Happy Birthday to Us
Scripture: Acts 2:1-21; John 3:1-8
Of all of the ad campaigns in our post-modern age, few were as effective as the campaign Verizon wireless paraded across the air-waves for nearly nine years from 2002-2011. Shout it out if you remember it…
It consumed the life of the actor, Paul Marcarelli. When he signed on with Verizon, apparently he had to agree not to take on any other roles for the duration of his contract. In an interview he later gave, Marcarelli noted that in 2011, at his grandmother’s funeral service, he heard someone whisper behind him, “Can you hear me now?”[i]
Nevertheless, it was an enormously effective ad campaign. Now I’m not an advertising professional but I think its success went even deeper than the technology it represented. Sure, back in ’02, those of us who had cell phones were frustrated by all those patchy areas that still existed where we couldn’t get a signal or where calls would be dropped mid-sentence. But, beyond the technology, I doubt many things consume us as deeply as our desire to communicate. A dropped call represented more than a dropped signal. A dropped call represented a breakdown in communication. We all want to be heard and understood. Effective communication goes beyond transmitting information. Effective communication builds a connection between people; and it elicits a response from the one with whom we are communicating.
That is what happened on that Pentecost Day long ago. Today we celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. So, happy birthday to us!
The gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are a two-volume work. The ending of the gospel and the beginning of Acts overlap as we read that Jesus instructs his disciples to remain in Jerusalem while they await a power that will come upon them from on high. Acts identifies that power as the Holy Spirit; a power that will equip them to communicate the good news of Jesus from Jerusalem, the geographical center of their faith, all the way to the ends of the earth. Like Marcarelli’s Verizon character walking across our nation through farm fields, in swampy bayous, the desert southwest, lonely stretches of highway and big city boardrooms, the power of the Spirit would ensure that the good news of Jesus Christ would be heard by all. And, that is the mission Jesus lays upon his disciples from the first century to the 21st; a mission we cannot afford to neglect for Christ’s sake and for ours. That Spirit-driven message must be spoken in “languages” that everyone can comprehend.
Now sometimes, as Christians, we tend to think the Holy Spirit hadn’t really done much prior to Pentecost, as if the Spirit were hanging out backstage, waiting to make his big debut. But, when we realize that in both Hebrew and Greek, one word can be translated as wind, breath or Spirit; then we recognize that God’s life-giving Holy Spirit has been active since the dawn of time. Genesis 1, verse 2, tells us that the stirring of the wind, the movement of God’s Holy Spirit, was the launch of creation. The life-giving power of the Spirit is affirmed by the Psalmist as we sang in our opening to worship this morning. Psalm 104:30: “When you, [O Lord,] send forth your Spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth.” It is of great significance that, within our Old Testament prophetic tradition, God’s Spirit and Word are intricately connected. Though the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel’s proclamation of God’s Word turned a valley of dry bones into human bodies, they had no life until God’s Spirit breathed into them.[ii] Life – true life, eternal life – comes at the intersection of God’s Word and God’s Spirit. It is as Peter proclaimed on that Pentecost day long ago as he stood up to preach using the prophet Joel as his text. The Spirit would be poured out and God would be heard; a clear and unmistakable divine communication, but one delivered through human vessels – like Peter and John, like you and me.
Now, one might wonder at such a powerful force moving through this motley crew of once cowardly, spineless disciples; common fishermen for the most part; hardly on par with the great Roman orators of their time. Once so frightened he denied even knowing Jesus, on that Pentecost Day Peter stands to deliver a sermon to a congregation numbering more than 3,000.[iii] What he does is amazing and spectacular. But he doesn’t do it under his own power; he is under the power of God’s Holy Spirit. And when he speaks, the people hear and comprehend and, therefore, respond to Peter’s promise of salvation – life in fellowship with God – through embracing and trusting in Jesus as the giver of that salvation.
