The church, against all odds

 

Acts 16.9-15

Imagine we’re sitting here this morning in worship, and Jesus suddenly appears to us and says:
“I want you to build a new church for me.”
We’d answer:
“Of course, Lord.”
But then we’d ask him what the church needs to look like, and he answers:
“Everything you need to know about what the church should look like you will find in the Book of Acts.”
Then he disappears.
What should the church look like according to the examples in the Book of Acts?
Well, Acts — especially Chapter 2  — tells us:
* We would all have to sell everything we own and live communally.
* We would have to be more modest about our needs.
* We would make the new church a place where everyone is welcome and everyone — no matter their color, nationality, religion, beliefs, ability, gender or sexual preference — is treated as a brother or sister.
* Like Jesus did, we would make it a priority to take care of the most needy first.
* We would meet people in this place daily and not just on Sunday mornings for an hour.
* We would share in a meal and in Holy Communion.
* We would baptize people regularly.
* We would give thanks and praise with all our hearts, souls, strength and minds.
That’s about the gist of it, right?
But now that begs the question:
How closely does this church resemble the one Jesus just asked us to build?
This morning, we’re going to unpack that a bit to see ways in which Jesus calls us to build his church — even against all odds.

Paul’s church
Here’s what we know thus far about the book of Acts:
Luke, the prime writer, is telling us about everything that’s been happening with the disciples since Jesus died and was raised.
We know the Jesus movement was exponentially gaining followers every day.
One of the reasons the Church was growing was because the Jewish leaders were beginning to persecute Christ followers,  
and the disciples left Jerusalem, but continued to spread the Good News all over Israel and beyond.
We also know one of them is Paul (who had been named Saul) and had been hunting down Christ followers to bring them back to Jerusalem and punish them.
It was terrorism, really.
But Saul is visited by Jesus, and he’s completely transformed — resurrected from old to new, death to life.
And now Paul begins preaching the Gospel in earnest.
Meanwhile, Peter, another bold leader of the Way, is out preaching the word, too.
And Peter, through a vision from God,  begins to understand that Christ isn’t just for the believing Jews, but for the Gentiles, too —
— all those non-Jewish people inside and outside of Jerusalem.
He raises the dead, heals people, baptizing them, and God shows him there’s no difference between Jew and Gentile.
That the Church Jesus followers are called to build isn’t about exclusion; it’s about inclusion.

Lydia
Meanwhile, Paul has a vision of his own, in Verse 9:
“…there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia to help us.”
Just like when Peter was called in a vision to the Gentile world, so too is Paul.  
Now, Macedonia is basically in the northern mountains of Greece.
That means Paul has to get on a sailboat and head over the Aegean Sea to get there, then probably hike the rest of the way.
From Jerusalem, that’s like the distance from New York to South Florida.
About 1000 miles.
Paul arrives in Macedonia, exactly where a the man in his vision told him to come and help.
A couple of days pass, and Paul wants to pray on the Sabbath.
he finds a prayer house — a synagogue — down by the river.  
When they arrive, they find they are with a gathering of women and so they begin their devotions.
Among the women is Lydia, who is listening intently.
We learn in verse 14, that Lydia was a worshipper of God, that she was a converted Gentile, and that she dealt in purple cloth.
Then…
“The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” Verse 14.
This is Lydia’s new conversion story.
The reading wraps up with the fact that she was then baptized, and then she invited Paul and the disciples to stay with her in her home.
Just like Peter, Paul finds that the Church Jesus followers are called to build isn’t on exclusion; it’s built on inclusion.
So Peter and Paul are building the new church.
But what about Lydia? Where does she fit in to all this?

Person, Place or Thing?
What do really we know about Lydia?
And, more importantly, why did God direct Paul to her?
Enough so that Paul had to have a vision, pack up, change his plans, and travel ALL THE WAY to Macedonia?
Let’s start here:
Lydia is not the name of a person like it is today.
It’s the name of a place.
Lydia was named after a place called Lydia, in the Thyatira, in Philippi, in Macedonia.
Like saying you’re from Bellefonte, in Pennsylvania, in the USA.
And people call you is Bellefonte.
Think about that for a moment:
What kind of person isn’t given their own real name?
Instead of a real name, you’re named after property?
Maybe think about the American South in, say, the 1800s.
How did African slaves end up with European last names?
That wasn’t their names in Africa; they were property and named after the owners of that property.
They were slaves.
Lydia most likely was at one time a slave.
And the fact that she dealt in a trade that had to handle things that Jews wouldn’t touch because they were deemed unclean by Jewish Law, probably means Lydia was at one time a slave who learned these crafts.
It’s pretty apparent that Lydia is no longer a slave.
Slaves don’t own their own homes or businesses.
She probably is a widow, too.
See, she now has her own house, and there’s no mention of a husband.
More, she is associated with other women, who, probably like her, are widows as well.
The widows banded together out of necessity.
If you were a single woman living in this time and place, you were most likely too young to be married — probably under 12 — or you were a widow.
But she’s taken her freedom and her skill and applied it to a trade.
And when Paul meets her, she’s a business woman, and because of her business in dealing with purple cloth, she makes a decent living.
Purple, you see, is the color of royalty.
Royalty is a commodity, so she’s selling purple cloth, the dye which is made from dead animals so no Jew will touch,
and she’s selling her products to the more affluent folks in society.
While she herself isn’t affluent, Lydia runs, you could say, in circles of influence as well as affluence.
Let’s hold that thought for a moment and  talk about that last line in our reading, Verse 15:
“Once she and her household were baptized, she urged (Paul), ‘Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.’ And she persuaded us.”
Lydia, in bringing these men into her house, is assuming a degree of risk.
Paul and the disciples with him are basically wanted men.
They have been jailed and reprimanded, and they are repeat offenders of spreading the Gospel, which they were ordered not to do.
By her affiliation with them, she takes the responsibility for her guests.
It’s an interesting little turn there, isn’t it?
Paul was a Jew, a pharisee, and of some repute.
He would NEVER let an unclean gentile woman into his home.
Yet here is Lydia, a convert to Judaism, who invites a Christian into her home.
Who is actually building the church?
God certainly has a sense of humor.

