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Sermon: First Century Christians

May 9, 2010

Acts 16:9-15

One of the great things about being retired, so I’ve heard, is that you can do all the things you wanted to do when you had a job and those pesky kids still living at home.  It is with pleasure that I can announce this morning that Wayne and Vera are not with us this morning because they are traveling…again.  They are taking full advantage of retirement, and I am quite happy for them.  Recently, they took a trip to visit some of the places where Jesus did his work as a wandering preacher and teacher, and to some of sites that are important to the history of the early Christian Church.

Wayne and Vera brought back for me some photographs of St. John’s Basilica, in Ephesus, which is on the western end of the nation of Turkey, across the Aegean Sea from Greece.  Legend has it that this is where the author of the gospel according to John was buried.  Decades before that gospel was written, however, a man named Paul visited Ephesus.  He was there as an evangelist to share the good news of Jesus with whomever would listen to him.  Paul had more frequent sailor miles than any other Christian evangelist in the First Century.  He made his mark in dozens of communities from Jerusalem to Rome.

Wayne and Vera had a nice trip visiting those sites where Paul had been, and, in fact, they had a much nicer time than Paul did on his travels.  You see, Paul had a travel agent that by all accounts should have gone out of business centuries before Paul came on the scene.  Paul ended up stranded and shipwrecked.  He was accosted by the locals and put in prison more than once.  And in today’s lesson, we get the sense that this travel agent really had no clear idea about the proper way to create an itinerary.  Paul’s travel agent was the Holy Spirit.  Let us pray that Wayne and Vera have better luck on this trip than Paul did on his.

Our story opens this morning as Paul has a dream of a man pleading with him to come to Macedonia.  Paul was still in Asia Minor, in western Turkey, when he had his vision.  Macedonia was a short hop across the Aegean Sea.  Who knows how Paul understood the man was Macedonian.  Perhaps he was wearing a shirt from the local soccer club.

That’s where the story begins today, but if you were to back up a few verses, you’ll see that Paul had been trying to get around in Asia Minor to spread the good news of Jesus, but he was prevented at every turn.  The text says, “[He] went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia…they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”

Those of you who have been stranded in airports know how frustrating that can be.  Every time Paul tried to move, the Holy Spirit said, “No, you can’t go there.  No, you can’t go there either.”  I imagine Paul and his crew were down to their last travelers checks, shaking their fists at the heavens and saying, “Well, then where in the world can we go?!”  That’s just no way to run a travel agency, and it is surprising that Paul didn’t simply grab his bags and go home.

Instead, he had a vision of a man from Macedonia, saying, “Please come to help us.”

That was the ticket they needed.  The next day they boarded a ship, and traveled north and west to Macedonia, to a region that is now in the northern part of the nation of Greece.  They found their way to Philippi, an important city, a Roman colony, a few miles in from the coast.  That’s where they stayed for a little while.  You can imagine that it felt good to them just to have a clean room with air conditioning.  They probably didn’t even mind that it only had basic cable.

On the sabbath day, which of course, was Saturday—remember that Paul and most of the first Christians were Jewish—and Paul and his friends went looking for a place of prayer.  They went outside the city and walked along the river.  They soon found some women at prayer, including one woman named Lydia.  The scripture describes her as “a woman who worshiped God” (Acts 16:14, Today’s English Version).  That is translated from a Greek phrase that means Lydia was not Jewish, but she did worship the God of the Jews and Christians.  She was a Gentile woman, apparently wealthy, since she was in business for herself selling expensive purple cloth.  She was also ready and eager to hear what Paul had to say about Jesus.

Lydia received the good news so enthusiastically that she and her entire household were baptized, and she invited these men, who were practically strangers, to stay at her home.  And they did.

