You Had to Be There!

“You Had to Be There!”

Acts 16-14 Lydia, words

Acts 16:14-15 – May 26, 2019

Sometimes, you had to be there. Consider my daughter Rachel. As part of her music studies, she is taking an intensive summer course in Broadway musicals. Right now, she, her small class of graduate students, and her professor are all in New York City—studying Broadway musicals, in depth. She has told me a little about two of the performances she has seen, and they sound wonderful. So wonderful, she could not even do them justice in describing them. I can imagine her saying “You had to be there!”

The power of narrative, of story. That is what a Broadway play or musical is all about. That is what personal testimonies are all about. As we hear personal stories, we can become immersed in the happenings, the events, the trials and tribulations of the person we are listening to—sometimes to the point of having a personal stake in the events we hear and see.

Consider the apostle Paul. He and his friends Silas, Dr. Luke and several others were traveling around Asia Minor—present-day Turkey—on Paul’s second missionary journey. When, all of a sudden, Paul receives a vision from God. A man from Macedonia—northern Greece—appears to Paul. He begs for Paul to come to Macedonia and preach the Gospel to the people there. This dream or vision was God-sent, and Paul and his friends got on a ship immediately and set sail for Greece.

Ever been in that situation, where you had a dream or vision or message from God that was so strong, you just had to obey? Apparently, this sort of thing happened more frequently in Bible times. And, the followers of Jesus hearkened to Paul and his words about the vision. It wasn’t a second-hand or even a third-hand recounting of some vision some guy had, no. Paul’s first-person account of his amazing vision was so much more compelling!

The narrow stretch of water Paul and his friends crossed to get into Macedonia was the same strip of water that many, many refugees from the Middle East recently crossed to get away from life-threatening danger. Imagine their relief to finally cross the water and be physically separated from war, starvation, political persecution, and loss of life and property. That was the first-person story of the refugees in recent times, their personal testimony.

Let us return to Paul and his friends, and their personal story. Dr. Luke is with them at this time, and he makes note of the place where they are staying: Philippi, a leading city in that area of Macedonia. Not anywhere else in Macedonia, “it is straight to Philippi. In places just like that God planted (and still plants) the church to the community that says ‘no’ to the ways of imperial power and offers a different way of life, a different story, and a different promise.” [1] We have the opportunity to hear a different kind of first-person account, a different sort of personal testimony from people from the imperial city of Philippi, in Europe—not in Asia.

Paul and his friends stay there for some days before any serious preaching or teaching goes on. Then, as is Paul’s habit when in a new town, today’s reading tells us “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.”

Hold it right there! I see a couple of things right off the bat that make this a different kind of situation. There is no synagogue, no ordered gathering of Jews in this large town. Plus, Paul and his friends meet with a bunch of women. Not even a mixed gathering of men and women, but a group of Gentile women. How open-minded of Paul!

Something further: the Bible hardly ever mentions a gathering of only women. Now, this was not in Israel, where things were culturally sensitive. How fascinating “that this well-known Pharisee and teacher from Jerusalem would carry on a serious discussion with a group of women.” [2] Yes, aspects of this whole situation were completely new, almost alien for Paul and his friends. All the same, Paul still preached and taught the Gospel of the Lord Jesus. He still preached Christ crucified. He still told his own personal story.

As Paul discusses spiritual and theological things with the group of women, Dr. Luke tells us about one in particular: “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.”

God does the totally unexpected. “When God does begin to work in Philippi, it comes with a surprise. Paul’s vision had involved a Macedonian man. But the first to welcome the gospel in Philippi was a woman, and in fact a woman from the area that Paul had just left in the east.” [3] We saw several weeks ago when we considered the Easter morning testimony that God chose women to be the first ones to hear and believe the Good News of the Resurrection. Now, here in Europe, the first one to hear and believe the message of the Good News of the Resurrection is also a woman, and a prominent one for this time, too.

Lydia is a business-woman, a dealer in purple cloth. This is a luxury item, which only the upper class was allowed to wear. In today’s terms, she could be seen as a high-end clothing designer and manufacturer. She owns a large house, and has a number of servants and/or employees. Plus, she is held in high enough esteem that when she believes the Good News of the Gospel, her whole household is led to believe in the Good News, too. A pretty persuasive woman! And, a leading citizen of Philippi.

What a turn of events! The first convert in Europe is not a sober Jewish man of stature, a leader of a local synagogue, but a savvy Gentile business-woman, wealthy and significant in the community. Any expectations Paul and his friends had of their missionary trip to Greece were certainly turned on their heads. This reminds me not to make meticulous plans set in concrete for any operation, because God will often surprise us with unexpected outcomes.

But, that is not all. Dr. Luke tells us, “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.” Imagine, Paul and his friends invited into a large, spacious, wealthy home. Not only that, Lydia probably invited them to make her house a base of operations for their mission to the whole region. A good friend and follower of Christ, indeed.

