beautiful river) with a group of women, not the man from Paul’s vision.
There was a certain woman down by the river whose name was Lydia, described as a worshipper of God. This descriptor, “worshipper of God,” along with her name, indicate that she was not Jewish, but that she was interested in worshipping with the Jews. She was perhaps a religious seeker, open to wisdom from many sources beyond what she’d been raised to believe. She might even have been considering membership. Does she sound familiar to you? Do you know someone like Lydia?
Furthermore, Lydia is described as a dealer in purple cloth, which required a highly expensive indigo dye. She appears to be a wealthy woman, unattached to any man, and head of a household full of people, because after she hears Paul and Timothy’s story she invites them back to baptize her entire household. And that’s the end of the story.
Do you notice what’s missing from this story?
There’s no man. The vision that led Paul to leave Turkey and cross the sea, the man who called to him in his dream, “come over to Macedonia and help us;” that guy never appears in this story.
Paul left Jerusalem and the temple and the community of those he’d come to know through his conversion to the faith in order to reach people who were strangers, whom he did not know. He thought he’d head east, but he ended up going west. He thought he’d find luck with the men gathered in their local synagogues, but instead he finds a home with an unusual woman gathered with other women outside the city by the river.
Friends, this is what happens when we get outside of ourselves and go door to door, meeting our neighbors — those close to home and those far away. We are changed. It’s not that we can’t or shouldn’t make plans, it’s just that we have to remain aware that all of our planning, all of our prayer and discernment and training and strategy is really intended to get us to a place where we might finally be brave enough to try something new, to open the door to a new relationship, a new experience, a new direction. Once we allow for that possibility, we’re allowing for the fact that we will be changed in ways we could never have imagined.
This is where I think Lutherans, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and basically all of us most often get it wrong. Whether we stay indoors with our proud traditions, or go door to door with our apocalyptic expectations, our message as people of faith has too often been “come, join us, and be changed.” If Paul and Timothy have anything to teach us, I think it’s that we have to be ready for God, acting in us through the Holy Spirit, to be changing us. Changing our understandings of what it means to be a church, a people of God, a community. What it means to follow by faith.
The story of the book of Acts is the story of the early church’s rapid and massive growth across the ancient near East, a course that eventually brought Christian faith to the ends of the earth as we know it. Lydia is first convert in what we now call Europe. She is the first European Christian, and her unusual household is the birthplace of Christian community in Greece and the rest of the west. She is not what Paul went looking for. She is so much better than that.
What do you suppose God has in store for us, once we move outside our doors? I think of our seminarian, Will, who left Iowa to pursue a career in academia, but has heard God calling him to become a preacher and a pastor. He set out heading in one direction, but discovered God leading him a different way. I think about Erika, who left for seminary wondering if she might be called to be a teacher at the intersection of faith and science, but has discovered so many other directions her ministry might take. I think about my own story, how I left the church for years but couldn’t stop worshipping God along with all the other unusual people of faith outside the city, down by the river.
And I think about us, who have been working so hard for so long to rebuild the walls of this congregation, to restore what had been knocked down. I wonder how we are making room in our conversations with one another for the Holy Spirit to direct us, to deny us, to steer us toward people and places we’d never considered. I wonder where the riverside is in our neighborhood, where people filled with faith but not a part of the establishment, are gathered right now.
What would it take for us to find out? What would it look like to go door knocking, not with answers, but with questions?
Wouldn’t you like to find out?