There are a couple of interesting things to note about this text.  One is simply an historical footnote, but the other is vitally important.  The first is that as Paul went from Asia Minor into Macedonia, he was traveling for the first time into Europe with the good news.  Paul’s visit is the first report we have of evangelists sharing the news of Jesus with people in Europe.  This is the footnote, because Paul himself probably saw no significance to that fact.  Our Bible doesn’t seem to care.  The only reason it is important to us is that we have inherited our Christian faith from this movement of Paul into Macedonia.  We are inheritors of the Christian tradition of the West, including the Roman Catholic church, Martin Luther and the Reformation, the Church of England, and ultimately—for good or for ill—United Methodists.  Yet we only represent a part of the Church.  The Church in the East, the orthodox tradition, Christians in the Middle East and in northern Africa have very old roots and rich traditions of which we are largely unaware.  This is the moment, however, when Paul and the Christian movement reaches out to us, across the Aegean, across the centuries.

The other interesting detail reminds us that the first churches weren’t churches.  They were fellowships, gatherings, groups of people who shared a common love for Jesus Christ.  It was a movement, not an institution.  There were no Boards of Trustees because there was no property to take care of.  Paul and the other Christian preachers took up spots along the river where there was a place of prayer.  They visited the marketplace.  They gathered in the homes of generous women like Lydia.  In the two thousand years since, we have taken the ministry of the wandering preacher called Jesus, the ministry of the wandering Church that Paul and Peter knew, and we have fixed it right into the ground.  We have built sanctuaries and education wings, cathedrals and universities and hospitals.  While that does have its benefits—you can’t fit a pipe organ into the overhead bin—it has caused us to lose some of the character of Jesus’ own life and work.

Jesus and Paul and all the others went out into the world.  They saw the needs of the people.  They heard the voices, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  There is no evidence they worried about light bulbs or property taxes or plumbing.  They did worry about, they spent their lives devoted to, sharing the love and grace of God with a hungry, hurting world, laughing with those who laughed and weeping with those who wept.  That is our true heritage.

There was a time in this country, not that long ago, when we could say that the Church was held in high esteem.  It was a respected institution, and it seemed as if everybody went there.  The Church was not only a place of prayer, but it was also the Rotary Club and the YMCA.  It was a gathering place for religious services and social interaction.  And church buildings were filled because it was the place to be.  That time is no more.

Some people lament the fact that “these young people today” stay away from churches in droves.  People are too busy with their Sunday soccer and baseball games and picnics and television to attend to services of worship.  But you won’t hear me bemoaning the fact that the Church is no longer the place to be in our society.  In fact, I think that is a gift to us.  The Church has always been at its best when it is on the margins, out of the spotlight, behaving more like a mission movement and less like an institution.  The Church of the 21st Century is nothing like the church in this country in the 1950s.  The Church of the 21st Century looks a lot more like the Church of the First Century.  (This basic concept comes from Ken Callahan, San Diego seminar, Spring 2009.)  Because we are no longer the social hub of the community, we can be the church in mission, the church that waits on the voice of the Holy Spirit, ready to drop everything and travel to Macedonia at a moment’s notice when the voice says, “Come to us and help us.”

I certainly do not disparage the good work of the Church in earlier generations.  That institutional Church built hospitals and schools.  That Church used some of its social clout to advance the cause of equal rights.  Many, many young men came through this very building during the first two World Wars on their way to face danger far from home, and this congregation gave them comfort, sustenance, hope and prayer.  This church, this congregation has done a lot of good work in the name of Jesus Christ for the people of San Pedro while it has been rooted here at Sixth and Grand, and 22nd and Leland.

Certainly, I am not advocating that we do our best to empty our churches, to drive people away from Sunday worship and Sunday school.  But I am advocating that we see the Church today, and our own congregation, as more akin to the Church of the First Century, than the Church many of us grew up in.  We are in the mission field.  We are on the front lines of the Christian movement.  Half of the people of our community report no connection with any church of any faith.  We are First Century Christians.

Let us listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit that calls us out to mission.  Let us look for the human need in our community.  Let us listen for the voice that pleads, “Please come and help us.”  Let us follow in the footsteps of Paul and Peter and Jesus, as they shared the love and grace of God wherever they happened to be at the moment.  That is our call.  That is our baptism.

And let us now listen for the call of the Holy Spirit, the great travel agent, as we pray…

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