The River of Mystery – Lectionary 05/26/2019

Acts 16:9-15

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.

On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Revelation 21: 22-22:5

And in the spirit, he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.

The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day–and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Sermon Text

Baptism is a beautiful Sacrament. We are washed in the water. Cleansed of the stain of our sin and welcomed into the Kingdom. The work of Christ which leads us to accept the grace afforded to us begins from the moment we are born. The slow working of the Spirit in our life, in those we love and in the manifold gifts of God bring us closer to the Father’s love. The waters of the font become for us waters of life through the work of the Spirit, passing through death and into life.

Our scripture for today tells us of how Paul followed God’s call and came into Macedonia to preach the Gospel. What stands out in this text, what we discuss here today, is the way that God’s work leads to resurrection for Lydia and her household. This story is God initiated and completed by God’s work.

Though the reading begins with Paul’s vision of the Macedonian, Lydia was the first to move. As far as we know, Lydia was a merchant who was originally from a major trading town named Thyatira. Her work with purple cloth would have moved her throughout the Mediterranean, she was not just a dyer – she was an executive of an ancient multinational. Likely born to a Greek family and as a Roman citizen, Lydia would have been raised as a practitioner of the Roman Imperial Cult or some religion regional to the area.

Somewhere along the way, Lydia converted to Judaism. When she settled in Philippi, she joined with a synagogue there, fully integrating into the faith. He business continued, but when she settled she established a household of note. She was a woman with everything – faith, industry, power, and connections across the Mediterranean. The ministry she carried out in the region was far-reaching, and we know from the text that she led services by the waterside.

Paul enters into the narrative after Lydia has already established a firm foundation. Her ministry did not grow out of Paul’s, but Paul’s out of Lydia’s. His call to enter into Macedonia was not a call to create a new group of believers, it was to welcome them into a new understanding of what it meant to serve God. Paul followed the call and came to preach to Lydia and her peers, introducing them to the story of how God entered into the world and how his love and sacrifice saved the world.

Paul, like Christ before him, broke down social barriers in his ministry to Lydia. Though she was a woman of business, and so would have worked with men in a professional capacity, it was not considered common or acceptable for men and women to speak unsupervised with one another. Like Christ, Paul did not preach to women as though they were a lesser group within the assembly of the faithful, but as equals. He does not stand above them and preach from some lofty place, but we are told that he, “sits down,” among them. Paul does not enter as the proud missionary civilizing the locals but as a humble person sharing with other faithful witnesses.

Paul’s humility meets with Lydia’s industriousness and not just in that they met here on the banks of a river, but because the God who was moving up until this point continued to do so. This tradeswoman and this tentmaker met completely out of God’s providence, and if this was the end of their story it would be sufficient. That Christ had called a missionary to the household of a faithful Jewish woman and brought her entire household into the blossoming church is miraculous, to call the two to a partnership that changed the world is nothing less than earth moving. Everything had to fall perfectly, not a single element could be out of place to bring these two together. If Paul had been a day later, or Lydia settled a single town over, none of this would have happened – God alone is capable of such precision.

It does not take long for any of us to look at our lives and see how God has made things come together in our lives. The chance meetings, those friendships which began by accident, those bizarre pieces of happenstance which have made us who we are today. Take a moment, think of your life and all the ways that God has blessed you with those unexplainable meetings that have brought you to where you are. What a blessing it is to have God’ work in such amazing ways, to plan these meetings in the far-flung past and to bring people together at a later time.

In scripture, we see many of these meetings. Jesus constantly runs into people in need of his help. People who are ill, possessed, or simply in need of illumination all happen upon Jesus on his way to Calvary. None of these meetings were chance, but the work of God bringing those people into Jesus’ path, into Jesus’ care. It is not hard to see that this is not very different from how we are brought into the faith. There is always a Lydia, there is always a Paul, and we can be either person depending on where we are in life.

What is most important in this story is not that God moved to people to find each other, and that salvation was brought to a household in one time and place, but that God used this singular even to propel many more people into salvation. Paul did not, as some have tried to say, come to rest in Lydia’s house permanently, and Lydia did not stay by the river and lead this small congregation for her whole life. The apostle went to Macedonia and made a new apostle, someone willing to follow God’s call and bring still more people into the faith.

We do not see much in terms of Lydia’s story in the rest of the Bible, and we do not have many documents that talk about her outside of the Bible, except in relation to Paul. However, what remains is still significant. When Paul speaks to Lydia or about Lydia, it is always with the same language he would use for any male coworker. She went on not only to be a financial supporter of the Church but to actively work to preach the Gospel through her business.

These connections were instrumental in the development of Christianity. While Paul traveled along the Roman roads, Lydia and her household worked along the trade routes of the empire. Her business was transformed – it was not a means to make money with the work of the church on the side, but a ministry which used the benefits afforded by the trade to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the Roman empire. Paul would open leather shops wherever he went to preach, but Lydia could work out of any textile stand she came upon.

When we are brought into the faith we are not brought in by the actions of any one person. It is God’s work throughout history and God’s work bringing people together that allows us to become members of God’s fold. The work of the church is initiated and completed by God. What is necessary for us after being brought in is to follow God in the forward momentum of the church. We do not have to abandon what our life has been up to this point, but we need to completely change what direction it is going in.

Let us say that you are someone who has worked in an industry for many years or a student who is pursuing a specific career when God calls you to join the church. Unless your call is to join a specific kind of ministry, then you have no reason to abandon that path. What must happen is that your work in that career reflects the work of Christ. God does not work through one kind of person, and any work that is not counter to the message of the Gospel can be done for the good of the Gospel.

It is not an easy call, but it is a necessary one. God asks all people, no matter what their background to deny self and take up their cross. We forego worldly riches and work to elevate the plight of the poor. We preach the Gospel without shame, no matter what obstacles come our way. We become ministers and apostles regardless of our background, we all in our own way become the presence of Christ in the world.

The beauty of this particular story is that it takes place in a moment of baptism. The river of time which has brought Lydia and Paul together is represented by the river which they met beside. With the blessing of the Spirit, the waters of that river become the waters of Life. Pouring over the members of this household, the moment when the new life begins is made manifest. God cleanses them of their sin, they are made into something new, having been united to Christ’s body through those healing waters.

Whenever we are brought into the kingdom, whenever we are washed in those baptismal waters, we enter into the life eternal. The oil which anoints our forehead represents that seal of Christ upon our lives. All of God’s blessing, the fruits of the Spirit which yield eternal life all become our own. We are not stationary beside that river though, we are walking alongside it as we move closer to the Throne of God. Let us, as members of God’s church, commit ourselves to follow that path wherever it leads. The God who our journey will bring it to completion, we must trust that wherever we go will grow the Church. We all grow out of the waters of life, and we can bring about healing for the nations. – Amen

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