And onward through the Book of Acts, Jesus’ followers continue to proclaim the good news of salvation because of the Spirit moving and stirring and inspiring. As prophesied by Joel, Peter sees a vision, a vision of unclean animals being lowered on a sheet from the heavens and God sends him to proclaim good news to an unclean Gentile named Cornelius.[iv] Onward through the Book of Acts, Jesus’ followers are caught up in the Spirit, like Philip who gets routed from place to place as the Spirit drives this geographical expansion of the Church.[v] Onward through the Book of Acts, disciples like Stephen (who I spoke of last week) see the heavens opened wide as he proclaims the gospel even unto death.[vi]
Under the power of God’s Holy Spirit, the message of Jesus cannot help but be heard by those who comprehend that it is, in fact, the mission entrusted to all who call upon his name for salvation. Can you hear me now? Good.
Several years ago, I spent a week in San Juan, Costa Rica at a Spanish immersion school. I did know some Spanish when I went but, the experience itself further reinforced the trouble we get ourselves into when we lack the capacity to communicate with those around us. If you’ve ever traveled in a foreign country you know that, under stress, the words of a foreign tongue just do not come to you. Now, I should add to this story that I am not very good at public transportation. I grew up in Appalachia and had never ridden a public bus until I went away to college in Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh, I would sometimes take the bus from the campus of Duquesne into Oakland where the University of Pittsburgh is located. What lies between Duquesne’s downtown campus and Oakland is The Hill District, one of the cities that served to inspire the 1980’s police drama Hill Street Blues. So, when you took the bus between downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland, it could be stressful and you definitely did not want to get off at the wrong stop. But, back to Costa Rica where I learned, after my arrival that I would be getting from my host family’s home to the school via el autobus cada dia, that is, every day. Add to that the fact that it gets dark very early in the evening in Central America. On the first day after class, I peered through my bus window with great anxiety watching the darkness descend and anxious that I could miss my stop. I was unclear about whether or not the stops were set or determined by the pull of a cord in the aisle. But the cord was too high for me to reach so I prayed that would not be necessary. And then I saw my host home through the window. I jumped to my feet and ran toward the front of the bus with the weight of textbooks hanging from back. Now what I should have shouted was “detenga” from the verb detener, meaning “to stop.” But in my panic, all I could think of was what I’d seen on the San Juan stop signs and so I yelled “alto, alto” at which point my bus driver slammed his foot on the brake as he opened the bus door. (In hindsight I realize I might have given him the impression that he’d run a stop sign and his gut reaction was to slam on the brakes. Who knows?) Anyway, the sudden stop, accompanied by the excess weight of books on my back sent my small frame hurtling like a projectile down the aisle of the bus. I fell down the stairs and sprawled into the street. A neighbor just a couple of houses from my host family saw the whole thing. He came running toward the bus. By now I had picked myself up. The sleeve of my shirt was torn and both hands were scuffed. The neighbor was so upset. Looking at me he began to yell words at the bus driver I neither could, nor likely should, translate. The bus, filled with passengers hanging out the open windows aghast, sped off. I began to cry and run toward my host family’s home as the neighbor came running behind me, still upset. He followed me into my family’s home, dramatically telling the story of what he’d seen. My scuffed hands were just beginning to bleed and my host wanted to take care of me, but my Spanish brain had shut done completely. I was left with little to go on and so we regressed to what I label “puppy interactions” – those ones where a foreigner can accomplish nothing more than calling you to them with a single word and gesture and you helplessly follow their voice, aqui.
The moral of my story is, “you’ve got to know the language if you want to communicate effectively.” And friends, that’s why God miraculously poured out the gift of tongues on those apostles on that Pentecost day. God’s Holy Spirit equipped them to speak the gospel in a myriad of languages so they might communicate the good news of Jesus Christ; communication that built a connection; communication that called forth a response of faith. And as I’ve already mentioned, that is the mission Jesus lays upon his disciples from the first century to the 21st; a mission we cannot afford to neglect for Christ’s sake and for ours. That Spirit-driven message must be spoken in ways that everyone can comprehend. And sometimes that is a challenge. Our world, even here in greater Lafayette, is multi-cultural, multi-generational. So what do we do?
