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!

“I Have Seen the Lord!”

“I Have Seen the Lord!”

Woman-and-Jesus-

April 5, 2015 – John 20:18

Who doesn’t like to hear a good story? Storytellers are wonderful to listen to. Small children love to hear stories. Even grown-ups enjoy stories. Certain stories are told over and over again, in different ways. Cinderella. King Arthur. The Arabian Nights. Aesop’s fables. Even the Wizard of Oz. What about The Greatest Story Ever Told? That’s another name for the narrative of the Passion Week, following Jesus step by step from Palm Sunday through Good Friday, finishing up with the happily ever after ending on Easter morning!

We left Jesus on the cross, on Friday afternoon, when last we met in St. Luke’s sanctuary on Good Friday. Jesus had walked through the days of Holy Week, debating with the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders in the Temple. He had eaten a Passover dinner with His disciples on Thursday evening. The special thing Jesus did on Thursday was instituting the Lord’s Supper with the bread and cup of the Passover meal. Do this in remembrance of Me, He said.

After dinner, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. He wanted His disciples to keep watch with Him, but they were too exhausted. After the events of a very busy week, just think. The disciples couldn’t keep their eyes open!

Then the events follow in rapid succession. The arrest, torture, trials, and sentencing. The walk down the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow. Jesus dragging the cross outside the old city of Jerusalem. The disciples fled. (I won’t blame them—since their Rabbi and master was sentenced as a criminal and enemy of the state, I suspect the disciples were afraid they might be connected with their leader Jesus, too!) We see the women at the foot of the cross. The faithful women. And Jesus’ mother, Mary. Then—Jesus dies on the cross. The earth quakes, the sky is darkened. All creation mourns as the Word made flesh, the creator of all the universe, dies on the cross.

As we continued to follow the Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus is taken down from the cross shortly before sunset. His body is turned over to one of the Pharisees, Joseph of Arimethea. That Pharisee who came to Jesus one night early in His ministry, recorded in John chapter 3. Joseph hurriedly lays the dead body of Jesus in a tomb nearby. And, the faithful women are also there. They follow the dead body to the tomb.

What faith they must have had! What tenacity, and what love. To follow their leader, their rabbi, their Lord and master, even though He’s dead. To care for His body, in the absence of the disciples. The men disciples who are in hiding.

The women are there. Not shunted aside, not put in second place. These faithful women play an important role in caring for their Rabbi and their friend, hurriedly washing and preparing His dead body for the grave, before the Sabbath begins at sunset.

As Friday night swiftly approaches, with it comes the Jewish holy observance. Especially this special Sabbath—which falls during Passover. No work is to be done at all on this holy day of rest, not even the compassionate work of caring for a dead body.

After Sabbath day and Saturday night end, it is now Sunday morning. Faithful Mary Magdalene heads out for the tomb even before the sun has fully risen. Can you see her, eager in her haste to get to the tomb? With some oils to anoint the body, perhaps? But as she comes near the tomb, she discovers the stone has been rolled away. The tomb is now empty. What happened? What on earth is going on? Mary runs to get some assistance, someone to come with her and check things out more fully. (Prudent, I say! Better to be safe, Mary!)

Sure enough, Mary tells what she discovered. Two of the—men—disciples come back with her. Mary returns with the other two, back to the tomb. They see the tomb, and sure enough. It is empty. And then, these two disciples turn right around. Go back to the rest. In hiding.

But—what about Mary? What does she do?

Again, I come back to the indisputable fact that the women are faithful and true. The women show compassion, love, and care for their Rabbi, their master and friend. Mary stays put near the tomb, and weeps.

What a roller coaster ride Mary has been on. Starting on Palm Sunday, their leader and master Jesus marches right into the lion’s den, right into Jerusalem itself. All through the Passion Week, Jesus appears in and around Jerusalem, in the Temple, doing anything but keeping a low profile. And I am certain the disciples and the women accompanying them knew very well that the Jewish leaders and most of the Pharisees were planning on doing bad things to Jesus. I suspect the events of Good Friday were not totally unexpected.

So, at this desperate point, early on Sunday morning, Mary weeps. She does not know where her Lord and Master’s body has gone! After many days and nights of worry, anxiety, strong emotion, and intense grief, I can well understand how Mary broke down in tears.

What about us, today? Have you ever been through days of intense emotion, gut-wrenching anxiety, even intense grief? All of those feelings tumbling and roiling through you? Then you know a little of what Mary was going through.

What Mary did not suspect at first was that she was in the Greatest Story Ever Told. She sees Someone through her tears, in the cemetery. She suspects this Person is the gardener, of all things! She says, still crying, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Then, Jesus—for it is He!—Jesus speaks to her. Jesus calls her by name. “Mary!”   Do you hear that? Jesus calls her by name. “Mary!” How sweet to have someone who loves you very much call you by name! Remember, I just said that Mary had been on an emotional roller coaster the whole week previous? Just think what this would do! Wow!

Mary’s eyes are opened. Mary finally sees clearly, and responds, “Rabbi!” “Teacher!”

There’s a word in the next verse that is sometimes misunderstood. In verse 17, Jesus tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me.” I’d like to tell you about this phrase. In the original language, Greek, the word ‘hold on’ or ‘touch’ is a present imperative verb. The verb in the sentence can be translated “Do not keep touching me!” Mary finally realizes that it was really and truly Jesus, in the flesh. And I bet she fell on her knees and grabbed onto His legs with every ounce of strength in her body. Clutching, crying, laughing. Can you just see her? Can you just see them? Jesus, gently trying to get her to let go. “Mary, Mary, can you stop clutching at Me?”

Can you see Mary now, as she understands in full. Jesus is alive! He is risen! Then, she listens to Jesus. Returns to the disciples, and declares the joyful truth to everyone!

So, Mary is not only a faithful friend and follower of her Rabbi, she is also someone who carries the Good News! The news that Jesus is no longer dead, but He is risen! He is alive again. I want all of you to understand this all-important point. Jesus has entrusted Mary with the Gospel message. Mary Magdalene is no longer just a supporting player, just a side note in the Gospel. Instead, she transitions to a lead actor in the Greatest Story Ever Told, here in John 20. And, one of the first and best preachers, sharing her experience, hope and joy.

What a story! Except—this is not make-believe. This is for real. This is very much the truth. Yes, Jesus is alive. Yes, He is Lord. And, yes, He has conquered death once and for all. Do you hear? Listen again to the words of Mary. She told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”

I pray that we all can affirm together today: He is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!

Alleluia! 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! And, to the Rev. Dave Buerstetta for several ideas from his commentary notes on John 20:1-18.

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