Why Lydia?
Ok, but we still haven’t answered the question of why Paul is led by God in a vision to Lydia’s.
Is it only to create a new disciple for Christ?
Is it to show a success story from slave to freed?
Is it to show just another illustration that a Gentile can be a Christ-follower, too?
Those things are all true, but is that enough for Paul to have this vision?
What else is it?
Well, like most things, it’s not just one thing; it’s all things.
Back to our geography again:
Macedonia is a large province in what we would call Northern Greece.
Within Macedonia are a couple of key cities that we know from Paul’s letters:
Two of them are Thessalonica and Philippi.
Do those sound familiar to you?
They should:  The letters to those churches are called First and Second Thessalonians and Philippians.
Paul wrote them.
There on the river bank of that small town in Macedonia lived a woman named Lydia.
And the areas she lived in?
That was called Philippi.
Thus, God sends Paul to Lydia, who lives in the commercial town of Philippi in Macedonia to do what?
To help form the church of Philippi.
Lydia’s little house church or synagogue grew into one of the greatest churches in Christianity.
###
Think about who Jesus uses to build his church:
* A woman.
* A widow.
* A former slave.
* A gentile.
* Whose business it is to handle dead things, which makes her unclean.
It is exactly this person who becomes one of the founding leaders of one of the most prolific Christian churches in the world.
Assisted by a man who once killed Christians and wouldn’t have ever dreamed of affiliating with a single, Gentile, female slave who was unclean and lived far outside of Israel.
I don’t know about you, but when I read this account, I see God’s hand at work.
I see the power of the Gospel at work.
I see God leaving his heavenly throne to be born as a lowly baby in animal troth to a single mom in the back alleys of the city,
and through the power of the Holy Spirit becoming the Messiah who saves us all.
I see resurrection!

Building the church
This same Messiah is standing here now, telling us “I want you to build a church — just like the ones in Acts.”
“Do you think the odds are against you?” he asks. “Let me introduce you to a friend of mine named Lydia.”
###
Of course we know the church is Christ’s body.
It’s here.
And we are the Church itself.
But do we look like the church of Acts?
Are we bold — do we take risks, do we follow those visions that God lays out for us?
Well, there’s often more than meets the eye, isn’t there?
But in our case, let’s not forget what the church is supposed to really look like,
and truly be that Church Christ calls us to.
Lydia and Paul are a great example here for us,
and that should encourage us to continue to build ourselves into the Church Christ calls us to be:
A church that prays together;
A church that welcomes all people;
A church that serves and loves one another;
A church that gives preferential treatment to the brokenhearted, lost and weak;
A church that puts God before country;
A church that shares its God-given gifts and talents not for its own sake, but for the world’s sake; and
A church that grows in numbers daily because it invites all people to participate.
We might here today say, “Well, pastor, we have a church already.”
So be it.
But let’s also remember how we’re always called to continue to build it, shape it, and mold it to look more and more like Christ each and every day.

‘New Church’
We don’t have to tear down this building and create a new one;
We don’t have to revoke our memberships and find a new place to worship;
We don’t have to forget about the stained glass, pipe organ and United Methodist liturgy and discipline;
We simply have to remember the Church’s roots in the Book of Acts —
—the Church that Jesus calls us to build —
and start there.
Did you notice that in the Book of Acts, when Jesus calls the disciples to build the church, he never talks about what a building should look like?
Not once does he mention anything about pews, and carpets, and altars, and hymnals;
he describes what his people should do, how they should act, to whom they should minister and how they should be in fellowship.
The characteristics of the church are not physical; they are all in the heart.
They are built of love and devotion;
of mercy and grace.
202 years later, we get the opportunity to build this Church the way Jesus calls us to.
This building sure is a blessing — a gift from God that helps us worship God;
but it’s not the Church; you are!
And while the last brick was put in place and this structure completed in 1875,
each and every day, we still continue to build the Church.
The building may be complete, but the Church continues to be unfinished,
It needs to be improved, augmented, reshaped to the Way Jesus calls us to reflect him in this world.
Today, Jesus again calls to us “Build my church.”
We don’t need to look at other buildings to see what works and what doesn’t;
we simply need to look at Jesus’s example and teachings to know.
And as we head into another new chapter in a grand story of Trinity that continues to be written,
let us never, ever forget who we are:
We are Christ’s body.
And we always strive to reflect Christ in this world.
The only odds that are against us are the ones we create.
And the Church — Christ’s Church — will flourish against any and all of those odds,
because Christ prevails,
and God’s will be done.
 

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