Well first I want to ask you this morning, do you know how to share the good news of Jesus with someone else? Do you know how to talk to others about who Jesus is and who Jesus is to you? What does it mean to you to trust Jesus as your Savior and your Lord? How has following Jesus changed your life?
Let me tell you very briefly that this is a Sunday that the United Methodist Church in Indiana has encouraged pastors to tell the story of their call and here is a very small piece of mine. The summer after I graduated from Duquesne, I worked as a conference intern running an ecumenical children’s program in Johnstown, PA. It was no fancy program and it operated on a shoestring budget… which didn’t matter much because the kids in that community didn’t have very high expectations. There were two little boys in that program, brothers, who were always getting into trouble. They were rough kids. Their language was rough, their behavior was rough, their appearance was rough. They were very unpleasant children. One day just a couple of weeks into the program, one of them fell from a piece of playground equipment. They seemed fine. I told my supervisor I’d go to their home and inform their parents. Well, as I mounted the stairs to their 2nd floor apartment – it was an apartment chunked out of a big, old run-down house like you might find on a street near here – that apartment reeked of smoke and dirt, vermin scurried across the floors, it was dark and dreary, there were mattresses on the floor and an old TV set in a corner. That was the only furniture I saw. I began to speak with mom but her immediate gruff tone as she yelled expletives at and about those boys stopped me in my tracks. From that day on, my response to those boys changed. From as far back as I could remember, I’d never doubted that Jesus loved me and I was worth something. Oh sure, I got teased on the playground and cried my, “nobody likes me” alligator tears… which were a painful thing for a little kid. But nothing like what those boys must have endured because I was fortunate to be reminded every day that Jesus loved me and I was of value to him. And so I determined for the rest of that summer that I would do everything I could to communicate that good news to those little boys whose whole demeanors seemed to drip with loneliness, anger and despair. We all go through rough times, but I can’t imagine how I’d get through if I didn’t believe in Jesus’ love for me.
What difference has following Jesus made in your life? How has Jesus changed your life? You see, if you can’t answer those questions, then you don’t really have anything to communicate to others. But, if you can, and I certainly hope you can, our next question becomes “how can we cross the cultural divide to communicate that message to others?”
Well, if we believe that our mission is the same as that of the disciples so long ago, then we can begin by doing what they did to prepare: we can pray so we’re ready to go wherever and to whomever God directs us.
Brothers and sisters, I want to issue a challenge to each one of you here this morning. I want to ask you to covenant with me to begin each day with a prayer that God’s Spirit will ready you to proclaim the good news of Jesus to someone else in a language, in a style, that they can comprehend. Many times, our communication divide is cultural. For many of us – and I’m not pointing the finger at you cause I’m right there with you – for many of us our friends and family are churched and we speak “church” so well we’re not even aware that we’re speaking it. So we’re going to need some help from the Holy Spirit to learn the language of the culture around us. We’re going to need the help of the Holy Spirit to communicate effectively in ways that call forth a response. We’re going to need the help of the Spirit if others are to truly hear us now.
So, I hope you’ll join me. I’d just ask that for the next forty days – that’s an easy number to remember because Noah was on the ark for 40 days – for 40 days begin each day with a very simple prayer; something like this:
God, today I am ready and available to your Holy Spirit.
I am willing for your Spirit to come upon me
so that I might share the good news of salvation through Christ with someone else who does not know the story.
