Down By the Riverside

Acts 16:9-15

9 A vision of a man from Macedonia came to Paul during the night. He stood urging Paul, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” 10 Immediately after he saw the vision, we prepared to leave for the province of Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

Lydia’s conversion

11 We sailed from Troas straight for Samothrace and came to Neapolis the following day. 12 From there we went to Philippi, a city of Macedonia’s first district and a Roman colony. We stayed in that city several days. 13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the riverbank, where we thought there might be a place for prayer. We sat down and began to talk with the women who had gathered. 14 One of those women was Lydia, a Gentile God-worshipper from the city of Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth. As she listened, the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message. 15 Once she and her household were baptized, she urged, “Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.” And she persuaded us.

When we last left Paul, it was Senior Sunday, May 1. Grant Dominick was the narrator, our son Miles visualized the broken down future apostle, who was soon to be in the care of a terrified disciple named Ananias, played by Aria Meyers, This was a mission Ananias neither wished nor asked for; Saul’s nasty reputation preceded him. Paul, previously known as Saul, was a radical fundamentalist, trained as a Pharisee. He believed the Jews worshiping and proclaiming Jesus as Messiah were infidels, deserving whatever punishment was necessary. In fact, Saul was present at, and approved of, the murder of Stephen, one of the early Christians whose testimony was deemed to be blasphemous by the same Jewish Council that condemned Jesus to death. Stephen’s martyrdom is recorded in Chapter 7 of Acts. Sent on a mission trip to Damascus, a trip with much different goals than our youth trip this summer or Mission Guatemala next March, Saul is blinded by a bright light, encounters the presence of Christ, is baptized and converted. He is to be known henceforth as Paul, the Latin version of the Hebrew name Saul. This name change symbolizes not only his conversion, but the focus of his mission as an apostle of Jesus: the Gentiles.

A few chapters later, Paul teams up with an early church leader, Barnabas, who serves as his mentor. It was Barnabas’ vote of confidence in the conversion and future potential of Paul that gave the newly converted disciple’s ministry credibility to the early church leaders, including Peter. Paul appears before the Jerusalem Council to justify his ministry, much as Peter did to justify his ministry to the Gentile Cornelius and his household. After receiving the Council’s blessing, Paul and Barnabas set out doing ministry. Eventually they parted ways, each took on their own interns, and went in different directions. Paul’s ministry took him to the edge of Asia, but a vision compelled him to go to Europe instead- specifically Macedonia in modern Greece. He first stop was the place where his heart was always settled, no matter where else he traveled: Philippi.

After several days exploring the city, Paul and his trainees, Timothy and Silas, were determined to find the local synagogue, the place where they would share their Christian witness on the sabbath. But apparently there was no synagogue in Philippi, despite its status as a Roman colony and its diverse population. So on the sabbath the group of apostles traveled outside of the city to the river, where they heard a group of Gentiles, not Jews, met weekly for devotion, prayer, and worship. Sure enough, a group of women were there. What brought them to the river outside the city for worship? Perhaps Psalm 63:1 speaks to their spiritual condition:

God! My God! It’s you—

    I search for you!

    My whole being thirsts for you!

    My body desires you

        in a dry and tired land,

        no water anywhere.

Searching, thirsting, desiring God, several women gathered for worship. Lydia, the only one named, was a businesswoman from nearby Thyatira. She was very successful and independent: she owned her own house, and no one spoke for her. She was spiritually thirsty, so the river drew her. Water was the source of her income- the expensive purple dye she traded was derived from mollusks from the waters of her hometown, known as a design district of ancient Greece. Now the waters of Philippi become the vehicle of her salvation through baptism. Lydia listened attentively to Paul’s witness. Moved by the Spirit of God, she and her household were baptized, much like Cornelius’ household was baptized by Peter. She says to Paul and the others, “Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.” The narrator adds: “And she persuaded us.” Lydia becomes the first person known to be converted to the Way of Jesus on the continent of Europe. The church at Philippi, which began meeting in Lydia’s home, became the first center for Christian worship in Europe. 

The Philippian congregation was successful because it was rooted in hospitality. Its founder, Paul, lived hospitality because he was open to God’s breaking into his life, transforming his mission and purpose, even his name, for the sake of the gospel. Paul went where he was sent- even to a new continent!  Lydia, the church’s matriarch, showed hospitality to the apostle by inviting he and the others to stay in her home, sure; but she embodied hospitality in other significant ways:

“As she listened, the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message.” Lydia welcomed the Holy Spirit into her life, without even realizing it- God’s grace drew her to the waters each sabbath for worship. She felt that movement and followed. Hospitality is listening and acting when the Spirit calls.