Remember what I said about having plans set in concrete? “It is not the charismatic personality of the pastor or preacher that has the power to create faith; it must come from God’s own merciful activity. From beginning to end, this [Scripture passage] stresses that it is God who is in charge of the mission, God who sets its direction, and God who determines its results.” [4]

Can we show hospitality like Lydia? Like Paul, can we persuade others to consider the claims of Christ? We are still in the Easter season, a wonderful opportunity to tell others our personal story. God can use any personal testimony, to God’s glory. Praise the Lord, we can invite friends, neighbors and acquaintances into a relationship with God. Let us not miss this wonderful, God-given opportunity. To God be the glory. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1627

Commentary, Acts 16:9-15, Brian Peterson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

[2] Walaskay, Paul W., Exegetical Perspective on Acts 16:9-15, 6th Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 479.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1627

Commentary, Acts 16:9-15, Brian Peterson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Generous with Our Forgiveness

“Generous with Our Forgiveness” – April 3, 2015

Jesus Christ crown of thorns and nail

Luke 23:33-34 and John 19:28-37

Have you ever had someone say something or do something to you that was really unkind? I mean, downright awful? I can think of other descriptive words, too. Mean, nasty, despicable, evil. There are people like that in the world. In the world today, as well as throughout history. People who act and speak in a thoughtless manner, yes, but also people who act and speak in a deliberate way intended to hurt and to cause all manner of evil.

Tonight, we remember the events of that Passion Week, Thursday night through Friday afternoon, two thousand years ago. We will consider how unkind many people were to Jesus, our Lord. People who acted and spoke to Him in a deliberate way intended to hurt, and to cause all manner of evil. Imagine!

But first, let’s back up. Go back to the Upper Room, where the Rabbi Jesus and His disciples gathered together. They ate a Passover dinner, a Seder. Remembering that night so long ago when the Passover lamb was slain for the redemption of each Jewish household in Egypt. Remembering so long ago, as the head of each house smeared the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of each house so that the Angel of Death would pass over that house in the final plague on the people of Egypt. Remembering as the Jewish people fled from Egypt in such a hurry they were unable to allow their bread to rise. So they ate matzoh, or unleavened bread.

This Passover dinner in the Upper Room celebrated and commemorated the deliverance of the Jewish people from their slavery in Egypt. Jesus and His disciples remembered all of that. They came together to eat, to remember why that time, that night was different from all other nights. But Jesus added a whole new dimension to why that night was different. He instituted the Lord’s Supper. The Eucharist. We will remember this after the sermon, tonight.

The Passion narrative does not stop there. After dinner, after the bread and cup were shared by everyone present, Jesus went out to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed so earnestly and with such agonizing intensity! Yet, His friends, His disciples could not keep watch with Him. They were too exhausted. Imagine.

Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, slipped out during the Seder dinner. He went to the house of the Chief Priest and told them he would betray Jesus. With a kiss, a common greeting between two friends at the time. Imagine.

As we follow Jesus through the events of that night and on into early Friday morning, Jesus is led through several trials. He is scorned, mocked, tortured, and ultimately stands before Pilate. Jesus is sentenced to death. Death by crucifixion.

This kind of death is particularly horrible. A criminal’s death.

I am going to pause here, and take a moment to tell you what this service is not. It is not a service where we consider Jesus’ Seven Last Words on the cross. I have attended such services. Where there are a series of recitations of each Word, followed by a short message interpreting each one. Some churches commemorate Good Friday with the observance of the last day of our Lord’s life. They retrace the scenes, or the Stations of the Cross. These show that final journey of Jesus, to the cross. Emotionally moving, graphically illustrating the sights, sounds and feelings of those surrounding the cross, as well as Jesus, on that horrific day.

All over the world, today, people are remembering that awful journey. There are some who, just a few hours ago, walked that journey. Along the same roads where Jesus walked, through the old city of Jerusalem. Yes, it is incredibly sad to remember that our Lord was condemned to death, even death on a cross. A criminal’s death. People beat their breasts, and commemorate that agonizing journey. The stations of the Cross.

Instead, we will zero in on one particular word that Jesus spoke from the cross. We come to the end of our Lenten series of generosity. By looking at this word spoken by Jesus, I would like us to reflect on the magnitude of the generosity of our Lord. “Father, forgive them. For they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus is so generous that He forgives those who kill Him. Torture Him. Despise Him. Imagine what a kind, generous, God-sized heart Jesus had! Imagine.

I suggest to you tonight that you—that I—that we all consider how wide and deep Jesus’ forgiveness must be! Consider, with our friends at #40acts, who have given me these wonderful Lenten sermon ideas.

It is not easy to forgive! God knows, I have been wronged, I have had some awful things done to me. I’ve been wounded and in pain, and I bet you have, too! Others might mistreat us, even abuse us in a myriad of ways. Do you think it’s easy to put aside bitterness and resentment? Let me tell you. I know from experience. It is not easy.

Yet, that is exactly what Jesus does here. On the cross, no less! That diabolical device of torture, devised by the Romans to be a horrific instrument of death. If Jesus could forgive His killers and those responsible for His death, what does that mean for us, today?

I know what it means for me. I know that I have been moved to forgive those who have hurt me. God has urged me to forgive those who I have resented deeply, for years.

We can look at this tremendous act of forgiveness—all forgiveness begins at the cross. Jesus models for us what forgiveness ought to be like. What forgiveness can be. We are only able to forgive each other if we know what God’s forgiveness is like. Imagine.

Thank God that God has given us the promise that is faithful and true. Each Sunday, we proclaim God’s forgiveness of our sins. Each Sunday after our confession of sins, I make the statement, “Believe the good news of the Gospel—in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven!”

Can you believe the good news that Jesus proclaims to us from the cross? He proclaims forgiveness. Jesus, struggling for breath on the cross, uses the last of His remaining breath and strength to speak. What does He say? He speaks forgiveness. Can we do any less?

Praise God. Jesus loves us this much. What love. What generosity. What forgiveness. Amen.

@chaplaineliza

Thanks to the kind friends at http://www.40acts.org.uk – I am using their sermon suggestions and notes for Lent 2015. #40acts Do Lent generously!

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. Thanks!)