Help me, equip me, to speak the love of Christ in ways that can be heard. I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I have copies of this very simple prayer printed on cards here at the communion rails. If you’re old school, you can pick one up and tape it to your bathroom mirror for in the morning. If you high-tech, you can go to my latest blog entry (traceyleslie.com) to get the prayer and you can set an alarm on your smart phone to pray each mor
[i] This information is taken from the website http://www.bustle.com/articles/40384-where-is-verizon-guy-paul-marcarelli-now-he-makes-his-own-movies
[ii] See Ezekiel 37:1-14
[iii] See Acts 2:37-42
[iv] See Acts, chapter 10
[v] See Acts 8:26-40
[vi] See Acts, chapter 7
Today marks the last week in my sermon series on the membership vows we take as United Methodist Christians. This series has involved a close look at the early Church seen through the lens of the Book of Acts. Acts presents us with a portrait of the early Church and its development from the time of Jesus’ ascension to Christianity’s spread across the Roman Empire. It is not, however, a “history” in our modern understanding of the genre and so it is difficult, at times, to get a sense of the chronology within this narrative. This week we’re talking about the vow of service as we look at a story in the 6th chapter of Acts. We get a little better understanding of the problem presented in this chapter by going back and examining the circumstances of the Church’s birth at Pentecost. Now, before it became – for us – the birthday of the Church, Pentecost was an important Jewish festival. The Jews had three annual religious festivals that called for a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem. But, truth be told, it was pretty uncommon for the average Jew, devout thought they may be, to make three trips a year to Jerusalem. Travel was difficult, dangerous and expensive. Yet, even so, the population of Jerusalem would explode with pilgrims at festival times. That is why, when we read about Pentecost, we’re told that the city is filled with Jews from all over the place. Acts, chapter 2, tells us that 3,000 people became followers of Jesus after hearing Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Now, without a doubt, it would not have been feasible for all of them to remain in Jerusalem from that day forward. However, it is likely that many did remain. Interestingly, one bible scholar I read this week purposed that, as Jews got “up in years” many would use a festival occasion as an opportunity for relocation. It would be their desire, as a devout Jew, to end their life in the holy city and to be buried there. And that background, you may have just realized, provides a plausible explanation for this morning’s scripture about this superabundance of widows in need in the early Jerusalem Church. If, in fact, many elderly Jews with their wives would have made a final festival to Jerusalem near the end of their life and they did, in fact, proceed their wives in death, Jerusalem would have more than its fair share of widows to care for. And, if some of those who traveled late in life to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, heard Peter’s sermon about Jesus and became converts in “The Way,” the term Luke uses for the early Church, you can now see why this young Church is being strained by the need to care for widows who, if they did not have adult sons in Jerusalem, would have been entirely, completely dependent upon the Church. Care for widows was a mandate within the laws God provided to the Jewish people and so it should be no surprise that the early Christians, continuing to identify themselves as Jews, take this responsibility very seriously. It would have, no doubt, been important to the apostles and yet, despite their best efforts, the mission is running into trouble. In fact, it has become a source of divisiveness and conflict within this nascent Church. And, whether accurate or note, we all know that “perception is reality” and these Jewish Christians who are relative newcomers to the Jerusalem scene, believe they are getting the short end of the stick.
Now one of the things that has surprised me about this sermon series is that I have noticed some things about the Book of Acts that I’d never really noticed before. On the second Sunday of this series, I spoke about our promise to support the Church with our prayers and I looked at a story out of the third chapter of Acts in which the apostles, after being questioned and detained by the religious authorities, pray to God to give them increased boldness to proclaim the gospel even in the face of persecution. It was that week that I realized that, in all my years of leading church membership classes, as I have talked with new members about the need to support the church by praying for members who are ill or in need, the church’s ministries and leaders, etc., I had never instructed new members that, they ought – that we ought – to be praying for God to embolden us in our witness and ministry, even – and particularly – when we face challenges or opposition.
And this morning’s text also brought some surprise to me when I realized what a dramatic difference there is between the interpretation and presentation of Christian service in most Methodist Churches today and the interpretation and presentation of the ministry of service in the first-century Church. We talk an enormous amount about service as something we do for those who are NOT a part of our congregation; that is, we often define service as “service projects for the needy of our city or in rural Appalachia or African nations suffering drought and war.” Likewise, we often generate a great deal of hoopla around the topic of spiritual gifts and spiritual gift inventories. I had a member once who was just completely fascinated with wanting to take spiritual gifts inventories. I don’t know; she may have had the spiritual gift of taking spiritual gifts inventories. Now, don’t misunderstand me, God has made each of us uniquely with unique gifts and abilities and, certainly the Church functions more effectively in its mission, when we discover our spiritual gifts and put them to use. I would have to say that one of my greatest joys in ministry is to help someone discover their spiritual gifts and put them into practice. It’s exciting; it’s energizing; it’s sheer joy.