“As she listened, the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message.” Listening is a spiritual discipline. Lydia displayed hospitality by being open to Paul’s witness, hearing his testimony. Hospitality is welcoming a new experience of God- often by meeting new people and welcoming them.

The church at Philippi was a great example of a koinonia community. E Stanley Jones, in his spiritual autobiography A Song of Ascents, defines koinonia in this way: “Koinonia…is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, across all barriers of race and class and sex and age. It was a new, emerging society out of a decaying society. This koinonia became the soul out of which the body, the church, grew; it was the organism out of which the organization grew. Where you have the koinonia, you have the church; where you do not have the koinonia, you have an organization but not the church, except in name.” Remember, the church at Philippi began not in a building, but by a river, with women thirsting for God’s love. 

Grace United Methodist Church, we need to be constantly reminded of the spiritual state of our parish. God placed us in this specific neighborhood 50 years ago. And while we celebrate that milestone, we cannot begin to think for a moment that God is finished with us. People are thirsting for God, and God is already at work in their lives. As a said in a recent sermon, there is no reason to think God has stopped being God. But what we know, even before the pandemic, is that people by and large were not looking for God inside the walls of the church. People are looking for koinonia- fellowship, community. We have to be prepared to share it, going to the places like the river outside the city gate if necessary. Faithfulness to God’s mission is as much an act of hospitality as a warm fireplace on a cold day or snacks on Sunday morning. 

Hospitality, koinonia, is openness. Openness to the other, openness to the Holy Spirit. Being in a spiritual state of openness creates the possibility of new vision and opportunities. 

In last week’s scripture: Cornelius’ vision pushed him to invite an outsider to his home; he was faithful and responded.

Also in last week’s scripture: Peter’s vision enabled him to realize the Holy Spirit was opening the door of salvation the Gentiles; he was faithful and responded.

In today’s scripture: Paul’s vision pushed him beyond th borders of Asia to a new continent, further and further from home; he was faithful and responded.

In today’s scripture: Lydia didn’t have a vision in the same way as the others, but her openness to the movement of the Spirit of God in her life had the same impact.

Each of these visions, in its own way, was scary. New territories, new relationships, broken barriers… it’s all stressful. And yet fruit abounded for all! Cornelius and his household were baptized; Peter’s ministry, and that of the early church, expanded much sooner than they planned; Paul’s ministry reached to Lydia and her household, who were baptized and became the foundation for something new.

Reading Paul's letters, it is obvious the amount of affection he has for the church begun in Lydia’s home. From prison, Paul writes to the infant church: “I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. 4 I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. 5 I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now… 7 I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel. 8 God is my witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

At the end of the letter: “Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! 5 Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. 6 Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. 7 Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

8 From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. 9 Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.”

The city of Philippi itself was challenging to Paul; the church struggled during his absence, always tempted to return to their pre-Christian ways. But like a loving parent, Paul kept in contact, writing letters; they supported him in his ministry, despite his absence. He returned for a visit on his third missionary journey. Paul’s affection for the Philippians was evident in his relationships there- a koinonia community, grounded in hospitality. 

Now Grace United Methodist Church, it’s a time of much uncertainty and unanswered questions. The congregation is facing the grief of change, having to say goodbye to familiar traditions, norms, even faces. The United Methodist denomination will soon split. In many ways, we are in an Acts moment. Uncertainty, unfamiliarity, even some disorientation, not unlike the characters in Acts. In a recent interview, Rev Olu Brown, a UMC pastor in Atlanta and coach for churches all over the country, asks these questions:

What is God asking us to do now?

As God answers that question, charge forward with all the energy, the anointing, the passion and the resources you have.

I’ll add a handful of my own:

How do we exhibit the fellowship of the Holy Spirit?

How are we expressing an openness to all of God’s people, besides words printed on a page, social media, or website? 

How do we embody an openness to the movement of the Spirit, which may lead us to new and strange places?

The words Paul used to encourage the Philippians, he speaks to us today as well: “I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.” When that day arrives, and no one knows when that will be, may the Lord find us, driven by a hospitable love of God, neighbor and self, by the rivers if necessary, wherever people thirsting for God's grace may be found. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.