And yet, our service to the Church does not – cannot – stop with our spiritual gifts. And, if we take the stories we find in Acts seriously, service is, primarily, to be shown to those already in the Church. Now, that does not mean that we don’t care about people outside the Church or try to help them. But what it means is that, the early Church cared so effectively for its members that that fact, in and of itself, became their greatest evangelism asset. Their faithful, compassionate, passionate care for one another across ethnic and cultural boundaries was like a blazing neon sign that drew everyone’s attention.
And no story, perhaps, makes that point more clear than the passage I presented this morning from Acts, chapter 6.
The early Church has many widows to care for and, as I’ve mentioned, whether reality or not, those who have come from Greek dominated geographical regions perceive that their widows are not receiving the same level of care as the native widows; particularly when it comes to food. Now, the first interesting thing to notice is that the apostles take this complaint seriously. They don’t ignore it; they don’t try to sweep it under the rug; they don’t become defensive in the face of this criticism. They respond; and they do so in a wise way. They call forth leadership to meet this ministry need from within the current congregation. They don’t launch a search committee for a paid professional or post a job description on ministryjobs.com. They recruit leadership from among their own membership. They call the community together – kind of the ancient version of a Methodist Church Conference, we might imagine – and they make a proposal. The congregation is challenged to assess, for themselves, and to select from among its members men who can relieve the apostles of this responsibility and who can carry out and manage this important ministry. The apostles give the congregation three criterion for selection: 1) they must be men who are well thought of by the faith community; 2) it must be clear that they are filled with the Holy Spirit; and 3) they must be individuals who demonstrate wisdom. In other words, they don’t need a culinary degree but, along with empowering of the Spirit, they must be wise about making decisions for developing and implementing this food distribution, as well as being people whose decisions will be respected by others. And, one more thing, although we’re not told it was a condition the apostles named, these men that are chosen, based on their names, appear to come from the ranks of the very people who feel prejudiced against. They don’t choose leadership from among the establishment. They choose leadership from the ranks of those whose concerns are being addressed.
But here is an interesting appendix to this story. Immediately, as soon as this scene closes, our bible narrator begins to tell us about the ministry work of one of these seven men, Stephen. And, although he was commissioned for food distribution, that is but a portion of his ministry. He performs wonders and signs just like Peter and John and the other apostles. He’s a powerful preacher and evangelist. And those ministry strengths will put him at odd with the authorities and Stephen, this newly commissioned minister of food distribution soon becomes the first Christian martyr. Just before he is stoned to death, he will deliver the longest sermon recorded in the Book of Acts. (Now, let me just add, his being brought before the authorities precedes the sermon; it’s the impetus for the sermon. The length of the sermon has nothing to do with the stoning. I just wanted to make that clear.) But my point it, although Stephen was commissioned to distribute food, he is ready, willing and able to proclaim the gospel in powerful ways, even under the very worst of circumstances.
Now friends, I have to tell you, although I didn’t realize it weeks ago when I selected this scripture, I am really excited that it is our final text for this series because it is a passage that has enormous significance for Trinity Church.
As all of you know, we are hoping to grow. We are working to grow. We’ve been working with a consultant. We’ve been assessing our strengths and our challenges. We’ve been attending seminars and reading articles and getting out into the community. We want to grow. And this text has enormous wisdom for us in that pursuit.
First, it tells us that – with growth – comes the need for more ministers. Now, not ordained clergy, mind you. Rather, as we see in Acts, ministers or servants who are raised up from the ranks to meet the ministry need at hand. Trinity, if we are going to grow, we must all be ready to dig in to the work of ministry. With growth comes greater need. And it will take all of us – not just paid ministry staff, not just current lay leadership – but all of us to meet that increased need because when our community sees how well we care for one another – both those who have been in this church for decades and those who haven’t even been here a year – that will captivate them. That will further enhance our ability to grow the Church. That will be the loudest gospel proclamation we can make.
Secondly, this morning’s story teaches us that, as new people arrive, we need to engage them not only in the ministry, but also in the conversation about the ministry. They will need a say in how new ministry is developed, how priorities are set, and how needs are addressed. Sometimes those of us who’ve been in leadership awhile can be anxious about letting go of the reins. We don’t know people very well and we get nervous. What if they don’t follow through? What if they don’t understand how important something is? What if they don’t understand how we’ve been doing it all these years? And so we think we’ll just give them one small thing to help with… and there’s nothing wrong with that. All of us need to be ready to step up and help where help is needed, even in the small stuff. But new folks also need to be engaged in the big stuff. And when we engage them in the ministry – the development, the plans, the strategy, along with the execution – we’ll be amazed at all the gifts we see emerge. Who knows? It might have never crossed Peter’s mind to turn the pulpit over to Stephen. But wow, could that guy preach!
Friends, serving the Church means a willingness for all of us to do what needs to be done and to share our ministry authority and control with others.
I think these are exciting times in the life of Trinity Church. I’m excited about our future and what our ministry will become. But we’ll only get there if we all are willing not only to do what we enjoy or what we’re good at; but to roll up our sleeves and work alongside one another and do whatever needs to be done so that the proclaiming of the gospel and the living out of its truth can grow and flourish. So that the Word of God will continue to spread and the number of disciples will increase greatly here in Lafayette.
A few years back I heard Bishop Robert Schnase of the Missouri Conference tell a story. I can’t recall all of the details but it went something like this… Being a bishop, he does a lot of traveling and uses a lot of rental cars. He had flown into an airport and gone to one of the rental car counters. He had some kind of tie pin on that identified him as being with the United Methodist Church. The gentleman across the counter who was assisting him recognized it and indicated that he was United Methodist also. They shared some conversation as Schnase filled out the paperwork. Thereafter, another employee came to walk Schnase out to his vehicle. The two employees addressed one another by name and clearly knew one another. It was a small office. Somehow – I can’t recall the details – the topic of Schnase’s church position came up with the second employee as they did that requisite walk around to check the condition of the rental car. And Schnase discovered that this man had attended church in the past but, when he moved to this city a year or so prior, he’d been – as yet – unable to find a church home. He indicated a common obstacle… the difficulty of walking into a church where you don’t know anyone. Any of us who have ever done that know how awkward it can feel. Now, the church he’d attended where he’d lived previously was United Methodist… at which point Schnase walked back into the building with the man to connect him to his colleague. They’d worked together in the same office for months – one attending a UMC nearly every week, the other missing his Methodist Church back home – yet the topic of church had never been so much as hinted at.
This morning I’m continuing the series I’ve been preaching on the membership vows we take as United Methodist Christians. Now, when I was ordained, the United Methodist Church had four vows that new members were asked to take. New members were asked to uphold the church with their prayers, their presence, their gifts and their service. It had been that way since 1932. But in 2008 at General Conference, a big Methodist business meeting held every four years, the vow of witness was added.
Now, if your membership in the Methodist Church came earlier than 2008, you may think you’re off the hook on this witness thing… were it not for the fact that, each time a new member joins the church, all of us who are current members are asked to renew our commitment, including the promise to uphold the church with our witness.
We all know what it means to be a witness when we define the word in the legal sense. If someone rear-ends our car in the parking lot, we hope and pray that we have a witness… someone who saw the whole thing go down AND is willing to stick their neck out enough to hang around and wait to give the responding officer their statement. I looked up the word witness this week, in a regular dictionary and a bible dictionary. And, although the most basic definition of a witness is someone who sees or personally experiences something… after all, without first-hand experience, all you have is hearsay… it seems to me that the most critical component of being a witness is the willingness to share what you know with others. It doesn’t matter what you know if no one knows that you know it. After all, if police are investigating a crime, it’s meaningless to have a witness if they will not come forward and tell the truth about what they saw and heard, right? And so, I think it’s safe to say that the power of a witness is their ability to influence an outcome or a decision because of their commitment to communicate the truth of their personal experience.
So this morning, in honor of Mother’s Day, we’re going to look at the stories of two women in scripture: one whose witness is captured in detail and the other whose witness can only be assumed. The latter is named Lydia, who was mentioned in the scripture I read to you from the Book of Acts. The former is a nameless woman I’ll say more about in just a moment.
Now my guess is that Lydia is unfamiliar to the average churchgoer; although it seems she would have been anything but to a citizen in the first century city of Philippi. Lydia, in what was a male-dominated society, had carved out her place as a real mover and shaker. She was a business woman.
Her marital status is a mystery. But, she speaks of her residence as “my home,” indicating that she must be either widowed or divorced. Originally from the city of Thyatira, she’s in sales and she deals in purple cloth. In ancient times, purple dye was rare and expensive. The fact that it is Lydia’s specialty indicates both she and her clientele have considerable wealth. And, with a salesman’s persuasion, she urges and prevails upon the apostle Paul and his companion, Silas, to come and stay at her home after she has heard them preach the good news of Jesus and been baptized into this new movement sometimes identified in Acts as The Way but known to us today as the Church. Lydia is a woman of wealth and prestige and it seems that she uses her influential position to launch a local congregation within her home. She seems to have such a strong connection to Paul and his missionary work that, when Paul and Silas are compelled to high tail it out of town due to some trouble with the law; they still take the time to make a stop at Lydia’s home where brothers and sisters in the faith have gathered.
The second woman I’m going to talk about this morning is a far cry from Lydia. She is entirely lacking in prestige and so, not surprisingly, she is nameless, although she is probably a bible character many of us are familiar with. She is the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at a well in the fourth chapter of the gospel of John. She begins to interact with Jesus after he initiates a conversation with her by asking her for a drink of water. It’s noon and it’s, no doubt, warm and Jesus is thirsty. But it’s a pretty radical thing for a male, Jewish rabbi to speak directly to a Samaritan woman he doesn’t even know. And so she responds from John 4, verse 9: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” You see, Jews had as little to do with Samaritans as they possibly could. After a little banter back and forth about water, Jesus cuts to the chase with her and says, “Go call your husband.” When she indicates there’s no husband in the picture, Jesus really blows her away when he says, You’re right. “For you have had” – and now I’m on verse 18 – “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Now frankly, that kind of statement would have really offended me and I’d have probably slinked away from that well with my tail tucked. But not this lady; she’s pretty gutsy. She says, “I see that you are a prophet.” And then, she asks Jesus a question about worship.
Now, I have to tell you. I don’t really fancy myself much of a feminist. But I do find it pretty curious that Christians across the ages have sure invested a lot more time and energy in embellishing the character of this Samaritan woman than they have speculating about that successful, wealthy Greek business woman, Lydia.
In truth, all that we know about this Samaritan woman is that she’s had multiple husbands and is now living with a man who isn’t her husband. Yet, despite all conjecture, her ill repute may be unearned. It is altogether possible that, through no fault of her own, men have turned her out. You see, a Samaritan woman in the first century had no right to request a divorce. Her husband, however, could easily divorce her for any multitude reasons… even as trivial as burning the roast.
So this Samaritan woman is really in a pretty vulnerable position and while she may have lost her good reputation long ago, she hasn’t lost her dignity or her curiosity.
She becomes the first character in John’s gospel to which Jesus reveals his identity as the Messiah, the Christ. She is waiting for the Messiah’s appearance. And what do you know? There he is. Right there in the flesh, right before her eyes. And she is so excited about it that she goes back into her village to announce the good news to everyone. The way in which she does it is interesting. This is her pitch (which we find in John 4:29), “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. Hmm… In light of this woman’s reputation – well-earned or otherwise – I would buy a ticket to that show, wouldn’t you? It’s hard to know for sure what it was that hooked her fellow villagers. Was it just her guts to boldly issue the invite? Was it her dangling of that captivating title “Messiah?” Was it her audacity to so glibly reference her personal affairs? I don’t know. But it drew a crowd. It was her witness that set it all in motion. John 4:39 tells us: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s witness…”
But what about Lydia; that wealthy Greek businesswoman? Well, unfortunately, we know nothing of what she said to the other folks in her neighborhood. But she was adamant about opening up her home to Paul and Silas. She urges them; she prevails upon them, to make her home their “home base,” so to speak, as they carry out their ministry in Philippi. The final verse of Acts, chapter 16, leaves us with the impression that the church there is off to a good and solid start when Paul and Silas are compelled to head out of town. Now, I must be honest. The Book of Acts and the letters Paul wrote are not always in agreement with one another. When Paul, late in his life and career writes to the church at Philippi, he does not mention Lydia by name. But years had passed and, who knows; perhaps Lydia has died or moved back to her hometown of Thyatira. It’s impossible to know. But what we do know from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is that they become a congregation of incredible and genuine hospitality; a hospitality that is the foundation of their witness. They are the only congregation from whom Paul accepts financial support. Their graciousness toward him goes so deep, they even send a member of their congregation to be with Paul and care for him when he is jailed. And so, we see a congregation in Philippi whose love for Christ is most dramatically visible through their witness of compassion, hospitality and generosity. And who’s to say but that the character of that congregation was laid by the woman under whose roof it all began: Lydia.
Friends, the vow of witness is not an easy one to uphold. Surveys and statistics tell us that we Methodists are not very good at it. Maybe we question our ability to speak and act in ways that influence others. Maybe we struggle to put our personal experience with Jesus into words. Maybe we find it difficult because models of witness in our contemporary culture don’t always seem to match up or mesh with the models we see in scripture. But, if witnessing is about communicating the truth of our personal experience, then that means that “witnessing” will be as diverse as we are. The story we tell of Jesus – the story you have to tell others… Well, that will be your story and your experience. Perhaps, like the Samaritan woman, you have a story that’d knock people’s socks off. And if you do, then you ought to share it. Or maybe you’re one of those people with the gift of hospitality who has a talent for drawing people together and connecting them to one another and to Jesus – a kind of “holy book club” where people can share their stories of Jesus. But, I hope you won’t leave here this morning until you’ve decided what it means and what it looks like for you to keep that promise of being a witness.
And let me give you a hint; a big hint. When you discover your way to witness, it will energize you and it will change the lives of others – just like it did with the Samaritan woman and Lydia.
Friends, we talk a lot about how the church will grow. We talk together about advertising and programs and demographic trends. But what matters most is that we talk about Jesus to others. We can influence lives and we can influence this community when we communicate the truth of our personal experience. We live in Mid Western America. We may think that everyone knows who Jesus is just because they’ve heard his name. But I don’t think we should be so sure.
At Britt’s and my first church assignment in Erie, PA we had a children’s gospel choir. One of the songs their director loved leading them in was “Everybody Oughta Know.” That old gospel hymn describes biblical names or titles attributed to Jesus. He’s the lily of the valley; he’s the bright and morning star. What? What does that mean to 21st century Mid-Westerners? Friends, just because people have heard of Jesus doesn’t mean they know him and everybody oughta know who Jesus is through terms they can understand and experiences they can relate to: our terms, our experiences. Like the Samaritan woman and Lydia, like Paul and Silas, people need to hear our witness. Everybody oughta know who Jesus is; and they can through our communication of our personal experience with Jesus.
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On a lifelong journey of seeking to live out God's call on my life and to reflect His grace.
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